It takes a village to replace a Megatron
There is structure and reason behind just about everything that occurs during an NFL training camp, so Lions coordinator Jim Bob Cooter no doubt had control over his offense's alignment during a red zone drill at an early August practice. But the constant shifting of personnel still gave the exercises the feel of a speed-dating session.
On the first snap new receiver Marvin Jones lined up to quarterback Matthew Stafford's right. Golden Tate was on the outside to the left, with Anquan Boldin in the slot and tight end Eric Ebron on the line. For the next play Boldin flipped sides, shifting wide to Stafford's right, bumping Jones to the slot on that side and ceding his previous position in the left slot to Ebron. On the next play, after a personnel change, running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver T.J. Jones spread the field, each flanked inside by a tight end.
And on it went. The Lions cannot replace the retired Calvin Johnson in the cosmic sense, but they are hoping that many players, deployed smartly, can compensate for the loss of a surefire Hall of Famer.
Boldin, who signed with Detroit in late July, likes their chances. "If you look at the weapons we have on offense—myself, Marvin, Golden Tate," he says. "Look at our tight ends, at Theo [Riddick] coming out of the backfield with 80 receptions last year. It's scary. There's a lot of guys who can create problems."
That's the plan, anyway. The Lions hired former Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn as general manager on Jan. 8, at which point he began acquiring the playmakers needed to survive in a Megatron-less world. Signing a receiver such as Marvin Jones (who had 65 catches for 816 yards with the Bengals last season) was a necessity. Persuading Boldin to come was a bonus. Though 35, he remains productive, and his knack for making contested catches should help Stafford get over the loss of his longtime safety net.
Boldin's presence will limit the touches for T.J. Jones, a promising sixth-round pick from 2014, and it also may leave little room for Quinn's other veteran additions at receiver: Andre Caldwell, Jeremy Kerley and Andre Roberts. But rather suddenly, despite bidding adieu to Johnson, the Lions have serious depth out wide.
Tight end is less of a certainty, with Brandon Pettigrew returning from a left-ACL injury he suffered last December. But Ebron, the 2014 first-round pick who hurt his right ankle during an August intrasquad mock game, could be a breakout star. If summer practices were any indication, he will be given many of Johnson's red zone opportunities. Detroit would sometimes shift Megatron into the slot for matchup purposes, and the 6'4", 253-pound Ebron creates similar issues for opposing defenders. Adjustments such as these will be everything for Cooter, who will have to tweak his scheme to accommodate the changes in personnel without sacrificing the momentum his offense built over last season's second half, after he took over as coordinator for the fired Joe Lombardi.
The Lions' defense faces questions of its own, such as who will win the starting cornerback job vacated by the retired Rashean Mathis. The unit's production tumbled last year with the departure of tackle Ndamukong Suh and the loss of linebacker DeAndre Levy to injury.
It is the offense, though, that is under the gun this season. Here's an encouraging historical note: Detroit actually made the playoffs the season after Barry Sanders's sudden retirement and did so without a dominant rusher. Detroit hopes its new, diverse attack reaps similar dividends.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
In 2014 the Lions ranked first defending the run, and they finished 11--5. Last year their run defense fell to 19th, and their record to 7--9. Yes, some of that slide can be attributed to the free-agency departure of All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But it was also due to a hip injury that sidelined linebacker DeAndre Levy for nearly the whole season. When healthy, Levy is as keen as anyone in the league at identifying plays and picking angles to the ball. That's important because it gives the Lions a run-stopping presence in their five-DB, two-LB nickel package. The plus side for a defense in the nickel: There's more athleticism on the field, which helps in pass coverage. The downside: By subbing a corner for a linebacker, there's less size in the box—and, often, one less body in the box—and that means more room to run. A 'backer with Levy's range and instincts can offset this disadvantage.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 5--11
2015 Record: 7--9
SEPT. 11 atIND
SEPT. 18 vs.TEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atGB
OCT. 2 atCHI
OCT. 9 vs.PHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 vs.LA
OCT. 23 vs.WAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 atHOU
NOV. 6 atMIN
NOV. 20 vs.JAX
NOV. 24 vs.MIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 atNO
DEC. 11 vs.CHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 atNYG
DEC. 26 atDAL
JAN. 1 vs.GB
= PREDICTED WINNER