It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Lions who, after falling one point short to the Bills, 14-13, have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
What Went Right
Kerryon Johnson has been a promising contributor in a Detroit backfield that desperately needed a sign of life. The rookie second-round pick out of Auburn became the first Lions running back in five years to rush for more than 100 yards in a game when he eclipsed the century mark in Week 3 against New England. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and 3.3 yards come after contact, per Pro Football Focus, which is the 11th-highest mark in the league. Johnson has also added 32 receptions for 213 yards this season. And while he’s been out for the past four games with a knee injury, Johnson looks like a complete back—exactly the type of player the Lions have been searching for.
Speaking of playmakers that emerged this season, receiver Kenny Golladay earned the nickname “Babytron” by showing he could be a no. 1 option on the outside. Golladay is a physical athlete who can go get jump balls—and his success this year (1,005 receiving yards, five touchdowns) undoubtedly helped the Lions feel comfortable trading Golden Tate to the Eagles in October.
What Went Wrong
This team has been disappointing on many levels. New head coach Matt Patricia came over billed as a defensive wonk, but he hasn’t turned that side of the ball around—the Lions rank just 29th in defensive DVOA. Meanwhile, the offense has regressed from 12th in offensive DVOA last season to 24th.
Oh yeah, and just to rub salt in the team’s wounds, former Lions tight end Eric Ebron has caught 12 touchdowns in 14 games with the Colts—more than his total in four years with the Lions. Detroit’s leading tight end, Levine Toilolo, has just 12 receptions this season. The team could use a playmaker like Ebron!
The Lions are projected to have $39 million in effective cap space, per Over The Cap, which puts them at 16th place in the league. That middling amount of maneuverability is due in part to Matthew Stafford’s massive cap hit, which remains around $30 million per season, as it will until 2022.
Virtually all of the Lions’ key players are under contract with one exception: Star pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah was playing on a $17 million franchise tag before the team placed him on IR on Thursday after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Cardinals. That move brought Ansah’s season, in which he struggled with injuries and recorded just four sacks in seven games, to an end. It’s likely Ansah has played his last game with the Lions, but there should be a market for his services elsewhere. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Ansah should be ready to go for training camp in 2019, and his potential as a pass rusher is in high demand.
The Lions have their first- and second-round picks, and while they gave their third-rounder to the Patriots last year in exchange for the fourth-rounder they used to select Da’Shawn Hand, they also netted the Eagles’ third-round pick in the Tate trade. So all told, the Lions have a pretty average amount of draft capital.
Detroit is in line for a top-10 pick, and this draft is loaded with defensive talent that could help the Lions replace Ansah. Highly touted prospects like Nick Bosa and Ed Oliver will almost certainly be gone before the Lions are on the clock, but the team could target a number of other players, including Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen, Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, or Boston College edge rusher Zach Allen.
The Lions could also look to the other side of the ball and draft an offensive lineman like Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Oklahoma’s Cody Ford, or Ole Miss’s Greg Little. Stafford was sacked on 7.7 percent of his dropbacks last season and has been sacked on 7.0 percent of dropbacks this season—the two highest marks of his career. Detroit just took center Frank Ragnow with its first pick last year, but a team can never have too much help in the trenches.