4) Detroit Lions
I think we all pretty much knew that the Lions were going to be in the cellar of the NFC North defensively. Last season head coach Matt Patricia’s defenders came very close to setting a new franchise record for points given up in a season.
They struggled against the run and couldn’t stop the pass. Everything we thought we knew about the defense heading into last season was wrong. Analysts collectively believed that year two of the Patricia era was going to unveil a tough, stingy defense with one of the best defensive lines in all of football.
Instead, it was a fallacy. Opponents ran through the Lions defense like it wasn’t even there and probably their biggest shortcoming was the inability to put pressure on opposing passers. This was why the secondary fell short of expectations. No one, not even Deion Sanders can cover a receiver for eternity.
That may be an exaggeration, but not much of one.
To that end, Bob Quinn has tried to sweep away the pieces that didn’t work last season and build the defensive line back up from near scratch.
Enter nose-tackle Danny Shelton from New England of course, as well as former Chicago Bear Nick Williams to man the middle with sixth-round draft pick John Penisini and Da’Shawn Hand who will rotate in on passing downs as well as Trey Flowers who will line up everywhere.
Veteran Romeo Okwara will return at defensive end and his brother Julian, who was drafted in the third round will be asked to step in and help pressure opposing passers. Second-year end Austin Bryant didn’t contribute much last season due to injury but has the ability to make some noise off the edge.
Free-agent signee linebacker Jamie Collins has the ability to rush off the edge as well. Collins, of course, excelled in New England and will be playing the same defense here in Detroit.
Jarrad Davis and the linebacking corps as a unit will need to be better. Despite signing Collins the question of whether they will be or not is valid.
The secondary probably has the most pieces to work with. Veteran Desmond Trufant will need to just play to the level he has, but rookie Jeff Okudah will be asked to grow up quickly. He has the tools to be a very good cornerback, but development usually takes a little time. Second-year corner Amani Oruwariye played well down the stretch last season. His continued development combined with slot corner Justin Coleman gives the Lions secondary hope.
The acquisition of safety Duron Harmon is bigger than fans realize. He has terrific instincts and plays this defense very well. He will give the Lions secondary a leader. Young Tracy Walker continues to develop and Will Harris has a lot of talent.
How much the Lions defense improves will be determined by their ability to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If they can’t, then it could turn into another ugly season defensively.