Call it luck, expected, surprising, or whatever adjective you wish. The fact of the matter is that the Detroit Lions have reached the quarter-mark of the season with a 3-1 record. Sure, some have underachieved. But thankfully, some have overachieved as well.
Is this team's performance through four games something that can reasonably be expected to sustain over the course of a whole season? Well, that's a discussion for another time. Today's discussion is centered on how the team has performed at each position group. Here are your 2017 Detroit Lions first quarter grades.
After receiving a nice, shiny extension which made him the highest paid player in NFL history, the expectation was that Matthew Stafford was going to handle his business at an elite level this season. To say that he has been elite so far might be a stretch. He has committed only one turnover in the four games, which just so happened to come on his first pass attempt of the year. Since then, he has thrown for 887 yards and seven touchdown passes. That's just under 222 yards per game. Not elite. Not awful either though. For those of you who enjoy ranking players, he currently ranks 15th in the league in yardage. Although his number aren't as Madden-esque as we may like, he has taken another step forward in his game management, and his ability to scramble to keep plays alive has been quite evident. The total package of work doesn't warrant an “A” grade, but he's done enough to keep the team quite relevant through four games.
Overall Grade: B
Nothing crazy to report here. Much like Stafford, the receiving core has been average. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, and TJ Jones have combined for 579 receiving yards and five touchdowns. They've each had their own moments in the spotlight at certain times throughout the first four games, whether it be by way of a two touchdown performance (Golladay), or drive-extending catches, but the overall body of work has been less than stellar. Good enough to win games, but not spectacular. Given that the team is 3-1, I'm feeling a little charitable. This group hasn't done enough to receive a great grade, but they've been ok. While “ok” isn't sexy, it's good enough… for now.
Overall Grade: C+
Let's keep our expectations tempered at running back. Ameer Abdullah has looked solid so far this year, and was six yards shy of being the first Detroit running back with 100 rushing yards in a game since 2013 last weekend. Sure, the run game is better than it has been in recent years. But, Abdullah is the only back on the roster who has shown that he can pose a threat on the ground. Theo Riddick, who has a grand total of 23 yards on the ground, has also seen his production in the passing attack diminish. and Zach Zenner has rushed for exactly five yards. Dwayne Washington, although a bit dinged up, has rushed for 31 yards. Overall, the team's rushing attack ranks 18th in the league right now, averaging 97 yards per game. Again, this is better than what we're used to seeing. But to say that it's actually “good” would be a stretch. I expect that we will continue to see the rushing attack continue to improve, but for now they receive a just below average mark.
Overall Grade: C-
The heartbreaking story of Eric Ebron continues. We see him make the occasional marvelous catch, then drop the ball that hits him in the numbers. Thankfully, there are other options at tight end. Darren Fells, regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, has made an impact in both the ground game and the aerial attack. He caught four passes for 40 yards last weekend, and was the featured tight end for a large portion of the game. Ebron, to his credit, does have 11 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown this season. But, he doesn't help the running attack, and is too inconsistent. The production has been average overall at the position between Ebron and Fells, thus allowing me to feel comfortable giving them an average grade.
Overall Grade: C
This is where it gets interesting. The team spent a lot of money in the off-season to upgrade the offensive line. They brought in guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner, two of the best in the league at their positions. Taylor Decker is hurt and might miss the season, which led to the team trading for Greg Robinson. Graham Glasgow and Travis Swanson have been serviceable. But, this group continuously shoots themselves in the foot. Stafford was hit 20 times alone last weekend against the Vikings, and has been sacked 12 times overall. As stated earlier, the rushing attack has been better, which is also a reflection of the offensive line. But, considering that Stafford is paid such a high amount and plays such a vital role in the team's offense, keeping him upright needs to be of the highest priority. Doing so has been an issue. In pass protection alone, they probably deserve an F. But since the run has become more of an option, I'll level with these guys a little bit.
Overall Grade: D+
This is an interesting area to assess. Overall, the team has is allowing just 86.3 rushing yards per game, good for seventh in the league. Anthony Zettel is emerging as a star pass-rusher, with four sacks already. Ziggy Ansah has recorded three sacks, but they all came in one game. A'Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata have been good at pushing the line of scrimmage backwards, and the young duo of Jeremiah Ledbetter and Jeremiah Valoaga have shown that they are capable and getting better. Overall, they have all combined for nine sacks. We'll see if these things are all sustainable over the course of a whole season, but for now, this area is producing at a slightly above average clip.
Overall Grade: B-
Oh boy, this is tough. Rookie Jarrad Davis has missed the last two games after being on the business end of a block from Odell Beckham Jr., but was showing great promise in the small sample size we saw him in. Paul Worrilow wasn't exactly great in his first handful of games, but he did contribute. Now, he's out for the foreseeable future with a sprained MCL. Tahir Whitehead has been good. Pretty darn good, actually. He leads the team with 25 tackles, and has made contributions in the pass defense, pulling in an interception and deflecting another pass. He has shown a tendency to be beaten in coverage also, however. Reserves Steve Longa, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Nick Bellore have also been forced into action, and no glaring mistakes have been made. If Davis and Worrilow continue missing games, these three will continue seeing big usage. Overall, production from the linebackers has been subpar, and will likely continue to be the case until they return to health. Even then, Davis is still just a rookie, and Whitehead can't carry the entire second level of defense. Not a great showing for the unit so far.
Overall Grade: C-
The defense has been the strength of this team, but you have to wonder if it's sustainable, especially upon examining the cornerbacks. Darius Slay continues to do well, and has also picked two passes off. But, Nevin Lawson gets beat regularly, and takes a lot of pass interference penalties in the process. Veteran DJ Hayden has seen a fair amount of playing time, and has only defended one pass thrown his way. Rookie Teez Tabor hasn't seen the field yet, and Quandre Diggs has shown that he struggles in coverage at times. Overall, the team is allowing 236 yards through the air per game, 22nd in the league. They've bent, but not broken, which shows that they're tough. But, you can't ride toughness at the cornerback position for an entire season.
Overall Grade: C+
The undisputed strength of the defense. Glover Quin leads a defensive backfield that also includes Tavon Wilson, Miles Killebrew, and Charles Washington. Quin has been spectacular. His knack to make a big play is uncanny, whether it be by cracking a running back at the line, defending a pass, or a pick six. Killebrew has emerged as a true thumper, and loves throwing his body around. He has also shown that he can cover receivers. Wilson and Washington have been used a bit more sparingly, but have still made impacts as well. I'll say it again. The safeties are the undisputed strength of this defense.
Overall Grade: A-
Matt Prater is good. Damn good, actually. His only miss this season came last weekend on a 59 yard attempt to end the half. He became the first kicker in the history of the NFL to make four field goal attempts from 55 or more yards, and he did it through just three weeks. He is also flawless on point-after attempts. So far, it's been a great season for the Lions kicker.
Overall Grade: A+
In Sam Martin‘s absence, the punting game has been ok. Prater and Jeff Locke (Kasey Redfern too I suppose) have combined to punt 21 times, scoring an average of 43 yards per punt. Eight of those punts have been downed inside the 20. When Martin returns, we hope that these numbers will only continue to improve, but in the meantime, this is not a glaring concern.
Overall Grade: B
Jamal Agnew, Dwayne Washington, and Golden Tate have been the return men this season. Agnew showed a flash of brilliance with his blinding speed, returning a punt 88 yards for a touchdown against the Giants. Outside of that, the team has averaged about 11 yards per punt return. Washington and Agnew have handled kick return duties, averaging 15 yards per return. There have been a couple questionable decisions in this area, as Agnew has brought a couple kicks out of the end zone when he would have been better off (much better off really) taking the touchback. The punt return touchdown was great, some of the decisions in kick return not so much. This makes me feel comfortable with an average grade in this department.
Overall Grade: C