Lions awards: A look at the top players and performances, and biggest busts
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions 2019 season mercifully ended a little more than a week ago, with the team limping to the finish line on a nine-game losing streak.
But before coach Matt Patricia and the Lions players start parroting the in-house cliche of last year being last year, let's put a bow on the season that was by handing out some awards.
MVP: Quarterback Matthew Stafford
Stafford only played eight games this season, but he was outstanding, despite the Lions still entering the second half of the year with a losing record. At the time he was sidelined by a back injury, Stafford was on pace for a career year, leading the league in yards per attempt, with a legit shot to break 5,000 yards for the second time in his career, but with far better efficiency than his 2011 campaign.
But how the Lions performed without Stafford solidifies his MVP case as much as his on-field accomplishments. In the eight games without the starting quarterback, the offense averaged 17.1 points and 192.3 passing yards, despite throwing it 35 times per game. The 10 interceptions in the second half were double the five Stafford threw the first eight games. And, of course, the Lions went winless without him.
If that doesn't scream most valuable, I don't know what does.
Offensive player of the year:
Wide receiver Kenny Golladay
The career arc of the third-year receiver continued its upward trajectory in 2019. Not only did he lead the Lions in receptions, yards and targets, he finished with the most touchdown catches in the NFL.
Golladay's weekly production predictably dipped after Stafford went down, but he still continued to find the end zone with Detroit's backups, hauling in four scores the final eight weeks.
If you're looking for a flaw in Golladay's game, it remains his inability to get separation. In fact, he was the worst in the league at it, according to tracking data. That leads to having to make more contested catches and an overall poor catch rate on his targets. Golladay caught 56 percent of the throws his direction, which ranked 75th among qualifying wide receivers.
Defensive player of the year:
Defensive end Trey Flowers
Darius Slay was the Lions' lone Pro Bowler, but Flowers had the better, more consistent season. After shaking off the rust, both mental and physical, related to the previous offseason's shoulder surgery, Flowers performed at or near the level expected after the team inked him to a huge deal in free agency.
The production was far from gaudy, with seven sacks and 51 tackles, but he brought steady pass-rush pressure, which the Lions previously lacked. He ranked in the top-15 in quarterback hurries and hits from Week 3 through the end of the season.
Special teams player of the year:
The Lions made the strategic decision to kick off short of the end zone much of the year because of a strong set of coverage players. That group was led by Reeves-Maybin, who recorded 13 tackles, fifth among all special teamers around the league. Additionally, the third-year linebacker forced a fumble in coverage against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Offensive rookie of the year:
Tight end T.J. Hockenson
Hockenson looked like a shoo-in for this honor after a stellar debut performance, where he caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. But Detroit's first-round pick had minimal impact in the passing game the rest of the year, averaging a little more than 20 yards per game before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 13.
The fact Hockenson still gets the nod speaks to the lack of rookie contributions on offense in 2019. Quarterback David Blough went winless while completing 54 percent of his passes in five starts, and running back Ty Johnson mustered just 382 yards from scrimmage without finding the end zone.
Defensive rookie of the year:
Linebacker Jahlani Tavai
Seven rookies saw playing time on defense, with five getting at least 100 snaps in their debut seasons. Unfortunately for the Lions, the impact plays were largely lacking.
Of the first-year players, Tavai adjusted the quickest. He provided a solid stat line, recording 57 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Assistant coach of the year:
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell
Detroit's coaching staff fueled the disappointing season, resulting in eight departures at year's end. But before Stafford was injured, the offense appeared to be on the right track, particularly the downfield passing game.
Bevell, in his first year with the Lions, managed to smoothly install his scheme and unlock Stafford's arm talent. The run game took a bit longer, but was showing some signs of life at the end of the season. Now the offensive coordinator just needs to figure out how to better utilize the tight ends on Detroit's roster.
Most improved player: Center Frank Ragnow
After a pedestrian rookie season in 2018, Ragnow made significant improvements to his game this past season, showing potential as a mauling run blocker and steady pass protector.
It's difficult to quantify an interior offensive lineman's production, but according to Pro Football Focus data, Ragnow trimmed the pass-rush pressure he allowed by 50 percent, while similarly cutting his holding infractions in half.
Ragnow's improvement in run blocking are more evident on film, where he showcased an ability to regularly move opposing defenders, including in short-yardage situations. PFF awarded him their second-best run-blocking grade among centers.
Running back Bo Scarbrough
After failing to see the field his first three NFL stops, the Lions promoted Scarbrough off their practice squad prior to the team's Week 11 matchup in Dallas. He proceeded to provide the team with 377 yards on 89 carries in six games down the stretch.
Scarbrough's no-nonsense, north-south running style, combined with his tough-to-tackle, 235-pound frame looked to be a natural fit in Bevell's offense. The Alabama product's success cleared an opportunity to be part of the backfield rotation heading into the 2020 season.
Tight end Jesse James
When a team wins three games, you need more than two hands to count the letdown performances that contributed to the lack of success. And despite the biggest problems coming from the defensive side of the ball, no individual fell shorter of expectations than tight end Jesse James.
A top target in free agency, the Lions locked up the former Steelers tight end to a four-year, $22.6 million contract. For that investment, James provided 16 catches in 16 games, for 142 yards and zero touchdowns.
Plus, he didn't make up for those pass-game woes with his blocking. Among tight ends who played 200 or more snaps, James ranked 44th and 30th out of 48 tight ends in pass protection and run blocking, respectively.
Comeback player: Return man Jamal Agnew
After earning All-Pro honors as a rookie, Agnew had a disastrous sophomore campaign thanks to subpar blocking and a knee injury that sidelined him much of the year. He then got off to a rocky start in 2019, landing briefly on the bench due to ball security issues early in the year.
But Agnew bounced back with a bang, returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in a Week 3 win over Philadelphia. He added a 64-yard score on a punt return in Week 16, becoming the sixth player in franchise history to record a kickoff and punt return touchdown in the same season.
Performance of the year:
Marvin Jones, four touchdowns
Jones was having a pretty good year before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 14. At the time, he was neck and neck with Golladay for the league lead in receiving touchdowns.
Jones finished with nine, buoyed by a four-score outing at home against Minnesota. It didn't matter who was covering him that day, he had his way, catching 10 of the 13 passes his direction. The touchdown grabs came against three different cornerbacks, with former All-Pro Xavier Rhodes falling victim twice.
Jones' final touchdown brought the Lions within a score with 3:05 remaining, but much like it had that entire afternoon, the defense failed to hold up its end of the bargain, allowing the Vikings to go 75 yards in four plays to salt away a 42-30 victory.
Play of the year:
Darius Slay's game-sealing interception
Tasked with the daunting task of shadowing Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, Slay struggled, allowing six receptions for 81 yards, while drawing a trio of penalties. But when the Lions needed someone to step up in the closing seconds, Big Play Slay lived up to his moniker, intercepting a pass intended for Allen in the end zone, preserving a hard-fought 13-10 victory.
Slay's pick narrowly edged out an impressive, but less significant Stafford throw in Week 4 against the Chiefs, when the quarterback threaded a needle between four defenders to hit Golladay for a 9-yard touchdown.