STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Three years ago, it appeared as though the Lions were the next great team, with a host of young talent at the most important of positions on both sides of the ball. Their offense was dynamic and their defense promising as the team marched to 10 wins and a playoff berth in 2011. Two losing seasons later, the Lions have a new coach and an uncertain future filled with a mix of expectations and doubts.
Former coach Jim Schwartz inherited one of the worst situations in football when he took the team's job, with the Lions coming off the NFL's first-ever 0-16 campaign in 2008. He provided energy and momentum out of the gate, but a four-game slide to end the 2013 season capped the Lions' disappointing 11-21 run over the last two seasons, with the lackluster results costing Schwartz his job.
Replacing him will be Jim Caldwell, who led the Colts to a 14-2 record in 2009 and a berth in Super Bowl XLIV in his first year coaching the team, but was then let go two years later following a Peyton Manning-less 2-14 effort by the team in 2011. Caldwell takes over a Lions squad that boasts an arguably elite offense. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has established himself as plenty capable of leading a productive passing game, which is what the Lions have in large part thanks to the continued presence of Megatron himself, Calvin Johnson. Add in the revelatory 2013 season of running back Reggie Bush, the addition of complementary wideout weapon Golden Tate and the drafting of dynamic young tight end Eric Ebron and there's no reason to believe that the Lions have hit their ceiling offensively. Helping reach said ceiling is an assignment now in the hands of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, whose Saints pedigree should lead to a creative attack.
Defensively, the Lions have been mostly middling despite having a number of high draft picks populating the formation. The defensive tackle tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley makes for a formidable duo, as does the Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy combo at linebacker. The Lions' rush defense reflected that, ranking sixth in the league in yards allowed last season. It's through the air where the Lions were exposed, ranking 23rd in passing yards permitted. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who comes from the Ravens' school of defense, will be tasked with cleaning up the team's efforts in that area.
The Lions aren't exactly the young up-and-comers they were in 2011, but they remain well within their window for high-level success with Stafford, Johnson, Suh and Fairley still very much in their primes. The NFC North remains strong throughout, with Green Bay led by Aaron Rodgers and chasing another Super Bowl and Chicago continuously adding to a solid core. The Lions have opportunities for success ahead of them, but they'll have to earn them in that division.
Eric Ebron – TE, North Carolina (Round 1, 10th Overall)
The Lions re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, but clearly wanted another playmaker on offense.
Kyle Van Noy – LB, BYU (Round 2, 40th Overall)
He'll add some depth and athleticism to the defense.
Golden Tate – WR, Seahawks
The next in a long line of wideouts brought in to help ease the burden on Calvin Johnson.
Dan Orlvosky – QB, Buccaneers
Returns to Detroit after a two-year stint in Tampa to back up Matthew Stafford.
Nate Burleson – WR, Browns
An admirable complement to Calvin Johnson, but Lions needed to get younger at the wideout position.
Louis Delmas – S, Dolphins
A salary cap casualty who was constantly battling injuries.
Willie Young – DE, Bears
Not a major sack artist but was solid against both the run and the pass.
Israel Idonije – DE, Bears
Spent just one season with the Lions before returning to the Bears.
CALDWELL TAKES CONTROL
Coach Jim Caldwell has another chance to show that he can win football games without Peyton Manning. The duo combined to go 24-10 (including a Super Bowl appearance) during their two years together when the quarterback was able to play, but with Manning sitting out the 2011 campaign with a neck injury, the Colts were only able to win two games, a tumble that ended with Caldwell's dismissal. With Detroit, he takes over a solid roster, but one coming off a rocky past two years under coach Jim Schwartz that was capped by the team dropping six of seven contests to close the 2013 season. Caldwell could be the calming influence the Lions need, and having been QB coach to both Manning and Joe Flacco, he certainly has the track record with signal-callers for us to believe that he can tap into Matthew Stafford's talent and perhaps help the 2009 top overall pick to take another step forward. Caldwell's Manning-led offenses were among the league's best, and while he doesn't have his former star quarterback to lean on in Detroit, he does have an opportunity to work with Calvin Johnson, a similarly transcendent talent at a different position. Caldwell will certainly be motivated to prove himself as a successful NFL head coach, not just one who found wins as Tony Dungy's replacement, with Manning as his signal-caller.
WILL SUH STAY?
Ndamukong Suh hasn't quite been the wrecking ball the Lions hoped he'd be when they took him second overall out of Nebraska in 2010 but he's more than held his own. He's now in the final year of his contract and negotiations to re-up him aren't going particularly smooth. Suh has skipped some voluntary offseason work (not an altogether unusual move for him) and even relayed an odd story about how he could have avoided Detroit in the draft had he so wished. The question beyond whether Suh will be a part of the Lions beyond 2014 is how he and the team handle the uncertainty this coming season. Will he be motivated to produce as he potentially heads into free agency or will he sulk with an unsecured future? Will his contract situation be a distraction in the locker room or will the relatively young Lions prove themselves mature on this front? The team absolutely needs the defensive anchor to produce, and do so at a high level, in any case. Of course, the Lions could avoid all of the above questions by coming to terms on a new pact for Suh, but there's a lot of money at stake as they ponder their future with a new coach and as a team with an identity founded on its offense.
Rising: Golden Tate is moving from the 26th ranked passing offense to the third and will benefit from working opposite the game's best receiver.
Declining: While the Lions brought back Brandon Pettigrew, the team's selection of Eric Ebron 10th overall is bound to cut into the veteran tight end's targets.
Sleeper: With Reggie Bush's durability concerns, Joique Bell could slip into a featured role pretty quickly; either way, he'll get his share of touches and net scoring chances.
Supersleeper: Ryan Broyles has dealt with a pair of ACL tears and an Achilles' tendon injury over the past three years, but the Lions like his resilience.
Stephen Tulloch - LB
He's a lock for 100-plus tackles and has played 16 games in each season of his career.
DeAndre Levy - LB
Active all over the field and emerging as one of Detroit's premier defenders.
Ndamukong Suh - DT
His contract discussions notwithstanding, Suh remains a key cog for the Lions.
RotoWire Rank: 14