Balley: Six reasons to believe in the 2020 Detroit Lions

Balley: Six reasons to believe in the 2020 Detroit Lions

Trent Balley

Another fall is almost upon us, which means Detroit Lions season is on the horizon.

The Lions finalized their 53-man roster for the 2020 season on Saturday, as did every NFL team. With the lack of a preseason in wake of COVID-19, these final roster cuts give football fans their first real look at what the league will look like, and when the season kicks off on Sunday for the Lions, the rubber meets the road. It’s go time. 

After a dismal 3-12-1 campaign a year ago, the Lions are obviously looking to make a statement in this spontaneously wicked year that is 2020. This notion was made clear back in June, when 94-year-old team owner Martha Firestone Ford stepped down from her role, with her daughter Sheila Firestone Hamp taking the reins. The new owner did not mince words when it came to her motivation to make the Lions winners in 2020.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to create a winning organization, and especially on the field,” Hamp told the media following her promotion. “The fans deserve it, the city deserves it, and I am a very competitive person.”

Simply put, if the Lions compete fiercely and take no prisoners in 2020, they’ll find themselves in the playoffs, probably even winning the NFC North division and possibly even hosting the first ever playoff game in Ford Field. It’s a hell of a lot easier said than done, but I believe it’s going to happen, because the Lions are flat out not a three-win team. You should believe too. Grab some Kool-Aid. Here are my six biggest reasons to believe in the 2020 Detroit Lions.

1. Matthew Stafford is healthy and motivated

This first one is pretty simple. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, No. 9 in the Honolulu blue and silver, is an elite quarterback in this league. 

The Lions had a pulse in 2019, sitting on a 3-4-1 record, until Stafford was sidelined with a back injury for the final eight games. And then, the Lions didn’t win a single game more. It’s pretty clear to see, this team goes as its quarterback — its best player and ultimate leader — goes.

In the eight games Stafford did play in 2019, he totaled 2,499 passing yards and 19 touchdowns to only five interceptions. For perspective on how great those numbers actually are, we have a pretty easy formula to contextualize them. Stafford missed exactly half of last season’s games. If he were to finish the season healthy, and replicate precisely what he did in the first half of it, he would have finished with 4,998 passing yards, which would have been second in the league. He also would have thrown for 38 touchdowns, which would have LEAD the entire NFL, including two more than 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson and a dozen more than NFC North rival Aaron Rodgers. Stafford also posted a 71.3 QBR in the games he played, which finished sixth in the league. 

As a cherry on top, Stafford himself said that he is poised to make a run at the 2020 NFL MVP award. Former Lions teammate and wide receiver Nate Burleson, who co-hosts NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” television program, shared on-air that Stafford personally texted him that he’s coming for the throne.

“Forget the dark horse stuff, I’m going for the MVP,” Stafford allegedly told Burleson after the latter’s co-host Peter Schrager name dropped Stafford as a dark horse candidate for the award.

No matter how you slice it, Matthew Stafford is rock solid under center. Barring another devastating injury, 2020 should be no different. A determined, hungry and healthy Stafford is a matchup nightmare for defenses. Advantage: Lions.

2. Defensive makeover

The Lions’ defense was nothing short of embarrassing in 2019. It allowed the second most yards on the season at 6,406. Diving deeper, the passing defense was dead last and most likely the biggest reason for a three-win season, allowing 284.4 passing yards per game. Granted, it doesn’t matter how good the secondary is if opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw the ball. Lions fans were forced to watch pedestrian quarterbacks like Mitchell Trubisky and Derek Carr carve up their defense all season long in 2019. Hence, there are two facets to look at here: getting pressure on the quarterback from the front seven, and defending the passes that ensue.

After a season to forget in both facets, the Lions dealt Pro-Bowl cornerback Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles, and starting defensive tackle Damon Harrison hung ‘em up for retirement. However, general manager Bob Quinn made recovery moves to bolster up coach Matt Patricia’s defense. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable additions.

Step one was hiring defensive coordinator Cory Undlin after firing Paul Pasqualoni, following two awful defensive seasons for the Lions. Undlin served as the Eagles’ defensive backs coach for half a decade, including their Super Bowl victory in 2018. He also was a defensive assistant with the Patriots for their Super Bowl victory in 2005. It was reported in August that Undlin will call plays on defense for the Lions, contrary to speculation that Patricia might do so.

The Lions then continued their attempt to mimic Patricia and Quinn’s former employer, the New England Patriots, by bringing in several defensive talents with ties to the organization. Among the haul is linebacker Jamie Collins and nose tackle Danny Shelton.

Collins finished 2019 with 81 total tackles, seven sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. He’ll be a much-appreciated addition to a youthful linebacking core featuring 2019 second-round pick Jahlani Tavai and 2017 first-round pick Jarrad Davis, who’s under immense pressure to perform well this season after the Lions did not pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. That is by no means a death sentence for next season, but he sure has something to prove in 2020. If he fails, Detroit will move on. The bottom line is Collins could alleviate some of that pressure and provide the ball-hawking leadership the young guns need in order to follow suit.

As for Shelton, his calling card is being the middle piece up front in the three-four defensive system the Lions will run. He comes off a 2019 season that featured a career-high 61 total tackles, and was a key contributor just two years ago on the Super Bowl-winning Patriots defense. With Harrison retired and A’Shawn Robinson joining the Los Angeles Rams in free agency, Shelton will step right in and be a starter for Detroit. 

Aside from former Patriots, the Lions also added former Atlanta Falcons veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant, a move corresponding with the dealing away of Slay. Trufant missed seven games in 2019 due to injury, but still managed to snag a career-high four interceptions as the Falcons’ No. 1 corner, including two in the same game versus Carson Wentz of the Eagles. Trufant will surely start for Detroit this season, and will likely be the No. 1 corner for his new team.

More cornerback reinforcement came via the 2020 NFL Draft in April, as the Lions added Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah at No. 3 overall. It’s unclear whether Okudah will get a starting spot, as Amani Oruwariye has received positive press out of training camp. Regardless, Okudah will get his fair share of snaps. As the Buckeyes’ No. 1 last season, Okudah was given unanimous All-American honors after finishing with nine passes defensed and three interceptions. Teams simply didn’t throw to Okudah’s side of the field for a reason. He’ll look to make that the case in the pros as well.

A three-headed cornerback monster of Trufant, Okudah/Oruwariye and Justin Coleman is, in my opinion, a better collective threesome than Slay, Coleman and Rashaan Melvin, which the Lions rolled with last season. 

Along with Okudah, the Lions also added edge rusher Julian Okwara of Notre Dame in the draft, the younger brother of current Lions edge rusher Romeo Okwara. If the power of brotherhood isn’t enough to get you fired up, the depth that Julian adds should, as he was a projected first-round selection before his injury in his senior season. As a junior, Okwara totaled 38 tackles and eight sacks for the Fighting Irish. He is versatile, able to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, and his 6-foot-4, 250-pound build allows him to do so. It’s a match made in heaven for Patricia’s three-four system that favors skilled linemen and big linebackers.

To sum up the rest of the notable moves, the Lions added defensive tackle Nick Williams, linebackers Elijah Lee and Reggie Ragland, cornerback Tony McRae, as well as safeties Jayron Kearse and Duron Harmon, the latter of which will start alongside Tracy Walker.

At the end of the day, the Lions have maximized their potential on defense, and all of their chips are in the middle. They gambled by getting rid of Slay, but recovered very nicely with Trufant and Okudah. They added more playmakers to a defensive line that already features Trey Flowers and Da’Shawn Hand, and the playcalling has changed hands for the better as well. 

It’s going to be FUN to watch the Lions play defense in 2020.

3. Pressure on Quinn and Patricia

There isn’t a whole lot to unpack here. The fact of the matter is Bob Quinn has only put together one playoff team in his four seasons as the Lions’ general manager, and that 2016 campaign full of exciting come-from-behind wins is starting to feel like a lifetime ago. Hell, the Lions have changed their logo and uniforms since then.

As for Patricia, he was brought on board in 2018 to take the Lions an echelon higher than what former coach Jim Caldwell could do. The problem is Caldwell made the playoffs in two of his four seasons as head coach in Detroit, and Patricia has yet to do so once. Caldwell won 56.25% of his regular season games and led the Lions to three winning seasons. Patricia still has single-digit wins in his two runs. Not great.

Needless to say, both Quinn and Patricia are on the hot seat. If the Lions don’t make the playoffs this season, it’s very difficult to see them getting another chance with Detroit. The pressure is on, and they know it. They’ll be making shrewd moves and calls all season long, not only to save their jobs, but to compete hard and ideally win in the end.

4. Fourth place schedule

This is where I would usually look at the Lions’ 2020 schedule and play the win/loss game. Listen to “The Motown Rundown” podcast for an in-depth look at the schedule and record predictions.

The upside of having a horrible season is that the following year, you catch a break in terms of out-of-division scheduling. The NFC North is no cake walk, as the Green Bay Packers lost in the NFC Championship game last season, and the Minnesota Vikings were a wild card playoff team. Outside of the division however, seven of the Lions’ 10 opponents failed to reach the playoffs in 2019. One of them is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who look absolutely nothing like they did last season after adding Tom Brady at quarterback among several other key offensive moves.

Nonetheless, teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Football Team don’t have much promise for 2020, and the Lions can seize that opportunity. 

Then again, I believe the Lions will be able to hang with and beat anybody. Sip some Kool-Aid.

5. Investment in the offensive line

One of the more recent headlines for the Lions was the contract extension of offensive tackle Taylor Decker. The 2016 first-round pick (Quinn’s first selection with the Lions) has started in every game he’s appeared in over four seasons, dealing with some injuries here and there. When he plays, he’s an above average tackle. The Lions extended him for six years and $85 million, averaging out to just over $14 million per year. As of this offseason, that is not current top-10 tackle money, and the market is only going to go up. For Quinn and the Lions to ink Decker for the future, he’ll be a bargain in the seasons to come, assuming he is still playing up to par. Talk about bang for your buck.

While Jeff Okudah and D’Andre Swift were the most heralded Lions draft picks this offseason, Detroit will also welcome two young linemen to town. Guards Jonah Jackson of Ohio State and Logan Stenberg of Kentucky were selected by the Lions in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. The Lions also traded up to choose Jackson. What this tells us is that Quinn and the Lions are well aware of the importance of protecting Matthew Stafford, and are exhausting all efforts to do so. Even if these two feed off each other and rotate snaps on offense, there’s two solid guys to help protect No. 9 from the likes of the Bears’ Khalil Mack and the Packers’ Za’Darius Smith. 

It’s also important to note that another overlooked Lions signing this offseason was Eagles offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. His big moment came in Week 7 of the 2017 season when he had to step in as starting tackle Jason Peters was injured. Vaitai finished out the season with the starting unit… and ended up a Super Bowl champion. Whether or not he can simulate that success as a Lion, only time will tell. Nonetheless, it’s another move that shows fans where Quinn’s priorities are: protecting Stafford.

This guy gets it.

6. Bevell’s versatile offense at full strength

One of the only bright spots for the Lions last season was the improvement that first-year offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell made after taking over for Jim Bob Cooter. Even with Stafford missing eight games, Bevell blazed the Lions to a top-10 passing offense in 2019. When your starting quarterbacks for the back half of the season are Jeff Driskel and rookie David Blough, a top-10 passing offense is quite an impressive feat.

To state the obvious, the Lions head into the 2020 season retaining a well above average one-two punch at receiver with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Golladay was the league leader in touchdown receptions last season with 11, and Jones was tied for fourth with nine despite missing the final three games. Not bad.

Golladay is the emerging star of the two, at only 26 years old to Jones’ 30, but Jones has the extra year of Stafford camaraderie in which the Lions made the playoffs in 2016 while he was the No. 1 wideout on the team. Both Golladay and Jones can make big plays, and Stafford trusts both unconditionally. Plus, throw in a veteran slot receiver like Danny Amendola, and it can’t hurt.

A healthy Stafford is a huge plus for the Lions, but so is a healthy starting halfback Kerryon Johnson, who hasn’t finished a full NFL season in his young career without seeing the injured reserve yet. Johnson will undoubtedly be the bell cow back for Detroit this season, but if he’s banged up, the depth chart runs deep.

Rookie D’Andre Swift of Georgia was a nice pickup for Detroit in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s versatile as a runner and is a bona fide pass-catching back, which Stafford will love. Bo Scarbrough will be on injured reserve for the first few weeks, but can pile-drive like no running back Detroit has seen since Joique Bell five years ago. And former NFL MVP Adrian Peterson is a Lion now also… more on that later.

Outside of the main skill positions, the tight ends for the Lions this year will be much improved from last season, barring any injuries. T.J. Hockenson will look to put together a sophomore season full of games like his season opener a year ago; a six-reception, 131-yard performance with a touchdown to cap it off. He’s talented, no doubt. The question is, can Bevell utilize him to his full potential? 

The 6-foot-7, 255-pound tight end Jesse James also remains in Detroit, who many fans and experts are sleeping on after a quiet 2019 season. The idea of Hockenson and James in a two-tight end set in the red zone seems like a reliable call. Bevell knows that. Be ready for it, defenses.

Basically, Bevell will inherit a similar offense as last season — that he helped make a top-10 passing offense without his starting quarterback for eight games — except this season’s offense has even more threats. Bevell’s got a lot of new toys. We’ll see how he uses them, but I have a feeling it will be difficult for Bevell — especially with Stafford’s MVP-caliber help — to mess this up.

BONUS: Stafford turns 33, Adrian Peterson is a Lion

These are more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, but they’re worth mentioning.

Super Bowl LV is played on Matthew Stafford’s 33rd birthday, so if the Lions get there, they aren’t losing. Enough said.

I wanted to add in a little feature on Adrian Peterson, since I know a lot of Lions fans are chomping at the bit to see this guy play in Honolulu blue. Well, in the last two seasons with Washington, he missed only one game. He’s still durable. He also had 12 rushing touchdowns in the last two seasons, which is double what Kerryon Johnson was able to put up in that same time frame. I’m not saying Peterson is rivaling Johnson for the starting halfback spot — he isn’t, and it’s absurd to think so — but the idea is that Peterson isn’t washed up yet. 

And for the first time since Minnesota, Peterson got his jersey No. 28 back… if you’re into that kind of thing.