Nov 27, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiverCalvin Johnson
(81) celebrates his touchdown during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
The Detroit Lions have come a long way since their disastrous 2008 season where they finished 0-16. Their 11-5 finish was their best since 1991. Barring a few controversial calls, they could have been headed to Seattle for the divisional round of the playoffs.
Nov 27, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiverCorey Fuller
(10) during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
This is a team built to win under head coach Jim Caldwell, and if they make the right moves this offseason, they will once again be major players in the NFC North.
The most obvious is the future of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Suh is arguably the biggest name hitting the market in the entire NFL, and he is absolutely crucial to the Lions’ success on the defensive side of the ball. His influence was key in the Lions’ top-ranked rush defense and second ranked overall defense last term.
The problem the Lions have is that Suh is not the only big free agent they will need to pay. He will be joined by fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which all return to Detroit. Would re-signing Suh mean that Fairley would have to be allowed to walk? And on the flip side, not re-signing Suh would almost definitely mean they could offer competitive contracts to Fairley.
With around $15.29 million in cap space available, it’s fair to say Martin Mayhew will be a busy man over the next few months. The decisions made over this time could be critical for the 2015 NFC North.
Dec 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiverGolden Tate
(15) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) during the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Defensively, this team was incredible in 2014. It all starts up front with the powerful defensive line, giving up and average of just 69.3 yards per game on the ground.
There were questions regarding their secondary heading into the season, but defensive coordinator Teryl Austin managed to get the best out of them.
Detroit, on average, gave up a stingy 17.6 points per game, which was second best in the NFL behind only the Seattle Seahawks.
The problems for the Lions came on the offensive side of the ball, particularly on the ground. Averaging a disappointing 88.9 yards per game, the Lions ranked 28th in rushing offense.
They also had their issues throwing the ball. Star receiver Calvin Johnson missed time due to injury, as did almost the entire group of tight ends. These injuries limited Matthew Stafford’s options; outside of Golden Tate, who had a great debut year in Detroit, there weren’t a whole lot of playmakers left.
The Lions were embarrassingly bad on special teams at times, cutting two kickers before Matt Prater was finally able to add some stability late in the season. Even then, Prater was only good for 25th best in field goal percentage.
How can they win the NFC North?
Martin Mayhew has to find a way of keeping the core of this team together. They absolutely must keep Suh, as he is the anchor of that defense. If they can keep him and a couple of their other free agents, it will go a long way to maintaining a great defense in 2015. Getting some help in the secondary to shore up the pass defense will be key, too.
On offense they need to improve. On paper, they have a great offensive unit. If Calvin Johnson can stay healthy, his partnership with Golden Tate can be as deadly as any wide receiver duo in the NFL.
Expect more production from tight end Eric Ebron, who was drafted with the 10th overall pick a year ago.
If Calvin Johnson can stay healthy, his partnership with Golden Tate can be as deadly as any wide receiver duo in the NFL.
The run game needs to get going for Detroit to succeed offensively. Options are available through both free agency and in the draft. The Lions may let Reggie Bush go and free up some cap room that could be used to bring in a talented back like Mark Ingram or Justin Forsett.
Hey, maybe we will see Adrian Peterson in a Lions uniform next season.
That’s highly doubtful, but that would be fun to watch for sure.
It’s important this Lions team continues building under Caldwell. Keeping Suh and maintaining a top-tier defense is a must and they absolutely need to be better on offense.
If their offense plays to its capability and stays healthy, added with a dominant defense, not only will the Lions be contenders for the NFC North, they might just go all the way to the Super Bowl.
Next: Will the Packers stay on top?