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Exit Interview: Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford looked as good as ever this year, but that doesn’t matter much when playing with a defense like this

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next are the Detroit Lions, who were officially bounced from the playoffs this weekend.


What Went Right

Matthew Stafford was phenomenal when he was healthy this year. Heading into Week 13, Stafford ranked sixth in ESPN’s Total QBR and his 312.4 passing yards per game were second in the league behind only Dak Prescott. He threw 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions and posted career-best numbers in passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. He also made it look really pretty at times.

Of course, the 31-year-old Stafford’s season is effectively over after breaking bones in his back in early November, but even his absence has done little to slow the Lions’ dynamic receiving duo of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. The 26-year-old Golladay—nicknamed “Babytron” for a reason—has been particularly great. After 12 games, he has 47 catches for 950 yards and is leading qualified receivers in yards per reception. He’s been as good of a deep threat there is in the league this year.

What Went Wrong

The Lions started the season looking like the most cursed team east of Carson. After an inexplicable Week 1 draw against the Cardinals in Kyler Murray’s pro debut, the Lions went 2-2 in their next four games with a close loss to a pre-injury Patrick Mahomes and a game they likely would have won if not for the refs. Unfortunately, that stretch constitutes the highlight of Detroit’s season. The team has gone 1-6 since then, with the lone win coming against the lowly Giants. The loss of Stafford has certainly not helped—though the Lions have gotten adequate performances from Jeff Driskel and David Blough—but the skid is mainly on the shoulders of the defense, which has given up more than 28 points per game in those seven contests. Linebackers Christian Jones and Jarrad Davis have looked lost in coverage, and the secondary outside of Darius Slay has been sieve-like—particularly Rashaan Melvin, who started his first season in Detroit strong before experiencing a steep regression. It makes the midseason decision to trade safety Quandre Diggs to Seattle all the more puzzling. The pass rush has also been abysmal, ranking as the least efficient in the league despite the offseason addition of Trey Flowers. The result is a defense that makes Mitchell Trubisky look like an All-Pro.

The Lions’ defensive woes come despite being led by Matt Patricia, who is ostensibly a defensive-minded coach. Patricia, who took over a team that went 9-7 in 2017 and promptly led it to two straight losing seasons, says it’s about the “process,” not Detroit’s record. He better hope the Ford family feels the same way, or else he could be trying to implement a process elsewhere.

Free Agency

The Lions don’t have many players set for free agency this spring. The most significant contributor on the list of possible departures is Graham Glasgow, who grades out as Detroit’s best offensive lineman. Seeing as though Stafford has typically played behind porous lines, the Lions would be wise to try to retain the guard. Beyond him, the list of impending free agents includes Melvin, safety Tavon Wilson, receiver Danny Amendola, and defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who has largely fallen out of the rotation despite signing a one-year, $8.1 million contract in July. They could have nearly $50 million in cap space to play with this spring, but the Lions’ roster could look awfully similar next year, which could produce yet another losing season despite Patricia’s hopes to build the Detroit Patriots.

Draft

The Lions will draft in the top 10 for the second year in a row. Last year’s no. 8 pick, tight end T.J. Hockenson, has done little to inspire confidence in Patricia and GM Bob Quinn’s ability to do much with that asset, but this year’s choice could climb high enough to be foolproof. After Sunday’s slate, Detroit’s in line for the no. 6 pick in April. However, there’s a logjam of bad teams, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Lions climb into the top three if everything breaks their way. If it lands there, we could be talking about Detroit as a potential home for Chase Young, who would instantly bolster the team’s anemic pass rush.

But Detroit has needs all over the roster, chief among them in the secondary. The Lions need to find a solid second cornerback to pair with Slay, and if their pick lands toward the back half of the top 10, someone like Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah makes a lot of sense. If they want to wait, someone like Florida’s C.J. Henderson or LSU’s Kristian Fulton could be sitting there for them. Defensive line could also be on the Lions’ radar—they’ve been listed as a possible landing spot for tackle Justin Madubuike, a 300-pound Texas A&M prospect who has occasionally lined up as an edge rusher. On offense, running back will likely be a target; after Kerryon Johnson was placed on IR this year, the Lions cycled through a few subpar options before settling on Bo Scarbrough, a 2018 Cowboys seventh-rounder. Scarbrough’s been decent in his limited time, but Detroit will likely want more reliable depth behind Johnson.