In Darrell Bevell’s first year as offensive coordinator, the potential of the Detroit Lions’ passing game was unlocked. But the ground game, while improved, still lagged behind. As the team continues to seek balance in its attack, here are five of the biggest questions facing Detroit’s offense entering the season.
► 1. Can Matthew Stafford stay healthy?
If the MVP award was defined as the player most valuable to their team, well, Stafford unintentionally made the most emphatic of cases in 2019. With him, the Lions were contending for a playoff spot (although they probably still fall short after tough losses to Kansas City, Green Bay and Oakland), but without the longtime starter, it was a predictable disaster, eight straight defeats to end the year.
Although the injuries were different, last year marked the second straight where Stafford reportedly broke a bone in his back. At 32 years old, the accumulated hits are taking their toll.
All signs point to him being back to 100% — or at least as close as he can be with 11 years and 149 starts under his belt — but quarterbacks wear a red, no-contact jersey during practices to ensure they don’t absorb unnecessary damage. When the hits start coming again, will Stafford’s back hold up? Detroit’s hopes depend on it.
► 2. What’s Kenny G’s encore?
Through three seasons, Golladay’s trajectory has been nothing short of incredible. Sure, the organization had high hopes when they drafted him in the third round a few years back, but few could have seen him developing into one of the league’s top, young wideouts. After back-to-back, 1,000-yard seasons, and a league-leading 11 touchdowns, what’s next?
Bevell has stated his goal is to raise Golladay’s game to the point where he’s being mentioned in the same breath at the league’s elite receivers, guys like Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins.
The big thing holding Golladay from entering that conversation, beyond team success, is his efficiency. Yes, he was among the league leaders in yards per catch last season, but his catch rate — targets resulting in a reception — is average, at best. If he can close that gap by hauling in just 10% more of throws his direction, he would have finished second to Thomas in yardage in 2019.
► 3. How big of a jump can T.J. Hockenson make?
Hockenson teased everyone last season by going off for 131 yards and a touchdown in his debut. It looked like he might be a rare rookie tight end not overwhelmed by the transition to the next level.
But alas, Hockenson plodded his way through the rest of the campaign, catching just 26 balls over the next 11 games before an ankle injury prematurely ended his season.
Like Golladay, Hockenson’s efficiency wasn’t up to snuff. He’d be the first to tell you he uncharacteristically put some catchable passes on the ground, but hauling in 54.2% of his targets is poor, by any measure. For the sake of comparison, top tight ends Travis Kelce and George Kittle posted rates of 71.3% and 79.4%, respectively.
► 4. Can Marvin Hall and/or Jamal Agnew capitalize on training camp hype?
The Lions have a starting slot receiver in Danny Amendola, but with the way Hall and Agnew performed in training camp, the team needs to find ways to get them involved this season to better understand if either is worthy of investing in as a longer-term solution. Both are in the final year of their contracts.
Hall was something of a revelation a year ago, when he emerged as a legitimate deep threat. He only caught seven passes, but averaged a ridiculous 37.3 yards on those grabs. He’s followed that up by showing more versatility in his routes this offseason, while maintaining the ability to beat the defense over the top.
As for Agnew, a cornerback convert, he’s impressed with how well he’s acclimated to the other side of the ball. Fine-tuning his route running is going to be a multi-year process, but he has enough speed and quickness to get by on raw skill now.
To be fair, you can only learn so much seeing those two beat up on mostly second-string cornerbacks. Now it’s time to see them do it against another team.
► 5. How will the backfield load be split?
This was a question before the Lions signed Adrian Peterson, and the veteran entering his 14th season only adds a layer to the equation.
Kerryon Johnson figures to be the starter, at least at the start of the season, but what does that actually mean? Prior to suffering a knee injury last year, Johnson was averaging 44 snaps per game and was on the field more than 70% of the offensive plays Weeks 3-5.
That trend seems unlikely to continue. The team already is taking an conservative approach with the third-year back’s health, limiting his practice time during training camp. Plus, there’s more competitive depth that merits snaps and touches in Peterson and this year’s second-rounder D’Andre Swift.
Swift’s role likely will be limited early, due to his own injury issues. He missed most of training camp with a upper leg injury, putting him behind in an already abbreviated offseason. He’ll need to be eased back into things, physically and mentally.
That means Peterson could see a lot of reps immediately. Having worked in coordinator Darrell Bevell’s scheme previously, and been an active participant in Washington’s camp, his acclimation window is next to nothing. And even at 35 years old, there’s little doubt he can shoulder as much of the load as needed.
As the season progresses, expect to see more of Swift, where he’ll eat into the playing time of whoever is less productive, but Peterson seems likely remain the go-to option in short-yardage and goal line situation.
As for Detroit’s other backs, Ty Johnson and Bo Scarbrough (who is currently on injured reserve), they probably won’t see much action as long as the team’s top three backs are relatively healthy.