This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Lions beefed up both their rushing attack and run defense in the first year under coach Matt Patricia, but still struggled to put points on the scoreboard and defend the pass. Improving upon a 6-10 record will demand significant improvements in the latter categories.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
A CHANGE IN OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
It's no easy job keeping a gunslinging quarterback humming while maintaining a sustainable run/pass balance that will keep defenses honest in the long run. Yet that's the challenge new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is taking on after replacing the departed Jim Bob Cooter this offseason. While the pairing of Cooter and Matthew Stafford initially showed promise, the 2018 version of the Lions finished with the NFL's 25th-ranked scoring offense and the franchise's fewest offensive points since 2014. Thus, a change was warranted, and Bevell's first order of business seemingly will be to light up the scoreboard. Of course, that's easier said than done, and how Bevell goes about the task isn't expected to surprise anyone, given his noted preference for a run-heavy approach that took advantage of talents like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in years past. It's far too soon to throw second-year running back Kerryon Johnson into the same category as those two legends, but he nonetheless is expected to be the primary ballcarrier for a Detroit team that is looking to vault somewhere into the top half of the league's most effective offenses. Bevell engineered top-10 rushing attacks in seven of 12 campaigns in his previous stops with the Vikings and Seahawks, which bodes well for Johnson's stock.
KERRYON MY WAYWARD SON
With C.J. Anderson, Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner all clawing for placement on the depth chart, there isn't as distinct a pecking order for carries in 2019 as there was last season. In that version of the Lions backfield, LeGarrette Blount was signed to split the workload with Riddick until 2018 second-round pick Kerryon Johnson got acclimated to the pro game. On this occasion, it couldn't be more evident who stands to benefit most from the arrival of Darrell Bevell, as Johnson is the leader of the backfield after a rookie campaign in which he averaged 5.4 yards per carry en route to grading out as Pro Football Focus' 13th overall running back. Although he was on pace for 1,026 rushing yards before a Week 11 knee sprain ended his season, the outings in which Johnson received double-digit carries would have equated to 1,344 yards across a 16-game slate. Add in the fact that he has proven utility as a pass catcher after averaging three receptions and 20 receiving yards per game as a first-year player, and it's not a stretch to think Johnson may push for 1,600 yards from scrimmage if things break right this season. However, part of that equation involves Johnson staying healthy, and it's possible Bevell could limit his workload to prevent the Auburn product from breaking down again.
HOW HIGH CAN GOLLADAY FLY?
Aside from Kerryon Johnson, the most intriguing skill-position player at Darrell Bevell's disposal is wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who at 6-4 is entering his third professional season after catching 70 of 119 targets for 1,063 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. While it's not a great development for Golladay that the Lions are moving from a pass- to run-minded offensive coordinator, there are reasons to be optimistic that he can build upon his second-year stat line. First and foremost, unlike fellow receiver Marvin Jones, Golladay is a chess piece who effectively operates out of the slot, which was on full display during a dominant seven-catch, 146-yard performance against Buffalo in Week 15 in which he accounted for each of the Lions' five longest offensive plays. Second, despite taking on a more diverse role, he averaged 15.2 yards per catch last season, ranking fifth among receivers with 80-plus targets, behind only the likes of noted downfield specialists Mike Evans, John Brown, Tyreek Hill and T.Y. Hilton. Moreover, Golladay's 37.5 percent catch rate (with zero drops) on balls thrown 20-plus yards was good for 11th in the league. The list goes on with Golladay, but the point is this: There aren't many wideouts with his size who remain on the field in almost every scenario and also produce efficient results.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Kerryon Johnson
As a rookie, Johnson became the first Lions running back to average more than 85 yards from scrimmage per game, as well as run for 100 yards in a contest, since Reggie Bush in 2013. Whether Johnson can sustain his efficiency with a larger workload will play a key role in Detroit's ability to dig itself out of the NFC North cellar.
RISING: Kenny Golladay
After making a notable statistical leap from Year 1 to his second season, Golladay has plenty of room for growth. While Marvin Jones is expected to be healthy, Golladay has become the top target for Matthew Stafford.
FALLING: Marvin Jones
Still a fine downfield threat at 29 years old, Jones is recovering from a season-ending knee issue and may take a dip under a run-centric coordinator now that Golladay has asserted himself as the team's No. 1 receiver.
SLEEPER: T.J. Hockenson
Everyone loves to point out how tight ends usually struggle as rookies, but not every prospect is as complete as the blocking-adept Hockenson, who also led all qualified FBS tight ends in 2018 with a two percent drop rate.
KEY JOB BATTLE – CHANGE-OF-PACE BACK
The competition between T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James at tight end also is interesting, but both of those players could produce to some degree in 2019. It's not as clear who might be next in line at running back behind Kerryon Johnson. C.J. Anderson likely is that guy, while Theo Riddick may be the better option on third down. However, the Lions can save money by parting ways with Riddick, so it's possible Anderson might only have Zach Zenner and 2019 sixth-round pick Ty Johnson as competition. While Anderson's finish to last season with the Rams was impressive, Zenner likewise made a name for himself – 72.3 yards from scrimmage per game on 4.6 YPC over the final four games – and is a dark horse to earn touches this fall.
T.J. HOCKENSON – TE (Rd. 1, No. 8 – Iowa)
Considered the top rookie tight end in a strong draft class.
C.J. ANDERSON – RB (from Rams)
Given a modest one-year deal after reviving his career in L.A.
DANNY AMENDOLA – WR (from Dolphins)
The favorite to man the slot in the post-Golden Tate era.
JESSE JAMES – TE (from Steelers)
Averaged 14.1 yards per reception in a reduced role last season.
JERMAINE KEARSE – WR (from Jets)
Finally found a landing spot after an uninspiring 2018 campaign.
TREY FLOWERS – DE (from Patriots)
Signed a colossal contract to spearhead the pass rush.
LeGARRETTE BLOUNT – RB (FA)
Put up a measly 2.7 yards per carry during his age-32 season.
LUKE WILLSON – TE (to Raiders)
Posted career lows across the board in 2018, despite prime opportunity.
THE INJURY FRONT
Matthew Stafford, QB – It broke in June that Stafford dealt with fractured bones in his back down the stretch of the 2018 season. While the severity of the situation is unclear, there's no questioning the toughness it probably took to play through an injury of that nature. If anything, this injury might help explain the dramatic first- vs. second-half splits. Through Week 8, Stafford averaged 273.1 yards, two touchdowns and 0.9 interceptions per game on 67.6 percent passing and 7.6 YPA. Afterward, though, he managed just 207.2 yards, 0.8 TDs and 0.6 picks per contest with a 64.9 completion percentage and 6.2 YPA. Regardless, there haven't been any reports that Stafford was limited by the injury during spring workouts, meaning he should be good to go entering training camp.
Kenny Golladay, WR – An undisclosed chest injury suffered last December has remained a problem for Golladay throughout the majority of the offseason program, but he made a significant step in the right direction during June's minicamp by fitting in reps with the first-team offense. Considering those were the last practices before training camp opens July 25, Golladay is trending in the right direction.
Marvin Jones, WR – It's a different injury, but Jones and Golladay are pretty much in the same boat. For Jones, the main problem seems to have been a "bone bruise" in his knee that he's dealt with since November. However, he also was able to catch passes with the first-team offense during minicamp and, like Golladay, seems to be in a good place ahead of training camp. It would be a surprise if either of these receivers are under significant limitations more than a month later.