The Detroit Lions are coming off an 11-win playoff season. They have made the postseason twice in the last four years, and they return enough talent to make it three-for-five in 2015. Despite a couple of big-name losses, the Lions also brought in several new players in free agency and the draft who can contribute immediately.
The glaring departure is defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but otherwise, Detroit tampered down attrition. It returns Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, five starters along the offensive line, DeAndre Levy, Darius Slay, Ziggy Ansah and more. The Lions can rightfully expect to contend sooner than later.
Detroit's new additions may hold the key to its success. Haloti Ngata will be tasked with making up Suh's difference, and at the very least, he should aptly fill the run-stuffing component of the job description. The NFL Draft haul, meanwhile, will be counted upon to produce immediate starters. If the rookies perform, the Lions could conceivably take down the Green Bay Packers for division supremacy.
The Lions' draft class was well regarded across the board. The biggest names appear to be physically and mentally ready for the league. Let's take a look at the impact they could make for the Lions.
LT: Riley Reiff, Cornelius Lucas
LG: Laken Tomlinson, Manny Ramirez
C: Travis Swanson, Darren Keyton
RG: Larry Warford, Al Bond
RT: LaAdrian Waddle, Michael Williams
Rookies: OG Laken Tomlinson (1st round, No. 28), OT Corey Robinson (7th round, No. 240)
The Lions revealed their plans for the 2015 offense from their first pick of the draft. The second pick confirmed those plans: Detroit wants a running game to match its passing capability. It's telling that the Lions went for offensive guard Laken Tomlinson at No. 28 when they seemed to have a bigger need at tackle. Tomlinson is a road grader in its purest form. His scouting reports were filled with superlatives about his character, his IQ and his stout frame.
The Lions have two good offensive guards at the moment -- Manny Ramirez, who they received in a trade with the Denver Broncos, and Larry Warford, who was a reliable starter last season after being drafted in 2013. Tomlinson is projected to start day one, however, and it'll be a good sign if he does. The Lions may be in fine shape if he sits, but they're in potentially great shape if he immediately assume responsibility.
Projected starters: Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, George Winn
Rookies: RB Ameer Abdullah (2nd round, No. 54), FB Michael Burton (5th round, No. 168)
Ameer Abdullah was the Lions' second injection to help the running game. Like Tomlinson, he has been exalted for his character.
And like Tomlinson, the sooner Abdullah gets comfortable within the offense, the better. On the field, he plays somewhat like an upgraded version of Theo Riddick, who was a good pass catcher out of the backfield for the Lions last season. Abdullah is about the same size -- measuring in at 5'10, 201 pounds at the Combine -- with plus-explosiveness and physicality.
Abdullah should become a complement to Joique Bell, who has the same versatility in a bigger frame. Bell became the Lions' bell cow last season in place of an oft-injured Reggie Bush. He still averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, however. Assuming Abdullah is capable of handling a more substantial load of the running game than Bush, Bell's effectiveness should improve.
DT: Haloti Ngata, Caraun Reid
DT: Tyrunn Walker, Gabe Wright
Rookie: DT Gabe Wright (4th round, No. 113)
If Ngata is supposed to be the 1:1 replacement for Suh (at least, that's the idea), Gabe Wright is Nick Fairley's corollary. Fairley was in the midst of a dominant season before suffering a knee injury. Yet the Lions opted to let him sign with the Rams instead of picking up his fifth-year option. The team may have taken issue with inconsistency, including weight issues, during his time in Detroit. Whether it made the smart move will be answered in short order.
The Lions will be moving forward, regardless. In Wright, for whom they traded into the fourth round to snag, they have a comparable player to Fairley. Both were disruptive interior defensive linemen in college (both played at Auburn) capable of rushing passers and stopping the run. Where they differ is in temperament -- Wright went out of his way to avoid personal fouls -- and outright dominance. Fairley's best in college topped Wright's, who was projected to go in the second or third round before falling to the Lions.
So the tradeoff in talent for Detroit is somewhat mitigated by a lesser headache. To see playing time, Wright will have to beat out fourth-year Tyrunn Walker, who has played everywhere along the defensive line and is more known for his pass rushing prowess than run-stuffing ability. Once again, Walker is a good, known commodity. If Wright takes on a starting role, it'll be a good sign for the defense. His path to a starting role in his first season isn't as clear as Tomlinson's or Abdullah's.
LCB: Darius Slay, Alex Carter
RCB: Rashean Mathis, Bill Bentley
Nickel: Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs
Rookies: Alex Carter (3rd round, No. 80), Quandre Diggs (6th round, No. 200)
The Lions aren't desperate for starters in the secondary. At the moment, they have two good players at the corners in veteran Rashean Mathis and third-year Darius Slay. That makes third-rounder Alex Carter and sixth-rounder Quandre Diggs more like building blocks for the future. Mathis, who will be 35 when the season starts, won't be playing much longer.
Carter and Diggs have different skill sets. Carter is a bigger corner and an aggressive tackler. He's physically capable of playing in his first year. Diggs feels like a flier. He's stands just 5'9, and beyond his outstanding quickness he possesses few great physical traits. The hope will be that he can be come an instinctual short-area pass defender.
Neither may see a lot of playing time with capable players ahead of them. If they do see a lot of the field, and the Lions haven't suffered a serious injury at the position, it would mean they've played their way into position. Otherwise, if you don't see much of Carter or Diggs, don't panic. Their time may have just not yet come.