Many Detroit Lions rookies have been seeing increased opportunities in recent weeks as they’ve continued to earn more trust of the coaches.
With the playoffs no longer a possibility, first-year players might get a big chance Sunday to showcase their skills and help general manager Bob Quinn assess his second draft class.
Coach Jim Caldwell said it is vitally important for young players to put a good performance on video in the last game.
“It’s your resume, and everybody looks at it. Everybody reviews it on every staff: the personnel departments, the coaches, etcetera. And you actually leave your trademark out there. What do you want it to look like?” Caldwell said.
Running back Tion Green wasn’t drafted, but the Lions signed him immediately after the 2017 draft. He’s only gotten into the last four games, but the Cincinnati standout has been the lone bright spot in this season’s rushing game, averaging 4.4 yards per carry with two touchdowns in that limited time.
“I don’t think I was ready before. I’m a little bit more mature now as a football player. I needed those 13 weeks to grow and develop,” Green said.
“Tion’s got a long way to go, but I do think he’s making progress,” Caldwell said.
“Tion Green runs the ball hard, runs physically. We’re excited about where he’s heading,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said.
If the Lions are going to break out of the NFL’s middle class in the next couple years, the 2017 draft class will have to have something to do with it.
The much-maligned 2015 draft class is a great example of how one bad draft can reverberate through the organization for years, and even Caldwell agreed three or four years later has always been a marker for a draft class in terms of how it can change the look of a team.
Only three of the seven players drafted that year are still on the roster, and second-rounder Ameer Abdullah’s snap counts have plummeted the last two weeks. The only success from the 2015 draft class has come from finding defensive back Quandre Diggs and offensive tackle Corey Robinson in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively.
Another sixth-round find, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter from the 2017 draft class, has been in the rotation since Week 1. So far he has 12 tackles, half a sack, and saw 32 percent of the Lions’ defensive snaps.
“When next season comes I feel like I’ll have the scheme down, I’ll be more technique-sound, and I’ll add a big contribution to this defense,” Ledbetter said.
Developing young players is of the utmost importance in the salary-capped NFL where signing free agent veterans can be cost-prohibitive.
“It’s really the most important part because you have to be able to keep cultivating your talent, keep getting guys to the point where they understand what you’re doing at a more rapid pace and build a really good base and foundation,” Caldwell said. “A number of the young guys have really made some good progress in that regard. You’ve just got to keep developing and bringing guys along. That’s your lifeline.”
Fourth-round tight end Michael Roberts seems to be on that development track, getting on the field for almost half of the Lions’ offensive snaps two weeks ago against the Chicago Bears, even with two veterans in front of him on the depth chart. He said blocking has been the biggest challenge in his rookie year.
“Blocking has been the biggest difference physically,” Roberts said. “Everybody’s a little stronger and a little more powerful. I’ve worked on that the most since I’ve gotten here.”
“He’s improved every week. He’s got the body type for it. He’s got the temperament for it. I think all of the reps that he’s gotten have helped him, and every week he solves a problem that he’s had previously. He’s doing a nice job. He’s not just one-dimensional either. He can catch the ball,” Caldwell said.
“Mike Roberts is doing a lot of things well. He’s blocking, be that run game or pass game. I’m excited about where Mike Roberts is heading. He needs to get better this week, and then he needs to get better in the offseason like we all do,” Cooter said.
Second-round cornerback Teez Tabor didn’t see the field on defense until Week 6, but in the last three games he’s gotten more than half of the Lions’ defensive snaps.
“At this level you’ve got to be an athlete. These guys are good, and you’ve got to be able to keep up with them. You can’t make many changes to that. If you don’t already have it, you’re never going to have it,” Tabor said.
“With most guys, they make a big jump between their first and second year. We can’t predict it, but you hope that’s what happens,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said about Tabor.
Fourth-round linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has been on the field for about 41 percent of the Lions’ defensive snaps over the last four games.
He’s got 28 tackles and half a sack on the season.
“You see him continually getting better. He has a natural slipperiness to him. We’d like a little bit more bulk, but we certainly don’t want to slow him down either because that’s one of his assets. The more he plays, the better he gets, so he continues to get a little bit more (playing time),” Caldwell said.
Third-round wide receiver Kenny Golladay missed some time with an injury but has still seen 43 percent of the Lions’ offensive snaps with veterans in front of him on the depth chart. He has 26 catches for 397 yards and two scores on the season.
“Running routes is not just a physical activity. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it. There’s a lot of detail and precision that goes into it. He’s getting better at it, and he’s going to keep improving. He’s going to keep making plays for us,” Cooter said.
The most immediate impact player drafted by the Lions in 2017 is punt and kick returner Jamal Agnew. The fifth=rounder averages the most yards per punt return in the league (16) and took two punts to the house. His future development may include working him in on offense.
First-round linebacker Jarrad Davis immediately stepped into a starting role and was regularly logging 100 percent of the Lions’ defensive snaps through Week 10, but his playing time has diminished since, only getting in on 58 percent of the Lions’ defensive plays on Sunday.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya, a sixth-round pick, and seventh-round defensive end Pat O’Connor are no longer on the roster.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.