The 2021 NFL season is about a quarter of the way through its grind, but for Detroit Lions fans, it has already felt like an eternity. The team has lost their first five games of the season, and it doesn’t seem like there is much light at the end of the tunnel. No one had any delusions of grandeur for this football team. However, even the most pessimistic Lions fan has to admit that they hadn’t expected this. Saying the offense has performed poorly would be a monumental understatement, the defense is still disastrous, and the team has committed mistakes that even junior varsity coaches would yell and scream over.
Now that some time has passed and we have a clearer picture of how the team will perform, I’d like to look at what has gone wrong with the team, what are some areas of positivity, how the rest of Detroit’s schedule looks, and how the rest of the season could play out for them. I also want to look at the team’s draft prospects, and in which direction they could go in with their two first-round picks. Without further ado, let’s get started.
What’s Gone Wrong?
The glaring issue with this Detroit Lions team has been the offense. Quarterback Jared Goff, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason, currently leads the NFL in fumbles. Goff added to this lead with a fumble on Sunday against the Vikings. The turnovers have become such an issue that head coach Dan Campbell is considering trimming the playbook. “That’ll certainly be something that we look at, ‘cause it has — it’s killed us a couple weeks in a row,” Campbell said during an emotional press conference after the heartbreaking loss in Minnesota. “We’ll look at everything with it, but it hurts us.”
The turnover issues shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Over his final two seasons in LA, Goff led all quarterbacks in turnovers. And according to Pro Football Focus, Goff has made five turnover-worthy plays, which puts him in the top 10 for most turnover-worthy plays. And it doesn’t help that Goff is one of the most conservative signal-callers in the league. Only 2.3% of Goff’s throws last season were big-time throws according to PFF. A big-time throw is considered “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and into a tighter window.” Goff also ranks 37th this season in average depth of target (seven yards).
Goff’s receivers have been of little help, to be fair. He is in the top 15 for most drops with seven dropped balls, which puts him in the company of San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo and Washington’s Taylor Heinicke. He still falls just outside of the top 20 in adjusted completion percentage. To say that Goff has underperformed is a colossal understatement, even with a skeleton crew at wide receiver.
The problems aren’t all on offense, however. The defense was historically bad last season, and it has been a little better this year. The Detroit Lions have the 23rd worst rush defense and PFF has them dead last in pass coverage. Safety Will Harris grades as the worst safety in the NFL out of safeties who have started at least four games. Julian and Romeo Okwara lead the team in missed tackle percentage. Linebacker Alex Anzalone has the highest total of missed tackles with six. Anzalone has been targeted twelve times in coverage and has allowed a catch every single time. He gives up an average of 10.3 yards per reception and a total of 57 yards after the catch.
Injuries have also been a nuisance. Romeo Okwara and cornerback Jeff Okudah have been ruled out for the rest of the season with Achilles injuries. They placed wideout Tyrell Williams on IR a couple of weeks ago due to a concussion. Wideout Quintez Cephus suffered a shoulder injury against the Vikings and will likely miss a significant amount of time. Tackle Taylor Decker has been on IR all season, and Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow joined him not too long ago with a toe injury.
For all of this, there’s likely an argument to be made that the Lions could sit at 3-2 right now. However, the team has been painfully inconsistent this season. Against the 49ers, Detroit only truly showed up in the final two minutes of the game. In Lambeau, the Lions put together an entire half but imploded down the stretch against Green Bay. The Detroit Lions were a bit more consistent against Baltimore but failed to close the door. They were never truly in the game against Chicago, and the team again showed up late against the Vikings on Sunday. The Detroit Lions arguably could have picked up three wins, but have yet to put together a full four quarters of winning football.
What’s Gone Right?
Not much has gone right in the Motor City but it also hasn’t been entirely poor. There have been a few bright spots. Top draft pick Penei Sewell, while having his share of struggles, hasn’t been entirely bad. He grades in the top 10 for pass and run blocking among rookie offensive linemen that have played at least 50% of their team’s offensive snaps this season. Cephus had taken some big strides before his injury Sunday and was coming off a near-100 yard performance against the Bears. Undrafted corner AJ Parker, while not excellent, has been decent in coverage throughout these first five weeks of the season. Parker’s only truly poor performance came on Week 3 against the Ravens. Rookie defensive tackle Alim McNeill has also been a bit of a bright spot, especially against the Bears.
The best thing I could probably say about the Lions right now is that they are a well-coached football team. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have made impressive play calls this season, which is something we didn’t see a ton from the Matt Patricia regime. And this is, in part, a reason why the Detroit Lions have been close to winning a few times this season. The problem is not the coaching, it’s the execution, especially on offense. A few times the Lions have gone for it on fourth and short, and had a man open, only for Goff to go elsewhere with the ball.
The Lions have also shown a ton of heart and haven’t backed down from anyone. Despite their offensive woes, the Lions have been aggressive, leading the league in most fourth-down attempts. They’ve also kept pushing even when the game was all but over. This is clear from their Week 1 loss to the 49ers, where Detroit trailed 41-17 with two minutes left, only to bring the game within one score on their last drive. We also saw this type of fight against Baltimore, Chicago, and Minnesota to varying degrees. This team doesn’t quit, and with the lack of depth on this team, that is quite admirable.
Rest of the Season
The Lions have 12 games remaining in their season. Seven of these upcoming games are against teams who are over .500 on the season. This includes meetings with the Matthew Stafford-led Rams (4-1), the Bears (3-2), the Cardinals (5-0), and the Packers (4-1). Realistically, there are about two games remaining that I could see this Lions team winning. Those games being the Eagles (2-3) on Halloween and the Falcons (2-3) on the day after Christmas. Remember, I base this view on what I know right now, and that this could obviously change as the season progresses.
And I believe this team will improve. Whether this improvement comes from trimming the playbook offensively, getting guys back from injury, players on defense stepping up, or a combination of these factors, I believe the Lions will improve and steal a game or two that we don’t expect. In terms of performance, the best-case scenario for the Lions in my mind is a 4-13 finish. The worst case is a straight 0-17 outing, and a middle-of-the-road prediction is 2-15. For draft order, flip the worst and best-case scenarios. Speaking of the draft…
The Lions, barring a truly unforeseen surge, will undoubtedly have a top draft pick this season. And they have several needs to address. They could use a quarterback, wide receiver, pass rushers, corners, etc. The most valuable position would be quarterback, but the issue is that there isn’t a true franchise signal-caller in this upcoming draft. At the very least, one hasn’t emerged. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, UNC’s Sam Howell, and USC’s Kedon Slovis have taken steps back this year and have seen their draft stock fall.
On the other side of the coin, Nevada’s Carson Strong, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder have climbed up draft boards. At wideout, Ohio State offers a pair of intriguing options in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. And on the defensive side, we see possibly the best prospects in the draft in Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux. LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., and Texas A&M’s DeMarvin Leal.
Obviously, things will change between now and draft night. This is a way, way too early to look at the draft and how things will play out. However, it is something the Lions should keep in mind as their already bleak playoff hopes die right before their eyes. As of now, the Lions would have a top-two pick in the draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars, should they pick ahead of the Lions, do not need a QB. This affords Detroit the pick of the lot as far as available quarterbacks.
If Detroit goes QB early, Corral and Ridder are the likeliest options. If they decide to go elsewhere, look for them to target an edge rusher or possibly a safety. With the first-rounder Detroit acquired from the Rams, Detroit could go with Strong or Liberty’s Malik Willis at QB. If they’ve already taken one, Detroit could use this pick to shore up their defense or get a playmaking wideout.
I hope you all enjoyed this look at the Detroit Lions so far, and I can’t wait to revisit this article down the road once the season has progressed even further.
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