DETROIT – After another long offseason that included doubts about the season being played because of the coronavirus we’re now less than two weeks away from NFL season kicking off and another year of Detroit Lions football.
Every year is a big year in the NFL. This year, though, feels like it should be a critical year for the current coaching staff and front office. The team’s key players are healthy, there’s new players that could make a difference, and there’s a feeling this team and staff are on the same page for the first time.
That said - Here are the headlines going into the 2020 season for the Lions.
Matthew Stafford returns
QB Matthew Stafford is back after missing the final 8 games of last season. Stafford was having one of the best years of his career before his season-ending injury. He clicked in the first season of Darrell Bevell’s new offense with its emphasis on throwing the ball deep.
The expectations are that Stafford continues that success and builds on it. He’s being talked about as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate and possible MVP candidate. If Stafford can stay healthy and play to his 2019 levels or better, the Lions should finish with a much better record than last year.
There are a ton of new faces with many of them on the Lions defense. Most of them are former Patriots, including LB Jamie Collins, DT Danny Shelton, S Duron Harmon and others like CB Desmond Trufant, DT Nick Williams, CB Jeff Okudah and DE Julian Okwara. There’s also a new defensive coordinator in Cory Undlin.
New additions on offense include T Halapoulivaati Vaitai, G Jonah Jackson, RB D’Andre Swift and QB Chase Daniel.
Much of the focus will be on the new additions from the Patriots – as Lions fans are anxious to see if the ‘Patriot Way’ experiment will work.
Improvements on defense
By any number the Lions defense was one of the worst in the league last year. Going into this year a lot has been invested into the defense with former Patriots familiar with Patricia’s scheme and draft picks and free agency pickups to fill holes left by departures of Darius Slay, Snacks Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson.
It remains to be seen how the additions will make the Lions stronger. It’s believed adding players with familiarity of the scheme and culture will help, but it’s yet to be seen who will step up to be impact players on a defense that could really use more of them.
The Lions will be looking at Trey Flowers and Tracy Walker to take steps forward as playmakers. Newcomers Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton are expected to give the defense a boost. And there’s the addition of Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant to help Justin Coleman in the secondary.
While there is what seems to be considerable pressure on coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn to see this team take a big step forward – but there’s no ‘win now’ mandate as has been talked about. It’s much more subjective than that. The directive from Lions leadership is the team have a chance to make the playoffs late in the year.
It is year 3 of the Patricia-Quinn partnership. The Lions haven’t won more than 6 games after winning 9 games each of the 2 years before Patricia. While 6 or 7 wins is not what fans would consider an improvement, it could be close enough to competing for a playoff spot with the NFL’s expanded playoff format starting this year. Which could mean the current staff sticks around for a 4th year.
The Lions were thought to have had a good draft this year and it’s expected a few of those rookies step in to make an impact right away.
But with less than two weeks from kickoff, we don’t know what to expect of the Lions first two draft picks. CB Jeff Okudah has not been named as a starter and there haven’t been any preseason games to see how Okudah might be used situationally if he’s not starting. But as the 3rd overall pick, it’s expected he’ll be a starter this season.
D’Andre Swift’s availability is also in question as he’s been dealing with an injury during the last two weeks of training camp. The Lions would miss Swift if he’s not 100 percent to start the year. Whenever he gets up to speed he projects to be a versatile threat with the expectation he can easily win matchups in the passing game and provide a boost to the running game.
Up front, Jonah Jackson looks like he will start at guard, which would mean the right side of the Lions offensive line is all-new for 2020.
Julian Okwara looks like he could start off as a 3rd down pass rusher. Any impact there would be big as the Lions lacked pass rush pressure last year.
WR Quintez Cephus should help make wide receiver the deepest position on the team. He’s been reported to have impressed throughout training camp.