Detroit Lions season preview: Strength on offense lies in star-studded line

Detroit Free Press

With the 2021 season upon us, beat writer Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions offense.

Quarterbacks

The Lions will have someone other than Matthew Stafford as their primary starter this fall for the first time since 2008. Stafford never won much in Detroit, but he put up big numbers and watching his replacement, Jared Goff, this summer, it is clear how much Stafford’s big arm drove the offense.

Goff does not have Stafford’s elite tools, but the former No. 1 overall pick has the arm, accuracy and intelligence to be an above-average NFL starter. Goff won’t challenge defenses deep the same way Stafford did, but the Lions have put many of the protection checks on his plate and are counting on him to be a caretaker of the offense.

One thing that has not changed about the Lions’ quarterback situation is the world of hurt they will be in if something happens to their starter. David Blough, who went 0-5 when he was forced into action as a rookie in 2019, opens the season as the backup while Tim Boyle recovers from a broken thumb. Blough and Boyle had good and bad moments this preseason, but both have limited experience and are unlikely to challenge for playing time this fall.

Running backs

Brad Holmes cited three positions of strength on the Lions roster when he sat down with reporters last week: The offensive line, defensive front and running backs.

The Lions have co-starters, essentially, in their backfield in D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. Swift is the No. 1 running back when healthy, someone capable of 20-plus touches a game. But Williams won’t be far behind in carries and should play a primary role on third downs. Swift missed most of training camp with a groin injury, and coaches seemed to be nudging him back on the field when they expressed concern about his readiness for Week 1. Given Goff’s tendencies as a quarterback, the two should have no problem combining to catch at least 100 passes this fall.

Rookie seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson showed good vision as the No. 3 back throughout camp. Jefferson has much to learn about pass protection, and for that reason likely will be limited early in the season. He’s a capable runner, though, and good insurance for an offense that wants desperately to run the ball. Jason Cabinda should see plenty of playing time as a blocking fullback, third tight end and capable outlet in the pass game.

Wide receivers/tight ends

If running back is a strength, wide receiver is decidedly a weakness. The Lions do not have a typical No. 1 receiver, someone opposing defensive coordinators must plan against. Tyrell Williams, the de facto No. 1, has battled injuries much of the summer (and throughout his career), and the Lions’ next most accomplished receiver is Quintez Cephus, who has 20 NFL catches.

Williams is a solid player who knows offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s system. He has the size and speed to be a downfield threat, and is equally as capable working out of the slot. Kalif Raymond emerged as the Lions’ No. 2 receiver in camp, though he has largely been a return man to this point in his career. And rookie fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown likely will play as the Lions’ primary slot receiver this fall. St. Brown should catch 40 or 50 passes, though he might only have 500 yards.

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The Lions are one of just three NFL teams with seven receivers on their 53-man roster, but their backups are largely unproven. Cephus is in his second season. Trinity Benson had a strong summer with the Denver Broncos, but has never played in a regular season game. KhaDarel Hodge has size and special teams ability. And Tom Kennedy likely will have a limited role as a backup slot.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson is the Lions’ best weapon in the passing game. Hockenson made the Pro Bowl last year in his second NFL season and is one of only two real mismatch players (along with Swift) on offense. He battled a shoulder injury in training camp, but seems poised for a huge year. Darren Fells should see plenty of time as the No. 2 tight end. He’s a solid blocker and can be a red zone threat because of his huge frame.

Offensive line

The Lions have made a major investment in their offensive line, with first-round picks starting at center (Frank Ragnow) and both tackle spots (Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell), and they need the unit to perform up to expectations to have any chance of success this fall.

Ragnow might be the best center in the NFL. He’s smart, stout in pass protection and a bulldozer of a run blocker. Decker, 28, is the veteran of the group. He’s coming off the best season of his career and has emerged as one of the team’s most prominent leaders. Sewell is more talented than both, but very much a work in progress. He will start at right tackle this fall after playing exclusively on the left side in college, and if the preseason is any indication, will have some growing pains ahead.

Guards Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Jonah Jackson round out the starting five. Vaitai battled foot problems throughout 2020. If healthy, he should be at least a league-average guard. Jackson has the potential to be slightly more. He spent the offseason refining his technique and added 10 pounds of muscle, and he worked all camp at left guard after bouncing between positions as a rookie.

The Lions have a frightening lack of depth up front, which could be an issue. They cut swing tackle Tyrell Crosby after he missed extensive time this summer with a hamstring injury and will use Matt Nelson in his place. Evan Brown and Logan Stenberg are the only interior backups on the Lions’ 53-man roster, and Stenberg has never played in an NFL game.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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