The Detroit Lions Will Face a Long And Arduous Way in 2017

The Detroit Lions made it back to the playoffs in 2016, the third time during the Matthew Stafford era. It was also the third time the Lions lost in the wildcard round. They started the season 9-4, Matthew Stafford was considered a legitimate candidate for the MVP title by the media. They went on losing their last three games and got shut down by the Seahawks in the playoffs. Going into 2017, the expectations are rather high than low. What can we expect from Detroit this year?
In the last December, I wrote about why Matthew Stafford cannot be the MVP in 2016. Their last few games against playoff-caliber opponents proved me right. The Lions offense was praised a lot in 2016, especially Matthew Stafford, because he produced only few interceptions while his team achieved a record of 9-4. OC Jim Bob Cooter recognized Staffords’ weaknesses and the overall ability of the offensive line and implemented an offense that was suited for the situation. Matt Stafford has one of the best arms in the league and he is always going to present highlight throws, even under pressure. But he has no consistency in his accuracy to consistently throw down field and throw receivers open. The Lions relied heavily on screens, short passes and yards after catch passes. Per Cian Faheys Quarterback Catalogue, Staffords average depth of target (ADOT) was 7.6 yards behind the line of scrimmage which ranked 28th out of 33 qualifying QBs. His average depth of accurate passes was 5.54 yards behind the LOS, which also ranked 28th in the league. The Lions called the most screen plays in the league (76) and Stafford saw 52.43% of his total passing yards coming after the catch (2376/4532) – the 3rd-most in the NFL. The result was that JBC limited Staffords turnovers on paper (we will get to it) but the passing offense as a whole wasn’t as efficient as it seems to be and needs to be. A main part of this is that Stafford even struggled to consistently hit quick and short passes:


To be fair, Stafford did not have a good offensive line and no running game to make his life easier. Nevertheless, he consistently made bad throws when it supporting cast did not matter. He still had some good skill players: On WR, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones bailed him out on a lot of off-target throws. The Lions finished 22nd in offensive scoring (19.4 PPG), 17th in red zone scoring (54.2%), 13th in Pass DVOA (15.6%), 14th in NYPPA (6.5). If you believe in the objectivity in Cian Faheys Interceptable Passes Charting (passes that are off-target and should have been intercepted by a defender rather than caught by the WR), you will regognize that Matthew Stafford threw 29 interceptable passes but only 8 of them were actually caught. 2 of his 10 interceptions weren’t his fault. So only 27.6% of his interceptable passes were intercepted – 5th-lowest value in league. That might regress in 2017. Here are some of his interceptable passes:


https://twitter.com/Cianaf/status/790633381046411264
Matthew Stafford and the Lions were also praised for their ability of achieving comeback wins in the fourth quarter or fourth quarter wins in general. Comeback wins is some sort of indicator I am never going to understand. You have to look why a team needs a comeback win. If your defense is so atrocious that you need to score 30+ points in shootouts to win games, it’s legitimate to talk about comeback wins. Drew Brees is often in that situation. Peyton Manning has been as well during his Colts time. But Matthew Stafford in 2016? In 10 out of 16 regular season games, the Lions defense – despite being a below average unit in 2016 – held opposing offenses to 20 or less points. That means the offense needed to get to 21 points to win these 10 games. The Lions won just 6 out of those 10. Can you really describe a comeback win over the Jaguars with help by a pick-six as a quality comeback win by Matt Stafford and the offense? Matt Stafford has a good track of executing late drives, absolutely. But in a lot of games he and his offense are the reasons why they need a comeback at all. Here are two examples of the Lions’ comeback wins:
Week 9 at MIN: Blair Walsh’s FG is blocked and the Vikes also missed a PAT, that’s four points. The Lions defense gets a 4th down stand at their own 6. Vikings pull away anyway to 16-13, because Lions couldn’t score. A 58yd (!) Prater FG saves them OT after a great throw by Stafford, – Lions get the ball and theys finish off a beautiful drive with some great YAC ability by Tate and Ebron.
Week 12 vs MIN: At 13-13, the Vikings had the ball with under 2 minutes to go and Sam Bradford throws a terrible out route – Darius Slay intercepts the ball. Matt Stafford comes on the field, kneels down and Matt Prater scores the game-winning FG: comeback win.
Another fantastic fact: The Lions were behind in 15 games during the fourth quarter. Let that sink for a while. The Lions played an easy schedule (26th in SOS) and were behind in the fourth quarter in 15 of their 16 games. Here are some more key stats from the 2016 regular season:
Total DVOA: -17.6% (27th)
Total Pass DVOA: -22.5% (28th)
Strength of Schedule: 0.475 (26th)
Pythagorean Wins: 7.7 (22nd)
Football Outsiders Estimated Wins: 4.9 (27th)
Pure Point Pythagorean Wins: 7.2 (24th)
Net Yards Per Pass Differential: -0.2 (19th)
Yards Per Play Differential: -0.4 (26th)
Record vs Playoff teams: 0-5
Record in Close Games: 8-5
Turnover Differential: -1
 
Summary:
The Lions relied on close fourth quarter wins against non-playoff teams to sneak to 9-7. For the most part, they got dominated by every good team. They went 0-6 against playoff teams including the game at Seattle and were outscored 97-168 in these games. The efficiency picture tells the story of a team that should have gone 7-9 / 6-10 much rather than 9-7.
2017 Personnel Outlook:
As a team, the Lions did not get any better during the off-season. RT Riley Reiff (Vikings) and RG Larry Warford (Saints) left Detroit, LT Taylor Decker, the Lions’ first-rounder in 2016, had surgery and will likely miss the whole season. This trio played the most snaps on the offensive line last year, Decker played every snap. The replacements are Greg Robinson (Rams) at LT, Ricky Wagner (Ravens) at RT and T.J. Lang (Packers) at RG. While T.J. Lang has been a good player over the last few years, Robinson and Wagner are significant downgrades from 2016. It is possible that the Lions feature one of the worst tackle tandems in the league. It is very hard to believe that this offensive line will do any better in terms of run-blocking and pass-protecting over the 2016 version. This line can only be worse – Matthew Stafford will be in serious trouble next season. The supporting cast has not changed that much. Darren Fells seems to be the new backup for TE Eric Ebron, which does not look like a good idea when you have seen him play at Arizona. Overall, this offense does not spread out any confidence of being an above average one in 2017. I ranked them 23rd based on personnel.
The defense got younger via the draft. First-round pick Jarrad Davis (Florida) could start immediately at MLB and his college colleague Jalen Tabor might grab one of the three starting cornerback positons next to Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson. DE Ezekiel Ansah missed a lot of snaps due to injury and should be 100% healthy starting next to Haloti Ngata and A’Shawn Robinson. I do not know how they will play the second DE spot. The defense that played poorly to finish the season gets back a stronger defensive line and gets younger at LB and CB. They are not a good unit but also not a bad one. I got their defense ranked 16th based on personnel at the moment.
2017 schedule
Now it gets ugly for Lions fans. The first eight games of the year might be the most brutal stretch any team will face this year:


I have the Lions as an underdog in each of the first eight games. It would not surprise me at all if they start the season 1-7 or 2-6 at best. In my opinion, they cannot match up well with any of these teams next year. The second half schedule looks much easier, but they still have four divisional games and they couldn’t beat any of these teams by more than one possession last year. The Bears finally have a QB (I believe Trubisky and Glennon are both better options than Barkley, Cutler and Hoyer), I see the Vikings stronger than in 2016 and the Packers are still the Packers. The Lions might not win more than five games this year. Going 8-8 would be absolutely astonishing to me.
How to bet the Detroit Lions in 2017
The Lions are overrated at this point. Especially early in the season, bettors will be able to take advantage of favorable lines when betting against them. After week nine, the value should shift a bit with a weaker second half schedule. They are favorites against the Cardinals in week one. I think the Cardinals should roll them and are going to win by 10+ points easily. Cardinals at plus money is going to be a very valuable option. That’s followed by two tough road games against the Giants and Vikings and sandwiched by a home game against the Falcons. I do not see them staying really close in any of those games. Betting against them early and often should pay out.
Lions have to make a decision on Matt Stafford in 2017
The Lions will have to make a strong decision in 2017. Stafford will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018 if the Lions do not re-sign him. I know, not re-signing a franchise QB does not make any sense in todays NFL. But the Lions have to seriously consider this option. Matthew Staffords market value will be on the same level than Derek Carrs – around $25M per year. Does Matthew Stafford offer the Lions this value? Does he make the offense so much better that paying him so much money and neglecting other positions can be justified? This game is played by teams and coaches. But QB is the most important position. Despite not playing with really good teams over the years, Stafford has not proven that he can take this team to the next level on a deep playoff run. With Matthew Stafford, the Lions have a record of 5-46 against teams who finished the season with a winning record. 5-46. On the road that record shrinks to an ugly 1-26. No matter what team you have, there are no excuses for going 5-46 against good teams.
Another bad season won’t help Matt Stafford. The Lions could save $25M, grab a QB in the next draft and use the money to surround him with talent. Stafford could go to a team that is more talented than the Lions and prove himself capable of being a really good QB.

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