The Detroit Lions will enter the 2016-17 season with a team similar to what fans following the team have seen the last few years. All the key names from last year's team have been retained, with few exceptions.
Lions make very few changes on offense except wide receiver
With the exception of wide receivers, the Lions offense looks almost exactly the same as last season. Matthew Stafford will still be the starting quarterback, running backs will include Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah (Joique Bell was released during the offseason) and tight ends will still be lead by Eric Ebron.
The big changes for the Lions came at wide receiver. Outside of the loss of superstar Calvin Johnson, the Lions added veteran Anquan Boldin and top free agent Marvin Jones to help replace him. The two acquisitions will join Golden Tate as the team's leading receivers this coming season for Stafford.
The Lions will likely still be a heavy passing team next season. Despite the loss of Johnson, the Lions did enough to try and bring back some of his production with Boldin and Jones that the team will still have a competent passing attack if the two signings and Tate, entering his second season with Stafford at the helm, can all stay healthy.
The offensive line unit only has one change, with first round draft pick Taylor Decker from Ohio State starting at left tackle this season, with Riley Reiff sliding over to the right tackle slot to start over Cornelius Lucas.
Defense looks very similar to last season also
While the offense saw some drastic changes to wide receiver, but very little changes elsewhere, with only one new starter (first rounder Decker) outside of wide receiver, the Defense is in a very similar state. Every starter on defense except for Rafael Bush (replacing James Ihedigbo) was on the team last season.
Devin Taylor, Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, Ziggy Ansah, Deandre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Kyle Van Noy and Darius Slay are among the names Lions fans are likely familiar with from last year, while young corners Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs could see some time on the field against multiple wide receiver sets. Glover Quinn will also be returning to help lead the secondary along with Slay.
Stories to watch for heading into this season
One thing to watch will be how the Lions open their season. Jim Caldwell and his staff could be on the hot seat early on with a rough start to the season. Martha Ford (the Lions' owner) just last year shook the team up midseason last year, and is not afraid to do it again this year if she has to.
Another thing to watch will be Matthew Stafford. He's had a lot of early success running the no-huddle offense installed under Jim Bob Cooter last season. Will this continue, and how will he do in his first pro season without Calvin Johnson? He will likely have to spread the ball around more, but has three good wide receivers he can try to do that with for the first time in his career.
Additionally, how will the Lions defense do? Will they be able to stay healthy all season and be a top 10 defense, or will injuries decimate the team and force depth players to step up and contribute? Against top teams like Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers, Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears in the division, will the Lions be able to pull out wins?
Finally, how will the Lions react in close games? Penalties cost them key games last year vs. the Packers (Rodgers' ESPY-winning last second hail mary) and the Seattle Seahawks (ball tipped out of bounds by Kam Chancellor inside two minutes), the Lions also cost themselves their first playoff win in over a decade two years ago with a late penalty call against the Dallas Cowboys that cost them a fourth down conversion late in the game.
Ultimately, this team still has a way to go to be a significant threat. The Lions lost by 35 to the Kansas City Chiefs, 25 to the Arizona Cardinals last year.
There are some bright spots from last season too
The Lions could have been 9-7 had both last minute calls gone their way, they lost both games to the Vikings and Teddy Bridgewater (out for the season) by nine and ten points, making both of those games winnable this season. Detroit held close with Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos in a 12 point loss, and only lost by 5 against the San Diego Chargers in week one last year.
The Lions last year walked out of Lambeau with their first win in 20 years, obliterated the Philadelphia Eagles 45-14 on Thanksgiving, beat the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, finished the year with a win at Soldier Field (Chicago) in a game that was pointless for the team at the time, and held off the Oakland Raiders for a five-point win at home.
This year's schedule easier than last by a lot
Last year, the Lions played several playoff teams, including the defending NFC champions on the road, the eventual Super Bowl champs later that season the Broncos at home, two games each against the Vikings (with Bridgewater) and Packers, the Cardinals at home who finished 13-3, and a game in Kansas City who finished 11-5.
This adds up to 8/16 games against playoff teams last year. This year, the team will play the Packers twice, the eventual NFC East division winners once and the eventual AFC South division winner once, meaning there's only 3 games set in stone - division winners. The NFC East is looking to be the weakest division in football next year with the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Carson Wentz's Philadelphia Eagles and the Tony Romo-less Dallas Cowboys. The AFC South will be a little bit more challenging with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, JJ Watt and the Houston Texans, first round pick Jalen Ramsey joining Dante Fowler Jr. from the 2015 draft and young prospect Myles Jack on the Jacksonville Jaguars defense, and the Tennessee Titans lead by mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The additional two games will be against the New Orleans Saints headed by Drew Brees, and first overall pick Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams.
Arguably the best positive for the Lions about this schedule: there will only be one game in the cold; a December game against the New York Giants. The Lions will play in Lambeau at the end of September in week three and immediately head to Soldier Field the next week to play their game in Chicago the first week of October. With Ford Field being domed, the two late season games against the Packers and Bears will not be weather affected. The Lions actually play eight of their last nine games in domed stadiums (four road games against the Vikings, Texans, Saints, and Cowboys are retractable roof games). The last completely outdoor game of the season could be as early as October 23rd in Washington D.C. prior to a game against the Giants on December 18th.
This writer's predictions for this season:
Week 1: Away vs. Indianapolis. Prediction: 24-17 loss.
Week 2: Home vs. Tennessee. Prediction: 35-14 win.
Week 3: Away vs. Green Bay. Prediction: 35-24 loss.
Week 4: Away vs. Chicago. Prediction: 35-10 win.
Week 5: Home vs. Philadelphia. Prediction: 35-21 win.
Week 6: Home vs. Los Angeles. Prediction: 21-20 loss.
Week 7: Home vs. Washington. Prediction: 35-32 loss.
Week 8: Away vs. Houston. Prediction: 14-10 win.
Week 9: Away vs. Minnesota. Prediction: 27-17 win.
Week 10: Bye Week.
Week 11: Home vs. Jacksonville. Prediction: 17-3 win.
Week 12: Home vs. Minnesota. Prediction: 21-17 win.
Week 13: Away vs. New Orleans. Prediction: 35-32 loss.
Week 14: Home vs. Chicago. Prediction: 28-17 win.
Week 15: Away vs. New York Giants (weather affected). Prediction: 14-10 loss
Week 16: Away vs. Dallas (Monday Night). Prediction: 21-17 loss if Romo comes back. If he does not: 17-13 win.
Week 17: Home vs. Green Bay (Playoff relevance). Prediction: 42-3 loss.
Record prediction: 9-7. The Lions will return back to a winning record, but will still not be able to make the playoffs quite yet. Passing them will be the division winners (Packers, Carolina Panthers, Cardinals, and Redskins) and the two wildcard teams (Seahawks and Saints). The Lions loss on the last day of the season vs. the Packers will kill their hopes of making the playoffs, but will be just enough to save Jim Caldwell's job another season. Key losses against the Saints (the team who will pass them for the final wildcard spot) and back to back losses vs. the Rams and Redskins at home in the middle of the season could come back to bite the Lions. Another game the Lions could win, the Giants, may be weather affected, and due to the team's lack of weather affected games this season, the Lions could find their playoff chances slipping out of their hands late in the season.
How can the Lions make the playoffs?
The simple, easy way the Lions can make the playoffs is by not committing late game penalties that cost them close games. Another way is to take advantage of home field. 3/7 losses projected by this writer are home games, including two against average teams in the Redskins and Rams. The Lions have the talent to win against good teams (see the Houston projected win), but also have the lack of discipline commonly seen by teams who lose against worse teams.
The key to the Lions having any semblance of success next year will be staying healthy, particularly on defense where there is quite little depth outside of the secondary. Matthew Stafford's health could be the difference between the first overall pick in next year's draft if he gets injured and a playoff spot if he's healthy all year.
If the Lions can stay healthy, particularly Stafford, the key to success will be the defense, particularly the front seven. Ziggy Ansah will need to have an elite season (he's projected by multiple writers to have 10+ sacks). The linebacking trio of Levy, Whitehead and Van Noy could be crucial to stuffing the run and rushing the passer. Lions fans do believe that Teryl Austin will use what he has effectively, but what he will be able to use is ultimately the question, and what could be the difference between a sub-.500 record and winning the team's first playoff game in 25 years (Dallas Cowboys- 1991).