By LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions avoided a potential distraction recently by agreeing on a deal that gives him the NFL’s richest contract .
He and the team still have a lot of work to do.
Detroit selected Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009 — after its infamous 0-16 season — and he has panned out, unlike many of the franchise’s picks. By drafting and keeping Stafford, the Lions have finally ended their decades-long search for a franchise quarterback.
He has a strong arm, a penchant for leading comebacks, and a likable presence in the locker room. He helped Detroit do enough to be in the 2016 playoffs despite a late-season slide, appearing in his third postseason in a six-season stretch.
Still, the Lions have been stuck on one playoff win for more than a quarter century and haven’t won an NFL championship in six decades.
Stafford is determined to give a desperate fan base something to cheer about in the playoffs.
“Health is a factor, and timing and all those kinds of things, but we’re an extremely talented team,” Stafford said after getting a $135 million, five-year extension. “We’ve got great depth. We’ve built that through the draft and free agency. Brought in some front-line starters, some guys that are going to fill out our roster and really help us win games.
“I expect great things from this team.”
Lions management must also believe better days are ahead. They removed a banner that simply listed postseason appearances as part of a $100 million project to refurbish Ford Field.
Here are some things to know about the Lions:
GROUNDED GAME: Detroit has ranked among the NFL’s worst in yards rushing the last three years. In Week 1 of 2016, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick combined for 120 yards receiving and 108 yards rushing in a 39-35 victory at Indianapolis. That was as good as it got. Abdullah hurt his left foot in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season. Riddick was limited to 10 games, missing five with an injured left wrist.
“I know we can do more than we did in that game,” Abdullah said. “And, we’ve both done what we can to get healthy and ready for the season.”
INJURY REPORT: The Lions will start without left tackle Taylor Decker, out indefinitely after shoulder surgery. Decker will be replaced by a highly motivated Greg Robinson, who the Los Angeles Rams traded even though they drafted him No. 2 overall just three years ago. Detroit’s passing game will be much better if tight end Eric Ebron (hamstring) and Riddick can overcome the injuries.
Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, limited much of last season with a sprained ankle, became even more important for the team when Kerry Hyder went down during the summer with a season-ending Achilles tendon.
“There are only a few guys that have the kind of explosion, power, size, that (Ansah) has,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We don’t have a lot of guys on our team like that, are genetically built the way he’s constructed. He can create some problems.”
The Lions put standout punter Sam Martin on the reserve/non-football injury list, giving Kasey Redfern a chance to make his NFL debut after spending time with Jacksonville, San Diego, Carolina and Cleveland.
RESHAPED LINE: The Lions let two starters go, Riley Reiff and Larry Warford in free agency, in free agency, and believe they upgraded by added veteran tackle Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang.
PLAYMAKING ROOKIES: Detroit desperately needs playmakers on defense and hopes it landed two in the draft. The Lions drafted Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis No. 21 overall, and one of his teammates, cornerback Teez Tabor, in the second round. Davis is expected to replace middle linebacker DeAndre Levy, who was cut during the offseason. Tabor is expected to be on the field when the Lions put five or six defensive backs in play.
TOUGH SLEDDING: Detroit has lost four straight games, including the postseason, and will have a hard time getting off to a good start. The Lions open up at home against a Cardinals team motivated to bounce back from a 7-8-1 season after winning 24 games the two previous years. They play the New York Giants on the road before returning to Ford Field to host the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.
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