Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lions - FA edition

The Lions have impressed me so far this offseason. I don't want to say they "nailed" their free agency signings, but man am I feeling good about them. When I went over potential FA targets for the Lions, I didn't look at a single offensive lineman because I felt like their line was ok enough that they could re-sign their RT and RG and hope they continue. GM Bob Quinn was less satisfied, however, and decided to let Warford and Reiff go elsewhere and overpay a bit to bring in higher-priced talent.

TJ Lang got a $28.5M, 3-yr deal, which is pretty high for RG, even one that made the Pro Bowl (rumor is that Seattle offered him $8M/yr). Pros - he's a Pro Bowl RG, he'll help our anemic running game as well as solidify pass protect, adding him simultaneously weakens the Packers while it strengthens us, and he's a hometown guy. Cons - it's an expensive deal, and Lang has a bit of an injury history.

We also signed Rick(y) Wagner to a 5 yr deal that makes him the NFL's highest paid RT.  Wagner was the top rated RT in pass protect in 2014 and was good in 2016, although not as good as he was in '14. 2015 was a bit of a down year for him though. We essentially had a turnstile at RT until Reiff moved over there when Decker took over protecting the blind side. Reiff was an improvement, Wagner is better, and he's a much better run blocker.

These two signings have been the highlights of Detroit's offseason, and it should be easy to see why. First, the Lions made the playoffs last season, despite having the 30th ranked rushing attack, a passing game that didn't attack down the field, and "bend but don't break" defense that allowed nearly every QB it faced to put up near-Tom Brady numbers.

Opposing QB: 72.7 COMP%, 248.4 YPG, 33 TDs, 10 INTs, 106.5 passer rating
2016 Tom Brady: 
67.4 COMP%, 296.2 YPG, 28 TDs, 2 INTs, 112.2 passer rating

More on the defense in a bit, but back to the matter at hand. The Lions were a playoff team that probably didn't deserve to be a playoff team, only they won JUST enough games (against a weak schedule) to make it. A long-time Achilles heel of this team has been the running game. The Lions were 31st in run-blocking, according to footballoutsiders.com, and 18th in pass protection. These two additions are a bit of an overpay, but one that will allow our offense to run the ball far more effectively while still focusing on the pass. If this line gels like I expect it will, we could have one of the top offenses in the NFC. Also, we added a blocking TE in Darren Fells, an underrated move that will especially help at the goal line.

The Lions mainly used free agency to address depth issues on defense. DT Akeem Spence and DE Cornelius Washington aren't guys you want starting for you if you can help it, but it's nice having them to back your starters up.  They cut DeAndre Levy, which was understandable given his cap hit and the fact that he's only played in 6 games in the past 2 years, and recorded only 16 tackles in that time. LB Paul Worrilow is another depth move, I hope, because he hasn't been starting quality for the past 2 years. The biggest move on the defensive side of the ball was to add DJ Hayden, a former 1st round pick who's been a bit of a bust. He'd be a decent nickle corner for the Lions, but wouldn't be an ideal option to pair up with Slay as your #2 CB.

Lastly, the Lions recently signed WR Keshawn Martin for depth and probably to replace Andre Roberts as a returner. I'd say they probably still need to do something at LB, CB, DE, DT, and RB, either in free agency or in the draft. WR could still be addressed too, and probably S in the draft. Out of the free agents I profiled, Hightower, Poe, Minter, Hankins, TJ McDonald, Lacy, Carr, and Teo are still out there. You can rule out Teo, but the Lions still have the cap room to sign Hightower and someone else, or maybe even Minter, Hankins, and someone else.

Based on the free agent signings so far, it seems pretty clear that the Lions' 2017 draft will be very defense-focused. The first pick will likely be the top CB or DE available. There's speculation that the Lions will go with the RB Joe Mixon in round 2, especially after targeting run-blocking with their top 2 free agent signings. Maybe. But the needs on the defensive side of the ball are so strong, and the Lions really don't need to spend a lot of money or a high pick to solidify their RB position.

We've got a month & a half until Draft Day, rd 1. I like what Quinn has done so far. He's positioned himself well for the draft so that he's not under pressure to make a specific pick. He still needs to nail this draft though. He's added depth to the defense (Quinn did a solid job of adding defensive depth last year as well), but there's not a lot of talent there. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Post-Combine NFL Draft Prep, Rds 1-3

Now that the NFL combine is over, it's time to take a look at the Lions' draft prospects. First, it should be said that probably WAY too much emphasis is placed on combine results. Game tape, college production, and especially performance vs. an NFL-caliber matchup should take precedence over how many times a player lifts 225 lbs, or how fast he can run in a straight line for 40 yds. Still, the combine is a useful tool that can help show us things that weren't evident on tape.

In my previous post, I stated that the Lions have needs on every level on defense. The strongest needs are at DE, LB, and CB. Offensively, they could use some insurance at RB, a real TE, and possible a #1 WR. They also need to re-sign their O line, but that wouldn't be addressed in the draft. I think the Lions should go after Dion Sims in FA to handle the TE position (DO NOT draft a TE in the first round, as good as a dude like OJ Howard looks). I like the idea of taking a DT in free agency as well, but DE and CB tend to be expensive buys and I'd rather acquires those in the draft. RB and LB could go either way, but I'm against spending either high money or a high pick on an RB.

The Lions have the 21st pick in round 1, pick #53 in rd 2, and pick #85 in round 3, so I'll take a look at three or 4 options who might be available in the Lions' range for each round.

Round 1, Pick #21

Marlon Humphrey - CB, Alabama
6'0", 197 lbs, 4.41 40-yd dash

2016 Stats: 36 tackles (3 TFL), 2 INTs, 1 TD, 3 FF, 1 PD

Defensive players from Alabama, especially corners, seem to LOVE to hit. Humphrey definitely falls into that category. He is not shy about stepping in to cover the run. He's an incredible athlete, one of the top performers at his position in the 40-yd dash and the broad jump. He's a pretty good cover corner too, but his technique is sloppy and he's shown some susceptibility to the deep ball. He does play well in zone or other situations where he has time to turn and locate the ball. I think he'd be a decent #2 corner, or failing that, a Cam Chancellor-type of safety.

Malik McDowell - DE, Michigan State
6'6", 276 lbs, 4.85 40-yd dash

2016 Stats: 36 tackles (7 TFL), 1.5 sacks

McDowell had a disappointing 2016 (as did MSU as a whole), and that raised questions about his motor. He was banged up and that contributed to his fallen production, but there are some effort concerns as well. That said, he could be a top DE in the league, if he works out. He was probably playing a bit out of position mainly as a DT with MSU, and is expected to line up as a DE in the NFL. He'll need to clean up the technique and add some pass rush moves, but his athleticism and physique could enable him to dominate on a JJ Watt-level. It's a bit of a risky pick, but one with high upside. FWIW, many analysts don't have him going in round 1.

Derek Barnett - DE, Tennessee
6'3", 259 lbs, 4.88 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 46 tackles (19 TFL), 13 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PD, 2 FF

Barnett irons out some of the concerns you'd have with McDowell, so while he lacks some of the upside, he's a much safer bet. I've seen Barnett going in mocks anywhere from the #8 pick to #24, which means he'll likely be gone before the Lions step to the podium. He's not a superior athlete, but I see him as being a borderline Pro Bowler in the future (kind of like how DeAndre Levy in his prime arguably deserved to make the Pro Bowl but didn't).

Corey Davis - WR, W Michigan
6'3", 213 lbs, 4.45 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 97 rec, 1500 yds, 19 TDs

I wasn't going to cover any offensive prospects for Detroit, but this guy... If you're looking for production, he's got it. He's big, he's fast, and he high-points the ball better than anybody. The downside is we have almost no tape against quality competition. He managed the WMU's only TD in the Cotton Bowl this year vs. Wisconsin, and he racked up 154 yds and a TD vs. a VERY good Michigan State team last year. This dude gets TDs, period. And he's probably the best WR in the draft.

Obi Melifonwu - S, UConn
6'4", 224 lbs, 4.40 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 118 tackles (2.5 TFL), 4 INTs, 3 PDs

Dude is a safety, built like a LB, with top CB-level speed. It's like he was built in a lab. He can cover or play FS, he can tackle... He probably doesn't have the ideal instincts or reading ability you'd want from a 1st round pick, but I feel like the Lions have a good situation for him where he could be an understudy to the two veteran safeties we have who are both on expiring deals.

Others to look out for in Round 1: Budda Baker S Washington, Jourdan Lewis CB Michigan.

Round 2, Pick #53 overall

Damontae Kazee - CB, San Diego State
5'10", 184 lbs, 4.54 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 67 tackles (3 TFL), 7 INTs, 1 TD, 8 PDs, 1 FF

Kazee lacks elite size and speed, but man can he cover. 16 picks and 27 (!!!) passes defensed over the past 3 years. I don't think you'd put him on the island right off the bat, but he could play nickle corner easily, and maybe even #2 corner in a pinch. The Lions' corner depth is pretty weak. We really only have 1 guy capable of man coverage. Damontae Kazee would be the second, if the Lions draft him.

Marcus Williams - S, Utah
6'1", 202 lbs, 4.56 40-yd dash

2016 Stats: 64 tackles (1 TFL), 5 INTs, 3 PD, 2 FF

Flat out, he's a cover safety. He's not the toughest tackler, but he makes an effort to defend the run, and he'll run around and knock passes out of the sky. He's got a pretty good 40 time for a safety, and his other measurables from the combine were at or near the top in his position. I'd like him to bulk up a little and work on playing the run, but he's got everything you want to cover the passing game as a FS. What I really like about him is his nose for the ball. In 3 years as a starter, he has 11 INTs, 4 FFs, and 2 FR.

Zach Cunningham - LB, Vanderbilt
6'3", 234 lbs, 4.67 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 125 tackles (16.5 TFL), 3 PD, 2 FF

Cunningham made all the plays. He looks a bit skinny for a middle linebacker, but he shoots the gaps well, can play in coverage, and he can get to the QB if you blitz him (Vandy didn't blitz him last year). He does a good job of not getting blocked, but he lacks the size to fight through it when a blocker does catch him. I'd like to see him add about 20 lbs of muscle, but that ability to cover stands out.

Others to look out for in Round 2: Jordan Willis DE Kansas St, Chris Wormley DT Michigan, Adam Shaheen TE Ashland.

Round 3, Pick #85 overall

DeMarcus Walker - DE, Florida State
6'4", 280 lbs, 4.9 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 67 tackles (19.5 TFL), 16 sacks, 2 PD, 3 FF

Walker isn't a classic speed rusher, but he's got moves and definitely can get to the QB. The Lions like to move their linemen around - Devin Taylor played some as a DT, as did Hyder - so I can see Walker's skill set fitting in here.

Raekwon McMillan - LB, Ohio State
6'2", 240 lbs, 4.61 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 102 tackles (7 TFL), 2 sacks, 5 PDs, 2 FF

Probably shouldn't start on day 1, but given the Lions' weak & banged up LB corps, that's not a given. I was impressed by him at OSU, and the consensus seems to be that he's a safe bet to be an average starter in the NFL. With a late 3rd round pick, you can't ask for more than that. He's also a good match for our defensive scheme as a 4-3 strongside LB, so there's that.

Rasul Douglas - CB, West Virginia
6'2", 209 lbs, 4.59 40-yd dash
2016 Stats: 70 tackles (3.5 TFL), 1 sack, 8 INTs, 1 TD, 8 PDs, 1 FF

Douglas is a juco transfer, so we really only have 1 year of production to review. But it's a pretty good year. He has elite size for the position, but not elite speed. He might be a guy who transitions to safety or plays more zone coverage, but his cover skills are pretty good. Plus, it's not like he's SLOW, he just lacks the makeup speed that top corners have. He's still faster than your average WR, and I think he size will help compensate for lack of speed sometimes.

Others to look out for in Round 3: Kareem Hunt RB Toledo, Alex Anzalone LB Florida, Joe Mixon RB Oklahoma.


Actually, Mixon starts getting interesting in round 3, so let's talk about that. Mixon is probably one of the top 3 or 4 RBs in this draft, but due to some non-football related reasons, he's not worth drafting higher than round 3 in my opinion. Lions GM Bob Quinn mentioned that he wished Mixon had been invited to the Combine, which leads me to believe that Quinn would consider drafting Joe Mixon at some point.

If you don't know the story behind the Joe Mixon incident, it goes something like this: he and some friends hit on (or had some kind of interaction with) some girl on campus, she blew them off and Mixon didn't like what she said, so he followed her into this sandwich shop. We'll call this Mistake #1, and it's a pretty big one. Nothing good ever happens after a decision like that. In one version of the events, the girl was basically telling on him to one of his teammates who she also knew, and Mixon was trying to set the record straight. Anyway, words were exchanged between the girl & Mixon and her possibly gay friend & Mixon. It sounds like one or both of them called Mixon a racial slur, he called her friend a gay slur, and it looked like he was about to walk away when she said something back to him and Mixon turned around. She reacted by pushing Mixon. He lunged at her like he was faking a punch, she slapped him in the face, and he then obliterated her with a right hook. It was fast and brutal, and it broke 4 bones in her face.

I'm not excusing Mixon's actions in any way. He was stupid, he allowed himself to be goaded to a point where he couldn't think for himself anymore, and he reacted in a way that is just never ok. What muddies the waters a bit is the fact that the girl seemed to be egging him on, she pushed and hit him first, and of course they called him the N-word, which where I come from was a license to hit somebody in the face. Not a girl, and not like that, but it definitely raises the stakes. Anyway, this was 2 and a half years ago. Mixon also had a minor incident with a parking lot attendant, so he clearly has some rage issues that he needs to deal with. The question is at what point does a player's actions become so unacceptable that you won't touch him, and which side of that line does Joe Mixon fall?

To me, the extenuating circumstances in the Joe Mixon incident put him in the "acceptable" category, but with HEAVY reservations. I wouldn't take him earlier than round 3, I would require he take some anger management classes and see a therapist, and I'd set him up with a mentor on the team to coach him in making better personal decisions. I'd rather draft any of the 3 players I profiled ahead of Mixon, but if they're all gone by then, I'd start thinking about it.


In my
ideal draft, we'd take either Humphrey or Barnett in round 1, Cunningham in round 2, and then either Walker or Douglas in round 3. Mike Lombardi of The Ringer put out a video for how to fix each of the 32 NFL teams in just a few steps. Here's the link, if you want to watch. If you don't, here's my summary, along with some comments from me:
  1. Fix the Defensive Line. We had no pass rush and were getting blown off the line on running plays. The Lions need to add a DT and a DE. I like the idea of getting our DT in free agency, but pass rushing DEs are expensive. Barnett would fill that role if he's available in round 1, and if he's not, Walker in round 3.
  2. Re-sign Warford and Reiff. The offensive line is young & improving, and they're starting to gel as a unit (which I predicted last year). Keep them together.
  3. Get an Insurance Running Back. The Lions' top 2 RBs missed most of the season, and their #3 guy missed a good chunk as well. They need to solidify this position with a cheap insurance policy. That means either a mid-to-late round pick or a cheap FA.
  4. Get a Blocking Tight End. Ebron is NOT a real tight end. He's a big slot guy or split out. We need a guy who can block. I'd rather get that in FA.
  5. Get Corners that can play Man to Man. We do not have good cover corners. Slay is the only one, everyone else is a nickle or dime guy trying to cover like a #2. Humphrey, or failing that, Jourdan Lewis, Kazee, or Douglas would help immensely.
I agree with  Lombardi's list for the most part, but he leaves out the LB position entirely, and you could argue that LB is the Lions' weakest position. I'd like to solve that issue in both FA and the draft, which is why I profiled Cunningham and Raekwon McMillan. I also mentioned Alex Anzalone, who is a terrific athlete and he can really play the position. The problem is he never played a full college season at Florida due to injuries (nagging shoulder injury & a broken arm). What with all the problems we're having with Levy, the injuries should rule Anzalone out for us. If a dude like Reuben Foster should fall to us at 21, the Lions should run, not walk, to the podium.

That's it for now. I'll touch back on the draft one Mike Mayock's mock is available, the day before draft day.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Red Wings are Dead Wings, Pistons mediocre... How 'bout a Lions post?

NFL free agency looms, and ESPN published their top 150 free agents. The Lions need help at every position on defense, and at WR, RB and TE on offense (in that order). The OL could stand some upgrades too, but it's less necessary if they just re-sign what they've got. So, of these 150 guys, who should the Lions target?

Upper Echelon - High Pricetag
I didn't include positions like DE, CB, or RB here because those positions tend to be really expensive. I think you can do better in the draft. LB, WR, and DT are all positions of great need, and they tend to take longer for a draft pick at one of those positions to develop into a quality starter. It should go without saying, but the Lions would need to absolutely shell out to get one of these guys.

LB - Dont'a Hightower
The word is he wants to explore the market, which makes it unlikely that the Patriots will re-sign him. They tend to let the higher priced vets go in lieu of overpaying. Anyway, the Lions DESPERATELY need a decent LB. MLB Tahir Whitehead ranked dead last by PFF out of all starting LBs, and Levy can't be relied upon to play another snap. Hightower will cost some cash, but the Lions need to shore up the LB position more than any other.

WR - Alshon Jeffrey
Even with Tate and Jones, the Lions are pretty weak at WR. I actually thought this position would be a strength, but that was assuming that Marvin Jones was capable of playing like a #2 WR, or even a #1b. He started strong, but he faded badly down the stretch. Jeffrey would give the Lions a legit #1 WR, allow Tate to move into the slot and be more of the Swiss Army WR that he should be, and Jones would be the 2nd deep threat.

DT - Dontari Poe
The Lions' D line was pretty terrible in rushing the passer or getting stuffs (31st in power rank, 29th in stuffs, 25th in pass rushing). They consistently were pushed back on running plays, and Haloti Ngata looks flat-out DONE. A'Shawn Robinson seems to be rounding into a nice player, but he's really all they've got. Poe is coming off of a down year, but he's been to a couple of Pro Bowls and should be, if not a star, at least the high quality DT they've lacked since Suh left.

Middle Echelon - Guys with Upside
We're still talking about doing an overpay, but it'll be less drastic with this level of player, and the Lions might be in a position to offer a more modest deal with incentives.

DT - Johnathan Hankins
Hankins is coming off of his rookie deal and looking to get PAID. The Giants can't afford to put that much money on their D line. Hankins is a mid-level DT with upside, the hope is that the Lions could get him for about $6M/yr, plus incentives.

S - TJ McDonald
The Lions are pretty old at the safety, and their two starting safeties from 2016 are both on expiring contracts. McDonald is 26, can play the ball in the air, and can hit. They could also target safety in the draft, or hope that Killebrew develops.

LB - Barry Minter

It sounds like Minter is poised to leave AZ, and if the Jets call, it's a good bet he ends up there. If they don't, he'd be a great fit to take over the MLB position from Whitehead, who's been awful. Minter isn't lightning quick, but he's great vs. the run and can defend the pass.

WR - Robert Woods
Another solution to the WR problem would be to just get a bunch of slot WR-types, like NE, and spend all day finding holes in the defense. It sounds like Woods wants a more pass-heavy offense and more stability at QB. Provided we sign Stafford to an extension, he'll have that in spades here. Shouldn't be a hard sell.

Lower Echelon - Bargains
I've stocked this category with guys who are either boom-or-bust candidates, or guys that are solid but have very limited upside.

TE - Dion Sims
The Lions do not have a blocking TE on the roster. Sims isn't a big receiving threat, but he's an outstanding blocker. And while he's not the big play threat that Ebron is, Sims still has decent ability as a pass catcher.

CB - Brandon Carr
Basically, think of the good days we had with Rashean Mathis and that's what you can expect with Carr. He's on the older side for a DB, but he's good enough to hold down the right side and allow Slay to get a break and not have to follow the other team's #1 all over the field.

TE - Anthony Fasano
He's a bit long in the tooth at 32, but Fasano is still the best blocking TE in the league. His impact in the passing game would be minimal though.

LB - Manti Teo
He's not very durable, but he's a good LB when healthy. Teo's never completed a full season, averaging 9.5 games played, and he's coming off of a big injury. Pack his contract full of incentives, so if the injury bug bites again, you don't take the big hit. This would be a swing for the fences signing.

RB - Eddie Lacy
Same thing here. Lacy was looking good before the injury. Pack in the incentives so that he's paid like a #1 back if he finishes the year with the team.

I'll be back with a draft post sometime after the combine. Even filling some of these positions in free agency, we still need to draft. I'd say our draft needs are DE, CB, and LB, in that order. This defense really needs help. A lot of people have mentioned the RB Joe Mixon as a possibility for the Lions, since GM Bob Quinn mentioned his name at the combine. I don't think that means Quinn is looking to take a RB in the first or even 2nd round. Quinn had a pretty good, albeit boring, draft last year. Taking Mixon high would definitely be a step in the other direction, if he goes that way.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

3 Trades to Fix the Pistons

What happened to that team we had last year? Stan Van Gundy was pushing the youth movement, the chains were off Andre Drummond (the "chains" being shackled to Greg Monroe and Josh Smith) and he had his first All Star appearance (nearly by popular vote), Reggie Jackson was in his first full year as starting PG and was 10th in the AS Backcourt voting. Marcus Morris was having a career resurgence, and KCP and Tobias Harris looked like solid pieces going forward. Stanley Johnson also had the appearance of the SF of the future, if he could cut down on the mental mistakes and tweak his shot.

So far this season, the good feeling is gone. Reggie Jackson came back from injury as Bad Kobe, pounding the air out of the ball and jacking up a ton of ill-advised shots. Marcus Morris is another black hole, and has regressed as a 3pt shooter and as an individual defender. Andre Drummond remains a mediocre team defender, and while his FT shooting has improved incrementally, almost every other area of his game is worse and the Pistons score at a better rate with him on the bench. Stanley Johnson has seen a drastic reduction in his minutes, due to his inability to produce anything on the court much of the time.

This team is ill. Not good ill. Bad ill.

To be honest, I think the team was built on the false premise that Andre Drummond can be the foundation of a contending team, and that Reggie Jackson can be the starting PG on a contending team. Once I thought that at least part 1 of that equation was true and part 2 was possible, even probable. No longer. There are two ways out of this mess. Either trade one or both of them away (I think Drummond at least is still salvageable, he just shouldn't be the focal point), or ride out on the wave of mediocrity for the next 4 years. Obviously the 2nd option is a nightmare, so I'm going to present 3 different trade scenarios that offer a ray of hope.

Trade Scenario #1
Detroit-Lakers-Philly 3-team trade
Detroit gets: D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Timofey Mozgov, Gerald Henderson, and LA's 2019 1st round pick
LA gets: Andre Drummond and Nerlens Noel.
Philly gets: Reggie Jackson, Aron Baynes, and Nick Young.

The Pistons get the biggest haul, as they should shipping out the most talent. Adding in the pick might be a bit much, but they really are helping the Lakers out here. They NEED to get rid of D'Angelo Russell. The Lakers already are paying Clarkson like their PG of the future, and Russell alienated the locker room last year by accidentally publicly outing Nick Young's infidelity. The Lakers also signed Mozgov to a RIDICULOUS deal last summer at $16M/yr. This trade allows LA to shed that deal and add a franchise center that they've desperately been looking for. They also get Noel, a pretty good backup and a guy you could conceivably pair with Drummond to wreak defensive havoc all over the place. Losing Nick Young might hurt a bit, but they've got a better SG coming off the bench right now, and Young is a bit of a headcase. Also, it removes the other piece of that kerfuffle from last year.

Philly needs a PG. They might get one in the draft, but that player will be 3 years away from making a difference, and Embiid looks ready right now. Reggie could bridge the gap. He's also more of a combo-guard than a true PG, which is good for when Ben Simmons gets healthy and starts running the Point Forward position. They also need a decent 2-guard, and so far only Stauskas and Henderson have been filling that role. So they upgrade at PG and at SG, and it only costs them two guys they want to get rid of anyway (Okafor and Noel), and they get a decent backup C in return. The Pistons might need to throw in a pick of some kind to sweeten the deal, but I think Philly would bite.

I really like this deal for the Pistons. D'Angelo Russell looks like he'll be a pretty good player in a few years. He's a good defender at the point, something we haven't had since Chauncey was traded. His shot is coming along and he's learning the game a bit, but he's still on his rookie deal too. Okafor has some of the same flaws as Drummond, but overall I think he's a better defender. He's not as good a rebounder, but he's far better offensively. Mozgov is a decent backup, although he'd be getting paid as a starter (in this scenario, we could either try to trade him at a later date or just play him for a couple of years and then cut our losses). Gerald Henderson would be a decent 3 & D backup for KCP, which we don't currently have. He's shooting the best 3P% of his career, so I'd expect that to come down, but he'd still be an upgrade over Bullock/Hilliard. Henderson also represents $9M coming off the books in 2018. This would allow the Pistons to rebuild without taking a big step back.

Trade Scenario #2

Detroit gets: Rajon Rondo + 2017 1st rd pick (either Chicago's or Sacramento's)
Chicago gets: Reggie Jackson

This is a straight headache for headache trade. The Bulls need to win now and can't do it with Rondo. Reggie can score, but plays hero ball far too often and can't defend. Rondo isn't a huge "get" for us, but he's a couple mil cheaper and comes off the books 2 years earlier. Chicago owns Sacramento's 1st round pick if it falls between 11-30 (currently they'd be in the 8th slot, if the draft lottery was tonight), so this trade gives Detroit the option of taking the better pick, Sacramento's or Chicago's. This is a pretty good PG draft, btw. Anyway, this is a classic "punt the season" trade right here.

Trade Scenario #3
Detroit gets: DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore, Rajon Rondo + option of Chi/Sac 2017 pick (owned by Chicago)
Sacramento gets: Andre Drummond + Detroit's 2017 pick & future 2nd rounder
Chicago gets: Reggie Jackson

This trade reunites Cousins and Rondo, who reportedly got along pretty well last year. Sacramento gets Drummond and some picks, Chicago gets Reggie. Picks are exchanged all around, and really the only team not guaranteed to have a pick this year is Chicago. Ben McLemore was a throw-in to make the salaries work, but he was a highly regarded prospect who might just need a change of scenery and a more stable coaching situation. I think I like this deal the best. It's the most likely to please all parties involved.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lions 2016 Review Pt 2 - Defense

The Lions defense this past season was, in a word, embarrassing. We were ranked 30th out of the 32 NFL defenses by Pro Football Focus, and that feels about right. They were terrible on all levels. They allowed opposing QBs to complete passes at a rate of 73%, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt (for reference, no starting QB averaged better than 71.6% completions for the season). In terms of rushing defense, Detroit was in the middle of the pack, allowing 106 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, but when it comes to short yardage situations...

Defensive line - it was bad. BAD. I was mentioning short yardage situations? Football Outsiders rates defensive lines on a number of factors. When it comes to Power Success - that is, how easy it was for opponents to rush for a 1st down or TD in short yardage situations - the Lions ranked 31st. They also rate a lines ability to stuff a play at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Lions ranked 29th there. We were 25th in adjusted sack rate, and I'm not sure where the Lions would've fallen if they factored in QB pressures, but it would've been LOW. We didn't stop the run and we didn't rush the passer.
Ziggy Ansah had a bad year, and was either out or playing with a nagging leg injury. He started to come on in the last few games and look like the guy we had last year, so I'm not worried about him. Kerry Hyder continued his preseason dominance, and led the team in sacks (in case you didn't know...). I was surprised to find early on in the season that we basically didn't have a pass rush if he wasn't on the field. A'Shawn Robinson had a very good rookie showing, and I think he'll be a top DT in a couple of years. Everybody else has serious concerns.

Ngata is all but done. He's still better than the rest of our DTs, but he gets pushed off the ball in a way that he never did, and he just doesn't make plays on a regular basis. A'Shawn Robinson is a work in progress, and all the other DTs are playing at replacement level or worse. Devin Taylor is DONE, so the Lions really need to get another pass rushing DE or 2. That means DRAFT (I am NOT in the "back the truck up for JPP" camp). They should cover this position in rounds 1 or 2.

Linebacker might be a position of need higher than DE. DeAndre Levy missed most of the season with an undisclosed injury, and he's made public comments that have made me wonder if he's done with football. His career timeline goes like this: Got drafted by the Lions in 2009, became one of the NFL's best kept secrets by 2011, broke out in 2013 with 6 INTs & 85 tackles, got snubbed for the Pro Bowl in 2015 with 121 tackles, signed a big contract extension in 2016, promptly got injured, and since has played in 6 out of a possible 33 games and recorded a total of 16 tackles... He's signed through the end of 2019 and there's no way he's just going to retire, since the Lions owe him roughly $26M on the remainder of his contract. If he's just perpetually injured, the Lions are going to have to cut their losses. It's a shame, because Levy was one of the players that made the Lions' defense really special, back when they were good.

Unfortunately, the news doesn't get better. Tahir Whitehead was a disaster this season, as PFF's bottom-ranked starting LB. He couldn't cover, and he routinely got caught in the wash on running plays. Some of that is on the DTs for getting pushed off the ball, but he also let himself get blocked A LOT. Josh Bynes has been a decent band-aid, so I expect the Lions will re-up with him on another 1- or 2-year deal, but more has to be done. Levy cannot be counted on to even play at all, so I expect Quinn to go after a FA like Dont'a Hightower AND address the position in the draft, hopefully by the end of round 3.

Cornerback has been a perpetual need for the Lions. I can remember 1 season when we had 2 decent CBs, and the next year we let one of the guys sign somewhere else. Martin Mayhew and Millen were allergic to drafting defensive backs. Well, this year was no exception. Slay was decent, but definitely a step back from last year. Nobody else on the roster deserves to line up as anything higher than a nickle or dime corner. Lawson, Bademosi, Crezdon Butler, and whoever else lined up on the other side of Slay was in over their heads. Fortunately, there are a number of decent corners that should be available in FA and this is a really good draft for corners. I'd like to see the Lions use a 1st or 2nd rd pick on this position.

Safety was easily our best position, defensively. But both starting guys are going into a contract year, and I expect Tavon Wilson to take a step back next year. Miles Killebrew look very good in special teams and when he got a chance to play with the starting D, so the Lions might look to work him in more, but they'll need to bolster this position SOON. A wise move would be to draft a safety in the 2017 draft and groom him to start in 2018, but the Lions have too many needs elsewhere to do this unless a value pick falls to them.

I thought Bob Quinn did an ok job in getting cheap, decent players to fill in. He had a solid 2016 draft (as far as we can tell). This will be an interesting offseason. We're coming off of a playoff appearance, but we have a ton of holes to fill and a decent amount of cap space. Will he get greedy and try to shortcut the process, or will he go the Patriot way by cutting players when they cost more than they can produce anymore, signing overlooked players that turn out pretty good, and drafting smart?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lions 2016 Review, Pt. 1 - Offense

To quote the very quotable Denny Green, THEY WERE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE! Going into the season, I thought we had a very mediocre Lions team on our hands. I figured we were looking at a 7-9 team, unless we were very fortunate. Well, we were kind of fortunate. The Lions were a 7-9 team in a 9-7 team's body. The pythagorean win expectation was 7.7W and 8.3L, so basically 8-8. Additionally, the Lions had a weaker schedule, so the win total was inflated a bit. The Lions were at 9-4 with 3 games remaining, needing one to clinch a home playoff game. Going winless would likely keep the Lions out of the playoffs and put Jim Caldwell on the hot seat, if not cost him his job outright. Fortunately for him, Washington lost 2 out of their last 3 and gifted Detroit a playoff spot.

The playoffs were really pointless, though. Stafford was still at less than 100% with his finger issue, a number of key players were missing, and the receivers left their hands on the plane. Every pass catcher had at least 1 drop, many of which essentially traded 1st & 10 for a punt. As a team, the Lions had the 3rd most dropped passes in the NFL and were 5th in drop %. This confuses me. Other than Ebron, the rest of our receiving corps had a sure-handed rep. The playoff loss was a pretty typical Lions performance - they dropped a bunch of passes, committed some crucial roughness penalties that either stalled offensive drives (thanks, Boldin) or gifted a TD to the opponent.

I say "typical Lions" because this is what I've come to expect after decades of Lions fandom, but it was actually atypical of the year they'd been having. At least until the last 4 games, when they played some real teams.

One of the better stats for evaluating the actual quality of a team is Toxic Differential, which is a ratio that measures a team's tendency to give up big plays and turnovers vs. their ability to create big plays and turnovers. A positive number would mean the Lions had more big plays and turnovers than their opponents did, a negative number would mean the opposite. The Lions, being the Lions, spent almost the entirety of the 2000s in the negative, managing only a meager +8 in 2011 (finished 10-6, got bounced by the Saints in the first round of the playoffs) and a solid +28 in 2014 (finished 11-5, lost a heartbreaker in Dallas). So what was the toxic differential this year? The Lions finished with a -9. Lower than the 7-9 2013 Lions and only slightly better than the 2010 team that finished 6-10. That -9 ties them with the Vikings and the Texans at 22nd in the league, and behind the Eagles, Chargers and Bengals. All this to say that the Lions may have made the playoffs, but they were more like a bottom-third team.

So, what is the state of this team? What's next? 

Starting at the top, Caldwell is keeping his job through the end of his contract, which expires next year. This was disappointing, but inevitable. He did enough not to get fired. He's not a good coach. It looks like he's breathing, but it's really his coordinators that are maintaining his life functions. Without JB Cooter and Teryl Austin, Caldwell is flatlined. We know Martha Ford loves Caldwell, but I remain skeptical as to whether or not GM Bob Quinn will keep him on unless something miraculous happens next season.

Stafford was having a Pro Bowl year, until the last 5 games, when he hurt his finger (and started playing much better teams). His completion % plummeted from 67% to a mediocre 59%, he doubled his INTs while only producing 3 TD passes, and of course barely managed a single win against the lowly Bears. We could chalk this up to injury, or perhaps the competition suddenly became legit (except vs. the Bears) and Stafford's record vs. winning teams is well-known. But the reality is the Lions are in a position where they will probably have to pay him in the neighborhood of $25M/yr, making Matt Stafford, a QB that I wouldn't rank in the top 10 in the NFL at this point, the highest paid player in the NFL.

Is he worth it? Well, no. But the problem is this - what do you do if you don't sign him? It's too late in the game to trade him, so you'd have to buy a band-aid in free agency and hope you net a decent replacement in the draft... The problem is you can't just pick up a decent QB in FA, and the draft is such a crapshoot even if you have a top pick (and Stafford was the #1 overall pick, remember). To give you an idea, the QBs available in FA in 2018 are Brees, Kaepernick, Bradford, McCown, Henne, Stanton, Derek Anderson, Brandon Weeden, Nick Foles... Basically you've got Brees, who will be 39 and likely wants to retire in New Orleans, and a bunch of career backups who are backups for a very good reason. You might be able to wring a decent season out of one of them with the right supporting cast, but the Lions don't have the right supporting cast.

So you keep him, pay him $3M more per year than you're paying him now, and you get cheaper elsewhere. Keep in mind that Riley Rieff, Ezekiel Ansah, Glover Quinn, Haloti Ngata, and almost the entire rest of the offense AND defense have to either be extended or replaced in the next two years. 

On a side note, I'm not exactly sure how to separate JB Cooter and Stafford in my evaluations, so I'll just throw this in here. I thought the play-calling was better than under Lombardi, but still left much to be desired. I also thought that Cooter tended to stick too closely to the original game plan and didn't vary up the running game or take shots downfield when it started to open up. If the plan is to be a slightly lesser version of Tom Brady, Cooter needs to know when to take his shots.

Last thing I'll say before I move on - Stafford used his feet better in 2016 than he ever had before in his career. He extended plays, avoided sacks, and rushed for first downs when in the past he'd have thrown it away (or thrown a pick), or spun directly into a sack. He's not one of the top rushing QBs - for one thing, the Lions almost never call his number on a running play unless it's short yardage - but he ran for about 13 yards a game, good for 9th in the NFL among QBs, behind Russell Wilson who ran for 16 ypg and ahead of Tannehill, who ran for 12.

Running backs... This was a problem area once again, this year due to injuries across the board. Honestly, I think we're ok here and can't see the rationale in spending at this position. If healthy, Abdullah, Riddick, Washington and Zenner should prove to be a decent stable of backs. Riddick is the best receiving RB in football, and Abdullah looked like he was going to provide the Lions with some semblance of a running game, before he went down. Washington was decent as a backup and a returner, and even Zenner had a couple of nice games. Now, RB is in fact considered a "position of need", but it's not as high a need as anything on the defensive side, or any of the receiving positions. Also, and I'd forgotten this, Ameer Abdullah was a pretty good kick returner. 

Which brings us to the receiving corps. Going into the 2016 season, I predicted a deeper position group than Stafford had ever had. Not as star-studded, obviously, but Tate-Jones-Boldin-Roberts was definitely more diversely talented than the next best group Stafford ever threw to, which consisted of CJ, Tate, and a bunch of scrubs. Yes, they were better, so let's get that out of the way. It's still an area that needs improvement. Tate is getting on in years, and there's no real #1 option on this team. Jones was supposed to grow into that role, but he finished the year as a bit of a disappointment. Boldin was a solid pickup that reminded me of something that the Patriots might do. Now, these guys had a lot more drops, and that's troubling. I expect that should improve as the newer additions get more familiar with Stafford. Anyway, WR remains a need for next year, and I'm hoping for another Boldin-like signing, and maybe take a couple flyers late in the draft.

I won't spend much time on TE. Ebron took a big step forward this year, although his blocking and his hands remain unreliable. We'll say goodbye to Pettigrew, and I'm hoping we can bolster this position on the cheap.

Lastly, the O-line. I figured this position group would start out a bit rocky and improve as the year went on. Largely, that was the case. The run blocking isn't there yet but it's improving, and having the top backs healthy would help as well. This is a really young group of linemen, and they were pretty banged up this year, but Pro Football Focus ranked them 19th overall. Taylor Decker struggled earlier in the season, as expected from a rookie starting at LT, but overall had a pretty strong year (again, PFF liked him). The Lions will need to re-up with Riley Rieff this offseason, but other than that they shouldn't need to make any major moves other than adding depth.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

This has been a crazy Lions season. Expect more of the same.

I've got no idea what is going on with the Lions this year. Trying to predict what is going to happen next is EXTREMELY frustrating. I had them pegged for a 7-9 record. After the loss to the Bears, I thought I might've overshot. But they keep figuring out how to win these crazy games, and now the Lions are 8-4 and in position to win the division and host a playoff game. WHAT?

Sorry about the "slowlights", but that's the best I can do since the NFL doesn't like embedding. Anyway, the Lions were rolling into New Orleans, one of the best passing offenses in the league, and they shut it down. The Lions defense is one of those things that makes no sense to me. They haven't had their best LB all year, the rest of the LB corps and secondary are all banged up, and they're getting a down year from Ziggy Ansah (14.5 sacks last year, 0 this year). In fact, if you had told me in preseason that they'd be down Levy, Ameer Abdullah, a handful of others in the RB, LB, and secondary, and Ansah would have zero sacks through week 13, I'd have said we'd be lucky to have 4 wins. We have 8.

The defense, somehow, has been pretty ok. They're middle of the pack when it comes to yards allowed, HORRIBLE when it comes to QB completion %, upper third when it comes to points allowed, and practically dead last when it comes to defensive efficiency. This doesn't make them look like world-beaters, but essentially their role has been to keep the game within reach in the 4th quarter, and Stafford/Prater will come back in win it probably. The Lions trailed in the 4th quarter in 7 of their 8 wins this season, and in 6 of their wins the go-ahead points were scored with less than 2 minutes left in the game or in OT.

Not this game. The Lions pretty much controlled the game from start to finish. They had problems getting into the endzone, but they moved the ball well, owned the clock, and put points on the board. Stafford looked like Aaron Rodgers in the pocket, as far as moving around and running for first downs. Tate had a really good game. And the defense kept NOLA's receivers in front and picked Brees off three times. This was the first complete game the Lions have played all year, they did it against a halfway decent team, and it felt pretty good.


Looking ahead (which I am loath to do but feel I must), the Lions' schedule gets a bit harder. They get the 3-9 Bears first, which is by far their easiest opponent.

Then on 12/18, the Lions go to the Meadowlands to see a very tough (currently) 8-4 Giants team, and the following week they'll go to Dallas to see the 
(currently) 11-1 Cowboys. The season finale will be played vs. the (currently but playing better lately) 6-6 Packers (at Ford Field, fortunately, and not in Lambeau). The Lions will not be favored in any of these games, and the season really could come down to that last game against Green Bay.

I'm saying don't go buying your playoff tickets yet. I like what I see, especially from Stafford. I loved the complete effort on Sunday. But the Lions need to take care of business against Chicago and GB if this is going to happen. In my opinion, the only way to make the playoffs without beating the Packers is if the Lions win their next 3 games.