In the offseason, the Detroit Lions hired General Manager Bob Quinn, yet unconventionally retained their head coach in Jim Caldwell. Caldwell knows full well that he's on the hot seat and will not hold anything back. Quinn, on the other hand, will be afforded the time to inculcate the "Patriots way" to a perpetually broken team. Even with the regime change, the biggest storyline from this offseason was the retirement of longtime fan favorite, Calvin Johnson. On a national level, the Lions are not engendering much recognition, but that shouldn't dim the hopes of a successful 2016 season.
Without Megatron, the Lions launch a remodeled offense that will distribute the ball more evenly and efficiently. The Lions swapped offensive coordinators midway through last season and the results led to the best eight-game stretch of quarterback Matthew Stafford's career. With offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter having a full offseason to execute his uptempo scheme, the offense should take another step forward.
Stafford is the focal point of the offense sans Johnson. It will be a true test for Stafford now that he is without his safety blanket and jump-ball extraordinaire. Despite the constant criticism for lack of wins, Stafford is a more-than-capable quarterback who has the tools to succeed. The Lions will be in a world of hurt if Stafford goes down with an injury.
Position grade: B
The Lions are lacking a true three-down workhorse, but do possess a versatile backfield. Second-year back Ameer Abdullah is diminutive yet robust. Making something out of nothing is Abdullah's specialty. He demonstrated his unique gift last season after averaging 4.2 yards per carry behind statistically one of the worst lines in the league. Theo Riddick is arguably the best third-down back in the NFL and will continue to make plays in open space. If the Lions need a traditional pounder, Zach Zenner is available.
Position grade: C+
There is no replacing the great Johnson. In saying this, the Lions added a couple free agents that should collectively help fill the massive void. Newcomers Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin are both sure-handed playmakers that can win battles in traffic. Add the underrated Golden Tate to the mix and the Lions are looking solid. The three combined for a cumulative 2.05-percent drop rate in 2015.
Position grade: B
The time is now for former first-round pick Eric Ebron. Being the tallest starting pass catcher, Ebron is expected to take that proverbial third-year leap like many other highly talented tight ends before him. He showed a solid rapport with Stafford in training camp, but sustained an ankle injury in early preseason. Undrafted free-agent Cole Wick remains his top backup with blocking specialist Brandon Pettigrew on the physically unable to perform list.
Position grade: C
This offensive line is littered with All-Americans and high draft picks. Returning four of the five starters that delivered last year's 32nd rushing attack, the Lions' brass must be expecting significant improvement. Quinn spent a valuable first-round pick in this year's draft on left tackle Taylor Decker. The acquisition moved former left tackle Riley Reiff to the right and solidifies a position that was once a revolving door. The Lions will only go as far as the line takes them.
Position grade: D+
Last year's defense struggled at times due to the loss of a couple key cogs from the season prior. Now, fully healthy and reloaded, the Lions' defense will need to regain their 2014 form in order to contend in the NFC North. With top-tier players at every level, it will be the unproven ancillary members who will dictate how the defense holds up.
Perhaps the strongest group on the entire team, the Lions boast a burgeoning superstar in Ziggy Ansah. He was third in the league a year ago with 14 1/2 sacks. Devin Taylor also had a breakout 2015 season after accumulating 7 sacks in a limited role. Now as a starter, he should be expected to contribute even more. At defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata is aging, but still a force in the middle when healthy. There are a slew of players waiting for their shot after the former All-Pro. Tyrunn Walker, Khyri Thornton, and rookie A'Shawn Robinson all appear to have meaningful roles in the Lions' rotation.
Position grade: B+
The biggest offseason addition may be the return of one of Detroit's own, DeAndre Levy. The starting duo of Levy and middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead should be able to clean up plenty of upfront mistakes and create more turnovers. Projected third linebacker Kyle Van Noy will only see the field in certain packages with today's pass-happy league. Although a weak link in the past, Van Noy has put together a respectable preseason and has constantly put himself in position to make plays along the line of scrimmage.
Position grade: B-
There are two top 10 talents at their respective positions in the Lions' defensive backfield. Things get a little iffy after that. Glover Quin and Darius Slay can anchor the backend while the Lions get their ducks in a row at strong safety and figure out the reserve corner situation. The Lions have a few options at strong safety, but none appear to be standout NFL starters. Tavon Wilson, Rafael Bush, and rookie Miles Killebrew are all vying for the opening. At corner, the top three slots are set and should continue to excel under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's guidance.
Position grade: C
Nothing too new here, as punter Sam Martin and kicker Matt Prater return. Both have consistent, strong legs. The reliable long snapper Don Muhlbach also lived to see another day after this year's sixth-round pick Jimmy Landes was placed on injured reserve.
Position grade: B
The bottom line
Plenty of unproven players must elevate their game in 2016. It's easier said than done. With the solid depth Quinn has built, the worrisome positions will eventually work themselves out. Expect the Lions to rack up wins given the easier schedule — and surprise many NFL fans outside of Detroit.
This article is published as part of a partnership between Metro Times and Detroit Sports Nation.
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