Ranking the 8 Biggest Upgrades Detroit Made This Offseason
Gone is the Jim Schwartz coaching regime, which underwhelmed as the team collapsed from 6-3 to 7-9 a year ago. General manager Martin Mayhew and his personnel staff also brought in several key additions to bolster the lineup.
Some will have a greater impact than others. There's a good chance that not every addition will wind up working out as well as anticipated too.
These upgrades are ranked in order of relative level of expected improvement over what the Lions have had recently at the position.
1. Kyle Van Noy
He wasn't Detroit's first pick in May's draft, but outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy looks to be second to no one in terms of how much he will impact the Lions.
In the Schwartz era, the Lions primarily played with just two linebackers. One of the byproducts of that scheme is that Detroit had only two legit NFL backers on the roster in DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch.
Now that the Lions will deploy three—and perhaps even four at times—linebackers as the base defense, adding that third starter was a huge need.
Enter Van Noy. Anything that will be asked of a linebacker, the BYU product can do it.
Crash inside the tackle box to snuff out a run? Check.
Scream around the edge and chase down the quarterback for a sack? Check.
Turn and run in coverage with a flexed tight end? Van Noy checks that box too.
His versatility helps negate any potential matchup advantages the opposing offense is attempting to scheme. Because he's skilled across the board, the Lions can stay in their base defense more frequently. That means less reliance on the rather unimpressive reserves in the secondary.
No other newcomer offers more useful potential to the 2014 Detroit Lions than Kyle Van Noy.
2. Golden Tate
It's easy to see why the Lions coveted free-agent wideout Golden Tate this spring. The No. 2 receiver opposite Calvin Johnson has been a perennial problem area for Detroit's offense.
Tate earned his rep as a playmaker for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, leading the team in total catches and yards over the last three combined seasons. His allure goes far beyond the raw numbers, however.
As Chris Wesseling documented at NFL.com,
Tate led all NFL receivers in forced missed tackles and yards after catch per reception in 2013, per Pro Football Focus. He was also second in punt-return yards and first in punt-return efficiency, per PFF.
Wesseling also notes that Tate has the best drop rate of any wideout over the last three seasons, snaring an impressive 144 of 149 catchable balls thrown his direction.
Tate brings outward confidence too, something that helps fill the leadership void created by Nate Burleson's release. He can also help instill the winning culture he learned in Seattle. These might be just as important as what he does between the lines this fall.
3. Eric Ebron
First-round pick Eric Ebron is the real wild card of the offense. Until we see exactly how he fits in the new-look offense, it's hard to ascertain just what the Lions have in the No. 10 overall pick from North Carolina.
Here's what we do know about the hybrid tight end/wide receiver:
- His impressive athleticism and speed will allow him to line up all over the formation
- He envisions himself as the next Jimmy Graham, as told by Pro Football Talk
- Drops look like they might persist as an issue from his college days, as noted by MLive's Kyle Meinke
- Ebron does not lack confidence, and modesty is not his strong suit
He has a chance to be a dynamic weapon right off the bat, capable of leading all rookies in receptions and yards. When paired with Johnson and Tate, he presents potential for a major mismatch.
It will be fun to watch his progress and how Ebron fits in Detroit as a rookie. His presence significantly raises the ceiling for what this offense can accomplish.
4. Jim Caldwell
Here's a little behind-the-scenes look at the creative process...
When I initially started outlining this piece, new head coach Jim Caldwell was the first choice as the No. 1 option. He's the man in charge of all the other upgrades, after all; it only makes sense that someone with that level of power would have the most impact.
Yet the more I thought about the team, and how Caldwell would impact it, he slid down a bit. He's not going to make any tackles or force turnovers like Van Noy will, so that bumped him out of the top spot.
The two receivers, Tate and Ebron, were requisite additions in order to improve the Detroit offense. By the way, that offense will not be Caldwell's scheme from his tenures in Baltimore or Indianapolis either. He's giving free reign to Joe Lombardi to set up the offense.
Where the new coach will make his biggest impact is more in the abstract sense. Caldwell's calm professionalism and reserved emotions will be where he makes his mark.
Those qualities stand in stark contrast to Schwartz, who was infamous for his sideline eruptions and his inability to instill discipline in his players.
Caldwell will not be throwing headsets in disgust or picking fights in postgame handshakes. He also won't be enabling unprofessional behavior from his players or tolerating the stupid penalties that pockmarked Schwartz's tenure.
What Caldwell offers as an upgrade is less quantifiable than the players ranked above him here. Yet his impact upon the team as a whole cannot be understated, even though that's exactly how to describe Caldwell's demeanor.
5. The Coordinators
Sticking with the coaching staff, Caldwell made changes at both offensive and defensive coordinator.
Former Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin takes over the defense, while Joe Lombardi assumes the offensive role after several years as the quarterbacks coach in New Orleans.
There is a tangible excitement from the loyal Lions fans with the aggressive schemes both new coordinators promise. Deposed offensive guru Scott Linehan and defensive head Gunther Cunningham had both lost their edges and their units often underperformed at key times.
Austin's defense is expected to feature more blitzing and variable looks. Adding Van Noy affords more flexibility to use different fronts and bring pressure from more angles, a perfect piece to help implement the changes.
Lombardi is installing the same Saints offense that has blistered the league with over 400 yards per game in each of the last three seasons, including a record-setting 7,474 yards in the 2011 campaign. With talents like Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Matthew Stafford already established around a solid offensive line, the new look could produce awesome results quickly.
Neither Austin nor Lombardi has been a coordinator at the NFL level before, which tempers the enthusiasm a bit.
6. Nate Freese
This one is purely speculative, as the seventh-round pick hasn't even nailed down the place-kicking gig yet.
Still, Nate Freese's potential should provide an uptick at the position over faded veteran David Akers, who was unimpressive in his one Detroit campaign.
Freese did not miss a single field goal in his senior season at Boston College. One of those 20 makes was this 52-yard game-winner at Maryland as time expired after being iced by the Terrapins coach.
As an added bonus, Freese can also step in as a punter in case Sam Martin should get hurt in a game. He averaged over 41 yards per punt last year, per CFB Stats.
Of course, he first must beat out Giorgio Tavecchio for the job. Kicking is very much a results-oriented business; that's why Akers is no longer in Detroit. Freese's draft status gives him a slight leg up, but he will have to prove he's the man for the job.
7. James Ihedigbo
As with Freese, this is more of a hopeful upgrade than an obvious one. Safety James Ihedigbo will take over the starting role vacated by Louis Delmas, now in Miami.
Delmas was a more dynamic force, both on the field and in the locker room. However, Ihedigbo is coming off a better season and more fully embodies the literal meaning of the word "safety."
The Lions have traded inconsistent greatness with durability issues for more reliability and (hopefully) stability.
Ihedigbo is coming off a career year under Austin in Baltimore. His strong performance stands in stark contrast to his prior seasons, per PFF:
*Figures include playoff games
Even if his 2013 was a case of a journeyman having an unexpected career year and Ihedigbo regresses back to his prior self, he's still a useful component for Detroit. He knows Austin's defense and made his early mark as a special teams dynamo. At worst, he's made a thin position much deeper.
8. Nevin Lawson
The overwhelming outside perception of the Detroit Lions is that the team desperately needs to upgrade at cornerback. In fact, it's still getting listed as the biggest need by B/R colleague Alessandro Miglio.
Never mind that the starting spots are set with Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis, or that one of Miglio's proposed targets, Drayton Florence, was lousy as a Lion two years ago. The Lions happened to have drafted a player with starting potential in Nevin Lawson too.
As noted in the video above, Lawson more than makes up for his lack of height with his feisty nature and toughness. His run support and ability to press in the slot will allow him to contribute right away in Detroit.
The scouting report at Detroit Lions Draft pegged him as a second-round talent with "all the tools and ability to be an above-average slot corner that can also slide outside as the #2 if needed and hold his own."
Lawson has the potential to quickly emerge as a pleasant surprise that can help quell the deafening cry for more cornerback help. He should win the fourth corner spot right away, behind Slay, Mathis and Bill Bentley. He could even bump Bentley from the nickelback slot.
All advanced statistics, including snap counts, are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription for premium content.