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Preseason power rankings No. 21: Detroit Lions

Caldwell Getty Images

On Thanksgiving, the Lions dominated the Packers and looked like heavy favorites to win the NFC North. By Christmas, they had already been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That’s how quickly things fell apart for the Lions last year.

Will this year be different? Maybe, with the firing of head coach Jim Schwartz and the hiring of head coach Jim Caldwell. But what will be even more different is that the Lions can’t count on the rest of the NFC North being as weak this year as it was last year. In 2013, the Packers won the division with an 8-7-1 record, which meant the 7-9 Lions weren’t far back. But in 2014, the Lions will probably have to be quite a bit better to be in NFC North contention.

The good news is that Caldwell, plus the arrival of receiver Golden Tate and first-round tight end Eric Ebron, should make the offense better. The bad news is that many of the same questions remain about quarterback Matthew Stafford, and there are questions about the defense and special teams as well.

Overall, those question marks outweigh the clear positives, and the Lions look like they’ll miss the playoffs for the 14th time in the last 15 years.

Strengths.

In theory, the passing offense should be a major strength. Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL. The arrival of Golden Tate gives the Lions the best No. 2 receiver they’ve ever had across the field from Johnson. Ryan Broyles, if he can ever stay healthy, has the talent to be a good No. 3 receiver. If Eric Ebron has the kind of rookie year the Lions expect him to, few teams will have a better trio of pass catching tight ends than Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. The Lions also have a trio of running backs who can make plays in the passing game with Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick. Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have a lot of experience coaching good passing teams. There’s a lot of reason for optimism.

So why is the passing offense only a strength in theory? Because in practice, the Lions never know what they’re going to to get out of Matthew Stafford. Is he the quarterback whose brilliant 2011 campaign to the Lions to the playoffs? Or is he the quarterback who threw the season away last year? In the final six games of the season, Stafford had 11 interceptions and six fumbles, and his bad play was the biggest reason the Lions lost their lead on the division. If Stafford plays in 2014 like he did in 2011, the Lions’ offense will be in great shape. If not? Not.

The offensive line, which entered last season with some big question marks, actually looks strong now. Larry Warford was an excellent guard as a rookie last year, and LaAdrian Waddle was a pretty good rookie right tackle. They should both be even better this year, and as left tackle Riley Reiff continues to develop, the Lions have the makings of an offensive line that could be strong for years to come.

The Lions’ defensive line looks like a strength as well. It had better be, after they invested high first-round draft picks on Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Both Suh and Fairley are heading into the final seasons of their contracts, which should have them motivated for big seasons. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both had good years for the Lions last year and are back this year, and overall the defensive front seven appears to be in good shape.

Weaknesses.

The Lions’ biggest weakness this year will be the same as their biggest weakness last year, which was the same as the biggest weakness that got them knocked out of the first round of the playoffs the year before and has been a weakness for many, many years in Detroit: Their cornerbacks can’t stop anyone.

In fact, after cutting Chris Houston the Lions may be even worse at cornerback this year. Veteran Rashean Mathis will join with some combination of youngsters Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and Jonte Green to make up a cornerback group that may be the worst in the NFL. If there’s any good news it’s that the Lions have a pair of pretty good veteran safeties in Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo (who came over from Baltimore along with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin), and sometimes good safeties can hide some lousy cornerback play.

The rushing offense may also be a weakness for the Lions. Reggie Bush is capable of making spectacular plays, but he’s also capable of losing yardage by trying to do too much, and his fumbling became a serious problem for the Lions last year. Joique Bell is a tough runner in short-yardage situations but doesn’t have breakaway speed.

Special teams have been a significant weakness for the Lions in recent years and may be again this year, although there were some signs late last season that the Lions were starting to turn things around in the kicking game.

Changes.

The biggest change is the firing of Jim Schwartz (and most of his staff) and the hiring of Jim Caldwell (and a mostly new staff). The best news about Caldwell is that he has a history of working well with quarterbacks and may be the man to get Matthew Stafford on track. The bad news is that Caldwell’s reputation for working well with quarterbacks stems largely from his time with Peyton Manning, and Stafford is no Peyton.

The Lions’ secondary will look different this year with two starters, safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston, now gone. But considering that the Lions’ secondary stunk last year, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and new defensive backs coaches Tony Oden and Alan Williams need to make the new-look secondary a lot better than last year’s secondary.

Detroit didn’t have a lot of cap space this offseason, which is why it didn’t make a lot of moves in free agency. Safety James Ihedigbo and receiver Golden Tate are two starters who arrived in free agency this year, but the Lions simply couldn’t afford to make as many changes as they would have liked.

Camp Battles.

The Lions will probably break camp with veteran Rashean Mathis joining Darius Slay, last year’s second-round draft pick, as the starting cornerbacks. But they’d love it if one of the other young cornerbacks, like 2012 third-round pick Bill Bentley and 2014 fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson, could push for a starting job in training camp.

A kicker competition isn’t the most exciting thing that can happen in training camp, but the battle between Giorgio Tavecchio and seventh-round draft pick Nate Freese will be very important for the Lions, who still haven’t found the right replacement for the long departed Jason Hanson. If Tavecchio or Freese can emerge as a good kicker this season, that would go a long way toward shoring up the special teams.

Prospects.
The Lions have enough talent on both sides of the ball that it’s not out of the question that they could make the playoffs. The best-case scenario is that an offense led by a resurgent Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate gives Detroit one of the most formidable passing attacks in the league, and that a motivated Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley lead the way on a ferocious Lions defense. If everyone plays up to his potential, the Lions could make a lot of noise in the NFC North.

But the Lions have rarely played up to their potential. If Jim Caldwell helps Stafford develop as a first-rate quarterback the Lions can make the playoffs, but more likely they’ll be somewhere around where they were last year, in the seven-win range.

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41 Responses to “Preseason power rankings No. 21: Detroit Lions”
  1. larryboodry says: Jul 12, 2014 3:17 PM

    Sounds about right.

  2. dino2997 says: Jul 12, 2014 3:24 PM

    The Lions last season had it all laid out for them with both the Bears and Packers losing their starting QB’s for half the season and they still came in 3rd in the division. They are a teaser team that will likely end up last in the division this season with the Vikings improved.

  3. jimburns22 says: Jul 12, 2014 3:28 PM

    I have the lions going 11-5 with a playoff berth.

  4. wydok says: Jul 12, 2014 3:31 PM

    Sure, the Lions beat the Packers on Thanksgiving…without Aaron Rodgers.

  5. staffordcalvinbush says: Jul 12, 2014 3:36 PM

    Our season solely depends on Stafford. We entirely emulated the Saints offense, so in theory it should work. If Stafford even plays as a top 15 QB we can have a successful year. He has a great chance to be a top 10 QB if he could be more consistent. Contrary to everyone’s belief, our defense played well last season. One of the best in run Defense, and bottom third in pass defense. Hopefully Teryl Austin calls more blitzes to help the secondary out. Part of the reason we were so poor in pass coverage was that we rarely blitzed, giving qb’s the opportunity to wait for our inexperienced secondary to make a mistake.

    I see our only competition being the bears, possibly the Packers if Cutler doesn’t perform well.

    Of course, the Vikings are locked at dead last like usual.

  6. veeguy says: Jul 12, 2014 4:00 PM

    I believe this division will end up as Packers #1, probably at 10-6, Chicago second at 9-7 or 8-8, Detroit third at 8-8 or 7-9, followed by the perpetual rear guard, the Vikings at 6-10 or worse.

    I see the Lions as a big threat in perhaps 2-3 years, after they add some needed personnel, combined with the Bears slide down to Vikings territory and the Packers inevitable decline after a Championship or Superbowl berth in 2014 or 2015. The Vikings will continue to anchor the division as they always do.

  7. jimatmad says: Jul 12, 2014 4:08 PM

    Well, as long as the Vikings are in the division, they won’t be fourth.

    And as long as Aaron Rodgers can show up for work, they won’t be first.

  8. beardinals says: Jul 12, 2014 4:08 PM

    Here’s what I think when I think Lions:

    1) Stafford chucks it up in the vicinity of Megatron.

    2)Two good D linemen.

  9. danflores93 says: Jul 12, 2014 4:11 PM

    Last year, nobody was in a better position to make the playoffs than Detroit. Green Bay lost Aaron Rodgers, The Bears had one of the worst defenses in the league, and at one point, Josh Freeman was starting for the Vikings. THEY CAME IN 3RD. I hardly believe Golden Tate and a rookie TE are gonna be able to polish that turd of a team.

  10. ffpessimist says: Jul 12, 2014 4:25 PM

    Stafford is coming into his prime years at 26 and the game should be slowing down for him at this point. The NFC is up for grabs as CHI and GB have very suspect defenses as well. Vikings might be a year out as Bridgewater should come on strong in year 2-3 and AP has about 2-3 elite seasons left as well.

    Detroit probably has the best overall defense in the division and the most upside on offense. Should be a hell of a 3 headed race for the NFC crown this year.

  11. bassslaper says: Jul 12, 2014 4:29 PM

    They finish 3rd or 4th in the NFCN. Lions think Golden Tate, Caldwell and a rookie big mouth TE are gonna win them the SB….hahahaha, good luck with that.

  12. detdominance says: Jul 12, 2014 4:36 PM

    The biggest weakness wasn’t the cornerbacks last year, it was the inability of the receivers to create separation and get open. While cornerback isn’t a strength, the theory that the cornerbacks suck and can’t cover anyone is abominable. They mainly struggle with containing big plays.

  13. detdominance says: Jul 12, 2014 4:42 PM

    If the Lions learn how to close out games then they’ll be in contention for a one seed. It sounds far-fetched but it’s certainly true. They were in position to win 15 football games last year (with @Green Bay being the only exception). Keep in mind that they were competitive with Jim Schwartz as their coach and Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunnimgham as their coordinators. I honestly think that if the Lions VERY improved coaching proves true, and if Stafford takes the next step, the Lions could be holding up a Lombardi trophy in February.

  14. jojopuppyfish says: Jul 12, 2014 4:49 PM

    Lovie Smith should have begged to coach this team

  15. joerymi says: Jul 12, 2014 5:07 PM

    The only thing that would shock me would be a deep playoff run. It wouldn’t shock me if they won their division, or if they went 2-14. Its one of those teams. Talent at many spots, but question marks about how it’s coming together.

  16. verykindguy says: Jul 12, 2014 5:12 PM

    They are a very talented team and will do well if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot like they have in the past. Last year was supposed to be the year for the Lions especially with Rodgers and Cutler injured and both the Packers and Bears being absolutely atrocious on defense. I think every team in the division improved from last year. It will be tough to win the NFC North this year if all teams stay healthy.

  17. brokebackbrees says: Jul 12, 2014 5:37 PM

    Vikings 13-3
    Lions 11-5
    Bears 10-6
    Packers 3-13

  18. hyzers says: Jul 12, 2014 5:54 PM

    Glad these preseason rankings mean nothing. MDS will rank the Bears in the top 10 despite getting swept by Detroit last year. Funny how everyone says the Bears weren’t as good because they didn’t have Quitler but his backup played better than Quitler has at any point in his career. Can’t wait for this season to start! Lions will contend for the North. Book it.

  19. largent80100 says: Jul 12, 2014 6:25 PM

    This team has wasted every oportunity to go further over the last years, I’m not going to bet on them.

    Four top five draft picks since 2007, the best WR in the league, a powerful offense (and now even better with Tate and Ebron) and just ONE playoff trip?

    But no defense, lack of discipline and a terrible hiring on Jim Caldwell while there were better options in the market.

    6-10 unless they can prove me wrong.

  20. jazsrt says: Jul 12, 2014 6:25 PM

    The Bears will be ranked higher because they came ahead of the Lions in the division. (Even with the Lions sweeping.)

    Not fiction, just fact.

  21. weaselpuppy says: Jul 12, 2014 6:27 PM

    Bell and Bush were the first in history to BOTH run for 500 and catch for 500….they added 2 targets in the passing game (3 if you think Broyles can contribute) and the Saints offense….and Drew Brees QB coach to run the offense…

    Absolutely no stopping this offense. Too many targets to cover and both RB (3 really with Theo Riddick) make the first guy miss a ton, especially in the open field. GREAT downfield blockers at WR in Calvin and Tate.

    Good offensive line that pass blocks well.

    Front 7 is uber talented, big, fast, smart and now aggressive w/o being out of position via the wide 9 or out of control via Schwartz’s laissez faire attitude

    If they get any kind of play at CB, they will win a lot of 38-24 kind of games…

  22. packersgreenbay says: Jul 12, 2014 7:03 PM

    brokebackbrees says:
    Jul 12, 2014 5:37 PM
    Vikings 13-3
    Lions 11-5
    Bears 10-6
    Packers 3-13

    ______Go!____Pack!____Go!_________

    He didn’t write this with a straight face and I didn’t read it with 1. It’s like some kind of alternative/opposite universe.

  23. dino2997 says: Jul 12, 2014 7:10 PM

    I find it amusing how Lions fans are so proud of finally sweeping the Bears last season and beating the Packers once after finishing 7-9 and 3rd in the division. Talk about low expectations…

  24. larryboodry says: Jul 12, 2014 7:16 PM

    Bears 10-6
    Packers 10-6
    Lions 7-9
    Vikings 6-10

  25. mikex123 says: Jul 12, 2014 7:35 PM

    Oh thats right, the Bears added Willie “Mr. August” Young, they are going to tear it up now… lol. A DE late round draft pick cast off from the Lions. I saw all the post at the bears chi town bears forum about how your defense is set thanks to Mr. August lol. He will look great in preseason against 3rd stringers though.

  26. jimmysee says: Jul 12, 2014 7:57 PM

    brokebackbrees says:
    Jul 12, 2014 5:37 PM
    Vikings 13-3
    Lions 11-5
    Bears 10-6
    Packers 3-13

    Hold those numbers up to a mirror my friend!

  27. olaffek says: Jul 12, 2014 8:28 PM

    The Lions are worse than the Cubs.

  28. mikex123 says: Jul 12, 2014 9:21 PM

    Anybody who actually watched the thanksgiving game knows even if Rodgers was in, Lions still would of won it, at least thats what the experts were saying.

    The Lions are a good team, and without Schwartz’ stupid defensive schemes and real #2 and #3 WRs who actually have a pulse, should make some noise this year, and should finish second in the division about 9-7 or 10-6. (Pack being first, I am just saying the Lions are good… wont be great, not with new schemes and no CBs). Bears will be 3rd… for the life of me I dont understand how they get so much hype every year. Packers/Lions/Vikings have all been to the playoffs recently, but not the bears. If the Vikings improve at all at the QB positions, bears could maybw even finish 4th. They are 1 yead into a 5 year rebuild of their defense (which will again be God-awful).

    One more point about defense… Lions were middle of the pack in passing yards allowed, and actually allowed the 3rd fewest the second half of the year. The Lions young guys are all in year 2/3 now and could possibly end up average, which is all that is required. This article says losing Houston is a negative…? He was the worst CB on the team last year and one of the absolutely worst graded CBs of all the NFL. I’m not to worried about losing him.

    Pack 11-5
    Lions 10-6 (sweeping the bears, again)
    Bears 9-7
    Vikings 7-9

  29. moeman79 says: Jul 12, 2014 11:50 PM

    The Lolions will finish last in the NFC north. Why? They have the worst coaching. Yes a much better roster than the queens but Minnesota hired a excellent coach. Cadwell’s only success comes on the back of Peyton Manning. I also doubt he has what it takes to keep the trouble makers on defense from self destructing. Oh and just because you drafted a tight end in round 1 does not make your offense a emulation of the Saints.

  30. rfedorick says: Jul 13, 2014 1:49 AM

    Golden Tate is a “great” addition? lol

  31. larryboodry says: Jul 13, 2014 4:27 AM

    First of all, no Bears fan I know is excited about Willie Young. or the other mediocre NFCN castoff we signed, M.D. Jennings. (Some guy named Jared Allen is another story, however.)

    Secondly, while it’s true that GB, Minnie, and Detroit have all made the playoffs recently, the Bears went to the NFC Championship in 2010, which means each team in the division has scored a playoff berth over the past four seasons.

    Since 2000, GB has 7 division titles, the Bears have 4, and MN has 3. In addition, GB has 3 WC appearances and the Lions have one.

    Total playoff appearances this century:

    GB – 10 (Won SB XLV)
    Chicago – 4 (Lost SB XLI)
    MN – 3
    Detroit – 1

    My point being, until someone proves otherwise, the Packers own the North right now, the Bears and Vikes have their moments, and the Lions still suck.

  32. marc68 says: Jul 13, 2014 9:45 AM

    If you’ve been a Lions as long as me you have learned to HOPE for the best,,,, but EXPECT the worst.
    2nd behind Packers is what I am hoping for.

  33. ill42 says: Jul 13, 2014 10:17 AM

    I think Stafford will put up silly numbers this year, flirting with 5000yds and 35+ TDs, but getting ahead of both the Bears and Pack in that division will be tough. They have a shot though

  34. turtlehut says: Jul 13, 2014 11:42 AM

    This ranking is high as Jim Caldwell is the head coach. He is the man who tanked the last 2 Colts games because he didn’t want the pressure of a perfect season. He has difficulty making game time decisions and I doubt he will be able to instill any discipline in Detroit, something he was not pressed to do in Indianapolis.

  35. lionssuckthebearsarebetter4life says: Jul 13, 2014 2:13 PM

    Lions are the definition of bad football.

    If I was a Lions fan I would hate Bears fans too.

    The Bears own the Lions and Barry Sanders approves this fact.

  36. gianthater says: Jul 13, 2014 5:25 PM

    The Lions have a ton of pontential that Jim Caldwell can bring out of this team including discipline. Got a lot to say about Lions, but thinking of opening game at night on national TV. Would love for Lions to crack giants knowing they got Cards coming up with a good chance to start the season in a early hole to try n climb out of. And I think there’s a little payback involved. Go Lions, the talent is there.

  37. adolfoliverbush says: Jul 14, 2014 8:52 AM

    People who are saying the Lions suck are just not really paying attention to football. The Lions offense is super talented and is maybe slightly behind the Packers in the north division. But in my opinion the Lions have the best defense in the North by far. The Packers and Bears defense is awful. Lions will win the division this year.

  38. timmmah10 says: Jul 14, 2014 10:25 AM

    “olaffek says: Jul 12, 2014 8:28 PM

    The Lions are worse than the Cubs.”

    That just gave me an idea… the Lions should sign Bartman for CB since he’s so good at breaking up connections….

  39. ivanpavlov0000 says: Jul 14, 2014 11:09 AM

    Amazing how many Bears fans feel obligated to post about the Lions. Wonder why they feel the need to keep repeating that they aren’t afraid?

  40. ajd4 says: Jul 17, 2014 10:45 PM

    mikex123 says:
    Jul 12, 2014 9:21 PM
    Anybody who actually watched the thanksgiving game knows even if Rodgers was in, Lions still would of won it, at least thats what the experts were saying.

    ————————————————————-

    The Packers would not have beaten anybody that game, the whole team stunk. That game was a result of the Packers being awful that day more than the Lions being good. Just one of those home Thanksgiving Day games for the Lions that the Packers usually struggle in.

    Their struggles on Thanksgiving Day games at Detroit are nothing compared to the struggles of the Lions at Lambeau where they have not won since December 16, 1991.

  41. twelsh36446 says: Jul 18, 2014 8:50 AM

    PFT has overlooked to many of the Lions strengths in there assessment of rankings. They didn’t mention the two other QB coaches. They also forgot to mention the defense won’t be playing that vanilla four man rush anymore either. I could go on and on, but the Lions play last year is the real reason PFT has them 21st.

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