Season grade: Average. Jim Caldwell said it himself — the Lions were an average to slightly-above-average team in 2017. And in his eyes, that’s “not good enough.” Detroit had some great individual performances, including from Darius Slay, Marvin Jones and Glover Quin, but as a team they were the epitome of average.
Season in review: The Lions couldn’t sustain the hot 3-1 start to the season — including a win over eventual NFC North champ Minnesota on the road — because the franchise failed in almost every big spot other than that game against the Vikings. Detroit lost key tiebreaker games to Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans in the first half of the season. It lost a game that could have given them a shot at a division title on Thanksgiving at home against Minnesota and followed it up with a blowout loss at Baltimore. Then, in a must-win situation against Cincinnati on Christmas Eve, the Lions barely showed up, losing 26-17, and sealed a season in which Detroit never found any consistency. The Lions often started slow. They could never find a run game. After Haloti Ngata was lost for the season in Week 5, the defense struggled stopping the run, too. And the offensive line couldn’t protect Matthew Stafford. It led to big problems for the Lions and likely another offseason of change in Detroit.
Biggest play of season: It goes back to Week 3 against Atlanta, when Golden Tate appeared to score a touchdown with 10 seconds left on the clock — a touchdown that would have given the Lions a win. The play was then reviewed and it was determined Tate fell a half-yard short. In addition to that, because of the reversal, there was a 10-second runoff Detroit couldn’t stop because it had no timeouts, ending the game and giving the Falcons the win. Had the Lions won that game, they would have been 3-0 and had a tiebreaker against Atlanta. It also would have given Caldwell arguably the biggest win of his tenure. Instead, it will go down as another loss and started a stretch where the Lions lost four of five games against teams likely bound for the playoffs (Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Pittsburgh).
He said it: “There hasn’t been anything across the board that we’ve been good at. The best way to probably … get an indication of where we are, the great thing about the National Football League is all you have to do is look at your record. And we’re just a little bit above average and a little bit above average is not good enough. You know, there are no bowl games in this league. And so, we got to get better. We got to get better in every area. It’s a team sport. There’s not anything that we just absolutely excelled at all across the board.” — Jim Caldwell
Key offseason questions: Caldwell’s future: This is the biggest question and the one that should be answered in the shortest amount of time. Does GM Bob Quinn choose to keep Caldwell for a fifth season or bring in his own head coach for the first time. Caldwell has done a decent job in Detroit, making the playoffs half the time he has been with the team, but his teams have had the same issues time and time again (slow starts, showing up flat in big games, not playing well against playoff-caliber opponents). Everything else Detroit does this offseason will be centered around whether Quinn retains Caldwell.
What to do with Ezekiel Ansah and Eric Ebron: These are the two biggest contract questions this offseason, and both could be shaped by the Caldwell question, too. With Ebron, the issue is whether to honor his 2018 option, worth $8.25 million. Ebron played well enough down the stretch to make it a tough question. Ansah, meanwhile, could end up being franchise tagged or sent to free agency. He hasn’t been healthy for most of the last two years, and the Lions might not want to pay the type of money Ansah can get on the open market. It’ll be a difficult one for Quinn, whose Lions desperately need pass-rushing options. Ansah finished with 12 sacks this season, but it’s a misleading number because nine of them came in three games – including six in the last two weeks of the season. Of course, the last two weeks of the year might have been when Ansah was the healthiest this season.
Biggest draft need: Some of this will depend on the coaching staff, but no matter who is in charge, the Lions need upgrades on the defensive line and running back. Detroit’s run game continued to be abysmal under Caldwell, averaging an NFL-worst 78 yards per game entering Week 17. The Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in 67 games, either, so it’s a combination of the rusher and the blocking. The Lions need pass-rushers, too, considering they have struggled to reach quarterbacks for two seasons.
Free-agency targets: It’s too early to really decipher this since it’s not clear what the coaching staff or scheme will look like. Le’Veon Bell would be intriguing and solve Detroit’s run-game issues, but he is also likely going to be too pricey. Isaiah Crowell would be an intriguing option if Detroit wanted to bring in a vet with some talent. If Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence somehow hits free agency, he could be a high-level target for many teams because pass-rusher is going to be a need. New Orleans’ Alex Okafor could be a cheaper option to look at, too. So much of the defensive questions, though, come down to scheme.