Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn has had a busy spring trying to fill many of the holes on his roster. After all, the Lions made the playoffs at 9-7, but finished the year with a four-game losing streak and trailed in the fourth quarter in 16 of their 17 regular-season and playoff games.
Quinn has done a good job of patching the offensive line and adding a defensive playmaker in first-round pick Jarrad Davis, but like all general managers he has to do more than just fill the roster’s current holes. He has to figure out where problems are going to come up in the upcoming season and make sure he has enough depth to take care of them.
In a salary-cap league with tight roster limits, no team can have depth at every position. That means if Quinn’s projections are wrong and he leaves a spot unprotected – something that has happened in the past two seasons with the injuries to outside linebacker DeAndre Levy.
Keeping that in mind, here are three Lions that are probably already on Quinn’s radar as possible problems.
Haloti Ngata, DT
Ngata was brought in for an impossible task, replacing Ndamukong Suh after Suh’s unhappy departure for Miami. Ngata is a talented defensive tackle with a Super Bowl ring from Baltimore, but he was never the kind of player who could disrupt offenses like his predecessor. At age 31, he only had 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks in his first year with the Lions, then followed that up in 2016 with 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2017.
He turned 33 in January, and he hasn’t played a full 16-game season in 2011. The Lions didn’t take a defensive tackle until the sixth round of the draft, selecting undersized Jeremiah Ledbetter, and added Akeem Spence in free agency. Spence has been a career backup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, starting just four games in 2016.
Matthew Stafford, QB
On paper, this is the one position that Quinn doesn’t have to worry about. Stafford is coming off a season where he almost singlehandedly dragged the Lions to the postseason, pulling off a league-record eight fourth-quarter comebacks. His durability isn’t a concern, either. He has started every game in the past six seasons.
On the other hand, Stafford did all that in his first year after Calvin Johnson’s retirement, on a team that didn’t have a game-breaking receiver or a big-play running back. The Lions have given him a better offensive line, but he’ll still be relying on a pair of fragile, unproven runners in Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, and he doesn’t have a defense-stretching deep threat.
Stafford should be just as good as he was in 2016, but there’s almost no way that he can pull off the same kind of fourth-quarter magic for a second straight year. After all, the only other team that trailed in the final quarter of 15 regular-season games was Cleveland, and the Browns finished 1-15. If Stafford falls back to merely mortal at the end of games in 2017, the Lions could be in trouble.
Things would be even worse if Stafford got hurt, as neither of his backups – second-year pro Jake Rudock and rookie Brad Kaaya – have taken an NFL snap.
Matt Prater, K
Like Stafford, this isn’t an issue of Prater suddenly losing his game, it is a matter of trying to match an incredible season. In 2016, Prater was almost as important to Detroit’s fourth-quarter rallies as Stafford, hitting several kicks to win games or send them to overtime. His highlight was a 58-yarder as time expired to force overtime in Minnesota.
Prater has a great track record – he’s the best distance kicker of his generation – but he went 7-for-7 on field goals of 50-plus in 2016 and hit 93.9 percent of his extra points. If he slips a tiny bit at the age of 33, the Lions could lose another late-game weapon.