The Detroit Lions have a long road ahead of them, for both the 2021 season and the years to follow. A rebuild might mean some struggles, but they will come at the expense of progress—hopefully.
As we look ahead to the 2021 season, it is worth looking at their opponents. The Lions had a historically awful defense last year, and while there are new players and coaches, it is still expected to be a weakness for the team.
How will the Lions match up against their opposing offenses, and what can we expect?
14. Philadelphia Eagles — Week 8
2020 Offensive DVOA: 28th
The Eagles won the Super Bowl back in 2018, but things are very different in the City of Brotherly Love since then. Nick Foles was the playoff hero and Carson Wentz was the hot-shot youngster, but neither are part of the team come 2021. Only a few years into a $128 million contract, the Eagles shipped off an underperforming Wentz to the Colts for a pair of picks. Their quarterback carousel instead turns to Jalen Hurts. While he had moments as a runner, his passing leaves much to be desired.
The Eagles are hoping rookie DeVonta Smith can step into the WR1 role quickly, given the lack of dependable receivers. The offensive line is decent and tight end Dallas Goedert looks like a rising star, but the success of their offense will come down to Hurts, and I’m not confident in his ability to become a starting caliber quarterback.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers — Week 10
2020 Offensive DVOA: 22nd
Much like the Eagles, the Steelers' offense is a shell of their former years. The offensive line is severely diminished, while their once-dominant run game has all but evaporated. Ben Roethlisberger was once an elite quarterback, but the years have crept up on him, and 2021 could be his last hurrah. While his 33 touchdown passes the previous season look good, he posted the lowest yards per attempt of his career, illustrating a depleted arm.
One aspect of the Steelers that isn’t depleted, however, is the wide receivers. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool each experienced solid campaigns in 2020, and should be focal points of the offense, whether it is led by Roethlisberger or Mason Rudolph.
12. Denver Broncos — Week 14
2020 Offensive DVOA: 30th
Few teams were plagued by bad quarterbacking quite like the Broncos in 2020. Four quarterbacks started for the Broncos last season, and one of those was a wide receiver! Drew Lock may still be given the chance of winning the starting role, but newcomer Teddy Bridgewater will certainly challenge him for it. While Bridgewater might be the high floor, low ceiling option, a mediocre quarterback could be enough to elevate the offense.
Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams will head the backfield, and a very talented arsenal of Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and Noah Fant could present a challenge for secondaries. Imagine if the Broncos could acquire a Hall of Fame quarterback...
11. Cincinnati Bengals — Week 6
2020 Offensive DVOA: 29th
Many are still puzzled by the Bengals passing on Penei Sewell, but the addition of Ja’Marr Chase is nothing to scoff at. Chase likely slots in as the top option for Joe Burrow, his former college quarterback. Burrow looked great in his rookie season despite a depleted roster around him, but a significant leg injury derailed his Rookie of the Year campaign. There’s no guarantee he returns to form, but he will have a much better looking offense around him.
Joe Mixon will return after missing most of the season with an injury, while Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd will be excellent targets for Burrow. Even the highly criticized offensive line is improved, with Riley Reiff at right tackle and rookie Jackson Carman playing inside at guard. The Bengals' offense could surprise some people.
10. Chicago Bears — Week 4 & 12
2020 Offensive DVOA: 25th
The Mitchell Trubisky era is over in Chicago. The Bears boasted a very talented roster for years, but it often felt wasted with Trubisky at the helm. Some new quarterbacks join the Bears in 2021, but is it too late to truly take advantage of the team they built? Andy Dalton is slated to start for Chicago to very little optimism from the Bears faithful. However, his starting role might not be for long. Justin Fields waits in the wings, and if Dalton’s previous performances are any indication, Fields could start sooner rather than later. The Lions face Chicago twice, but don’t be surprised if they are a very different team in Week 12 if Fields is starting.
Elsewhere on offense, the team retained Allen Robinson via the franchise tag, one of the top receivers in the league. The offensive line isn’t impressive however, so running back David Montgomery will have to make due in what could be his prove-it season.
9. Atlanta Falcons — Week 16
2020 Offensive DVOA: 21st
Speaking of eras ending, the Falcons are going to be without superstar Julio Jones for the first time in a decade, but the offense still looks threatening. Filling the shoes of Jones is tough, but a combination of Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, and rookie Kyle Pitts provides some talented youth in the receiving arsenal and an impressive one at that.
The biggest question for the Falcons is at running back. Mike Davis is expected to be the lead back, but he is an uninspiring option. The Falcons have some young pieces on the offensive line, but inconsistency has plagued them. At quarterback, Matt Ryan returns, but this could be the year he has to prove he can still be a top quarterback.
8. San Francisco 49ers — Week 1
2020 Offensive DVOA: 20th
Injuries hurt the 49ers in nearly every facet of their team last year. At quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard each started for San Francisco with lackluster success. Only Garoppolo returns from the bunch, but the 49ers selected Trey Lance third overall to eventually take his place as the starter. When that happens remains to be seen, but thankfully for the Lions, they face the 49ers in Week 1, so Garoppolo remains the likeliest quarterback to start.
Elsewhere on the roster, a carousel at running back didn’t hinder the 49ers run game, with Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson making the best of their time in the spotlight. Add in Trey Sermon to the bunch, and it could be another strength for the Kyle Shanahan offense. Perhaps the biggest injury for the 49ers was to George Kittle. Their star tight end only further amplifies a pretty solid group of pass catchers. The 49ers have an offensive line bordering on great, another asset for what could be an underrated offense.
7. Arizona Cardinals — Week 15
2020 Offensive DVOA: 19th
The Cardinals were feast or famine in 2020, so consistency will be at the forefront of their hopes for the upcoming season. Kyler Murray had flashes of brilliance, but as seen in the loss to the Lions, he also had plenty of lows. His ability to make plays with his legs will always be an asset, but he’ll need to take a few strides to become a great passer in the league.
Having someone like DeAndre Hopkins certainly helps, as do the additions of A.J. Green and Rondale Moore. Throw in Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella, and the Cardinals have one of the better receiver groups in the league. The offensive line greatly benefits from the acquisition of Rodney Hudson, but the running backs group is a question mark. Chase Edmonds and James Conner are the one-two punch, but neither are sure-fire bets to succeed.
6. Baltimore Ravens — Week 3
2020 Offensive DVOA: 11th
Very few teams are as run-heavy as the Ravens, and for good reason. Having Lamar Jackson at quarterback is a weapon few teams possess, arguably one of the best runners in the league regardless of position. Though Jackson did not repeat his MVP season, 2020 was still a solid campaign. Much like Kyler Murray, his passing needs improvement to truly make him an elite quarterback, but you’d be hard-pressed to say he isn’t a pain for any defense right now.
With the departure of Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins steps into the starting role, with Gus Edwards spelling him for a formidable running back duo. The receiving corps added Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins as targets to join Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown. The receivers had been a major weakness for the Ravens for a while, so upgrading the pass catchers for Jackson is vital for his growth as a passer. On the offensive line, they traded away tackle Orlando Brown to the Chiefs but opted to sign AFC North veteran Alejandro Villanueva to replace him. Whether the former Steeler proves effective enough will be something to watch.
5. Minnesota Vikings — Week 5 & 13
2020 Offensive DVOA: 8th
Can Kirk Cousins lead the Vikings on a deep playoff run? That has been the question critics of the Vikings have been wondering for a while now, and the answer remains unclear. Cousins is well-established as a starting-caliber quarterback, but his ceiling is often limited at good, as opposed to great. Some were speculating that the Vikings could trade up for a quarterback but they settled on selecting Kellen Mond in the third round, leaving the Vikings as Cousins’ team... for now.
To the benefit of Cousins, the playmakers on offense are incredible. Dalvin Cook is among the league’s best running backs, but injuries have been a concern throughout his career. He was a Pro Bowler last year, but how will he handle a 17-game season without having completed a single 16-game season before? The receivers are no slouches, with Justin Jefferson shining as a replacement for Stefon Diggs. He has the potential to be a star in the coming years, while Adam Thielen is another dangerous option. The depth behind them is subpar, however. The offensive line is also a concern due to inexperience and mediocre performances.
4. Los Angeles Rams — Week 7
2020 Offensive DVOA: 10th
The Rams thought themselves a quarterback away from being true contenders, so they gave up a lot—including their former starting quarterback—for Matthew Stafford. Although his prime is at an end, the Rams are arguably the best team Stafford has played for, and coupled with a great offensive mind in Sean McVay, the pieces are there for Stafford to finally go on a playoff run. This will be the year for Stafford to prove the doubters wrong, with success having eluded him during his tenure in Detroit. If he does struggle, then it could spell disaster for the Rams going forward.
The Rams will roll with Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson at running back, a solid but unspectacular group. The offensive line is similarly good but not great, though an above-average unit should be plenty for Stafford and company. The receivers are underrated as well, with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp as two players with 1000-yard potential. The addition of the diminutive Tutu Atwell gives the team a burner.
3. Seattle Seahawks — Week 17
2020 Offensive DVOA: 6th
For years now, the Seahawks have lived and died on the arm of Russell Wilson. Their 2021 campaign figures to be much the same, although he does have some help. Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf are a dynamic receiving duo, both of whom topped 1000 yards last season. Matchup nightmares due to their speed—and size for Metcalf—they are the go-to weapons on offense. D’Wayne Eskridge was one of just three draft picks for Seattle, and he could turn into another beast in their receiving corps.
The running back room is led by Chris Carson, hoping to hit the 1,000-yard mark again after an injury slowed his 2020 season. The tight end group has long been quiet for the Seahawks, so they attempted to alleviate that problem by signing Gerald Everett. Seattle has been plagued by mediocre blocking, so acquiring guard Gabe Jackson was a key part of keeping Wilson safe. Overall, the team might not have the best weapons, but it is hard to doubt the impact Wilson has. The Lions will be playing the Seahawks late in the season, so the outcome of this game might not even matter for Detroit.
2. Cleveland Browns — Week 11
2020 Offensive DVOA: 9th
The Browns could be a scary team in 2021. Their offensive line is arguably the best in the league, with nearly every starting spot boasting one of the top players at their position. The weakest link is tackle Jedrick Wills, but not only was he just a rookie last year, but he was still solid—that speaks to the talent this line has. Benefitting the most from them are Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a running back rotation that frustrated fantasy owners but proved incredible throughout the season. The receivers will get better too, as Odell Beckham Jr. returns from injury. He, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and Donovan Peoples-Jones provide solid targets for their quarterback, Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield is the wild card of the team. He thrived as a rookie but had a sophomore slump the following year. 2020 was a great turnaround for Mayfield, showing the talent that made him an electric player in his rookie season. The question regarding Mayfield is twofold: can he continue his success, and can he elevate his game further? The Browns have some excellent players on offense, but they need Mayfield to be excellent as well if they want to make a deep playoff run.
1. Green Bay Packers — Week 2 & 18
2020 Offensive DVOA: 1st
Because it will certainly get brought up immediately in the comments: yes, I am aware of the situation between the Packers and Aaron Rodgers. However, when making a list like this, what else can you do aside from going with what’s available? At this time, Rodgers is still a Packer, and I cannot operate under the assumption that he won’t be. It’s a complicated situation for Green Bay. While a team like the Broncos are a likely trade candidate, I also can’t elevate their ranking based on an assumption that they will acquire him. I’m standing pat with the current rosters, but I acknowledge that they are anything but set in stone.
2020 might have been Rodgers’ best season in the NFL, which is almost insane given his body of work. The runaway MVP with a ridiculous touchdown to interception ratio of 48 to 5, he was unstoppable last season, and 2021 should be no different—if he plays. Davante Adams is a top-three receiver in the NFL, while Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard performed admirably as alternate targets. Amari Rodgers gets added to the group, another piece for defenses to fear.
Aaron Jones got a well-deserved contract to return as their lead running back. A.J. Dillon will replace Jamaal Williams, but expect the run game to be a perfect complement to their aerial attack. Robert Tonyan was a surprise breakout player at the tight end position, notching 11 touchdowns. The biggest knock against the Packers is their offensive line, which has taken a step down from the elite unit it once was. Losing Corey Linsley is a big loss, and a late-season ACL tear could limit when David Bakhtiari returns.
In the event that Rodgers does not return to Green Bay, Jordan Love would step into the starting spot. He spent his rookie season on the sideline—behind Lions reserve Tim Boyle— so very little is known from him. However, there are some great weapons for him on offense and a solid run game to ease the burden. With Love at the helm, I would rank the Packers somewhere around the Ravens or Cardinals (sixth or seventh respectively). For now, though, they take the top spot as the toughest offense the Lions will face in 2021.