The Detroit Lions closed out their 2018 campaign with a 31-0 victory over their arch-rival Green Bay Packers on the 30th of December. While the game did not matter much, both teams had already been eliminated from postseason contention, it was a symbolic victory for a team that had just gone through one of its worst seasons of the decade. A defense that was oft-maligned to start the year pitched a shutout, quarterback Matthew Stafford finished the year strong after an entire year of struggles, a stagnant offense put 31 points on the board and Detroit earned a dominant victory at Lambeau Field, a stadium which haunted them for decades in the past.
The game also fittingly came just two days after the ten year anniversary of one of the most infamous match up between the teams.
On December 28, 2008, the 0-15 Lions had one last chance to salvage their season and avoid an almost unthinkable winless season. The Lions played with fight, and brought a deficit that was once 14 all the way down to three with a Kevin Smith touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter. The team was rallying and looked like they had a chance to steal a victory in the seasons final week. It then took only one play on the ensuing possession for Aaron Rodgers to find Donald Drive for a 71-yard touchdown pass, effectively ending the game and clinching a defeated season.
This was a turning point for the franchise—it had to be.
The organization cleaned house and changed their logo. They spent their first overall pick on quarterback Matthew Stafford and were prepared to make him the face of the franchise going forward. It was a new age of Detroit Lions football, and they were making sure everyone knew that.
10 years later it’s easy to see how far this franchise has come. Since 2011 (the first two years post-2008 were rife with injuries and rebuilding), the team has made the playoffs three times—having not reached the postseason since 1999 previously. Stafford has emerged as one of the statistically greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. They have proven to be legitimate competitors in the NFC North and have hung with the best of teams in the NFL.
But it is also easy to argue that this franchise has not gone anywhere at all since the Stafford era began. They’ve posted a 63-65 record since 2011, and while this is an improvement over the 40-88 record they posted between 2000-2007, it is still below .500. They still have never won the NFC North. All three of their playoff appearances ended with exits in the wild card round, and in two of those three games they were blown out. Despite Stafford’s box score stuffing, he has only been to one Pro Bowl.
As a fan of the team over the past 17 years, things do genuinely feel different now than they did before. But after taking a deep look back at the past few years, it’s hard to see why.
And that brings us to where the team stands entering the 2019 season. The 2018 campaign ended with a 6-10 record, but it feels like it went much worse than that. A team that should have at least been in the wild card hunt felt like they were out of the playoff race three quarters into the season opener. With new head coach Matt Patricia at the helm and the team’s new look run game, many thought this was finally the year that Detroit’s long-term plan for success would come to fruition.
The Lions finally decided that the process of “rebuilding” and slowly working their way towards inevitable success was just was not cutting it this offseason. They spent $90 million to land edge defender Trey Flowers, arguably the best free agent of the 2019 class. General manager Bob Quinn splurged again, making nickel Justin Coleman the highest-paid player at his position. Detroit took a risk on Jesse James, a tight end with loads of potential who has not quite put it together yet, giving him a multi-year deal to be one of the team’s top tight ends for years to come.
The team still has not gone as far as the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams did last season, as they both mortgaged their future for immediate success in 2018, but they are clearly building a team that they want to win right now. All of the players listed above players have back loaded contracts that will force Detroit into tough decisions in the near future. For now, though, they have acquired enough talent to make noise this year.
Their is also another contract Detroit will soon have to deal with in the near future. Stafford still has four years left on his then-record $135 million deal he signed in 2017, but the team could get out of his deal early in 2021. If another team meets the right price, he could be a trade candidate after 2019—rumors have it a trade may have even been in play at some points last offseason.
A win-now roster filled with back-loaded deals, a potential decision on Stafford and the precarious job security of both Patricia and Quinn make this year’s NFL draft possibly the most important in franchise history. The Lions currently hold the eighth overall pick in the draft—their highest selection since they drafted Ezekiel Ansah fifth overall in 2013. If they land a star, this team has potential to be special. If they whiff, a team that has been rebuilding for decades may choose to start from scratch once again.
Unlike 2009, the last time a Lions draft felt like it was truly going to define the franchise going forward, their is not an obvious top position of need. Stafford felt like the only choice a decade ago and the only other player in relative consideration was also a quarterback in Mark Sanchez.
Detroit has a multitude of positions that they could choose to address with the eighth pick, making the choice even harder.
They could boost their pass rush by drafting Florida State’s Brian Burns, a small but speedy pass rusher that has all of the tools a player would need to dominate the league for years. Montez Sweat out of Mississippi State, a bigger, stronger more versatile edge defender, could give a boost upfront as well and seems like the perfect player for a defense run by Patricia.
Ed Oliver, the player so talented that some have created the position “off-ball tackle” specifically to describe the amount of things he can do on a football field. He would bolster one of the league’s best defensive tackle units and possibly revolutionize Detroit’s front-7.
With Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang out the door, NC State’s Garrett Bradbury could be the perfect replacement. Bradbury was recruited to the Wolfpack as a tight end, but his blocking prowess and high football IQ led to him moving all the way inside to guard.
They could also choose Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams. While he played tackle in Tuscaloosa, many believe he has what it takes to kick inside to guard for the time being before eventually usurping the role of Rick Wagner going forward.
Cornerback is not quite out of play either. While many consider this year’s class to be one of the weakest in recent years, the position is arguably the biggest need on Detroit’s roster. LSU’s Greedy Williams, Notre Dame’s Julian Love and Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye are all flawed prospects, but also have enough talent to be an instant boost to not only the corner position, but the entire defense.
And of course, the tight duo out of Iowa is in play. T.J. Hockenson is an all-around star that would give the team a boost as a receiver and provides utility in the trenches as a blocker. Noah Fant is the sexier pick. He provides less off the nitty gritty stuff that doesn’t appear in the box score, but is an incredible, refined, receiver that could give the team exactly what they were missing without Eric Ebron last season.
There are seemingly endless paths Detroit can take with the eighth overall pick, but whichever one they choose has to be the right one. The Lions have managed to land all-time greats early in the draft in the past with both Calvin Johnson in 2007 and Ndamukong Suh in 2010, but they were never able to build enough talent around them (and Stafford) to truly compete. The Lions have the team needed to compete this time around, they just need a little more star power on the roster to truly put it all together.
For the first time in a long time this team has Super Bowl potential, and with how quickly windows close in the NFL, Detroit can not afford to let this opportunity slip through their fingers.
10 years ago, the Lions made the right choice. Now, in what could possibly be the most important draft pick in franchise history, they have to make the right choice once again. If not, the Same Old Lions may get sent right back through the seemingly endless cycle of futility that has haunted them for generations.