Katzenstein: Lions' gleam flickers without star power

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Defensive end Ziggy Ansah hurt his ankle in the Lions' loss to the Titans last weekend.

As I left the Taste of the Lions on Thursday night, one fan asked if I’d attended the event in the past.

Then, after I told him I had, he asked, “Where were all the stars?”

I said I had actually been thinking something similar as I walked the concourse at Ford Field, but I mentioned that some of the top players — Matthew Stafford, Golden Tate and Ziggy Ansah — were in the VIP section.

“Yeah, I still thought I’d see more stars,” the man said.

This story — and not the woman who asked me “is that (Ndamukong) Suh” while pointing at Rob Sims — provided yet another reminder of why few people, if anyone, will be picking the Lions to be contenders in 2016.

They don’t have any superstars.

We can take it a step further, too: The Lions don’t have any players who are among the top three at their respective position.

Now, the Lions lacking a superstar or top-three positional player surely isn’t a sentence for a disastrous 2016, and even though I can confidently say this about the players now, there are a few guys who could reach that status with another impressive season.

But, for the Lions to succeed, they’ll most likely need an all-around team effort with success in all three phases of the game, and they’ll have a minuscule margin of error.

So, there’s a reason why Bovada set the over-under win total for the Lions at 7 this week, and it’s the same reason no fan should expect this team to go 12-4 — my friend’s soon-to-be brother-in-law told me that expectation on Friday evening.

No top dogs

The Lions are a group of underdogs, and until they give us a reason to be favored, they’ll keep that status.

The team’s lack of superstars has been clear since Calvin Johnson decided to retire. In Johnson and Suh, the Lions for years had two players who were among the top three at their respective positions.

Sure, Ansah is a top-tier defensive end, but when it comes to impact off the edge, J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Michael Bennett are all better, and there are others who have a case compared to Ansah, too.

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We could go into debates about linebacker DeAndre Levy, cornerback Darius Slay and free safety Glover Quin, too, but ultimately, only Lions fans and in-depth NFL fans recognize their legitimate talent. Levy, obviously, was a top-three weak-side linebacker in 2013 and 2014, but after missing all of last season, it’d be incredibly optimistic to expect him to go right back to the mountaintop.

Of course, having playmakers like Ansah, Levy, Slay and Quin in the defense gives them a chance to have a really good unit, and if the Lions are in contention, I’d bet they’d have the defense to thank.

I even asked president Rod Wood about the team’s diminishing marketability a couple weeks ago. He said he’d rather have the team be marketable than a few individual players, and that’s a fine, politically correct response. Victories will make the fans want to spend money on the team, and if the team wins more, the fans won’t care as much about the names on the back of jerseys.

The deeper problem in all of this is that heading into the 2016 season, it’d be hard to argue any Lions player is top three at his position. Heck, it’d be difficult to argue the Lions have any players who are surefire top-five guys at their position. Punter Sam Martin might have the best case.

Where are the game-changers?

The benefit of having a superstar is that he can take over a game. Obviously, that’s harder to do in football than other sports, but we’ve seen Johnson and Suh carry the Lions to victories in the past. But with Johnson no longer a top-five receiver in 2015, Suh in Miami and Levy hurt, the Lions saw what life without a bona fide star was like.

As for the underdog status, coach Jim Caldwell has been on the hot seat in the minds of many fans since he took the job in 2014. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is one of the top assistants in the NFL, but he’s had nine head coaching interviews the last two years.

Then there’s quarterback Matthew Stafford, who finally looked great in the second half of 2015 but has to match that performance after losing Johnson.

The Lions have tried to stock the cupboard with players who should be among the best at their positions. By taking Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick in 2014, the Lions proved they thought he could be a top-five tight end.

The team traded for Haloti Ngata last year hoping he’d be close to the All-Pro guy he was in Baltimore, but he wasn’t. The Lions gave wide receiver Marvin Jones a big contract this offseason, but he’s never been a star.

Ebron, Ngata, Jones, Quin and Slay were all on the concourse on Thursday night, but that man still didn’t see any “stars.”

Obviously, most of these moves came under Martin Mayhew. The overwhelming majority of players who will contribute to the Lions in 2015 arrived thanks to Martin Mayhew, so if the Lions falter, it would be incredibly wrong to blame Bob Quinn.

Instead, recognize that the Lions need some of their good players to become great players. And until the Lions prove they can overcome a lack of star power, fans should temper expectations.

Twitter: @jkatzensteinn