Niyo: For Lions newcomers, there’s a lot on the line

John Niyo
The Detroit News
T.J. Lang, who played for Brother Rice and Eastern Michigan, signed with the Lions as a free agent.

Allen Park — Class is in session for the Lions rookies, fresh off their first minicamp and now thrown in with the general population.

But for a pair of veterans in Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang, two offensive lineman with a combined 121 career NFL games between them, this is all still pretty new, too.

After a month in Allen Park, it no longer feels “like the first day of school,” as Lang put it. They know their way to and from the practice facility, and their way around inside it as well, from the cafeteria to the weight room.

But that rookie feeling? That’ll take a bit longer to shed, as will the pressure they feel to live up to the big free-agent contracts that lured both players to Detroit.

“I think it’s motivation,” said Wagner, whose five-year, $47.5 million deal makes him the highest-paid pure right tackle in the league. “I kind of feel like a rookie this year, just trying to prove myself to all my new teammates. But I’m looking forward to OTAs and actually getting on the field a little bit more.”

In the meantime, he’s busy getting in shape — staying in shape, actually — with the rest of his teammates in voluntary workouts. And more important, he’s busy learning a new playbook, sitting next to Lang in the offensive line room — “He’s a little bit older, so that makes me feel a little bit better,” Wagner joked — and getting tutored on some of the finer points of the Lions’ blocking schemes by last year’s true rookies, Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow, along with fourth-year center Travis Swanson.

“We have a lot of time in the meeting rooms right now,” said Wagner, 27, who spent the last four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. “I sit right next to (Lang), we’re talking through plays. I mean, we’re both learning this offense together.”

And though Lang, who signed a three-year, $28.5 million deal to leave Green Bay, won’t be on the field going through drills when OTAs begin next week — he underwent hip surgery in late January but expects to be ready for training camp — the 29-year-old still feels the sense of urgency. Both veterans do, really.

“I was telling Ricky, we don’t really have a grace period to build chemistry,” Lang said. “I mean, we’ve got to show up Day 1 and be firing on all cylinders, based on the contract and everything. So I think that’s going to be a big key for him and I especially, to make sure we’re helping each other out along the way. That we’re building chemistry even though we can’t be on the field together at the same time. We’ve got to find a way to do that.”

Saving Stafford

They have to, they know, because the team is counting on them in ways both obvious and not. General manager Bob Quinn is now fully invested in this revamped offensive line, doubling down on last year’s draft picks — Decker, Glasgow and Joe Dahl — with his two biggest free-agent signings this offseason.

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The Lions are determined to finally muster a legitimate rushing attack this season, after finishing 30th, 32nd and 28th in the league on the ground the last three years. And while the team tries to lock up quarterback Matthew Stafford with another contract extension — one that might make him the game’s highest-paid player — they’re intent on protecting that investment. He’s been sacked 132 times the last three seasons.

It started with Quinn’s first draft selection a year ago, and with the quick installment of Decker at left tackle, where the rookie played every snap last season and drew rave reviews in the process. Lang calls him a “stud” and a “future Pro Bowler,” and Wagner, after spending the last month around him, says much the same.

“Just from what I’ve seen so far, he looks like a vet out there,” he said. “A young guy who really understands how to play in this league.”

Walking the walk

Meanwhile, in Wagner, the Lions have added a former fifth-round pick who quickly became a starter in Baltimore and then solidified himself as one of the best pass-blocking tackles in the league on the right side.

Rick Wagner on going from the Ravens to the Lions: “I kind of feel like a rookie this year, just trying to prove myself to all my new teammates.”

In Lang, they get a Pro Bowler who didn’t allow a quarterback hit last season and figures to provide a nasty edge that was missing here the last couple years, ever since Dominic Raiola’s retirement.

Together, they’re two vets the Lions are counting on to be an upgrade over Riley Reiff and Larry Warford.

“When you look on paper, yeah, we’re improved — we’re a lot different football team in some areas,” Caldwell said last week when asked about the overall roster improvements this offseason. “But you still have to get it done. I think we’re stronger. I think we have more depth. But you can’t just talk about it. You’ve got to go out and do it. And that’s what practice is for, that’s what this preparation is for, that’s what this offseason is for.”

And for this new-look offensive line — young and old alike — it’s what these cram sessions are for this spring, before class is dismissed and they really start to feel the pressure when the bell rings in September.