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2020 NFC North Preview: Lions defense still unsettled

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With NFL Training Camps getting underway, we wanted to take a peek around the other NFC North teams to see what they’re thinking as they prepare for the 2020 season, and to do so we got some help from our friends at SB Nation.

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions have never won the NFC North in the 18 years the NFL has had the current 4 team per division format, so at some point they’re bound to break the streak, right?

Also considering the NFC North has seen a different division champ the last three seasons, maybe it’s the Lions turn to take the crown in 2020.

Detroit won 6 games in 2018, head coach Matt Patricia’s first year on the job, but the team slipped to just 3 wins a year ago as quarterback Matthew Stafford missed eight games with a back injury.

The Chicago Bears haven’t lost to the Lions during the two-year Matt Negy era, and the Lions have only made the postseason three times in the last 20 years.

With players starting to report to training camps this week we wanted to check in with our SB Nation sister sites that cover the other NFC North teams to get their take on what we should expect from them.

Pride Of Detroit’s Training Camp Preview

(Everything in the blockqoutes is from our friends over at PoD, with the italicized text being my thoughts on their takes.)

Notable free agency additions: OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, QB Chase Daniel, DT Nick Williams, DT Danny Shelton, LB Jamie Collins Sr., LB Reggie Ragland, CB Desmond Trufant, CB Darryl Roberts, S Jayron Kearse, S Duron Harmon (via trade)

If the 32-year old Stafford misses any time in 2020, they’ll now have ex-Bears QB Chase Daniel to try to keep their offense afloat. They also spent a bunch to boost their 28th ranked DVOA defense up from a year ago.

Over/under 10 wins? Under. The Lions offense could be very explosive in 2019. Matthew Stafford was playing at the top of his game before his back injury, plus the Lions added D’Andre Swift to finally give Stafford the running game he’s been lacking.

But defense remains the team’s biggest question mark. Matt Patricia has had no success on that side of the ball through two years. And while the roster has been completely overhauled on that side of the ball, it remains to be seen if the replacements (Nick Williams, Danny Shelton, Desmond Trufant) are upgrades over the players that left this offseason (A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison Sr., Darius Slay).

I don’t see how getting rid of a talent like Slay makes a defense better. Patricia was brought in after being so successful running the Patriots defense, but through two years the best DVOA ranking he’s managed on D was 27th place his first year. A healthy Stafford on offense can keep them in most games, but if the defense isn’t improving there’s no way the’ll have a winning record.

Rookie I’m most excited about: Jeff Okudah. If you aren’t excited about your team’s No. 3 overall pick, there’s a major problem. Okudah has been touted as the best cornerback prospect to come out of Ohio State (or college) in several years. Given the early success of guys like Denzel Ward and Marshon Lattimore, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Okudah succeed right out of the gate.

Okudah has the talent to replace Slay, but if Detroit can’t figure out how to get after the quarterback better than just 28 sacks (tied for 30th), he’s bound to go through some rookie growing pains.

Best position battle heading into training camp: Running back. It will be interesting to see who gets the majority of reps with the first team: 2018 second-round pick Kerryon Johnson, or 2020 second-round pick D’Andre Swift. Though those two are expected to split snaps this season, Detroit also has some interesting depth battles at running back. Rookie fifth-round pick Jason Huntley is a speedy option that could win a role as a special teamer that can also catch out of the backfield. Although he’ll have to keep 2019 sixth-round pick Ty Johnson at bay.

The Lions haven’t had a thousand yard rusher since Reggie Bush did it in 2013, and if Johnson and Swift share carries they may not have one in 2020 either. But I do like this tandem’s potential to give them a potent rushing attack.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: Can the defense take a huge step this year? The Lions added a few key pieces to their defense this year: linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. and safety Duron Harmon. The Lions’ linebacking corps has really struggled in the past few years, and Collins is arguably one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league. He hasn’t succeeded outside of New England yet, but reuniting with Patricia may keep his level of play high. Harmon should allow youngster Tracy Walker to roam a little more free in the backfield, creating some mismatch problems for the opposing offense.

On paper, the talent the Lions have picked up defensively should help them out, but it’s on Patricia and first time defensive coordinator Cory Undlin to get everyone on the same page.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Will new owner Sheila Ford Hamp make any significant changes this year? The Detroit Lions remain under “Ford” ownership, but 94-year-old Martha Firestone Ford announced she was handing the team over to her daughter earlier in the offseason. Ford Hamp said she would take time to evaluate and learn every aspect of the team before making any moves, but can we expect any in Year 1?

If this were a normal offseason then I think there’d be a decent chance “new” ownership would want to shake things up a smidgen, but with the league about to venture into unprecedented territory by holding a season during a pandemic things should remain staus quo.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: Tight end T.J. Hockenson suffered a severe ankle injury on Thanksgiving last year. He appears to be close to 100 percent, but could start camp on the PUP. Guard Kenny Wiggins suffered a torn bicep in December that required surgery, and Matthew Stafford’s back, by everyone’s account, is 100% healed, and he should start training camp with no issues.

Like most NFL franchises, the Lions will only go as far as the QB will take them, so a healthy Stafford is their key to making a playoff push in 2020.

What do you guys think about PoD’s takes on the Lions heading into training camp?