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State of the Franchise: Matt Patricia's Lions a playoff sleeper?

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Detroit Lions organization, Lions fans around the world and those of you who have a pencil behind your ear for seemingly no reason:

The Lions are a team in transition. Last year, they decided to buck tradition and try a new way. The Patriot Way, if you will, which involved hiring former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach.

The team won six games in 2018. Its lowest win total since 2012.

But sometimes you need to take a step back before you can move forward. The Lions are poised on the pedestal of greatness. And I quote from the greatest movie about lions when I say, "It's in times like this ... you've got to put your behind in your past."

How the Lions got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:

The highs:

-- Beat the Patriots in Week 3. Beat. The. Patriots! The pupil becomes the master, and all of that stuff. If the Lions' season was a movie, it just would have ended here. I still don't know how you lose to the Jets in the opener (more on that in a moment) and then beat the Patriots.

-- Matt Prater throws first-career touchdown pass. It was in Week 17 against the Packers. At Lambeau. I mean, it was a pretty cool moment, and Pat McAfee on the call put it over the top.

The lows:

-- Matthew Stafford throws four picks in the opener. Two of those were to LB Darron Lee. And the looks on the faces in the crowd on Monday night pretty much summed up everything.

-- Losing the annual Thanksgiving Day game. Chicago's Eddie Jackson broke a tie with a pick-six late, but don't let that bum you out too much. Jackson did that to a lot of teams.

-- Another Hail Mary doesn't go their way. The Lions allowed another desperation heave at the end of the half. This time it was Kirk Cousins to Kyle Rudolph in Week 16.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Matt Patricia. The Lions were looking to change the culture (or whatever the corporate buzz phrase is now) when they brought in Patricia from New England. Because, well, the Patriots have had a ton of success turning their assistants into winning NFL head coaches, which I say facetiously, because the Patriots spin-offs have failed worse than "Joey" ever did. All right, it's hard to be "Joey" bad. But for a coach who is so amazing, Bill Belichick's assistants, well, wow. (Fine, Bill O'Brien is all right.)

And here's the thing. I know it looks bad to go from Jim Caldwell, who won at least nine games in three of his four years as HC, to losing 10 under Patricia. But that's part of the point of making a move. Keeping Caldwell on was like watching "Friends" reruns every day. It's safe and predictable. It's comfortable. But it doesn't really move the needle. Patricia is like something new on Netflix. Sometimes you're going to sit through some awful shows, but sometimes you are going to nail it. I still believe Patricia could be really good for the Lions.

Quarterback: Matthew Stafford. He's entering his age-31 season, even though it seems like he's been in Detroit forever -- dating all the way back to the Barry Sanders era. Wait, did they play together? (Checks.) They did not.

Stafford has long boasted one of the strongest arms in the league. But last year, coordinator Jim Bob Cooter tempered that, as Stafford, who reportedly played through the season with a broken back, ranked next to last in the NFL with 7.0 air yards per attempt (trailing only Derek Carr and tied with Blake Bortles). Not the "Jeopardy" category you want to be placed in, though in fairness, he's just behind Cam Newton (7.1) and Drew Brees (7.1). So this stands out as crazy to me. It's like if you had Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback, and all you had him do was attempt to crush beers -- which he's obviously not great at. (Stafford, for the record, is excellent at it.)

But I bring this up because new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters that he is "going to ask Matthew to do things he hasn't done before ..."

Like what, win a playoff game?

I know, cheap shot. But Bevell was the offensive coordinator in Seattle for the last seven seasons. He was also the Vikings' offensive coordinator for five years before that. While Bevell was coy when pushed further about what he wanted Stafford to do, saying he would let you (us) decide what would be different, I believe we could see Stafford throw less. The Seahawks featured a pretty strong ground game, which the Seahawks used to set up play action.

Russell Wilson ranked 20th in pass attempts last year while playing under Bevell. His 427 attempts were the lowest of any quarterback who started 16 games. But Wilson was also tied for fourth in air yards per attempt (9.3), all according to Next Gen Stats. And Seattle was second in play-action offense, according to Football Outsiders.

Forgive me for spending so much time on this, but I keep seeing stuff about the Lions opening it up. What I expect instead is for them to run the ball more, throw it deeper and let Stafford go that way.

Projected 2019 MVP (outside of Stafford): Kenny Golladay, receiver. Marvin Jones led the Lions in air yards per reception last year (15.2), and he figures to be in the mix if the Lions take some deep shots. But Golladay had a breakout last year, with 70 receptions for 1,063 yards and five touchdowns. My hot take is that he goes for double-digit touchdowns this year.

2019 breakout star: Tracy Walker, safety. The former third-round pick really impressed his coaches last season, basically willing his way on to the field. He started as a special teamer and eventually took playing time away from Glover Quin. Which is always amusing to me. It's like when you're watching a movie and the best friend is always spending too much time with his buddy's girlfriend. You know that he's eventually going to woo her away. That's what Walker did, and he was one of Pro Football Focus's top-rated safeties.

A new face to know: Trey Flowers, defensive end. The Lions signed the former Patriots edge rusher to a huge deal. Detroit needed help in that position. Obviously, Patricia has a history with it. You can argue about the price, but if somebody is willing to pay it, what can you do? Flowers had 21 sacks from 2016 to '18 and also had 59 quarterback hits, ranking in the top 20 in that latter category. Still, though. It's weird that the Patriots never seem to miss these guys, but sometimes they fail to come through for their teams. Looking at you, Malcolm Butler.

The 2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. I mean, you don't bring in a coach like Patricia to stick with business as usual if you're the Lions. My conjecture is the Lions aren't going to have a lot of patience and will need to see some immediate improvement, especially as Stafford gets into his 30s.

Will the Lions be able to ...

Run the football? The Lions ranked 18th in rushing attempts last season. They were 23rd in rushing yards. As previously mentioned, this is the key to making this season a success. Kerryon Johnson was pretty good during his rookie season, as he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. He also was key in the passing game, as he snared 32 receptions for 213 yards. He did score just four total touchdowns, though, which has to be seen as a disappointment. The superlatives have already started flying, and sure, this has been the best offseason program of his life. But if the second-year back doesn't improve, there's a chance newly signed C.J. Anderson could take some carries. If anything, this could end up looking a lot like the Patriots' backfield situation, which no doubt would thrill fantasy enthusiasts.

Get to the quarterback? Patricia is a defensive-minded coach, but still, the Lions ranked 29th in pass defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. The Lions do have Darius Slay and signed CB Justin Coleman in free agency. So that number should improve this season.

Make use of T.J. Hockenson? I loved the pick. I mean, the Lions have drafted three other tight ends in the first round since 2005: Eric Ebron (No. 10, 2014), Brandon Pettigrew (No. 20, 2009) and Mike Williams (No. 10, 2005). And you might be saying, But Rank, Williams was a receiver. And to you, I would say, look again. I will die on this hill.

It had to be painful to watch Ebron finally fulfill his promise as a member of the Colts last year. So you not only signed Jesse James, but you drafted Hockenson (No. 8 overall), who really is one of the great talents in this draft class. I mean, his quarterback's passer rating when targeting him last year at Iowa was 139.1, which is just a small sample of what he can bring.

Three key dates:

-- Week 1 at the Cardinals. This is one fans see on the schedule and have to be all, "Oh yeah, we're going to take this one." And the Lions should, in theory, win this game. But if things go sideways, look out.

-- Week 4 vs. the Chiefs. The Lions open with the Cardinals. But damn, the stretch from Week 2 to Week 4, which starts with hosting the Chargers, then playing at Philadelphia before ending back at home against the Chiefs, is going to be pretty tough.

-- Week 6 at the Packers. The Lions get an early bye week, then have to return to action at Green Bay. This could be the point of the season where the Lions are going to be frisky and make a run. Or perhaps it's on to 2020.

One storyline people are overlooking: That defense is low-key good. I feel like I use "low-key" way too much. The Lions ranked 10th against the run last year and tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns allowed (11). Damon "Snacks" Harrison was an excellent pickup during the season, and I hope they can figure out his contract situation and all of that. There's a nice little foundation building. Now they just need to pressure the quarterback, and they are all set.

One storyline people are underthinking: The drafting of LB Jahlani Tavai. He was graded out as a fourth-rounder, so people lost their (stuff) when the Lions picked him in the second round. I don't know, he was a pretty good player at Hawaii. He might not be a workout warrior (pun intended), but he's going to be a productive football player.

Can we talk about Patricia's pencil? Oh, yeah. Patricia was on "Good Morning Football" to talk about this. After coaching out in the weather in New England, he made the astute point that a pencil never washes away, and it always works. That checks out.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Lions MUST ...

-- Be competitive.

-- Survive that early, brutal stretch through the first six weeks of the season.

-- Be in the playoff mix. I never want to be the guy who says a team shouldn't try to make the playoffs. The Lions could. But at the same time, if they are scrappy and end up at 8-8 or 9-7, I would consider that an improvement from last year and validation for the direction this team is headed.

In closing

The Lions are one of the most interesting teams to me heading into this season. They could sneakily be a team that surprises a lot of clubs this year. I look at the overall talent on this team and I think to myself, They could end up winning 10 games and be that team nobody was talking about, much like the Bears last year and the Rams two years ago. But then I look at the Lions, and I'm all, Yeah, they could end up winning just four games. At least they're interesting.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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