As the Minnesota Vikings, reigning Champions of the NFC North, begin their quest for their first back-to-back NFC North crowns since 2008-2009, their division rivals are also doing what they can to knock off the Vikings this season and claim the NFC North crown for themselves.
I begin this series analyzing what the Vikings’ NFC North rivals have been up to this off-season with a breakdown of the Detroit Lions’ off-season so far.
The Detroit Lions have emerged as media darlings among non-playoff teams from last year, as they continue to build under head coach Dan Campbell. The Lions are the early off-season favorites to win the NFC North in all the major sportsbooks with odds ranging from +110 to +160. The Packers were the early favorites last year.
But for the Lions to even be in the conversation for a division title or as a potential playoff team, let alone a favorite, is an achievement for the franchise. We lament here about the Vikings not yet having won a Super Bowl, but since the beginning of the Vikings franchise in 1961, the Detroit Lions have won only one playoff game. One. In 62 seasons. And that playoff win was way back on January 5, 1991- over 32 years ago and before all but a few current Lions players were born. It’s also been 30 years since the Lions won the division title- back when it was the NFC Central division. Over that 30-year period, the Lions have amassed a 192-304-2 record, which equates to a .387 winning percentage. In a 16-game season, that’s an average season record of 6-10. The Lions last playoff appearance was back in 2016, when they gained a wild card spot with a 9-7 record.
But since Dan Campbell took on the Herculean task of turning around the Lions franchise as head coach two years ago, the Lions have been improving and washing off the stink of the past several decades. After a 3-13 record in his first season as head coach, Campbell helped improve the team to a 9-8 mark last season, narrowly missing the playoffs. But the Lions’ late season surge, winning five of their last six games, and eight of their last ten, has brought nothing but optimism- and rising expectations- for the Lions this season.
Lions’ Off-Season Moves
The Lions were active in free agency and made numerous moves to restructure their roster for the 2023 campaign. Here are the more notable moves, with overall 2022 PFF grade in parentheses.
Notable Free Agency Moves
- Released DT Michael Brockers (51.3). Only played 123 snaps last season.
- Extended ILB Alex Anzalone (59.2). Played over 1,000 snaps last season.
- Acquired CB Cameron Sutton (71.6). Formerly with the Steelers.
- Extended DT Isaiah Buggs (53.9). Played 752 snaps last season.
- Acquired RB David Montgomery (67.9). Formerly with the Bears.
- Extended DT John Cominsky (68.2). Played 554 snaps last season.
- Acquired CB Emmanuel Moseley (70.9). Formerly with the 49ers.
- Acquired S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (65.0). Formerly with the Eagles.
- Acquired WR Marvin Jones Jr. (59.8). Formerly with the Jaguars.
- Traded CB Jeff Okudah (59.4). Traded to the Falcons.
- Traded RB D’Andre Swift (78.1). Traded to the Eagles.
- Did not extend RB Jamaal Williams (73.4). He signed with the Saints.
- Did not extend WR DJ Chark Jr. (69.6). He signed with the Panthers.
- Did not extend S DeShon Elliott (66.5). He signed with the Dolphins.
- Did not extend CB Mike Hughes (59.9). He signed with the Falcons.
The Lions were also hit with suspensions to multiple players and staff for violating league gambling rules, most notably last year’s top draft pick Jameson Williams, who is suspended for the first six games of this season.
In addition to the Lions’ free agency moves, they also had the third-most draft capital in the league, which they used to draft the following players:
- Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama (#12 overall)
- Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa (#18 overall)
- Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa (#34 overall)
- Brian Branch, S/CB, Alabama (#45 overall)
- Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee (#68 overall)
- Brodric Martin, NT, Western Kentucky (#96 overall)
- Colby Sorsdahl, T, William & Mary (#152 overall)
- Antoine Green, WR, North Carolina (#219 overall)
Detroit’s draft was polarizing among pundits as the consensus was that while it was generally thought that they picked good players with their top picks, the positional value was extremely poor. Using top draft picks on positions that don’t command as big second contracts is not a good use of draft capital.
The other perplexing aspect of the Lions draft is that they appear to be replacements for players the Lions traded in their prime. Gibbs replaces D’Andre Swift, who was traded, and LaPorta replaces TJ Hockenson, whom the Lions traded to the Vikings before the trade deadline last year. Hooker may be an eventual replacement for Jared Goff, who’s still just 28. Both Swift and Hockenson are good players, but apparently didn’t have a future in Dan Campbell’s vision for the Lions.
Swift averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2022 and 8.1 yards per reception and 931 yards from scrimmage. Jamaal Williams had over 1,000 yards rushing last season. How much better will Gibbs and Montgomery be? It seems like an incremental benefit at best for a lot of draft capital and a fairly big contract for a 26-year-old running back that had fewer rushing yards and yards per carry than Williams last season.
And at tight end, was it really a good move to trade Hockenson, who earned his second Pro Bowl nod last season after finishing second in receiving yards among tight ends? Who knows what the future holds for LaPorta, but history suggests that tight ends can be notoriously slow developing in the NFL.
Overall, while the Lions made a number of moves and made several top draft picks, how much did they really improve their roster for 2023?
A Look at the Lions’ Projected Roster
Above is the current PFF projection of the Lions’ starting roster in 11 personnel on offense and nickel defense- both the most common formations. These aren’t always 100% accurate, but usually pretty close. The Lions will be without Jameson Williams for the first six games, and presumably Marvin Jones Jr. will fill in during those games. It’s also unclear if Brian Branch or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will play nickel corner, but it sounds like Branch may even sit for his first year and replace Gardner-Johnson next year.
Overall, the Lions made modest improvements to their defensive secondary this off-season. They had the worst team PFF coverage grade in the league last year, so obviously improving that area was a priority and they addressed it. Sutton is the best of the additions, but also the oldest at age 28.
The Lions were not able to do much to upgrade their defensive front, although the addition of Jack Campbell will likely upgrade a linebacker spot. But the Lions pass rush will largely fall on the shoulders of Aiden Hutchinson again this season, as they did little to add to their pass rush during the off-season.
Offensively, I’m not sure the Lions did much more than come out about even after all the transactions. How much better Gibbs/Montgomery will be over Swift/Williams remains to be seen, and I doubt LaPorta will be an upgrade over Hockenson, who began last season on the Lions’ roster. The Lions were expected to be without Jameson Williams for the first half of last season due to his knee injury, so his being suspended the first six games this season is about on par with last season in that regard.
The Lions return largely the same coaching staff as last season, with head coach and both coordinators returning, so not much scheme change expected. The Lions returning Ben Johnson as offensive coordinator was something of a coup for them, as he had interviewed for a few head coaching openings. Last season was Johnson’s first as offensive coordinator, and he led the Lions offense from 25th in 2021 to 5th last season.
Aaron Glenn also returns as Lions’ defensive coordinator. His defense was 28th in points allowed and 32nd in yards allowed last season. The Lions will be hoping the change in personnel will propel them to a better defense this year, as significant scheme change is unlikely.
When projecting year-over-year changes in NFL team performance, it’s important to look at factors that influenced performance the previous year and look for outliers that typically are not repeated from one year to the next.
Two of the biggest influences in team performance each year are injuries and turnovers. There are also a set of luck factors that can impact wins and losses but are essentially random and can vary from year to year.
For the Lions, they ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric, which is meant to quantify the impact of injury losses based on weekly injury reports, players lost to injured reserve, and weighted based on whether the player was a starter or not, position played, and the extent of the injury based on weekly injury status (doubtful, probable, questionable, out). The Lions had an AGL of 108.7 last season, which was only a slight improvement over the previous year (120.4). So, if anything, regressing toward the mean in this metric would result in a healthier Lions team in 2023, which would likely lead to improvement on the field.
On the other hand, the Lions were aided significantly in the turnover metric, which correlates highly with winning in the NFL. In fact, turnovers- or lack thereof- was the story of the Lions’ season in 2022. The Lions started last season with a 1-6 record, during which their offense committed 11 turnovers. The following ten games, in which they went 8-2, the Lions offense committed only four turnovers. In fact, in 7 of those 8 wins, the Lions did not commit any turnovers. The Lions’ defense, by contrast, had 16 takeaways over the last ten games, but only six during the first seven games. The Lions’ +12 turnover margin over their last ten games was clearly a factor in their rebound in the second half of last season.
Overall, the Lions offense had the fewest turnovers in the league last season with 15, a stat that history suggests will not carryover to 2023. The Lions defense ranked 17th in takeaways with 22. Regression toward the mean in offensive turnovers in 2023 would have a significantly negative impact on the Lions’ turnover margin and win-loss record.
Lastly, the Lions ranked sixth in Net Win Probability added in 2022 due to what are considered luck factors- dropped interceptions and passes by opponents, field goals and extra points missed by opponents, and fumble recoveries. Overall, those factors added 0.75 wins for the Lions last season. Regression toward the mean in this area therefore would result in nearly one less win for the Lions.
Strength of Schedule
The other significant factor in how well an NFL team performs year over year, besides roster/coaching changes and factors like injuries, turnovers, and luck factors mentioned above, is their strength of schedule. Basically how tough is their slate of opponents from one year to the next.
There are different methods for measuring strength of schedule, the most common of which is based on team win totals from the previous year. This isn’t the best measure, however, as there can be obvious changes that may impact team fortunes year over year. The Bucs don’t have Tom Brady, for example, or the Jets now have Aaron Rodgers. A better measure, therefore, is to base it on projected team win totals, based on sportsbook odds. These tend to reflect the more obvious known changes likely to impact a team in the coming season, although they’re not always accurate in the end. For example, the Chiefs were forecast to have one of the toughest schedules before the season last year. They ended up having the 4th easiest based on actual opponent win totals at the end of the season.
Be that as it may, the Lions had the 17th easiest schedule in the league last season based on their opponent’s actual win totals. They’re forecast to have the 8th easiest schedule this season, based on their opponent’s projected win totals as implied by current sportsbook odds. Should those forecasted win totals hold true, an easier schedule for the Lions this season would likely add to their win total from a year ago.
If you add up all the key factors mentioned above, they come out as follows:
- Roster changes: net positive (+1)
- Coaching and scheme changes: neutral (0)
- Regression to the mean in AGLs: net positive (+1)
- Regression to the mean in turnovers: net negative (-3)
- Regression to the mean in luck factors: net negative (-1)
- Strength of schedule: net positive (+2)
I added my weightings for each factor in terms of estimated impact (an inexact measure to be sure) on their win total of last season. They balanced out overall, indicating another 9-8 season for the Lions. The Lions current over/under win total this season is 9.5, with a bias toward the over. That’s not far off from my 9-win projection and overall combines to support a 9-10 win projection this season for the Lions.
Just how accurate that projection is, and whether that will be good enough to win the division or make the playoffs, remains to be seen.
How many wins will the Detroit Lions have this season?
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