© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Who Were Lions' Top Five Players On Offense And Defense In 2018?

Yep, Stafford cracks the list.

January 03, 2019 - 3:05 pm

The 2018 season came to a merciful end for the Lions last weekend, a season that began with playoff hopes and ended with a 6-10 thud. It marked Detroit's worst record in six years. 

While the team took a substantial step back, a few young players took important steps forward. Particularly on defense, the Lions found some playmakers. Their collective emergence helped the team jump from 27th in the league in total defense to 10th. 

In that sense, Matt Patricia proved worth the hire. 

Here were Detroit's top five players on defense this season, according to Pro Football Focus:

The midseason acquisition of Harrison was huge, even bigger than the ensuing trade of Golden Tate. Harrison, who immediately helped fix what was a broken run defense, is under contract through the 2020 season and looks like a cornerstone of this defense. He ranked third overall at his position.

Next to Harrison, the third-year pro Robinson shined after looking like a bubble player in the preseason. Indeed, he was inactive for Detroit's first game, then slowly played his way into the rotation. By year's end, he was playing upwards of 50 snaps per game. He ranked 11th overall at his position.

The growth of Walker is a measure of vindication for Bob Quinn. His decision to draft the unheralded safety in the third round was a puzzling one at the time. Walker himself was surprised. But he wound up playing in all 16 games, thriving toward the end of the season, and looks like a potential replacement for Glover Quin. 

Hand was another pleasant surprise from the draft. The Lions again went off the board when they took him in the fourth round, and now Hand looks like a flat-out steal. Between Harrison, Robinson and Hand, the latter of whom can also line up outside, Detroit has the makings of a dominant interior. He ranked 13th overall at his position. 

It's no surprise to see Slay on this list, albeit a bit lower than expected. Even in a down year, he was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFC, a performance that earned him another trip to the Pro Bowl. His 20 passes defended were fourth most in the NFL. Slay ranked 22nd overall at his position. 

If the Lions made progress on defense, they regressed severely on offense. They fell from seventh in the league in points per game to 25th. Part of this was due to injuries, as we'll see below, and part of it was due to an offensive coordinator who's no longer around. Matthew Stafford shoulders a good deal of the blame as well. 

There were some bright spots nevertheless, as ranked by Pro Football Focus:

2018 was a wild ride for Golladay, who entered the season as Detroit's No. 3 receiver and finished it as No. 1. He said he blew his personal goals "out of the water." The 2017 third-round pick looks like a go-to receiver for years to come, yet another mid-round feather in Quinn's hat. Golladay ranked 17th overall at his position. 

No emergence on offense was more important this season than that of Johnson. After several swings and misses, the Lions appear to have found a legitimate No. 1 running back. Johnson's 5.4 yards per carry were second most in the league, in an admittedly small sample size. He ranked 14th overall at his position. 

The fact Stafford ranks third on this list says all you need to know about the Lions' offense this year. It was arguably the worst full season of his career. Was it as catastrophically bad as some might suggest? Probably not. But Stafford has to be better, and he'll be the first to admit it. He ranked 17th overall at his position. 

It was a solid year for Riddick. He did his usual work in the passing game, grabbing 61 receptions (good for second on the team), and posted a career high 4.3 yards per carry. Injuries remain a concern for both of them, but Riddick and Johnson can comprise a dynamic duo in the backfield. Riddick ranked 28th overall at his position. 

Considering the resources the Lions have invested in the O-line the last few years, you'd like to see a player ranked higher than fifth on this list -- and you'd like that player to have a more certain future than T.J. Lang. But Lang, who was solid when he was healthy, was limited to six games by various injuries and he's not yet sure he'll return for the final year of his contract. 

Speaking of, it's worth noting that all of the aforementioned players are under contract through next season. That's a good thing, especially on defense, where the Lions were coming into their own toward the end of the year. 

As Quinn and Patricia try to assemble a core that can be competitive year in and year out, a few pieces seem to be falling into place.