The Detroit Lions are being hyped in a way many of us have never seen before. They’re not only division favorites for the first time in decades, but they’re even being mentioned in Super Bowl conversations. So, naturally, as a Lions fan conditioned to expect the worst, my immediate reaction is, “Okay, what is going to go wrong?”
In our weekend Notes post, we shared a post from The Athletic Football podcast that discussed why the Lions as “offseason darlings” may actually be legit. But one quote still stuck out with me that I felt needed some expansion.
“You only focus on what could go right as opposed to what could go wrong. What are the weaknesses that could go wrong?”
Most fans are guilty of this. They see the offseason as one thing: the opportunity to get better. But not every addition is going to work out. Not every player’s trajectory is a steady upward curve.
To be clear, I still think the Lions should be heavy favorites to win the NFC North and will very much be in the conversation for a top-three seed in the conference. But let’s be fair in our analysis with the team. Here are five reasons the season could go south.
Huge changes at skill positions
Our own John Whiticar did a nice job outlining how the Lions offense could regress this year—even though his ultimate conclusion was that they should stay just as effective as last year. One of his main points is just how much have changed among their offensive weapons:
- Jahmyr Gibbs replaces D’Andre Swift
- David Montgomery replaces Jamaal Williams
- Marvin Jones Jr./Jameson Williams replace DJ Chark
- Sam LaPorta replaces T.J. Hockenson
That’s a lot of overhaul, and while it seems like these are mostly upgrades, those upgrades are theoretical at this point. Will Gibbs hit the ground running? Can LaPorta break the trend of modest years from rookie tight ends? Will Gibbs and Montgomery really produce more than the lofty bar of 2,179 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns from last year? Marvin Jones is 33 years old and Jameson Williams has caught one career pass. We don’t know how any of these players will perform in a new scheme, and to just assume they are going to be better than the players they’re replacing is just that: an assumption.
How quickly can the secondary come together?
The Lions hit the secondary hard this offseason and are now likely to start three new cornerbacks this year in Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley. While all three of those players have played better at the NFL level than the three they’re replacing, there is no guarantee that chemistry between defenders will be there right away. Just because a player succeeded with one group of players in a specific scheme doesn’t mean that will translate to a new set of teammates under a different defense.
The transition should be easy for Gardner-Johnson, who played under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn before, but there is no guarantee Sutton and Moseley adapt as quickly.
Additionally, two projected starters in this group are coming off major injuries. Moseley is eight months removed from a torn ACL and Tracy Walker is eight months removed from a torn Achilles. It appears both may be on track to participate fully in training camp, but it often takes over a year for players to truly feel “back” and play at an optimal level after suffering these injuries.
“Strength of schedule”
By many metrics, the Lions appear to have an “easy” schedule. By 2022 record, it’s the 13th-easiest schedule. By Vegas projected wins, it’s the 11th-easiest schedule.
But as we learned last year, all that means absolutely nothing. Detroit’s 2022 strength of schedule was projected to be fifth-easiest by 2021 record and fifth by Vegas projected wins. It ended up being the fifth-toughest schedule by winning percentage of opponents.
Look no further than the Lions division for teams with potential high variance of outcomes. The Packers’ roster isn’t too bad overall, but their success will largely depend on a huge unknown: Jordan Love. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears have a much better roster than last year, but how much can they improve in one offseason and have they given Justin Fields enough weapons for him to make a dramatic jump?
The wrong combination of injuries could sink the Lions season in a hurry—just as it can with almost every NFL team. And just like most teams, losing the starting quarterback would be devastating. But it would impact the Lions more than most teams because they have a highly-untested backup quarterback in Nate Sudfeld (zero career starts), and the team’s overall success is highly dependent on the offense’s success. Unlike teams similar to the 49ers or Ravens, Detroit doesn’t yet have a proven defense that could carry a team on its second string quarterback.
But the Lions are also vulnerable in other places. If one of the starting offensive tackles goes down, their depth there is woeful. And if protection starts to break down for Jared Goff, the whole operation could quickly fall apart, as he is not a quarterback who has historically dealt well with pressure.
Same goes for defensive tackle, where there are even questions about the starters. Even losing one starting receiver be problematic.
Detroit’s depth is certainly improving, but they are far from invulnerable to injuries.
Detroit got a few really impressive rookie performances last year, and many just assume those players will pick up where they left off. That seems likely to be true for Aidan Hutchinson, as he was the second-overall pick and his strong play was somewhat expected. But I think it’s fair to wonder if guys like Kerby Joseph and James Houston are due for some regression after leading the defensive turnaround in the second half of the season. There’s now tape out there on both players, and there were enough inconsistencies in both players’ play to wonder if opponents can exploit some of those weaknesses with time to prepare. I’m not saying either is a bad player, but it’s possible they overperformed a bit, and the sophomore slump is real.
In fact, you could even throw offensive coordinator Ben Johnson in that category. Personally, I think Johnson is going to continue to be a superstar in this league, but opponents will have a full offseason to analyze Johnson’s tendencies and flaws. It’s an entirely new challenge for the Lions offensive coordinator to stay one step ahead of opposing defenses. That is not a given.
We here in Detroit have seen honeymoon periods with offensive coordinators come to tragic and swift ends. Yeah, I still have my “Jim Bob Cooter for president shirt,” too. Let us not forget Darrell Bevell, Scott Linehan, or even Mike Martz and their short stints as “The Answer” at offensive coordinator.