How the Lions can go from the bottom in 2019 to competitive in 2020

Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn stood at a podium a week ago and, in answering why Matt Patricia will be back for a third season as coach, said starting over again would be taking a step back.

Later, Quinn said the Lions “don’t want to bring it down to the basement again and start the foundation again.” Except for one thing. At least when it comes to record, the Lions are essentially there.

A 3-12-1 season in 2019, leading to an overall record of 9-22-1 for Patricia, placed them in the cellar of the NFC North. To avoid a teardown in 2020, they need to show at least small, incremental progress.

To climb out of this hole, it will take a combination of shrewd coaching moves, free-agency decisions, player progression and a draft with a handful of close-to-immediate impact players, but it is not impossible.

A lot of it starts with Patricia’s search for five new on-field coaches, including a new defensive coordinator. While the defense will always have a heavy influence of Patricia’s scheme and philosophy, Patricia must decide if he’s going to call plays himself or give a new coordinator the autonomy to call plays on his own.

What could benefit the Lions in either case is a fresh thinker who can add to Patricia’s viewpoint.

Nailing the coordinator hire is going to matter. A miss could doom everything else. The Lions took care of perhaps the second-most important hire Tuesday, promoting Hank Fraley to offensive line coach in place of Jeff Davidson -- a smart move that will keep continuity at the position because Fraley has worked under Davidson in Detroit the past two seasons.

Once the coaching staff is finalized, Detroit has tough decisions on players. Beyond the team’s free agents -- starting guard Graham Glasgow, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, safety Tavon Wilson and receiver Danny Amendola are the biggest names -- there could be some cap decisions.

Right tackle Rick Wagner has a cap hit of $11.9 million for 2020, no guaranteed money left and a dead-money number of $5.8 million. Do the Lions believe Tyrell Crosby can handle the starting role after he filled in decently when Taylor Decker and Wagner were injured in 2019? Or is there a replacement they feel good enough with at a potentially cheaper price?

Depending on what the Lions do with Glasgow -- a reunion doesn’t seem probable at this point, although things can change -- they have to figure out the interior of their offensive line. Again.

Would the Lions be willing to pay good money for a guard like Joe Thuney (with the New England connection) or Brandon Scherff (Washington Redskins)? Probably not, especially with offensive contracts coming down the line in the near future, but Detroit would need to find a suitable replacement.

What does defensive lineman Damon Harrison elect to do -- retire or return? If he does return, the Lions need to decide if his $11.75 million cap hit will be worth it or if they want to swallow the $5 million in dead money. With a win-now mandate and questions along the front seven, keeping Harrison around if he wants to play might be worth it in hopes he can return to his 2018 form.

Linebacker Devon Kennard is another player worth watching. He’s a locker room leader and a fit for Patricia and the Lions, but he carries a cap hit of $7.175 million with only $1.75 million in dead money. At this point, it would be surprising to see Detroit move on.

Cornerback Darius Slay is a popular trade candidate. He also seems like a player Detroit can’t really part with unless a team comes with an unreal offer, considering the Lions' mandate from ownership and the logic of getting rid of good players doesn’t make sense. Plus, there’s no obvious fill-in for Slay.

Before these potential moves, the Lions would likely have between $43-44 million in cap room, which should allow them to be active in free agency. It would be surprising to see the Lions spend big again for a defensive end a year after nabbing Trey Flowers -- even though pass rush is a significant need.

The free-agent cornerback market is intriguing, with Byron Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Chris Harris Jr. (Denver Broncos) and Logan Ryan (Tennessee Titans) some of the biggest names out there. Jones and Ryan would make the most sense -- Jones because of his versatility and Ryan with his system familiarity.

Player progression will be a key, particularly for last year’s rookie class. Detroit could benefit from cornerback Amani Oruwariye taking a second-year jump. If he can win the starting job opposite Slay, provided the Lions don’t snag a high-end outside corner, the Lions would feel comfortable with that spot.

Similar expectations go for linebackers Jahlani Tavai and Jarrad Davis, tight end T.J. Hockenson and safety Will Harris. Davis, entering his fourth season, is in a critical position.

Then there’s the draft, where the Lions have the No. 3 overall pick. Free agency could dictate some decisions, but a defensive player here would be logical. Edge rusher Chase Young would be a no-brainer, with cornerback Jeff Okudah and defensive tackle Derrick Brown not far behind.

If the Lions traded down with a team trying to land quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the elite defensive options aren’t available, a receiver could make sense if it is Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb. With a 34-year-old Amendola as a free agent, soon-to-be 30-year-old Marvin Jones Jr. in a contract year and Kenny Golladay in need of a long-term extension, it’s a position in potential future flux.

Then there’s making the best use of their picks beyond No. 3 -- having the third pick in most rounds will be beneficial, including the second round, where first-round talent often falls to the top of Day 2. Quinn’s drafts have been OK but not great. This is one he has to hit on every level.

It’s a lot of work for the Lions' front office and still-to-be-hired coaching staff. They’ve got eight months until the season kicks off to figure it out and put themselves in position to have their vision finally look like something more than a decent-sounding paper.