This article is part of our Team Previews series.
An elite passing offense hasn't been enough for Detroit to advance far in the playoffs in recent years. The main problems stem from the team's lack of a rushing attack in addition to its inconsistent pass rush, but only the former seems to have significantly improved this offseason.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
SORTING OUT THE BACKFIELD
We know how the Patriots feel about running backs: roster a few different types and play to their strengths on a game-by-game basis. The guy making the personnel decisions in Detroit, GM Bob Quinn, spent 16 years with New England before joining the Lions in 2016, and he just brought in 14-year Patriots assistant Matt Patricia to take over as head coach. The two Bill Belichick disciples acted quickly in free agency to sign the 247-pound LeGarrette Blount – who rushed for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Pats two seasons ago – to augment a backfield already occupied by shiftier options Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. The team then spent its second-round pick in the draft on Auburn tailback Kerryon Johnson, rounding out a running back room that otherwise includes Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington. Not all of them will make the team, but between Blount, Riddick and Johnson, Detroit has a specialist for short-yardage, hurry-up and between-the-20s situations, respectively. If any single back becomes a three-down workhorse, it's going to be the highly regarded rookie (Johnson), who has drawn Le'Veon Bell comparisons due to his patient running style and sudden burst, but this backfield has the potential for a full-blown committee approach that could be frustrating for fantasy purposes.
RECEIVING CORPS APPROACHING FIRST-CLASS STATUS
The Lions were the only team to have two wide receivers individually record more than 1,000 yards through the air last season, but Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both accomplished that feat in far different ways. The former serves as the team's top perimeter threat and was No. 1 in the NFL with 18.0 yards per reception, while the latter is an elusive possession receiver who recorded a position-best 639 yards after the catch and at the same time notched his fourth consecutive 90-grab season. Joining them is 2017 third-rounder Kenny Golladay, who flashed as a downfield option during his rookie year and ultimately finished just behind Jones with 17.0 yards per catch. If the trio stays healthy, Detroit arguably has one of the league's most explosive and well-rounded wideout corps, and there's a chance all three could be productive in 2018 given the team's unproven collection of tight ends. Out are Eric Ebron and Darren Fells, and in their place are Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, with the only notable holdover being 2017 fourth-round selection Michael Roberts. Both Toilolo and Willson have played five seasons apiece, but neither has averaged more than 17.8 receptions per campaign. Roberts, meanwhile, is a dependable blocker who caught 16 touchdowns at Toledo in 2016, making him someone to watch.
PRESSURE ON PATRICIA TO FIX DEFENSE
The defense will look different under Matt Patricia, who overhauled the coaching staff and is expected to install a system similar to his Patriots units that perennially finished top 10 in scoring the past half-decade. Not known to have a preferred base defense, the ex-New England coordinator brings a versatile approach that can switch from one scheme to another on a per-play basis. He'll have several blue chippers to work with at every level in Detroit, namely 2017 first-team All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay, 2017 first-round linebacker Jarrad Davis and Ezekiel Ansah, the team's reigning sack leader. However, on paper, there still seems to be a dearth of pass rushing. Ansah is dominant when healthy but always seems to be playing through some sort of injury. Kerry Hyder logged eight sacks in 2016 but missed the entire 2017 season with a ruptured Achilles, which historically hasn't been the easiest injury from which to come back. Outside of them, only Anthony Zettel has shown consistent pass-rush ability. This lack of depth is a reason why the Lions' talented secondary – which accounted for the fourth-most interceptions (19) last year – allowed a 65.2 completion percentage (24th in the NFL). Without any significant additions in the draft or free agency, it's hard to imagine how that improves.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Matthew Stafford
Stafford has thrived under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, most recently entering the MVP conversation during the 2017 season with a career-high 7.9 yards per attempt and 29 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions. The Lions offense will live and die by his arm despite the team's newfound commitment to the running game.
RISING: Kenny Golladay
Checking in at 6-4, Golladay ripped off 17.0 YPC in his first year as a pro. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate figure to draw coverage away from him, and the Lions lack an obvious go-to option near the red zone.
FALLING: Ameer Abdullah
The 2015 second-rounder has yet to establish himself as a consistently effective tailback in the NFL. After opening last season as the lead runner, Abdullah now finds himself without a clear role in a crowded backfield.
SLEEPER: Michael Roberts
With Eric Ebron and Darren Fells out of the picture, someone needs to step up at tight end. Roberts could be the player to benefit due to the touchdown prowess exhibited during his final collegiate campaign in 2016.
KEY JOB BATTLE – EARLY-DOWN RUNNING BACK
The bowling ball that is LeGarrette Blount seems likely to have some sort of role despite the Lions selecting Kerryon Johnson in the second round of the draft. Whether or not Johnson impresses enough in the preseason to pigeonhole Blount as an early-down specialist remains to be seen. However, it may not even matter who gets anointed the starter, as coach Matt Patricia is at least partly expected to keep a page from the New England playbook in terms of deploying a committee approach at running back. In any event, Theo Riddick seems set to remain the team's preferred option on passing downs.
LeGarrette Blount – RB (from Eagles)
Big-bodied runner just two years removed from an 18-TD season.
Kerryon Johnson – RB (Rd. 2, No. 43 – Auburn)
Patient ballcarrier who can play on all three downs.
Levine Toilolo – TE (from Falcons)
Blocking specialist who wasn't signed to corral footballs.
Eric Ebron – TE (to Colts)
The No. 10 overall pick in 2014 never lived up to the hype.
Darren Fells – TE (to Browns)
The 32-year-old became too expensive to retain.
Tahir Whitehead – LB (to Raiders)
Reigning tackle leader struggled in pass coverage.
THE INJURY FRONT
TJ Jones, WR – Jones was putting the finishing touches on a solid 2017 season before suffering an undisclosed shoulder injury in Week 15. The Lions took it easy on the receiver throughout spring workouts, when his limitations in practice seemed more precautionary than anything. Jones should be operating in full capacity at least by the time the preseason rolls around. While Jace Billingsley has turned some heads this offseason, Jones is the clear favorite to remain in the No. 4 role behind Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE – No stranger to the injury report, Ansah underwent "clean up" knee surgery this offseason and was heavily limited throughout spring practices. While he was placed on the PUP list to begin training camp, the team doesn't seem concerned over Ansah's availability for Week 1. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Kerry Hyder – who missed the entire 2017 campaign with an Achilles injury – was a full participant in the offseason program and should be right there alongside Ansah in the season opener. This is great news for a Lions pass rush that intimidated few in 2017.
Tavon Wilson, S – Originally hurting his shoulder in training camp, Wilson then missed one game early in the 2017 season after reinjuring the shoulder in Week 2 against the Giants. The safety then missed the final six games of the season while on IR after again hurting his shoulder in Week 12. Wilson was subsequently a limited participant throughout the Lions' offseason program, and there's no guarantee he'll be allowed to participate in any preseason games. However, he at least seems on track to be ready for Week 1, with Quandre Diggs and Miles Killebrew waiting in the wings in case Wilson can't stay healthy.