Many things went right for the Lions this season, but many things went wrong as well. The finale against the San Francisco 49ers encapsulated this roller coaster: a brilliant first half snuffed out by Detroit’s own follies. This isn’t to say that the Lions had a bad season, for it was truly historic and one worth celebrating.
But as one NFL season is set aside, the next one captures our attention. The Lions have a lot of questions that need to be addressed. These answers may come in a week, in a month, or even a year, but they linger regardless.
How will the Lions replace their departing coaches?
The Lions are at risk of losing a crucial leader this offseason. As of this writing, only two head coaching positions remain open—the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders—but both Ben Johnson and Aaron Glenn could still be hired away. The Seahawks have an interview scheduled with Johnson while the Commanders are looking at both.
Johnson, a favorite to land a head coaching spot, has been instrumental in crafting one of the league’s deadliest offenses featuring a renaissance from quarterback Jared Goff and phenomenal rookie seasons for Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta. Glenn, meanwhile, has been an integral leader alongside Dan Campbell, and for all the flak his defense has taken this season, he was dialing up timely blitzes and coverages that kept the Lions in games—there is only so much a play caller can do from the sideline.
There are some in-house options to replace either coordinator, but nothing is set in stone, Kelvin Sheppard is a strong candidate to replace Glenn, as his linebacking group was a strength for the Lions and his personality is beloved by players and coaches. John Fox, a senior defensive assistant, has extensive experience as a coach in the NFL and could be an option as well. Outside the team, the Lions might even consider former Titans head coach Mike Vrabel if he is unable to land a head coaching gig and is willing to return to defensive coordinator duties.
The offensive coordinator position also has some current coaches in the running. The top candidates are likely assistant head coach and running backs coach Scottie Montgomery, passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand, and wide receivers coach Antwaan Randle El. Engstrand, however, has garnered interest from the New England Patriots for their offensive coordinator position, while Randle El is interviewing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ opening. Offensive line coach Hank Fraley, meanwhile, is a strong candidate to join Johnson in Washington as offensive coordinator, per reports if the hiring happens.
Not only are the Lions at risk of losing their top coordinators, but there is a strong possibility that their positional coaches get poached as well. The Lions are still Dan Campbell’s team, but losing so many lieutenants would hurt.
Which players will receive contract extensions?
Entering the offseason, the Lions have some cap space to make some noise in free agency, but a sizeable chunk of that cash might end up in the pockets of players already under contract. 2021 draft class selections Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown are first-team All-Pros and will be earning a sizable paycheck sooner than later. The Lions would be wise to lock them up before free agency is on the table—given the start to their careers, the price tag will only increase over time.
The elephant in the room is Jared Goff. 2024 is the final year of his current deal, and given how integral his play was to this postseason run, there is no question that the Lions view him as their starter next season. The problem arises with how to value him. Most of us can agree that he is not on the level of a Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but that next tier of quarterback is very much up for debate. Reports and rumors are circling that Kirk Cousins—who turns 36 in August—is seeking a contract averaging between $40-50 million per season—whether or not he gets it remains to be seen. What will Goff and the Lions view as a reasonable price tag? How much money are the Lions willing to spend on Goff when his offensive coordinator is likely to be hired elsewhere?
Which free agents need to be brought back?
There is no shortage of important names entering free agency for the Lions. The offensive line faces a potential reshuffle with Jonah Jackson, Graham Glasgow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Matt Nelson, and Dan Skipper on expiring contracts. Josh Reynolds enters free agency following a disastrous NFC Championship game. Brad Holmes traded for Donovan Peoples-Jones in the last year of his rookie contract and it remains unclear if he did enough in his short stint with the Lions to garner returning interest.
On the defensive side of the ball, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Kindle Vildor, Romeo and Julian Okwara, Charles Harris, Benito Jones, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin are also looking for new contracts. The Lions might be faced with a revamped defense next season, for better or for worse.
How many of these free agents are sure-fire re-signings for the Lions? Jackson, Glasgow, and Reeves-Maybin are probably atop my list, but will Brad Holmes feel the same way?
How will the cornerbacks be addressed?
From start to finish, the Lions secondary was not cutting it. Cameron Sutton was put into the CB1 role and struggled, giving up a league-leading 889 yards in the regular season and achieving his worst PFF grade since his 113-snap rookie season in 2017. Perhaps more crucially, he gave up a league-leading 284 yards in the postseason. The CB2 spot was a carousel all season, with Jerry Jacobs, Emmanuel Moseley, Khalil Dorsey, and finally Kindle Vildor getting the start at points this season. None of these players impressed aside from Moseley, whose two snaps before a season-ending ACL injury were too few to make any judgement. Vildor was second in postseason yardage allowed with 260 yards—that makes for a total of 544 yards given up by the Lions’ top cornerbacks in the playoffs. The next closest non-Lion was Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton, who gave up 176 yards in three postseason games.
Not only do the Lions need to overhaul their cornerback depth, but they need a starter across from Sutton. The Lions have a great defensive back in Brian Branch, but little else. Every team in the NFL needs a lockdown corner, but the Lions especially are in dire need.
How will the safeties be addressed?
Continuing with the secondary, the safety position was where the Lions had plenty of depth this season but to mixed results. C.J. Gardner-Johnson missed a majority of the season due to injury and made more headlines with his talk than his play. Kerby Joseph totaled a team-high four interceptions, but his play regressed from his impressive rookie season. Tracy Walker was perhaps viewed as the other safety in the starting mix, but he was a healthy scratch for the entirety of the playoffs.
With Gardner-Johnson a free agent and Walker a cut candidate (more on that later), the Lions will need to add a piece or two in the secondary to complement Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu.
How will the defensive line be addressed?
You need only look at PFF’s final pressures totals to see the state of disarray that the Lions defensive line is in. On the season, Aidan Hutchinson finished with an incredible 121 pressures, the most in the NFL. The next closest player on the Lions roster? Defensive tackle Alim McNeill with 43. This absurd gap highlights how the pass rush was essentially Hutchinson and nobody else. In fact, the players with the second-most sacks on the team were McNeill and Melifonwu with six.
Towards the end of the season, the Lions were primarily getting pressure from well-designed blitzes. If the Lions want to improve their defense, it all starts with the pass rush. If the Lions can add another defensive end, then their sack totals could skyrocket—too many times the Lions were close to a sack but failed to wrap up the quarterback.
Is this the time to go all-in with free agency and trades?
The Lions went on a great run during the 2023 season, but the fact remains that the roster was not talented enough to overcome their mistakes. Detroit suddenly finds itself on the precipice of an elite roster, but some positions are still missing stars.
As mentioned, the Lions need a pass rusher to complement Hutchinson and a cornerback to put Sutton into a more comfortable CB2 spot. With the 29th pick in the upcoming draft, a star at those positions is far from guaranteed, even with Brad Holmes’ stellar draft record. If the Lions want to get their game changer, they might have to shell out in free agency or move up in the draft.
Will they be willing to go all-in, even if it costs them with salary or draft capital?
Will there be cap casualties?
The Lions are not in a dire situation cap-wise, but there are some players whose on-field value will be closely weighed with their salary. Tracy Walker is the most obvious name here, as cutting him would save the team $5.5 million against the cap. Other names they could consider are John Cominsky after a down year (saves $4.6 million) and Levi Onwuzurike ($1.7 million).
The question is how much of their depth the Lions are willing to trim in order to save money. Could someone like Walker take a pay cut akin to Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Romeo Okwara last offseason? Although Cominsky might be overpaid relative to his production, is it worth getting rid of a guy who played over 600 snaps on an already thin defensive line?
How much are they willing to spend to improve at kicker?
Dan Campbell made two questionable decisions in the NFC Championship loss to the 49ers, both stemming from their kicking game. The crux of the matter is that if the Lions have a more capable and reliable kicker, these kicks are easier decisions to make. The 50-yard field goal range was a graveyard for the Lions—too far to feel comfortable in Michael Badgley or Riley Patterson, too close to punt—and it forced the offense to go for it more often than they probably wanted.
There is almost no chance the Lions do not bring in a new kicker this offseason, but how much will they be willing to spend on one? Would they spend multiple millions on a kicker like Ka’imi Fairbairn or Wil Lutz? Would they consider spending a draft pick on the kicker of their choice—and if so, how early?
Is Hendon Hooker ready for the backup position?
The Lions signed Teddy Bridgewater late in training camp to solidify their backup quarterback spot, and thanks to a healthy Goff, it mattered little. Yet quarterback injuries are always a concern going forward—look at Joe Burrow or Aaron Rodgers—and the Lions are at a difficult junction with theirs.
Hendon Hooker will be over a year removed from his college ACL injury, but he has yet to see the field in any capacity. His 2024 preseason will be his first snaps as a professional, and while his ceiling is high, how confident will the coaching staff feel in him as Goff’s backup? This NFL season proved that a capable backup is valuable, so the question will be if Hooker can be that guy or if the Lions will seek another reliable veteran.
Will Jameson Williams finally become featured in the offense?
As the season progress, Jameson Williams became a bigger and bigger part of the Lions offense. He was playing more snaps and he was making big plays on a weekly basis. The problem, however, is that aside from the big plays, Williams was more often than not a tertiary part of the offense. He finished the season with just 30 catches on 51 targets—in contrast, St. Brown had 190 targets and Sam LaPorta had 144. He certainly has the potential to be a star player, but will 2024 be the year he becomes a consistent weapon in the Lions passing attack?
Is Ifeatu Melifonwu a starting safety in 2024?
Ifeatu Melifonwu’s late season surge was a great surprise for the Lions secondary. The question now is whether he did enough in the second half of the season to safely secure a starting role next season. Melifonwu has struggled with health and the transition from cornerback to safety, so this season was truly his first time shining in his role. Gardner-Johnson is a free agent and Walker is a candidate to be cut, so the full-time gig is up for grabs. Will the Lions bring in a free agent or rookie to challenge Melifonwu for the starting spot or merely as depth?
Who will back up Frank Ragnow?
Frank Ragnow is one of the toughest guys in the league, but that should not excuse the fact that the Lions were sorely missing depth at center. The Lions relied on Graham Glasgow’s versatility to play center, and while that was certainly valuable, it also meant reshuffling multiple positions when Ragnow went down. Glasgow had to shift from right guard to center with Colby Sorsdal replacing him. The Lions should acquire a dedicated backup center this offseason, whether in free agency or the draft.
Do the Lions need a fullback?
Jason Cabinda shuffled around the roster this season, first ending up on the Injured Reserve, then being waived and re-signed to the practice squad before a final elevation. However, it remains to be seen if a fullback is something the Lions will continue to employ next season. Cabinda played 56 snaps in seven games this season, recording a lone catch for zero yards, nor was he dominant as a run blocker.
Given how explosive the Lions offense was in 2023, coupled with a talented offensive line, a fullback seemed pointless. Cabinda has his value on special teams, but you have to wonder if he’ll maintain his roster spot.
How can the Lions improve upon their historic season?
All of the above questions can be summarized with this one. The Lions achieved history this season—can they and will they top it next season? This isn’t to say the next season is Super Bowl-or-bust, but the stakes have been raised in Detroit. The franchise is in the national spotlight, and after a disappointing finale to the season, they have a lot to prove. Coupled with a lot of difficult decisions looming this offseason, there is no guarantee that the Lions repeat as NFC North champions, let alone make the NFC Championship. As Jeremy Reisman put it, the pain is not knowing if you’ll ever get back.
The question of “How can the Lions improve upon their historic season?” can be viewed in two ways. It can be viewed with optimism. How can the Lions build upon these mistakes and become a better team? Alternatively, there is pessimism. How could the Lions possibly improve upon their 2023 campaign with so many changes on the horizon?
The question I have for you is this: was this the peak of this Detroit Lions era or just another step forward?