Niyo: Training camp will reveal Lions' true character

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s a question coaches often get as spring turns to summer and the NFL offseason unofficially ends: Are you better off now than you were a year ago?

The short answer is nobody knows. Certainly not in this league, where roster turnover fueled by the salary cap and the annual coaching carousel turns projections into guesswork. And where parity is part of the plan, the Patriots’ dynasty notwithstanding.

Lions running back Kerryon Johnson cuts up field during drills.

Remember, there were eight new teams that made the playoffs in 2017. Seven new teams made it last winter. And two of those — Chicago and Houston — did so by going from worst to first in their respective divisions.

But for the Lions to do something similar this season, it’ll take more than the continued improvement from their defense in Year 2 of head coach Matt Patricia’s scheme.

It’s going to require huge strides from an offense that’s still a bit of a mystery, if only because there’s such a disparity these days between the “real football,” as Patricia calls it, and what they do in practice before the heat really gets turned up.

“It’s hard to compare, right?” the Lions’ Matt Patricia said, when asked to take stock of where his team is now and where it was last June at the end of his first frantic offseason as a head coach. “Like, I don’t really know where we were last year compared to where we are this year, because it really doesn’t matter until (we see) what the end results are.

“We’re working in a good direction, and I feel good about where we are. I feel good about practice and what we’ve been able to accomplish from that standpoint. You always feel better (the) second year than you do the first year. So I would like to say that we’re ahead of where we were last year. But really, in the end, we’ll find out when we get to the fall.”

'Plenty of hitting'

Time will tell, obviously. So will padded practices, as Patricia and his new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, both of whom share the same beliefs about building a tough, hard-nosed team. As Bevell puts it, “We want to be able to exert our will on our opponents.”

But for all the energy exerted over the last few months in Allen Park, and for all the hours spent drilling the fundamentals and techniques that are the foundation for those beliefs, real progress won’t be measured until training camp begins and the preseason follows, likely including joint practices with New England and Houston in August.

It was about that time a year ago that we realized how steep the learning curve was going to be for the Lions’ revamped defense. Around then that Patricia realized his new coaching staff probably was behind schedule, too.

This year hasn’t felt as rushed, for obvious reasons. Training camp won’t be quite the system shock it was a year ago, either, when the Lions went from one extreme to the other with Patricia replacing Jim Caldwell.

“We’re gonna get plenty of hitting in training camp,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “We know that.”

We also know what they have in Kerryon Johnson, the second-year running back whose healthy return remains arguably the biggest determining factor for Bevell’s offense this season. Not just as a runner, either, though he was on pace for the Lions’ first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2013 (Reggie Bush) when a mid-November knee injury cut short his debut.

Johnson also showed promise as a receiving threat, something we saw on display again Thursday in the final OTA practice of the spring as he broke open downfield and then made a leaping grab over safety Tavon Wilson for a touchdown that had the offense hooting from the sideline.

More to the point, though, we also saw evidence this spring of what the Lions insist will be one of their strengths: An ability to put stress on opposing defenses with run-pass conflicts borne out of personnel versatility, with varied formations and Matthew Stafford orchestrating lots of motion and shifts.

Again, while its hard to glean much from situational drills during OTAs, we can expect to see Bevell utilizing two-tight end sets with rookie first-round pick T.J. Hockenson and free-agent pickup Jesse James as an offensive staple this season. The Lions did some work with three tight ends as well in third-down situations, and Patricia clearly likes what he sees from the other new addition at that spot, Logan Thomas.

Weakness to strength

In fact, with Thursday’s trade of tight end Michael Roberts — dealt to New England for a conditional late-round pick — general manager Bob Quinn has now completely overhauled a position that was a glaring weakness a year ago.

But it’s more than just the tight ends. The offensive line made some strides a year ago under assistant coach Jeff Davidson, and now that Patricia has a coordinator with a proven track record in the run game calling the shots, everyone’s expecting much more from that group.

The Lions have ranked in the NFL’s bottom quartile in run efficiency the last five years, while Bevell’s teams ranked in the top eight from 2012-15 during his last stop in Seattle. Whether or not he can replicate that kind of success here in Detroit — in a league that has trended more toward pass-happy spread concepts in recent years — remains to be seen.

But to hear Decker talk, the pieces sure sound like they’re falling into place. After spending the last three months learning a new language, it’s starting to make sense. The new voice, the vision and, yes, the 2019 outlook.

“Do I think we have a good understanding of it? I do,” Decker said. “And I think we worked really hard, individually and collectively, in meetings and whatever time we had, to be on the same page.”

Until the calendar finally flips, though, we can’t be sure.

Twitter: @johnniyo