The Detroit Lions defense is exactly where Matt Patricia wants it. With Darius Slay now having been dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles for a third and fifth-round picks last week, Patricia has truly put together a defense filled with “his guys”.
Every single projected starter other than linebacker Jarrad Davis on the Lions 2020 defense will be a player brought in within the Patricia era. The only players on defense at all who will not be “Patricia guys” are Davis and linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Steve Longa—both of whom may not end up making the 53-man roster at the start of next year. Davis has been a player Patricia has shown a lot of faith in over the past two years though, despite his poor play, and it is not a stretch to consider him as part of the “in group” either.
An entirely remade defensive unit means that blame for the unit’s failures can no longer be leveraged against Jim Caldwell. The winning culture the team has been building over the past two years has to finally start producing wins on the field, and unless the team starts to win sometimes soon, it is hard to justify jettisoning players like Slay, Graham Glasgow, Glover Quin, Golden Tate and Quandre Diggs.
The team did make some great moves so far in free agency without breaking the bank. They added Jamie Collins Sr. and Danny Shelton—growing the list of ex-New England Patriots taking the field for the Lions—along with players like Nick Williams and Desmond Trufant. All of the players provide decent value for the amount they were signed for and do improve the team on paper. Losing Slay at a position as important at corner may be a loss that outweighs the gains, however.
Detroit had a bottom five NFL defense by DVOA in 2019. Much of the reason for those failures falls on players brought in during the Patricia’s culture change. Christian Jones is among the worst players in the NFL at the moment. Justin Coleman became the NFL’s highest-paid nickel corner last offseason, and played terribly after the opening month of the season. Players across the defense, from Devon Kennard to Rashaan Melvin, failed to perform. The two players who ate much of the blame for the failures, and the ones who were ousted from the team were Slay and Diggs—two of the best three players on that side of the field alongside Trey Flowers.
Getting rid of your best players because they do not fit your culture is always a huge risk. It is hard for the Lions defense to get much worse going forward, but seeing how bad they were with a top-10 corner has to concern fans now that they do not have a player that can contend with the opponent’s top offensive weapon every week.
2018 and 2019 were both disaster seasons for the Lions, but we are expected to write them off as the team was building a “winning culture” despite the franchise’s first back-to-back last place finishes since the aughts. While Matthew Stafford’s injury is an easy excuse, the team was already 3-4 when he went down with an injury. A team that preaches that culture is more important than talent cannot write off a nine-game losing streak due to one injury. If players like Slay were the problem despite their great on field play, then the team has no excuse not to win now that the defense is full of the guts Patricia wanted.
Patricia needs to start winning games in 2020. A winning culture does not mean anything if the team cannot actually win football games. If the culture still is not ready to win, it never will be.