Wojo: Steady Lions still hunting for playmakers

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

 

Running back Ameer Abdullah, whose career has been curtailed by injuries, has big playmaker potential.

Allen Park — The Lions have a lot of decent players. This is both a compliment and a concern.

Because amid all that solid decency, the hunt continues for genuine difference-makers.

There’s a reason the Matthew Stafford Contract Summer Tour is such a hyped adventure, with all sorts of edgy speculation (hi!) right up until he signs the extension, unless he doesn’t.

We focus on Stafford because he’s a quarterback in his prime who posts big numbers and is poised to become the highest-paid player in the NFL. And also because of this: The Lions don’t have any other big-time playmakers capable of stirring interest and angst, at least not yet.

That’s why they’re not being touted beyond, say, 8-8. General manager Bob Quinn has done a good job putting staples in place, building up the middle crust. Now the Lions need somebody — a few somebodies — to join the upper crust.

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On offense, most of the potential game-breakers are shaped like question marks. The shifty backfield of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick was dynamic — for the one game the pair played together last season, before injuries set in. Receiver Marvin Jones was great early, faded late. Golden Tate did the reverse. Eric Ebron is still trying to wrap his hands around all his potential.

Consider the Lions were No. 1 in the NFL in plays-per-possession last season at 6.29, normally a positive statistic. Stafford’s improved efficiency was part of it. So was the inability to bust big plays, which could change quickly if Abdullah and Riddick stay healthy. So far in training camp, both look quick and energized.

Running game needed

Who will turn whoa into wow? Abdullah is eager to raise his hand.

“Any time we get going, we feel we can take it to the house,” said Abdullah, whose season ended in week two because of a foot injury. “It makes it easier on Matt. He’s such a dynamic quarterback, but he shouldn’t have to do everything. He shouldn’t have to nickel and dime us down the field every single time. If we can break one, that’ll make it an easier day play-calling for Jim Bob (Cooter), and not a sore arm for Matt.”

 

Cooter has installed more plays to take advantage of his runners’ elusiveness. Gone will be the fullback, replaced by edge rushes designed to get Abdullah and Riddick the ball in space.

If they stay on the field, they could be instant big-play threats for an offense that finished 30th in rushing. With another year in the system, Jones should be better. And maybe 6-foot-4 rookie receiver Kenny Golladay can quickly harness his freakish size and speed and do what he did during practice Sunday, outleaping smaller cornerbacks for red-zone catches.

“Those 50-50 jump balls, those deep balls, I gotta make every one of those count,” Golladay said. “Me being that big body, I gotta come down with the ball.”

The Lions must feel confident he can because they drafted him in the third round and didn’t bring back red-zone specialist Anquan Boldin. But impact guys aren’t limited to the skill positions. Left tackle is just as important, and the Lions will miss their second-year star, Taylor Decker, perhaps for half the season with a shoulder injury. Watching late additions Greg Robinson and Cyrus Kouandjio try to fill in has been revealing, and not in a good way.

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The hunt continues on defense too. Ziggy Ansah should be a playmaking star but is coming off a season of injuries and inconsistencies, when he collected only two sacks. He’s also entering the final year of his deal, so if he wants a Contract Summer Tour, he’ll have to rebound strongly.

Elsewhere on defense, cornerback Darius Slay is young and rising, and safety Glover Quin is as steady as anyone. But when you look at the big-play numbers, not much stands out. The team leader in sacks was Kerry Hyder Jr., an undrafted end. He had eight, part of the Lions’ total of 26, next to last in the league.

It says something good and something unsettling that first-round pick Jarrad Davis already appears indispensable at middle linebacker. There’s decent heft in the middle with Haloti Ngata and A’Shawn Robinson, but again, who will consistently disrupt an opposing offense?

Depth isn’t a problem

Understand, I’m not the only one wondering about this. Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback recently did an analysis of NFL rosters, ranking the top 400 players. If you accept their findings, you should be encouraged and discouraged about your Lions.

Only one Lion cracked the top 100 — Ansah at 99. Stafford was 117 and the next Lions were guard T.J. Lang (128), Slay (173), Decker (183) and tackle Rick Wagner (188).

Here’s the encouraging part: The Lions had 16 players in the top 400, tied for third-most, behind only the Patriots and Chiefs. That speaks to what Quinn has preached, that adding depth was a major priority.

Naturally, Stafford doesn’t buy the argument the Lions lack playmakers, and with Abdullah and Riddick, he might be right. Beyond Jones, Tate and Golladay, a trio of quick receivers — TJ Jones, Jace Billingsley, Jared Abbrederis — is competing hard.

“We have a ton of talented guys, there’s no question,” Stafford said. “I’m comfortable with all the guys we have, honestly.”

Stafford said what a smart leader says, pumping up his guys. But honestly, the Lions need a lot of internal improvement to make this work. Quinn bet heavily on it, opting to load up on the offensive line rather than grab shinier pieces.

That’s fine with Caldwell, who generally prefers sturdy over flashy.

“First of all, I don’t mind long drives, as long as they end up in a score,” Caldwell said. “It eats up the clock, keeps your defense off the field and helps you control the tempo. Splashy and all those kinds of things — sometimes quick scores can do you more harm than good. We’d like some quick strikes, and I think we’ll get some. But we can be methodical, as long as we get it in the end zone or kick a field goal.”

In other words, the Lions aren’t undergoing some dramatic transformation. Setting the foundation was — and is — the first stage. Now they need players, on offense and defense, to hop on that big stage. They clearly have candidates. It’s not yet clear if the candidates can be counted on.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski