By: Will Burchfield
With Christmas six days away, it’s high time to finish your wish list. What are the Lions hoping for this year?
Well, most immediately, they’d love two losses by the Falcons paired with two wins of their own, resulting in a playoff berth for the third time in the last four years. But that’s a big ask, and on very short notice.
It’s also not a practical gift. It’s shiny and enticing, no doubt, but the Lions won’t be any better for it down the road. In that light — and considering a playoff berth is highly unlikely to begin with — let’s assemble a wish list for 2018 and beyond.
1. A Lead Running Back
Where else to start? It’s the Lions’ most glaring need, and has been for quite some time. You know the stats. A bottom-five rushing attack each of the past four years. Not a single 100-yard rusher in a game since 2013. Just seven during Matthew Stafford’s career. This thing is ugly, and it won’t fix itself.
Bob Quinn neglected to address the problem last offseason other than to sign Tion Green, believing he had the answer in Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick. He didn’t. Abdullah has lost his job as the No. 1 back, and neither Riddick nor Green is fit to replace him.
It’s time for Quinn to bring in someone else. In the draft, names like Derrius Guice (LSU), Ronald Jones II (USC) and Nick Chubb (Georgia) are intriguing. Free agency figures to be relatively bare outside of veterans such as Frank Gore, LeGarrette Blount and Carlos Hyde.
Le’Veon Bell is a wild card, especially if the Steelers don’t franchise tag him for the second consecutive season, but he’d likely be out of the Lions’ price range.
2. Offensive Line Stability
What appeared to be a strength for the Lions entering OTAs has instead been a weakness. It began with the loss of left tackle Taylor Decker in the summer and grew worse with injuries to the team’s two big-ticket free agent signings, right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner. Left guard Graham Glasgow is the only member of the team’s starting offensive line to not miss a game this season.
Still, the pieces are there. The Lions will have to figure out what to do with free agent center Travis Swanson, but they’re set everywhere else. If the offensive line is blessed with good health in 2018 it can fulfill the potential it possesses on paper. Keep Matthew Stafford on his feet and pave some more roads for the run game, and this offense can be elite.
3. This Eric Ebron
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the mercurial 24-year-old. He was awful in the first half and his time in Detroit looked finished in advance of the trade deadline. But the Lions hung onto him, and he’s been one of the best tight ends in the league ever since.
In the last seven games, Ebron has caught 32 of 40 targets for 322 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also been noticeably more reserved in his interactions with the media and the team’s fans (especially on social media). Jim Caldwell believes the two trends are connected.
“It’s really a good thing, absolutely,” Caldwell said last week. “Oftentimes that’s with anybody. The less they talk, I think the more they can concentrate on what’s going on in terms of trying to do what they’re getting paid to do.”
The Lions aren’t tied to Ebron beyond this season. (His $8.5 million option for 2018 is only guaranteed for injury.) But his performance of late may convince the team to bring him back. If that’s the case, the Lions have to hope this version of Ebron — quiet off the field, loud on it — sticks around.
4. More From Jarrad Davis
It’s been an up-and-down season for the rookie, a fact he hasn’t tried hiding from. Plugged in right away at middle linebacker, Davis was solid early on, struggled though the middle portion of the schedule after missing two games with a concussion, and has played his best ball of late.
His performance on Saturday versus the Bears was what the Lions envisioned when they drafted him in the first round of the 2017 draft: six tackles, dominant against the run and fully in charge of the defense. He said afterward it was probably his best game of the year.
It’s not a surprise it came in December. After three months in the NFL, the 22-year-old is beginning to see things on the field that he was missing at first. The game is slowing down for him mentally. For the Lions’ investment in Davis to pay off, that growth needs to continue.
5. A Change On The Sideline
Yes, Jim Caldwell is the Lions’ winningest head coach in the Super Bowl era. He’s guided the team to the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. The players all seem to respect him.
But is he the coach who’s going to take this franchise to the next level? He’s had multiple chances over the past four years and has squandered each one. He’s 0-2 in division-deciding games, 0-2 in the playoffs and his team blew a golden opportunity this year with the NFC North up for grabs.
Caldwell deserves credit for lifting the Lions from embarrassing to respectable. But if they’re going to take the next step, they’ll likely need to hire someone else. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks are two names of interest.