This article is part of our Team Previews series.
New GM Bob Quinn, a 16-year veteran of the Patriots' personnel department, hopes to replicate the success of that exemplary program in Detroit. Helming his first draft with the Lions, he wisely focused on the offensive and defensive fronts, with the intention of building up strength in the trenches.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
YOU DON'T REPLACE A LEGEND EASILY
The stunning news of Calvin Johnson's retirement left a noticeable void in the Lions' offensive plans. With the unexpected development, QB Matthew Stafford has lost a long-term security blanket, but on the plus side, he'll continue to build on his rapport with WR Golden Tate, who has racked up 189 catches over the last two seasons. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter must now find ways to engineer more symmetry between run and pass, while redistributing the abundant volume of targets previously absorbed by Johnson. Lions fans can take some solace in the fact that management moved swiftly and decisively to sign former Bengals WR Marvin Jones, who was arguably the best talent available at his position in the 2016 free agent landscape. If he matches, or better yet, tops what he did (65 catches for 816 yards) in a similar scheme in Cincinnati last season, the hefty financial investment in him will be justified. To further overcome Johnson's decision, Anquan Boldin was inked just before the outset of training camp. Finally, TE Eric Ebron, in his third season as a pro, is a prime candidate to ascend to the next level, particularly with more red-zone looks likely looming.
BUILDING UP THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS A KEY
After being taken down 45 times in 2014, Matthew Stafford was sacked one less time last season, representing the 10th highest figure in the NFL in the category. To make matters worse, the Lions also ranked dead last with a paltry 1,335 rushing yards. In the past, Stafford's cannon of an arm would typically nullify a deficient ground attack, but the team instead resided near the bottom of the league with only eight pass plays greater than 40 yards. These damning statistics collectively pointed to an underwhelming offensive line. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Lions saw fit to use three of their top five draft picks in April on a trio of 300-plus pound offensive linemen, namely Ohio State OT Taylor Decker in round one, Michigan C Graham Glasgow in the third round and Washington State G Joe Dahl 151st overall. It's no secret that playoff-caliber organizations point to solid front lines on both sides of the ball to account for a large portion of their success. With this proven formula in mind, the Lions certainly took some quality steps in that direction with their 2016 draft focus.
GROUND GAME SHOULD BE IMPROVED
With the expectation of improved offensive line play, the Lions should be able to feature a more effective ground game, which figures to take some pressure off Matthew Stafford and company. To that end, the team will call upon a trio of capable RBs (Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Stevan Ridley) in a deep rotation that has the potential to be far more productive than any in recent years. If that proves to be the case, the target on Stafford's back could be erased, or at least reduced, with more respect paid to the aforementioned running back group. There's nothing like a reputable run game to put a defense on its heels and afford an offense the opportunity to exploit the full breadth of the playbook. Thus, what promises to be a more balanced and less predictable offensive scheme should help extend drives, and the resulting ball control will do wonders for the time-of-possession battle on a weekly basis, providing much-needed rest for the defensive unit. If the squad's backfield produces as hoped, the Lions will be able to weather the departure of a generational talent at wideout.
KEY JOB BATTLE
There are four players vying for the chance to line up alongside longtime free safety Glover Quin. The decision at strong safety could come down to a preference for a veteran (Rafael Bush or Tavon Wilson) unless second-year pro Isaiah Johnson or rookie Miles Killebrew impress during training camp.
In the aftermath of Calvin Johnson's early retirement, Tate, who has already turned in a pair of productive seasons for Detroit, moves into the team's No. 1 wideout role. Tate will likely see more defensive schemes designed to limit him, minus the presence of "Megatron," but targets are there for Tate's taking in a pass-leaning offensive attack.
RISING: Marvin Jones
With looks up for grabs due to the retirement of Calvin Johnson, Jones landed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Lions in an effort to shore up a wideout corps composed of Golden Tate and now Anquan Boldin.
FALLING: Brandon Pettigrew
Pettigrew, a 2009 first-rounder, may be a name brand, but the 31-year-old is coming off an ACL tear. Moreover, Eric Ebron – drafted No. 10 overall in 2014 – represents Detroit's future at tight end.
SLEEPER: Ameer Abdullah
With an eye toward generating a more balanced offense, more reps should be on tap for Abdullah in his second season. Avoiding the PUP list in advance of training camp, he appears to have recovered fully from an offseason procedure on his shoulder.
THE INJURY FRONT
Ameer Abdullah, RB – After his rookie season, Abdullah faced the prospect of surgery for a torn labrum. Despite missing OTAs, he's ready for training camp and will be tasked with continuing his growth as the feature back in the Lions' ground game behind a potentially improved offensive line.
Brandon Pettigrew, TE – He lost his grip on the starting tight end job during the 2015 campaign, and his recovery from a torn ACL sustained in Week 14 has forced the Lions to place him on the PUP list.
HALOTI NGATA, DT – Despite starting 14 games last year, the veteran run-stuffer was limited due to a series of leg injuries. When healthy, he was dominant during the latter part of the season. With the intent of maximizing his performance, the coaching staff has committed to monitoring his playing time closely in 2016.
TAHIR WHITEHEAD, LB – With their recent announcement to release veteran middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch – and their commitment in resigning Whitehead – it's clear that the Lions will expect more than the 50 tackles and two sacks that he recorded last year.
Glover Quin, S – A veteran in this scheme, Quin will likely have a less experienced partner alongside him at strong safety. He is, therefore, expected to be a leader in the defensive backfield, and interceptions should yet again be a constant after 11 combined picks the past two seasons.
EZEKIEL ANSAH, DE – The third-year pro has established himself as the most-feared pass rusher in the Lions' arsenal after leading the club with 14.5 sacks in addition to four forced fumbles in 2015.
Marvin Jones – WR (from Bengals)
Priority signing in wake of bidding adieu to Calvin Johnson.
Anquan Boldin – WR (from 49ers)
Veteran addition should help make up for the retirement of Johnson.
Stevan Ridley – RB (from Jets)
Followed 2014 knee woes with fruitless eight-game sample last season.
JEREMY KERLEY – WR (from Jets)
Adds depth out of slot, provides another punt return option.
CALVIN JOHNSON – WR (retired)
Signature piece of Lions offense calls it quits at age 30.
JOIQUE BELL – RB (FA)
Nagging injuries, reduced production precipitated his release.
ISA ABDUL-QUDDUS – S (to Dolphins)
Parlayed strong finish in 2015 into three-year deal with Miami.
MANNY RAMIREZ – G (to Bears)
Versatile player capable of fitting in anywhere along O-line.