Will the 2015 Detroit Lions really be as bad as some think?


The Detroit Lions placed 18th among 32 teams in ESPN’s latest release of their NFL Power Index Ranking.

That ranked the Lions behind teams like the Miami Dolphins (11) New Orleans Saints (12) and Carolina Panthers (17) who ended the season without winning records.

Upon closer inspection of how the Lions were graded it becomes clear ESPN’s experts didn’t invest a great deal of time in considering the current state of the Lions roster. For example, the Lions are predicted to have the 13th best offense, 15th best defense and lowest rated special teams unit in 2015.

If those numbers seem familiar, they should.

In 2013 the Detroit Lions finished the season with the 13th best scoring offense and 15th best scoring defense. A year later, the Lions special teams unit ranked dead last due in large part to a historically bad kicking game. As such, it must have seemed logical to predict another league worst performance from Lions special teams units in 2015.

ESPN’s experts do not appear to have factored in any of the improvements the Lions made to their roster over the 2015 off-season. This oversight precludes any prediction other than one that paints the offensive and defensive units as mediocre.

Jan 4, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) catches a pass against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) and strong safety Barry Church (42)in the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium. Dallas beat Detroit 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Mediocre is the last word anyone could use to describe Detroit’s offense in 2011. That offense may well have been the best in franchise history, averaging 29.6 points per game en route to a finishing the season as the 4th best offense in the NFL.

Matthew Stafford’s 2011 exploits are well documented at this point but what may have been forgotten was his supporting cast.

Calvin Johnson was an absolute Phenom in 2011, registering 96 receptions, over 1600 yards and 16 touchdowns. In fact, the team’s top 3 receivers contributed 25 touchdowns that season. The wide receiving corps wasn’t the only position that hurt opposing teams. Tight Ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler combined for over 1000 receiving yards and 11 scores.

What should give fans hope is the 2015 offense can recapture some of the explosiveness that terrorized defenses in 2011.

In order to do so the 2015 Lions will need more tangible contributions from its receiving corps. According to Spotrac.com in 2015 the Detroit Lions will invest more dollars ($27.84M) and more cap space (19.29%) in their wide receiving corps than any other team in the league.

With so much invested in the position it’s reasonable to expect lofty returns on the investment.

In 2014, Calvin Johnson had 8 touchdowns and Golden Tate had 4. The only other wide receivers to catch touchdowns in 2014 were Jeremy Ross and Corey Fuller. However, neither of them caught more than one score.

Overuse has taken a toll on Johnson’s health over the past couple of seasons, but when Calvin is unencumbered by injury there simply is no consistently reliable defense against him.

The problem of late with Johnson has been his health. In July of this year, Drew Sharp of freep.com asserted Johnson’s waning health is indicative of a trend that led him to conclude Johnson’s best days are over. In fact Sharp stated:

"“Johnson’s greatest value this season might be that of a decoy, drawing extra coverage that creates receiving mismatches elsewhere.”"

Aug 20, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) walks off the field after the Lions

Players say they don’t notice the media’s criticisms but former Lion Nate Burleson suggested Calvin Johnson’s heard the chatter. MLive’s Justin Rogers quotes Burleson as saying Calvin Johnson is using reports of his demise as motivation.

If Johnson’s off-season training program is any indication Burleson might be onto something. This summer Johnson took extreme measures to enter the 2015 season at the top of his form. With coaches using precautionary holdouts from preseason action to preserve his health, the Lions are hopeful they can help Johnson play at his full potential for at least 13 games in 2015.

Even if Calvin can only give the Lions 8-10 games at full strength this team is better constructed to absorb his absence than they were in 2011.

The biggest reason for that is Golden Tate. Tate has emerged, not only as a compliment to Calvin Johnson, but as a legitimate threat who has to be game planned against in his own right. This preseason Golden Tate has followed up a stellar performance in 2014 with a dynamic preseason that includes two touchdowns and a 24.1 yard per catch average.

While preseason stats aren’t necessarily predictive of regular season performance, it’s undeniable the level of trust between Stafford and Tate has grown.

Another factor that gives the 2015 Lions offense an edge over their 2011 counterpart is the rushing attack. In 2011 the Lions were led in rushing by Jahvid Best who registered 390 yards on the season. He was backed up by Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris who rushed for rushed for 356 and 316 yards respectively.

Aug 13, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah (21) evades a tackle from New York Jets free safety Calvin Pryor (25) during the first quarter of a preseason NFL football game at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Lions are loaded with talent in their offensive backfield. Joique Bell is a solid 1st and 2nd down running back, but the most talented runner on the team is probably Ameer Abdullah. In fact, I would be willing to suggest time will eventually reveal Abdullah as a better overall running back than Best.

Furthermore, I believe the combination of Joique Bell, Zack Zenner and Theo Riddick will prove much more effective than one inclusive of Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, and Keiland Williams.

The underlying reason the 2015 Lions should be more explosive both on the ground and through the air is offensive line play. Pro Football Focus projects the 2015 Lions will finish the season having fielded the 9th best offensive line in the NFL. With a good mix of veteran depth and budding young starters, the Lions should be well on their way to live up to PFF’s projections.

While many pundits will eventually concede the Lions are simply too talented to remain a mediocre offense in 2015, they adamantly hold onto the belief the team will take a severe step backwards on defense.

I’ve covered the defense extensively this off-season and am of the firm belief the defensive unit will be vastly improved from 2014. While there isn’t much room for improvement in terms of run defense, the Lions ranked 13th against the pass, 17th in the redzone and 22nd in goal to go situations.

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Goal line and redzone defense are areas the playoff-tested Haloti Ngata improves right away. The team’s pass defense should vastly improve as well. Last season, the Lions had to use reserve nickel corners by the 2nd game of the season. In a couple of highly intelligent moves, the Lions signed two of PFF’s highest rated slot corners in Josh Wilson (5) and Chris Owens (10) although the latter is now on IR.

While those outside the organization keeps hammering on what the Lions lost this off-season, fans should be encouraged by the acquisitions made. Yes, the Lions lost a future Hall of Fame defensive tackle. But Haloti Ngata is a lock for Canton as well. The team also exchanged injury and inexperience at nickel corner for durability, poise and experience.

Dec 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater (5) makes a field goal during the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After a turbulent off-season in 2014 Matt Prater looks to regain his pro bowl form in 2015. Detroit re-signed Prater to a 3-year $9M extension confident he can successfully recapture his former glory and pair with Sam Martin to give the Lions one of the most capable tandems of specialists in the league.

When the record book closes on the 2015 season, I believe the Lions will end the season with the 5th best offense, 8th ranked defense and a special teams unit that finishes 17th overall. Not only should that suffice to give the Lions their first back to back winning seasons since 1994-1995, but I believe the Lions will BEAT Green Bay in Lambeau for the first time since December 15, 1991.

What say you Lions fans? Do you believe ESPN got it right or is there something awry in their estimation? Let us know in the comments section below!

Next: Detroit Lions: The Case of Zach Zenner

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