The Detroit Lions hype train has reached full speed as we race towards the beginning of the 2019 NFL season. A spending spree in free agency and high draft pick have given fans reason to believe that the team improved greatly this offseason. But have they improved enough to make the playoffs?
While it is impossible to tell the future, we could always compare the 2019 Lions to teams that have made the playoffs in the recent past.
Twitter user Bradley Marr posed an interesting question this week when he asked whether he believed the 2019 team was better than Detroit’s 2014 team. I thought to take it a step further, and include the 2016 squad that made the playoffs in this exercise as well.
So, are the 2019 Lions as good—if not better—than the Lions playoff teams of recent history?
In order of rank from best to worst
2016: Matthew Stafford
It is really hard to compare the same player against himself, but Matthew Stafford has evolved over the years. The quarterback emerged as an elite talent in 2016, and was a potential MVP candidate before a late season injury limited him. He followed that up with a great 2017 season and showed that he had clearly entered his prime.
Stafford took a step back in 2018, but his struggles could potentially be attributed to a back injury. If he is healthy in 2019, there is reason to believe that he could return to form. Maybe not to MVP level, but at least to the level of an above average quarterback.
Because of this, I rank 2019 Stafford over the 2014 Stafford who had yet to enter his prime.
2014: Calvin Johnson Jr., Golden Tate, Theo Riddick, Reggie Bush, Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron
2016: Tate, Marvin Jones Jr., Anquan Boldin, Riddick, Zach Zenner, Ebron
2019: Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay, Danny Amendola, Kerryon Johnson, Riddick, T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James
If there is one place where the Lions have been loaded with talent over the years, it has been here. Calvin Johnson might be the most talented receiver to ever play football, and placing him on the same team as Golden Tate, Theo Riddick and Reggie Bush in 2014 make it possibly the most talented group of weapons the team has ever put together.
Johnson was replaced by Marvin Jones Jr. in 2016, and despite the addition of Anquan Boldin and growth of Eric Ebron as a tight end, this team still does not reach the level of talent that of the 2014 team.
The 2019 team is a steep drop off compared to the other two. Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola are not nearly as good as Tate and Bolden. Kerryon Johnson may be the best running back the team has had in recent years, but Riddick has dropped off over the years. While T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James have potential, both are unproven in the NFL.
2014: Dominic Raiola, Larry Warford, Rob Sims, Riley Reiff, Travis Swanson, Garrett Reynolds
2019: Graham Glasgow, Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker, Rick Wagner, Oday Aboushi
2016: Decker, Laken Tomlinson, Swanson, Warford, Reiff
This one is also hard to sort out. The Lions 2014 offensive line was not perfect, but it was good enough. Detroit had a decent rushing attack and the offensive line usually held up enough to protect Stafford.
The current team is still without a starting caliber left guard, but the other four projected starters are good enough to rank the 2019 squad over the disaster of a 2016 offensive line.
2014: Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones, C.J. Mosley
2019: Damon Harrison Sr., A’Shawn Robinson, Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Da’Shawn Hand
2016: Ansah, Haloti Ngata, Devin Taylor, Tyrunn Walker
For both the 2019 and 2014 teams, this is the most talented unit on the roster. The 2014 squad had a historically great run defense, and the 2019 team should not be that far off. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were demons for opposing offenses up front, and an all-time great like Suh gives the 2014 squad the edge.
Interestingly enough, the 2016 defensive line was an absolute disaster, and probably the weakest part of the team that year.
2014: DeAndre Levy, Tahrir Whitehead, Ashlee Palmer, Stephen Tulloch
2019: Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Jahlani Tavai, Christian Jones
2016: Levy, Whitehead, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Bynes, Antwione Williams, Thurston Armbrister
Linebacker has not been a strength for Detroit in recent history. DeAndre Levy had an incredible 2014 season, and is probably one of the best linebackers this team has ever seen. There is not much talent beyond him, though. Tahrir Whitehead was formidable, but nothing special. Stephen Tulloch was injured for much of 2014 and no one else was worthwhile.
While Levy and Whitehead were around in 2016, Levy was injured for much of the year and no one else on the roster stepped up to truly replace him.
The 2019 squad has some intrigue. Jarrad Davis could possibly take another step forward. Jahlani Tavai could be a quality player on Day 1 and Christian Jones and Devon Kennard are veterans who can produce. They won't be anything special, but they should be better than the 2016 team.
2016: Darius Slay, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs, Rafael Bush
2019: Slay, Diggs, Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, Wilson, Tracy Walker
2014: Slay, Quin, Rashean Mathis, James Ihedigbo, Cassius Vaughn
This is another hard one to parse out. While Darius Slay was around for all three of the Lions recent playoff runs, he struggled in 2014 and is an entirely different player today. Quandre Diggs is also a significantly better player today than he was in 2016.
The presence of Glover Quin in 2016, and the lack of a second starting outside corner in 2019 is what gives the 2016 team the top spot here, though. Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush were talented safeties as well that year, as the Lions had one of the league’s top defensive backfields.
The 2014 team had some issues. As mentioned earlier, a young Slay was still learning how to play corner in the NFL. Cassius Vaughn probably should not have been getting as much playing time as he was, and while Rashean Mathis and James Ihedigbo were serviceable, neither were true difference makers that season.
The 2014 team is clearly the best of the group, and it is not particularly close. That team was better than either the 2016 or 2019 teams on both sides of the ball, and probably could have competed for a Super Bowl if a few bounces of the ball (or throws of a flag) went their way.
The 2019 team may be better than the 2016 team, though. Detroit was a mess in 2016, and relied on Stafford to have an unreal season and a bunch of miraculous comebacks to somehow compete. If we replayed the Lions 2016 season 100 times, the amount of times they make playoffs may be in the single digits.
Detroit has a lot of flaws this season, but a more flawed roster made the playoffs and nearly won the NFC North in 2016. A playoff berth in 2019 feels like a long shot right now, but anything is possible.