(Sigh), here we are again, Lions fans. The franchise bought into a coaching philosophy and culture change, adopted said philosophy, and bailed. Hire, fire, rinse and repeat. That’s the unfortunate truth of life in the NFL. But, as a Lions fan, it feels like we’ve been here all too many times. We bought into the Jeff Fisher coaching tree with the Jim Schwartz hire in 2009, the Tony Dungy coaching tree with the hiring of Jim Caldwell in 2014 (who is the winningest coach in franchise history with a record of 36-28), and the most unfortunate hiring of them all, adopting the Bill Belichick coaching tree by importing New England products in former General Manager Bob Quinn and former Head Coach Matt Patricia. With the most recent philosophical adoption, where did it all go wrong?
Much of the fault has been blamed on former Head Coach Patricia, and rightfully so. He was brought to Detroit to “get the team over the hump” that Coach Caldwell could not lead the team over. Patricia failed to live up to his role as the “defensive guru”, we saw in New England—which begs the question, was he ever a defensive guru, or was it all Coach Belichick? This question or one similar to it has been brought up with nearly every Head Coach that has descended from the Belichick coaching tree, since nearly all of them (the jury is still out on Giants HC Joe Judge and Miami HC Brian Flores, who looks to be a gem), have crashed and burned running their own franchises. Need I mention the Josh McDaniels era in Denver?
Although Patricia had his failings as a Head Coach with his player management, defensive philosophy, prickly personality with the media, and complete unwillingness to admit when issues emerged with his defense—we must not forget that former General Manager Bob Quinn shoulders half the blame for the current dumpster fire, if not more. For one, Quinn was the man who brought Patricia to Detroit and ousted Coach Caldwell, who was well-liked by players and at the very least, winning games. Quinn’s love affair with current and ex-Patriot players is one aspect of his mismanagement that sunk the franchise into an even deeper hole than it started in.
Signing former Patriots in Trey Flowers (5-years, $90 million), Justin Coleman (4-years, $36 million), who was the highest paid slot corner in the league at the time of signing, and Danny Amendola (1-year, $4.5 million). Not to mention the numerous trades made for Patriot “culture” guys (ie. Duron Harmon) and frequently swapping draft picks with the Patriot front office. It’s obvious that with the Quinn-Patricia era in Detroit, there was too much of the Patriot Way. No organization has successfully duplicated Bill Belichick’s culture in New England; the most likely reasoning being Belichick is the only coach who can pull it off.
Let’s not dwell on the past anymore. The QuinnTricia era is thankfully behind us and it’s time to look to the future. So, where do we go from here, Lions fans? At the time of writing this article, the Detroit Lions are 4-7 and sit at the bottom of the NFC North. It’s time to take a deep dive on what the future holds for this franchise and what they need to do in order to become a sustainably successful franchise for years to come. I’m not guaranteeing a title in this article; I’m simply stating what I believe to be their best course of action, given the circumstances. Buckle up Lions fans, it’s not pretty. We’re looking at a hard reset.
Step 1: Lose Out
Let’s face the facts, the Lions are in no position to make a run at anything meaningful this season. Their offense has become vanilla and predictable since losing WR Kenny Golladay and RB D’Andre Swift from the starting lineup. The offense can’t stay in games and the defense is one of the worst in the league in points allowed, run defense and passing defense. I don’t want to sound defeatist, but the Lions NEED to lose games to get the best possible draft position going into a loaded 2021 draft class where they only potential have four draft picks (see draft section for further explanation).
Step 2: Get the next Head Coach and General Manager
This step is perhaps the most crucial to the Lions aforementioned rebuild. Picking the right Head Coach and General Manager combo is going to be what makes or break this process—as it always does. There is a laundry list of Head Coach candidates that should be on the Lions’ radar, but here is my short list of who I think is actually a good fit in the Motor City (and no, it’s not Jim Harbaugh).
1. Robert Saleh – Defensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
This candidate is getting the most buzz around coaching circles as the next Head Coach of the Detroit Lions. The fit almost makes too much sense. Saleh is a Dearborn, MI native and still has family in the state. While he is another defensive-minded coach like former HC Patricia, there is one key difference—players like him. Widely-respected San Francisco 49er cornerback Richard Sherman has publicly advocated for Saleh to be the next HC in Detroit. Players have had nothing but positive things to say about DC Saleh, which is the complete opposite of what current and former Lions are saying about Patricia and his exit. The proof is in the pudding when you look at the defensive performances the 49ers have had under his tenure, including their ability to still stop the opponent from scoring with a bevy of star players injured, as is the case for San Francisco in 2020. Saleh is my top candidate to fill the HC void and, as of now, the most likely.
Update: As of 12/4/2020, Michigan Lawmakers are petitioning for Sale to be the next HC of the Lions. Per sportsillustrated.com
2. Eric Bieniemy – Offensive Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
Conductor of what many consider to be the best offense in the league, Bieniemy was a hot name in coaching circles last offseason, as he should’ve been. I fully expect Bieniemy’s name to be in the running for the Detroit vacancy, especially if ownership decides to go the opposite route of the old regime and pursue an offensive-minded coach. The only caveat to this candidate is, how good is he without Patrick Mahomes? The best quarterback in football can cover a lot of flaws and it remains to be seen what a Bieniemy-led offense looks like without a Top 5 QB at the helm (sorry Stafford truthers).
3. Joe Brady – Offensive Coordinator, Carolina Panthers
This one may seem a bit odd, considering Brady just recently made the leap from college to the pros in his new position as OC of the Panthers. Brady is my third favorite of the available candidates, albeit from a small sample size. Brady seems to get the most out of his offensive players, as evidenced by his more than competent offense with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm, even with the absence of star running back Christian McCaffrey for the majority of this season. As Lions fans, we’ve seen first-hand what this offense can do, as seen with backup QB P.J. Walker carving up the Lions defense on limited first-team reps and in his first ever NFL start.
1. Thomas Dimitroff, Former Atlanta Falcons General Manager
Say what you will about the Atlanta Falcons and their recent late-game woes, but former General Manager Dimitroff obviously knows how to assemble a competent football team. His most famous draft picks during his tenure with the Falcons being current franchise QB Matt Ryan, star WR Julio Jones, hits at RB in Devonta Freeman and to a lesser extent, Tevin Coleman, and budding star WR Calvin Ridley. In his 12-year run as GM of the Falcons (2008-2020), Dimitroff boasts a record of 113-90, with a Super Bowl appearance that many Falcons fans remember painfully. Don’t let his exit from the Falcons leave a sour taste in your mouth on the prospects of him being the next GM in Detroit.
2. Louis Riddick, Former Philadelphia Eagles Director of Player Personnel, Current ESPN Analyst
I’m not a fan of TV commentators becoming GMs—usually. However, the prospects of Riddick as the next GM of the Lions are not unfounded, because he actually has NFL front office experience. The GM hires of Mike Mayock in Vegas (former NFL Network analyst) and the infamous Matt Millen hire in Detroit had less validity than this, because those candidates did not have any experience in an NFL front office. Riddick does. Riddick started his career as a scout for the then-Washington Redskins in 2001 and was the director of pro personnel with the team from 2005-2007. From there, Riddick went on to become a scout for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008, assistant director of pro personnel in 2009, and became the director of pro personnel from 2010-2013. His quick rise up the NFL front office personnel ladder with two different organization proves his promise. Don’t dismiss Riddick’s candidacy just because he’s on TV, this one has some merit to it.
3. Chris Spielman, Former Detroit Lions and Current NFL Commentator
Another prospect from the broadcast booth to the front office of an NFL franchise and one of the fan favorites for the GM vacancy in Detroit comes in the form of former Lions linebacker, Chris Spielman. After receiving an endorsement from Lions legend Herman Moore, there has been more chatter about a potential Spielman hire. There are some reasons for hope if Spielman ends up being the hire for Detroit, as his brother is the current GM of the division-rival Minnesota Vikings. While Spielman is a trendy pick for the position, I would prefer someone who already has NFL front office experience to lead this team in a new direction.
Step 3: Re-Sign Kenny Golladay, commit to “The Purge”
(Salary Cap numbers are provided from Sportrac.com)
There are a few bad contracts on this team, the most of which the team will be stuck with in the short term. The Lions do, however, need to resign star WR Kenny Golladay. This has to be priority #1 for whoever is the hire at HC/GM. There is no good in-house replacement for Golladay and he is one of the few draft gems of the Bob Quinn era.
Expiring Contracts (let them walk):
The following is a list of players with expiring contracts in 2021 and who I believe the Lions should let walk. To briefly explain, Harmon is a Patriot holdover from the previous era, Griffen is in the middle of a bounce-back season at age 32 and will likely command more than we should realistically pay him, Amendola is aging out, Jarrad Davis was an obvious first round bust, Peterson does not fit the timeline of a rebuild, and the rest are “meh” players that can be found elsewhere and replaced via free agency and the draft.
Contracts to Shed Via Trade or Release:
Before I get into this section of the article, I want to acknowledge the “trade Matthew Stafford" movement. I’m all for building up draft capital for a rebuild, but I don’t think this one is going to happen. The reason why? If the Lions were to trade or release Matthew Stafford, it incurs a $34.95 million cap hit and leads the Lions to a $24.85 million dead cap figure in 2021. This contract is, for all intensive purpose, untradeable and uncuttable until 2022, where the easiest out in the contract lies. So, Stafford is likely a Lion for 2021. There are other contracts on this team that cannot be shed without a massive cap penalty, the likes of which include: Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, Halapoulivaati Vatai (or Big V for short).
The cap space heading into 2021 before any financial moves is $969,033, one of the worst figures in the league. It’s obvious some fat needs to be trimmed on the roster.
-Cut Chase Daniel (saves $2.3 mil)
-Cut Danny Shelton (saves $4 mil)
-Cut Christian Jones (saves $2.57 mil)
-Cut Desmond Trufant (saves $6.5 mil)
-Cut Jesse James (saves $2.142 mil)
-Cut Nick Williams (saves $4.7 mil)
-Cut Justin Coleman (saves $4.942 mil)
With these cuts being made (assuming these players are unable to be traded) this leaves the Lions with a salary cap space of $28,110,533 heading into the loaded 2021 Free Agency period.
According to overthecap.com, the Lions need approximately $6.08 million dollars in cap space to sign their 2021 draft class, so let’s set aside that amount from the total cap space, which brings us to approximately $22.02 million in cap space that is usable for 2021 free agency. For the Kenny Golladay contract extension, we’ll use Keenan Allen’s recent extension as a ballpark estimate for cap hit in 2021. Allen’s contract carries a $10.35 million cap hit for 2020, so we’ll assume a $10 million cap hit for Golladay’s contract in 2021, bringing our available cap space to $12.02 million. On to free agency.
Step 4: Free Agency – Don’t Swing for the Fences
What I mean by “don’t swing for the fences," is the Lions are not in a cap situation or team situation to spend big on free agents, as they did last year. The Lions need to identify young redemption projects with high draft capital to add to the team. We need to buy-low on cheap talent with high upside, that can be developed under the right coaching staff. I’ve identified a few potential free agency fits below. Please note, I did not provide contract details, as some of these contracts will depend on how players perform the rest of the season.
John Ross, WR, Cincinnati Bengals:
Say what you will about the former first round pick, but he has not gotten any sort of opportunity to prove himself this season, even though he’s finally healthy. There’s no way the Bengals bring him back and with Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola out the door, the Lions need an injection of youth and speed in this offense—desperately. A player like Ross can likely be had on a one-year minimum contract. Bonus: he can fill the kick and punt returning role Jamal Agnew is vacating.
Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts:
Marlon Mack?! Yes, Marlon Mack. Coming off an Achilles tear which occurred very early on in the NFL season, Mack is a productive and young NFL back that can be had for cheap, due to his unfortunate injury. It’s obvious the Lions backfield has trouble staying healthy, with the oft-injured Kerryon Johnson and an increasingly concerning concussion with D’Andre Swift. Mack is merely an insurance policy. If it doesn’t work out due to his health, no harm done.
Rashard Higgins, WR, Cleveland Browns:
A consistent chain mover in Cleveland, Higgins can be a cheap version of the Danny Amendola/Golden Tate/Nate Burleson slot receiver that Stafford has enjoyed utilizing throughout his career. Higgins is perennially underrated as a sure-handed route running technician.
I am omitting potential defensive free agency signings for the time being, since many defensive signings depend on the defensive coordinator and coaching staff that is brought in. Offense is much easier to fill-in, since players tend to be less scheme-specific. Also, the team doesn’t have a lot of cap flexibility, so I don’t expect them to go hog wild in 2021 free agency.
Step 5: The Draft
If the Lions lose out the rest of this season, which seems unlikely, they project to be at the very top of the draft board in each round. While we won’t know the exact draft position for about a month, we can project some prospects the Lions should target in each round. The top needs for the Lions going into the 2021 draft are as follows and in order or priority: wide receiver, linebacker, pass-rusher. These are three premier positions that tend to be taken near the top of drafts.
I’ll do my best to project my best prospects for each round. The Lions only own 5 2021 draft picks, which makes it that much more important to hit on the prospects they are able to draft. Looking closer, the Lions are only guaranteed 4 2021 draft picks, since the Round 5 and Round 6 picks may belong to the Cowboys as part of the Everson Griffen trade (this is barring certain stipulations in the trade that are tied to player performance being met). So, the Lions have the following picks: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3, Round 4, (they sent their 2021 Round 7 pick to the Seattle Seahawks as part of the Quandre Diggs trade, ugh).
Round 1: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
While I’ve identified wide receiver as the Lions’ biggest need in 2021, Parsons is the type of prospect at linebacker they cannot afford to pass up at the top of the 1st round. The WR group in 2021 is much deeper than LB is and Parsons is the type of tone-setter the Lions sorely need on the defensive side of the football.
Round 2: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan
Hutchinson is a well-coached prospect that can provide a pass-rushing punch opposite Trey Flowers. He should go high in the 2nd round, so this pick is as much needs-based as it is value-based.
Round 3: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
This pick projects for an even further slide of Moore’s draft stock. He was once considered the best WR in the 2021 class, but has seen his stock slide in recent months. Moore is the type of WR the Lions need to place opposite of Kenny Golladay to ensure a potent passing offense for years to come. Imagine a WR making plays like these highlights on the other side of Kenny Golladay.
Round 4: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama:
By cutting Chase Daniel and letting David Blough walk, the Lions find themselves in need of a cheap, young backup behind incumbent starter Matthew Stafford. Stafford has had a litany of injuries the past few seasons, so a viable backup is a must. I also believe the Lions need to start taking shots on young QBs in the draft, as Stafford’s time in Detroit is coming to an end sooner, rather than later.
That’s the whole draft, as of now. You can thank Bob Quinn for that, Detroit.
Step 6: Rinse and Repeat the Previous Steps
I’m sorry Detroit, but the Lions have more holes than can fixed in one year without salary cap and trade magic happening. Have we seen quick turnarounds in the NFL? Of course. However, the Lions' impending cap situation and draft capital is going to make that extremely difficult to achieve. The Lions are going to need to shed bad contracts in Matthew Stafford, Trey Flowers, and others in 2022 in order to regain long-term control of their cap. They also need to hit on draft picks for at least two years to rebuild a young core that was gutted for “scheme-friendly” veterans by the QuinnTricia era. Unfortunately, it’s a long road ahead.
Before you’re done reading, I have one question for you. Do you want 5-10 more years of mediocrity, or do you want a championship team? I’ll let you decide for yourself, but I know that personally, I am sick and tired of the “same old Lions”.
This moniker has been born from the inability to successfully blow up a roster into a true rebuild, from the ground up. In order to actually turn this franchise around, the fan base needs to commit to and support a full-scale rebuild, in the model of the current Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers teams. If we stay true to the old ways of Lions football, we’re sure to be looking at a lifetime more of losing records and mediocre finishes. The Lions need to take the road less travelled.
It’s time to Restore The Roar, the right way.
Thank you for reading. As a life-long Lions fan, it wasn’t easy to stare down the barrel at what this franchise needs. I appreciate all of you who have stuck through this article to the end, since it is a beast. Let’s hope for the best going forward, and Go Lions.