Let's examine the Lions' foundation, beyond whether Bob Quinn, Matt Patricia stay past 2020
With everything that's been altered across the NFL landscape by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it's been easy to forget Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia are entering the season firmly on the hot seat.
In a meeting with a small group of reporters last fall, former and current owners Martha Firestone Ford and Sheila Ford Hamp, along with team president Rod Wood, laid out the key contingency for future employment, announcing the team must contend for the postseason in 2020.
What contending looks like is up for debate, but 10 wins, regardless of whether it clinches a postseason berth, is almost certainly good enough, while squeaking into the playoffs with an 8-8 record might not be.
Regardless of whether Quinn and Patricia survive beyond the year, it's worth exploring the roster's foundation, not just for this season, but moving forward.
Obviously, any successful franchise starts with a quarterback in this era. From a production standpoint, Matthew Stafford remains an adequate option. But there are viable long-term concerns with the franchise's longtime signal-caller after suffering severe back injuries the past two years. At 32 years old, who knows how much longer his body will hold up against the grind.
And Quinn has done little to secure a future at the position beyond Stafford, never drafting a quarterback higher than the sixth round the past five years. The team's current backups are Chase Daniel — a soon-to-be 34-year-old who has attempted a touch more than 200 pass attempts in his 10-year career — and David Blough, who went undrafted last year and looked the part during a winless, five-game stretch as the starter to close last season.
The Lions had a chance to secure Stafford's heir this offseason, by taking Tua Tagovailoa with the No. 3 pick in the draft, but that was a route Quinn and Patricia couldn't afford under a win-now mandate.
But what about the rest of the roster? How much talent has Quinn amassed that portends to future success, whether that's for the current regime or their successors?
Let's take a look, position-by-position.
While Quinn's initial revamping of the offensive front has fallen short of expectations, the current collective is young and full of promise. The keystone is third-year center Frank Ragnow, who already has emerged as one of the better players in the NFL at his position. Pro Football Focus ranked him sixth in 2019.
The team also has a slew of young guards in Joe Dahl and rookies Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg. Dahl, who is under contract through 2021, proved to be a bargain in his first year as a starter, while Jackson's outstanding footwork and the mauling Stenberg's nasty streak breed optimism.
And at the bookends, Taylor Decker is a solid blindside option, assuming the Lions are able to re-sign him, while the team is betting on the potential of free-agent addition Halapoulivaati Vaitai. If it doesn't work out, the cap commitment to go a different direction after 2021 is palatable.
At this point, Detroit's backfield is more promise than production, but it's arguably the best collection of talent the team has had entering a season since Barry Sanders retired. Kerryon Johnson, a second-round pick in 2018, showcased his lofty potential as a rookie, when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Obviously, durability has been an issue. He's been sidelined two lengthy stretches by knee injuries.
Likely to account for some of those durability concerns, the team snagged D'Andre Swift in this year's draft. Equally, if not more versatile than Johnson, Swift averaged 6.6 yards per carry during this three seasons at Georgia, while establishing himself as one of the nation's top pass-catchers out of the backfield.
The rotation is rounded out by Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson and Jason Huntley. Scarbrough, the former Alabama standout, found his first taste of NFL success last season, efficiently filling in for Kerryon Johnson while the starter was shelved. Ty Johnson and Huntley are speed merchants who are also capable of contributing in the return game.
Wide receivers and tight ends
One of Quinn's best draft finds has been Kenny Golladay. The fourth-year receiver has steadily improved his first three seasons, culminating with a league-leading 11 touchdown receptions last season. Playing a position known for diva personas, Golladay lets his play do his talking. Signing him to a long-term extension continues to top the list of remaining offseason priorities.
Beyond Golladay, the Lions are set up to need more receiving help in the near future. Marvin Jones is also in the final year of his contract, and will be 31 years old before a new deal kicks in, reducing the chances he stays in Detroit beyond this season. Danny Amendola, the team's stopgap in the slot, is a strong leader, but turns 35 in November and isn't a long-term piece.
The team did add Quintez Cephus in the draft. His brutal showing at the combine anchored his draft stock, but he's technically sound and could develop into a solid contributor at the pro level.
At tight end, T.J. Hockenson's skill set and work ethic point to a Pro Bowl ceiling. The team will probably need to find him some help after this season unless Jesse James delivers an unexpected turnaround after last season's disastrous effort.
Detroit's front seven will continue to need work regardless of who is calling the shots in 2021. Defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece of the front. He's never put up big sack numbers, but he gets steady pressure on the quarterback and is an excellent run defender. He's locked up through the 2023 season.
Other pieces with long-term value include Da'Shawn Hand and rookie edge rusher Julian Okwara. Hand, who flashed serious potential as a rookie, hasn't been able to stay healthy, limiting optimism. Okwara, younger brother of Lions defensive end Romeo, had a knack for disrupting the pocket at Notre Dame, but is coming off a broken leg and is going to need to pack some weight on his frame.
Beyond those three, the Lions don't have much. Romeo Okwara is a solid rotational piece, but is on an expiring deal, while interior options like Danny Shelton, Nick Williams, John Atkins, Kevin Strong and John Penisini are either scheme-specific or have low ceilings.
If the franchise ends up changing directions after this season, no group will be in bigger need of a makeover than the linebacking corps.
Jarrad Davis, a first-round pick in 2017, has yet to live up to expectations and is in the final year of his contract, while the bigger-bodied Christian Jones and Jahlani Tavai don't fit the mold of speed and space linebackers that are popular in many defensive schemes.
Free-agent addition Jamie Collins is the total package in terms of size, speed and versatility, but he'll turn 31 this season, therefore it's unreasonable to view him as a building block.
Detroit's defensive backfield is a mix of short- and long-term pieces. Veterans like Duron Harmon and Desmond Trufant are solid starting options for 2020, but both will be 30 by the start of next season. On the flip side, almost any coach in the NFL would be thrilled to have young studs like cornerback Jeff Okudah and safety Tracy Walker on their roster.
Okudah and Walker are both physical prototypes for their positions and highly scheme-versatile. Okudah is known for his top-tier man-coverage ability, but he played plenty of zone at Ohio State before declaring for the draft. Walker, a third-round pick in 2018, has done a little bit of everything for the Lions, and executed most of those assignments at a high level, while still having plenty of room to improve.
Additionally, nickelback Justin Coleman and second-year safety Will Harris are young and under team control for the next few seasons.
One of the biggest criticisms that can be levied against Quinn is he hasn't secured much star power during his first four seasons. Of the players he's drafted or signed in free agency, they've combined for two Pro Bowl (T.J. Lang and Golladay) and one All-Pro (Jamal Agnew) selection.
The team has also lacked the depth to compete when injuries have struck.
That said, the foundation of the roster is solid with high-caliber pieces at nearly every position group. If things come together this season, and the team fulfills its mandate to compete for the playoffs, Quinn and Patricia can continue their slow build. If not, it should be reassuring to know whoever inherits the roster won't be getting bare cupboards.