2016: 9-7, 2nd in NFC North. Lost in Wild-Card Round.
Significant Additions: G T.J. Lang (FA), LB Paul Worrilow (FA), LB Jarrad Davis (R1), DE Cornelius Washington (FA), CB DJ Hayden (FA), RT Rick Wagner (FA), DT Akeem Spence (FA).
Significant Losses: LB DeAndre Levy, WR Anquan Boldin, G Larry Warford, T Riley Reiff.
Even though the Lions mustered just six points against Seattle in their wild-card loss, the preceding month of football had shown Detroit’s biggest need was on defense.
Things seemed like they finally clicked for quarterback Matt Stafford, and heading into mid-December he was a dark horse in the MVP race for posting another 4,000-yard season in his first without Calvin Johnson. But the defense began failing Detroit in Week 15 and never recovered.
That’s why Lions GM Bob Quinn was so aggressive this off-season in strengthening the D. He had to spend good money to replace offensive linemen Larry Warford and Riley Reiff with T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, but that had to be done to protect their franchise quarterback. Almost everything else this off-season in Detroit has been geared toward building a defense that will give the Lions a chance in the winter months.
The Lions closed out last season with games against the Giants, Cowboys and Packers before drawing Seattle in the playoffs. In those four games, the defense allowed 377.5 yards and 29 points per game. The Lions had zero interceptions and zero fumble recoveries. They finished the season winless in their last four contests.
Quinn started free agency by getting young pass-rusher Cornelius Washington, who thrived in his limited snaps in Chicago and appeared to be getting the hang of his position by 2016. The Lions also nabbed former Bucs defensive tackle Akeem Spence to add depth behind 11-year vet Haloti Ngata.
Detroit also signed outside linebacker Paul Worrilow, who had gotten edged out in Atlanta by younger players. Former Oakland cornerback D.J. Hayden also signed with Detroit to play opposite Darius Slay.
But there still remained a glaring hole in Detroit’s defense. Long-time linebacker DeAndre Levy got his walking papers this offseason after struggling to stay healthy and perform on his 2015 contract extension. Levy appeared in just four games for the Lions in his final two seasons.
So with the 21st pick in the draft, Detroit took the second-best inside linebacker (behind medical- and red-flag stud Reuben Foster) in Florida’s Jarrad Davis, and Quinn said immediately that Davis would be the team’s middle linebacker. Then Detroit doubled down on Gators and got cornerback Teez Tabor to compete with Hayden in training camp.
Quinn told media before the draft that he saw needs on both sides of the ball, but that’s not how his draft played out. Six of the nine picks are on the defensive side, including three of the first four selections.
“Some of the moves we made on the offensive line may take one position off the board early in the draft. Other than the offensive line, we’re open to adding prospects and adding players to help us,” Quinn said. “Ideally once you get the team exactly how you want—we’re not exactly how we want it right now—we’re working toward that.”
A convincing argument could be made that 2016 was Stafford’s greatest year as a pro, besting his 2011 season when he eclipsed 5,000 yards and threw 41 touchdowns in the 10-win season. Stafford got the Lions into the playoffs without Johnson and engineered eight fourth-quarter, game-winning drives, tied for the most in a season all-time.
If Stafford can repeat that magic in 2017, the Lions have added to a defense that failed them down the stretch and are building the same type of strong, young and fast defense that has made an appearance in recent Super Bowls (Carolina, Atlanta, Denver and Seattle).
The upgrades on defense should allow Detroit to get over the hump of ordinary team hanging on in the playoffs to one that can actually get its first postseason victory in more than a quarter-century.