Detroit Lions 2018 NFL Team Preview
2017 Record: 9-7
2017 ATS: 8-7-1
2017 Overs/Unders: 10-6
2018 Regular Season Wins Total: 7.5 wins
Inches. That’s how far the Lions came to making the playoffs last season. If not for a touchdown reversal at the end of the game versus the Falcons in Week 3, the Lions probably snatch a wild card spot. The Lions have been marred by mediocrity in recent years and it cost Jim Caldwell his job. He wasn’t all that bad at the helm (36-28), but the Lions have definitely upgraded at the head coaching position this offseason. They brought in a rocket scientist. Yes, an actual rocket scientist (aeronautical engineer to be exact). Matt Patricia comes to Detroit after spending 14 years in New England under the tutelage of Bill Belichick (the last six years as defensive coordinator).
Belichick assistants haven’t fared all that well when departing for head coaching roles. Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels and Bill O’Brien all have losing records as head coaches and only O’Brien still has a head coaching gig. But this hire feels different. Patricia played a huge role as the DC for the Patriots and was the primary driving force for how the Pats played defense in recent years (which hasn’t always been the case for other coordinators under Belichick who likes to have full control). The Lions defense is in need for an upgrade schematically. There are two big playmakers on the defensive side of the ball – Darius Slay in the secondary and Ziggy Ansah as an edge rusher. The Lions are going to need more guys to step up and Patricia’s system could be the catalyst for someone else to emerge. The Lions jumped from 32nd (dead last) in the league in defensive DVOA all the way to 19th last season. They’ll need to make another leap under Patricia and new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni if they want to see the postseason.
Matthew Stafford doesn’t get the credit he receives as being a top-tier quarterback. He’s easily in the Top 10 and probably closer to five than 10. He’s never had a running game yet has the second-best yards per game average of any QB in history. Stafford has a talented receiving corps to throw to but his accuracy on the deep ball has been outstanding. The offense was all too predictable under Caldwell, but Patricia should make some improvements there even with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter still around. The running game is going to have to improve in a big way. The Lions have had the worst rushing attack in the league since 2013 and haven’t ranked above 25th since then. They also haven’t had anyone rush for more than 100 yards in a game since Reggie Bush in 2013. The solution? The Lions drafted interior lineman Frank Ragnow (Arkansas) in the first round, traded up to draft running back Kerryon Smith (Auburn) in the second round, selected fullback Nick Bawden (San Diego State) in the seventh round and signed free agent rusher LaGarrett Blount (who Patricia is familiar with from his Patriot days). We’ll probably see a running back-by-committee style that the Patriots popularized given all of the options in Detroit. The offensive line was hit hard by injuries last season and should be healthier be default. I expect better numbers on the ground overall and that should only help Stafford.
Eight of the Lions’ nine wins were by a single score last season. They also benefitted from the most takeaways in the league and had a +10 turnover margin. Patricia looks like an upgrade but these are tough regression factors to deal with. It’s possible that the Lions could be a better team in 2018 but actually win less games than last year. The NFC Central is the toughest division in football and their overall schedule is extremely tough. I don’t think this is a playoff team yet but they will be competitive and fun to watch.
Bettors Should Keep an Eye On: Special Teams. The Lions had one of the very best special teams’ units in the league last season. They excelled in all facets and will need that same kind of production if they want to match or exceed their win total from last season. Matt Prater is one of the best kickers in the game and rookie returner Jamal Agnew was an All-Pro for his punt returning prowess last year. If the Lions regress too much in special teams, Patricia is going to have to make huge strides defensively and in the running game to make up for it.