The Detroit Lions are set to open training camp in just a couple of weeks, putting us in the most hope-filled stretch of the NFL’s yearly calendar.
This is the part of the year where optimism is high. Perhaps not as high as it’s been heading into some recent seasons for the Lions. After all, the organization lost their best player when Calvin Johnson retired and they didn’t have any sexy free agent signings – outside of Marvin Jones to replace Johnson – nor hyped skill-position additions via the draft.
Are Lions fans right to have tempered expectations or could this team challenge for the organization’s playoff victory since the early 90s.
Of course, it’s too early to know what we’ll get out of the Lions seeing as how training camp hasn’t even started yet. Still, here are three reasons why it’s ok to sip on the Honolulu blue Kool-Aid during this hot summer.
The Lions enter 2016 with the fifth easiest schedule in the NFL based on last year’s regular-season records. They will be facing opponents that combined to be 119-137 last year.
Sure you can expect some of those teams to be more competitive now but teams like the Tennessee Titans (Week 2), Chicago Bears (Week 4 and Week 14), Philadelphia Eagles (Week 5), Houston Texans (Week 8) and Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 11) aren’t all of a sudden going to be world beaters.
Also, it’s not who you play but when you play them. Obviously, there is no way to project how the Lions opponents will be performing when they meet but we can look at where the Lions are playing.
The schedule broke favorably when the Lions were scheduled for road games against Chicago and Green Bay in September and October instead of November and December. In fact, the Lions only adverse weather game could be a December 18th tilt against the New York Giants.
In addition, the team doesn’t travel any further than the Central time zone while having the benefit of flying under the radar with only one primetime game.
The Lions didn’t make many flashy additions to their team this year because they were busy strengthening the line of scrimmage.
With the addition of Taylor Decker, the Lions figure to have finally solved last year’s season-long right tackle issue. The team drafted Graham Glasgow to ensure there was competition at center while adding Geoff Schwartz to further provide depth in case of injuries.
The team also returned Haloti Ngata, who should avoid his early-season inconsistencies from last year while drafting A’Shawn Robinson to bolster the rotation on the defensive line. If Devin Taylor continues his development while Ziggy Ansah continues his ascension to stardom, the Lions could be in a position to win the line of scrimmage battle on most Sundays.
With the aforementioned enhancements to the offensive line, the Lions are in a position to keep Matthew Stafford upright while also greatly improving last season’s second-to-last ranked rushing output.
Those two items would be catalysts to the team overcoming the loss of Calvin Johnson in themselves. However, the true excitement should be around seeing this offense have a full offseason to install a Jim Bob Cooter's offense.
Despite his best efforts, former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi couldn’t transfer the on-roster-talent to offensive output. Cooter, on the other hand, seemed to excel when having a chance to take the controls.
The rapport between Stafford and Cooter was palpable. Cooter took over one week before the bye – a blowout loss to Kansas City where a reeling team had to deal with coach firings while playing in London – and Stafford took off.
During the season’s last eight games, Stafford completed 70% of his passes with 19 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. His numbers extrapolated to 4,358 yards, 38 touchdowns and four interceptions in a 16-game season.
If Cooter can keep Stafford producing like that and compliments his quarterback with an effective running game – something that should be achievable with a sophomore Ameer Abdullah and healthy Stevan Ridley – this offensive could be significantly better in 2016.