With the 2020 season upon us, beat writer Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions offense.
Matthew Stafford has some lofty goals in mind for 2020. Former Lions receiver Nate Burleson said on “Good Morning Football” earlier this month that Stafford texted to say, after hearing his name mentioned as a “dark horse” MVP candidate by one of the show’s hosts, Peter Schrager: “Tell Peter, forget the dark horse stuff. I’m going for the MVP.”
Stafford was playing at something just below an MVP level when he hurt his back last November and missed the final eight games of the season, and he’s the biggest reason to think the Lions can be in the playoff hunt this fall. He quickly took to new coordinator Darrell Bevell’s offense last year, which places a premium on making plays downfield, and if he limits his turnovers and stays healthy, he should be even better in Year 2.
Health, of course, is the big concern with Stafford after he suffered back injuries each of the past two years. The Lions are better equipped to survive the absence of their quarterback now that Chase Daniel is around as backup. But this offense is built around Stafford’s big arm and moxie, and all signs point to him having another big year.
It has been 21 years since the Lions finished in the top half of the NFL in rushing, since Barry Sanders’ final season in Detroit, and the fact that they went out over the weekend and signed a new potential starter in Adrian Peterson doesn’t bode well for that changing this fall.
Peterson led a bad Washington team with 898 yards rushing and five touchdowns last season, so he still has something left in the tank. But he’s not the game-changer he once was, and ultimately he’ll be part of a backfield by committee this fall. Rookie D’Andre Swift should emerge as Peterson’s complement, with a chance to take over as the lead back by midseason. Swift battled a leg injury throughout camp, but he’s an electric player who will, at a minimum, have a role in the passing game.
Kerryon Johnson led the Lions in rushing the last two seasons, but he’s the one in most danger of losing carries to Peterson. Johnson missed time in 2018-19 with knee injuries and the Lions monitored his workload carefully this summer. He still can be an effective back, but his opportunities might be limited this fall. Ty Johnson made the team out of camp, as did Bo Scarbrough, who was put on injured reserve Monday. Converted linebacker Jason Cabinda won the fullback job.
Wide receivers/tight ends
One of the things that makes the Lions’ offense so dangerous is the abundance of weapons they have in the passing game. Kenny Golladay is the No. 1 receiver and an emerging NFL star. He led the league in touchdown catches last season and averaged a whopping 18.3 yards per catch, but there will be weeks he goes quiet and the Lions feed his sidekicks, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola, instead.
Jones is 30 and has had his seasons cut short by injuries the last two years. He’s not the downfield threat he used to be, coming off a season in which he averaged 12.6 yards a catch, his lowest total since his rookie year. But he’s a savvy veteran who’s routinely among the best contested-ball catchers in the league.
Amendola and Stafford clicked in their first season together last fall, and the veteran slot receiver should be a trusted third-down option again this year. The Lions have some depth at the backup receiver spots, though none of rookie Quintez Cephus, speedster Marvin Hall or converted cornerback Jamal Agnew will factor heavily into gameplans.
At tight end, T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James are in a bit of a timeshare. Hockenson is the more complete player, and he should take a step forward from an inconsistent rookie campaign, but he sounded alarms about the ankle he injured late last season when he recently said, “I still notice it.”. James caught just 16 passes last season in his first year in Detroit and it’s hard to see him dramatically improving on that production this fall. Undrafted rookie Hunter Bryant might eventually emerge as a receiving target at the position.
Like the running game, the Lions put an incredible amount of resources into their offensive line in recent years and returned only mediocre results. This year, the unit has the potential to prop up — or hold back — what otherwise looks like a very potent offense.
Frank Ragnow is on the verge of becoming one of the best centers in the league heading into his third NFL season. He is a boulder in pass protection and has a mean streak as a run blocker. Along with left tackle Taylor Decker, who just signed a four-year, $60 million extension, he gives the Lions dependability up front.
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The rest of the offensive line, however, is riddled with questions. The Lions signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai to be their right tackle despite Vaitai having never been a full starter in the league. He’s a strong man with a powerful punch, but he has been susceptible to good pass rushers in the past. Joe Dahl returns at left guard after an inconsistent season that was cut short by a back injury, and rookie Jonah Jackson is penciled in at the other guard spot.
Offensive line depth is hard to come by in the NFL. Swing tackle Tyrell Crosby has held his own as a fill-in in the past, and Oday Aboushi is probably the first guard off the bench, but the Lions are in trouble if injury strikes their starting five.
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