Before the 2016 season I went on the APC podcast to preview the NFC North. I made a few good predictions (the Packers would win the division, the Bears would be terrible) and one particularly bad one (the Packer secondary will be a strength. Yeesh.) The prediction I am most proud of was that the Lions would be right there with the Vikings and edge them out for a playoff spot.
While I’m fine with that prediction and will happily put it in the win column, the reality of the situation is that I probably overrated the Lions, and they probably should have lost 2-3 more games than they did. They were incredibly lucky across the board, and while some optimists have framed last year as a building block to better things, that’s probably not going to happen. The story of Lion mediocrity is a long and interesting one. Here it is.
Pity the poor Lions, who haven’t actually done that much wrong as an organization in the post-Millen era, yet still suffer for it. In a different NFL universe the Lions selected Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh under a rookie wage scale, received amazing surplus value, signed great free agents to complement their strong core, and won multiple titles. In this universe, even though all of those players are good to amazing, they never received surplus value from any of them, and have now made a colossal mistake in giving a raise to Matthew Stafford.
Don’t get me wrong, Stafford is a good quarterback, and occasionally a very good one, but he’s also the type of quarterback who can set you back a decade if you pay him too much money. The Lions should know this, as they have already been paying him too much and have lost the last four fifths of a decade as a result. Having a good quarterback is immensely valuable and due to the salary cap, a player like Aaron Rodgers will always provide surplus value even at the top of the wage scale. However, NFL teams often make a mistake in how they value the position of quarterback. A player like Rodgers or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady will be hugely valuable and able to contribute as much as half a win per contest if not more, but while the quarterback position is “valuable,” that cuts both ways. As much as the position can help a team, it can hurt a team, and that value isn’t linear.
There is no true equivalent statistic to baseball’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in football, but for quarterbacks, Football Outsiders has a decent proxy called DYAR, (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement).
Matt Ryan led the league in DYAR last season with 1,885. Aaron Rodgers was 6th with 1,299 and Matthew Stafford was ninth with 761. There is a cluster of quarterbacks in the 1,200 range and then a steep drop-off to the low 800s and high 700s, just after Derek Carr. Stafford hasn’t eclipsed 804 DYAR in a season since 2012 during Megatron’s prime, so this is very likely what he is.
The NFL is a hard salary cap league, and every time you pay one player, it impacts your ability to sign another. If your quarterback isn’t generating yards, some other position — either on defense or at a different offensive position — will have to make up the shortfall. If the quarterback is being paid a ton of money, as they tend to be, it impairs the team’s ability to compensate other better players. Matthew Stafford’s 2016 cap hit was $22,500,000, meaning that he was paid $29,566.36 for every yard above what a replacement level quarterback would have provided. For context, Aaron Rodgers was paid about half of that per DYAR ($15,050), and Tom Brady about one third ($10,703). Stafford isn’t the most overpaid player in the league at all and sits in a tier with players like Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger, but the Lions should have thought twice before giving him a raise; he’s not likely to improve, and he is likely to decline going forward.
(You can see all QBs in terms of Salary Cap Dollar per Yard Above Replacement, and Salary Cap Dollar per Percent of Salary Cap at this link.)
To move away from the QB discussion a bit, the Lions could use a better offensive line, but under Jim Bob Cooter’s tutelage Matthew Stafford is getting the ball out so quickly that it hardly matters. They could improve the running game with a healthy Ameer Abdullah, but the Lions are fundamentally a passing team, and are unlikely to play the “ball control and defense” game any time soon. When Cooter first took over for Joe Lombardi I expected him to eliminate precision routes from the offense (which he did), instead focusing on checkdowns (which he did) and bombs (which he did not do). Stafford excelled at deep passing, especially before Calvin Johnson was Lionsed out of town, and when you pay for Stafford, you pay for that wonderful arm. Cooterized Stafford basically was a more productive Sam Bradford, which is a huge mistake. If you are paying for Matthew Stafford, you need to fully utilize the guy or else you waste valuable production.
With that said, the Lions do have some weapons on this team. Golden Tate is a fine receiver who excels at generating YAC. Marvin Jones could be a decent deep threat if Jim Bob would let Stafford uncork one every now and then. Theo Riddick is one of the best receiving backs in the league. Eric Ebron...runs pass patterns. Look, they can’t all be winners, but this isn’t a bad offense; it’s just an expensive, mediocre offense held back by conservative coaching. Part of me would like to believe the Lions will open things up a bit, and adding T.J. Lang in the offseason would have aided in providing Stafford with time to huck it deep, but then left tackle Taylor Decker went and blew out his shoulder and is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the regular season. This is not conducive to opening up the offense. To make matters worse, red zone phenom and all-around badass Anquan Boldin is gone, and Ebron is really the only suitable red zone replacement. Rookie Kenny Golladay has been phenomenal in camp, but rookie receivers do tend to struggle, and he’s more vertical and less Boldin.
The bottom line is that it’s very likely that this offense remains stagnant, and do not underrate the loss of Boldin, who caught 75% of his passes to go along with eight touchdowns in what proved to be his final season. The division is tougher, the schedule is tougher, and the Lions keep on treading water.
Let’s start with some level-setting. The Lions really had no business making the playoffs last year because, among other reasons, according to DVOA they had the league’s worst overall defense by virtue of being the worst unit against the pass.
The Detroit defense is not without a few playmakers, and frankly I think DVOA is underselling them a bit as they were in the top half of the league in points allowed. However, the fact is that the Detroit defense played very poorly, and was was very lucky to have allowed so few points. Regression is likely to show up in a big way.
Part of their problem in 2016 was that they only had two pass rushers worth anything. Ziggy Ansah is a great player, but injuries and a lack of help around him kept him from finishing off his rushes. He was still a disruptor and lived in the backfield, but he recorded only two sacks in 13 games. Ansah will probably improve greatly on this total in 2017, but any improvement by Ansah will only serve to make up for the lack of Kerry Hyder. The surprise Lions 2016 sack leader tore his Achilles in camp and will miss all of 2017 as a result. The front four will feature a lot of Cornelius Washington (a former Bear non-standout), Haloti Ngata, who is getting up there a bit and is more of a situational player, second year player A’Shawn Robinson (a second-round pick in 2016), second-year player Anthony Zettel (a sixth-rounder), and Packers castoff Khyri Thornton. Devin Taylor, who was second on the team in sacks in 2016 with 4.5 was not re-signed and is now a member of the New York Giants. After Ansah, this list scares no one, and pass pressure figures to be a continuing problem.
The linebackers aren’t what they used to be in the healthy days of Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, but Tahir Whitehead is a decent enough player. He will be bolstered by an infusion of young talent in the form of a pair of rookies: first-round pick Jarrad Davis and fourth-rounder Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Detroit also signed Atlanta castoff Paul Worrilow and will return Antwione Williams. It’s a talented, though extremely young group, and while it may not be a strength yet, it’s easy to see Whitehead and Davis making for a formidable duo.
The secondary was a mess in 2016, and without a huge talent infusion it’s difficult to see how they will improve. Corner Darius Slay is excellent, and safety Glover Quin can still contribute, though he has lost a step, but the rest of the unit is a mishmash of the untalented and highly questionable. D.J. Hayden comes over from Oakland bearing my least favorite adjective: former first-round pick. He is on a low-risk, one-year contract and is currently slotted into the nickel spot, but due to some serious injuries his career hasn’t amounted to much so far. The Lions also used a high draft pick on Teez Tabor who...well…
If you wanted to describe his measurables as being a smaller Ladarius Gunter with smaller hands, that wouldn’t exactly be unfair.
Tavon Wilson signed a two year deal after serving as a cog in the Patriots’ defense. He is a bit Micah Hyde-esque in his versatility, but can struggle in coverage. Nevin Lawson is likely to see a lot of time on the field, and is completely uninspiring.
The bottom line is that the Lions still have an extremely suspect pass rush in front of an extremely suspect secondary, and that combination is historically disastrous for any team. They looked a lot better than they actually played last season, and I expect the pig will show through the lipstick in 2017.
Coaching and Luck
Justis Mosqueda is one of the smartest young writers you will find, and in his season preview of the Lions he went over just how lucky they were last year in great detail, and what that means. Here’s a notable excerpt from that piece:
The reality of the situation is that the 2016 Lions probably should have finished under .500, but got a little lucky down the line. (To put that into perspective, they had an equal a chance of going 6-10 as they did 9-7 last season if you believe that close games generally average out to .500, which has been a fact over the last decade.) It wasn’t until Week 13 against the New Orleans Saints that Detroit hadn’t been behind in at any point in a fourth quarter. That Saints game put them at 8-4. That’s lucky. Period.
The Lions still made it to the playoffs, despite only having the lead in a full fourth quarter in just 1 of 16 games, and they were promptly beat (sic) by the Seattle Seahawks in a 26-6 game. When you look at Detroit’s numbers from last season, it’s hard to figure out how exactly this team pieced together a wildcard season.
Everything about the Lions says that they were closer to 7-9 than 9-7 last year, and while there is no crime in enjoying such seasons as a fan, it can occasionally lead a front office to overvalue what they have. Detroit is likely to face tougher competition both in the division and outside of it and unless several second-year players and rookies all improve dramatically, it’s tough to see how this team is better than it was last year. Jim Caldwell is, in my opinion, a bottom-third head coach unlikely to push a team to a few extra wins, and if they put future resources into Stafford instead of (re)building a base, they can plan on consistent mediocrity this season and beyond. This season, that likely means a last place finish as the Bears take a step forward.