Wojo: Don't even try to figure out the Lions yet

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Offensive lineman Frank Ragnow (77) was the Lions' first-round draft pick.

The Lions are a toughening team with a sound plan that addressed its weaknesses and is ready to challenge for a playoff spot. Or, possibly, they’re the worst team in the NFC North.

Let the mystery unfold, as players report to camp today with a new coaching staff, seemingly a new commitment to blocking and running, and all sorts of unknowns. In that regard, they’re like a lot of NFL teams, only different.

The Lions won nine games last year, and by most accounts, upgraded in key areas, adding running backs LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson, and beefing up the offensive line. Matthew Stafford is 30 now, in his prime, capable of more. He has a good batch of receivers, led by Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. The defense has a Pro Bowl cornerback in Darius Slay and a safety leader in Glover Quin.

More: Lions add ex-Patriots DT Ricky Jean Francois

And yet, try to find anyone around the league who thinks the Lions are going to take a step up. Most Las Vegas books peg them to win eight games. USA Today picked them 6-10 and last in their division, even behind the Bears. The ESPN power rankings have them 17th, slightly below the middle.

Are the Lions being overlooked? Not really. I think they’ll hover around 8-8, although predictions mean nothing in late-July. The Lions are being viewed as they should, as most teams with first-time head coaches are viewed. Matt Patricia might have been a defensive genius with the Patriots and a solid hire by general manager Bob Quinn, but he’s the biggest part of the mystery, and true to his Patriot roots, he has no intention of revealing much.

Ask him to describe his defensive scheme and he’ll talk about how hard the guys are working, an evasiveness that unfortunately has trickled down to the players. Patricia’s press conferences can be congenial and aggravating, and we won’t know much until we see something on the field.

Other mysteries are riper for dissecting, so let’s explore the biggest ones.

Big questions

Will Ziggy Ansah be healthy enough to sack quarterbacks, or is his appearance on the PUP list yet another ominous sign? It’s always an ominous sign with Ansah, who has battled injuries most of his five-year career. I understand why the Lions slapped the $17-million franchise tag on him, and also why they didn’t give him a long-term deal. But it was a classic no-choice move of desperation because of their dearth of pass-rushers.

Kerryon Johnson

Nine of his 12 sacks last season came in three games against inferior opponents. The Lions’ next most-productive pass-rusher was Anthony Zettel (6.5 sacks). In some ways, Ansah is the perfect symbol of this team — intriguing, but difficult to bank on.

Next mystery: Stafford, who might be the most-polarizing quarterback in the NFL. He’s talented, smart and durable, but you can count his number of big victories in nine seasons on one hand, 0-3 in the playoffs.

And yet, until the Lions give him even an average running game (32nd in the league last season), it’s impossible to fully judge him. It cost Jim Caldwell his job. It’s Quinn’s most important task, and he readily admits it.

“When I look back at our team last year, all those critical situations, we can’t run the ball like half a yard, that bothered me,” Quinn said after the draft. “So I took it upon myself to implement some changes in terms of what we want to look like as a team.”

If Stafford ever has to throw for 5,000 yards again, the Lions are in trouble. If he ever gets to run a balanced offense, the opposition is in trouble. At least that’s the theory.

Which brings us to the next mystery: The running backs. Somehow, the Lions now have too many, and also not enough. They need Johnson, the rookie from Auburn, to be the main guy, although the 31-year-old Blount has to have something left, especially in short yardage.

You know pretty quickly about running backs in the NFL, and rookies break out all the time. Is Johnson a breakout candidate? I actually like his chances, and like his power.

That’d let Theo Riddick do what he does best, catch the ball in space, and could leave Ameer Abdullah out. No offense to Abdullah, but if he’s the Lions’ top back, something went wrong.

Next mystery: The old favorite, the offensive line. It should be better, with a full season from left tackle Taylor Decker and healthier seasons from Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang. Quinn drafted Frank Ragnow in the first round, and some shrieked it was wrong to take a center. Now that it appears Ragnow will play left guard with Graham Glasgow at center, it’s not a mistake, right?

I don’t think it was a mistake, but we shall see. The Lions have a good mix of youth and veteran savvy. Stafford was sacked a career-high 47 times last season, but if the line stays intact it should be — yes, I’m saying it — good.

And one more thing ...

And finally, our magical mystery tour takes us to: The defensive line, with much to prove. To the surprise of many, Quinn didn’t draft a lineman until the fourth round, a possible steal in Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand. Kerry Hyder led the team in sacks two years ago but is returning from an Achilles injury. Ansah is only occasionally the Answer.

A’Shawn Robinson has great potential entering his third season, and if Hand proves he shouldn’t have slid in the draft, the Lions could have a fine Alabama apostrophe tandem.

The line is under more scrutiny because the secondary is fairly settled and the linebackers might be better than billed. Jarrad Davis should take a jump in his second season, and free-agent Devon Kennard was an underrated pickup.

There are other questions, such as whether the Lions have a viable tight end, or receiver Kenny Golladay is more than a rookie flash.

There’s no secret about the schedule, which looks daunting, although we said that last season and the Lions started 3-1. The NFC is the tougher conference and the North is brutal, with the Vikings’ top-ranked defense and the Packers back with Aaron Rodgers.

Mysteries abound, answers await. Rookie head coaches generally don’t have immediate success, although the Rams’ Sean McVay did. For all their inconsistencies, the Lions are naggingly consistent, finishing between six and 10 victories six of the past eight seasons. The team might have a track record but the new coach doesn’t, and that’s where the mystery begins.

Twitter @bobwojnowski


Here are Lions training camp practices open to fans. All camp practices are at the team’s Allen Park headquarters at 222 Republic Drive.

Friday: 9:15 a.m. (season-ticket holders)

Saturday: 9:15 a.m. (season-ticket holders)

Sunday: 9:15 a.m. (general public)

Monday: 9:15 a.m. (general public)

Wednesday: 9:30 a.m. (general public)

Thursday, Aug. 2: 9:15 a.m. (general public)

Friday, Aug. 3: 9:15 a.m. (general public)

Saturday, Aug. 4: 9:30 a.m. (general public)

Monday, Aug. 6: 9:30 a.m. (general public)

Joint practices with N.Y. Giants:

Tuesday, Aug. 14: 9 a.m. (season-ticket holders)

Wednesday, Aug. 15: 9 a.m. (general public)

Thursday, Aug. 16: 9 a.m. (general public)