Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Detroit Lions.
The Lions apparently felt that decent wasn’t good enough. Despite never finishing worse than 7-9 during his four-year tenure, Jim Caldwell got fired following the end of this season, giving way to former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach.
It’s not hard to see why Caldwell got fired, but it’s also a little puzzling. The offense was hilariously lopsided, ranking 6th in pass offense and dead last in rushing yards. Meanwhile, the defense was mostly mediocre, finishing in the bottom five for pass defense and in the middle of the league in stopping the run.
However, Caldwell keeping the team consistently competitive is admirable, especially considering their injury troubles on both the offensive and defensive lines this year. The question becomes: how much of an upgrade is Patricia from him?
That remains to be seen. The Bill Belichick coaching tree hasn’t had much success outside of New England, and while Patricia was highly sought after, it’s way too early to tell if he can buck that trend. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will be sticking around to run that side of the ball, so at least he can focus on improving the defense.
The other problem involves uncertainty across the roster in terms of fluctuation. Matthew Stafford is locked into a big money deal at quarterback, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones form a solid duo at wideout and Darius Slay is a lockdown corner. Everywhere else could change by the beginning of 2018.
But if the Lions were good enough to finish 9-7 in back-to-back seasons, maybe Patricia will be the missing piece that will get them over the hump and back into the playoffs. It might not happen right away though, and patience is something management hasn’t shown in recent years.
Current number of draft picks: 6 (#20 in the first round)
Cap space: $46-47 million
Notable free agents
Haloti Ngata, DT: After 12 seasons in the NFL, Ngata’s time as a top-tier defensive tackle may be coming to a close. He played just five games in 2017 before suffering a torn biceps, not doing much before the injury. The Lions may want to get younger at the position, but having Ngata around as a veteran presence wouldn’t hurt either at the right price.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE: When “Ziggy” racked up 14.5 sacks in 2015, it appeared he’d be on the course to become one of the best pass rushers in the league. Then 2016 came, and it took him until December to actually get a sack.
This season was better, as Ansah leading the team in sacks with 12. That’s a bit of mirage, however, as he had three different games where he picked up three sacks. While he may not be worth elite money at defensive end, the Lions may have to retain Ziggy considering the relative lack of talent they have at edge rusher.
Travis Swanson, C: A third-round pick in 2014, Swanson had two shaky seasons before playing well last year. He regressed in 2017 though, going from a 77.2 to a 43.1 in grading from Pro Football Focus, in line with the aforementioned shaky play. While he didn’t allow a sack this season, he did let up 15 pressures and struggled as a run blocker.
Tahir Whitehead, OLB: Whitehead deserves recognition for slowly turning himself into a viable linebacker after getting taken in the fifth-round of the 2012 draft. This season was his best yet, leading the team in total tackles with 110. He’s not as effective in coverage as he is in stopping the run, so a team looking for a two-down linebacker would certainly welcome him.
Dwight Freeney, DE: Freeney will turn 38 next week, yet he still refuses to quit playing football, spending time with four different teams in the past three seasons. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t record a single stat despite playing in five games down the stretch for the Lions. His best bet is latching on to a team with Super Bowl aspirations as a rotational player.
CB: As great as Slay was this season, there was a giant hole in the secondary across from him. Two of the guys who filled in at that spot, Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden, are both free agents. Imagine how deadly the Lions defense would be if they could find someone to pair Slay with.
S: Same goes for safety. Glover Quin had a great season, but the other safety position was mostly split between Tavon Wilson and Miles Killebrew, who were uneven for the most part. The former is a free agent.
DE: Ansah going to free agency would leave Anthony Zettel and Cornelius Washington as the primary edge defenders in Detroit. While talented, the two are better in complementary roles. Retaining Ansah will be heavily considered, and drafting a partner for him could be in play too.
C: With Swanson hitting free agency, the Lions lack a pure center on the roster to replace him with. He might have to be re-signed for continuity’s sake.
LB: Both Whitehead and Paul Worrilow are free agents, meaning two of the Lions three starting linebackers could be gone next season. They still have rookies Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin on the roster, but depth is certainly an issue at this point.
DT: Losing Ngata to free agency wouldn’t be the end of the world; A’Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence are capable in handling the starting spots. However, they don’t offer much as pass rushers, and the depth behind them is thin.
LS: Longtime long snapper Don Muhlbach is a free agent. He’ll turn 37 before next season.
Best player/building block
Darius Slay, CB: Slay’s ascent to the elite tier of cornerbacks has been exciting to watch, and his 2017 season was a cumulation of all the work he’s put in. He was tied for the league lead in interceptions with 8 and was first in pass breakups with 26. PFF gave him a grade of 88.1, 11th among all corners. At 26, the sky’s the limit for Slay.
Glover Quin, S: In a season filled with terrific safety performances, Quin hasn’t received as much notice as other players. He was second on the team in interceptions with 3 and third in total tackles with 84. He also forced 4 fumbles, all of which is a testament to how balanced he is as a defender. While he’s on the wrong side of 30, maybe he’ll continue to get better with age.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers