Keys to a Lions turnaround: Backup QB, pass rush and more need sprucing up
Allen Park — As the Detroit Lions near the finish line on a forgettable 2019 season, here are a few things they need to make 2020 a better campaign.
A clean bill of health
Even though the team's record still wasn't good enough, quarterback Matthew Stafford was performing at his peak through the first half of the season, at least until a troubling back injury sidelined him the final eight games.
Stafford was on pace to post some of the best numbers of his career, particularly from an efficiency standpoint, where his yards per attempt and passer rating were well ahead of previous bests.
But back injuries are scary, and although they were different, Stafford was reportedly dealing with broken bones in his back each of the past two years. When asked, he convincingly stated there was no reason to believe this would be a recurring issue, and more than anything, Lions fans need that to be true.
A backup plan
Whether Stafford returns to play all 16 games next season or not, the Lions can't afford to go into 2020 with an insufficient backup situation. The team aggressively cycled through options this past year, but when push came to shove, Jeff Driskel and David Blough have combined to lose all seven games they filled in for the starter.
The options are spending on a veteran backup with experience, a group that includes Chase Daniel, Blake Bortles, Blaine Gabbert or Case Keenum, or using an early-round draft pick to address both the short- and long-term need.
It's early in the process, but Georgia's Jake Fromm, Washington's Jacob Eason or Wake Forest dual-threat Jamie Newman could be in that conversation. Given the win-now mandate on general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia, it would be a stretch to say the Lions should consider Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa with their top-five selection in the first round.
A Washington miracle
As referenced, the Lions are in line to select No. 3 in the NFL Draft following a Week 16 loss in Denver, but the No. 2 pick is still in play. It's just not likely.
Sure, the Lions are expected to lose to the Packers this Sunday. But to move up a spot, they'd also need Washington to go on the road and stun the Dallas Cowboys, who are still in the mix for the NFC East crown.
If the Lions remain at No. 3, it decreases the chances they'll be able to snag Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, who figures to be the most dominant defensive player in this draft.
An improved pass rush
Speaking of Young, the Lions have to find a way to improve their pass rush this offseason. In nearly every metric available, the team ranks near the bottom of the NFL in pressure generated, putting an extraordinary stress on a secondary that has been routinely beaten on longer-developing deep crossing patterns all season.
While Young would be an ideal upgrade on the edge, the Lions also need plenty of help on the inside. In the draft, Auburn's Derrick Brown would make sense with that first-round pick. And if the Lions were to trade down, out of the top five, South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw is also a solid option a little further down the board.
That said, the Lions don't need to wait until the draft to improve the pass rush, assuming they're willing to open the vault in free agency. Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler and Shaq Barrett lead an impressive edge rushing class, while Chris Jones or Arik Armstead would certainly bolster the team's defensive interior.
The Lions are in line for another retooling along the offense line, with Graham Glasgow and Kenny Wiggins hitting free agency and Rick Wagner a potential cap casualty after a dismal 2019 campaign.
For the investment put into the unit, the Lions aren't getting the desired returns. The sack rate is in the middle of the pack, while the run blocking continues to be below average. That latter problem extends to the roster's tight ends.
Prior to Sunday's game against Denver, Kerryon Johnson and Bo Scarbrough were averaging 1.6 and 2.2 yards before contact, well below where it should be. Only six backs were worse than Johnson in this department. To contrast, San Francisco running backs Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert were at 3.3 and 3.5 yards, respectively.
If the Lions ever want to be the type of offense Patricia and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell dream it to be, they'll need a line that can open more consistent holes for the backs.
The right hire
Coaching staff changes are coming and all signs continue to point to the team making a switch at defensive coordinator after this season's dismal showing. The Lions aren't devoid of talent on that side of the ball, and figure to be getting a fresh influx this offseason. The right hire could be a transformative one.
It would be foolish to assume the Lions will diverge too far from the scheme Patrica wants to run, but that doesn't preclude them from finding a creative mind grounded in similar philosophical and schematic roots.
The other characteristic the Lions need to identify with a new hire is energy. While teaching fundamentals can never be sacrificed, finding a coach who connects with and motivates the players has felt absent with the current arrangement.