Allen Park — You got used to it after a while, picking your jaw off the ground when Calvin Johnson made a play most human beings couldn’t dream of making.
What Lions fans witnessed on Sundays was only a fraction of the greatness the wide receiver showcased nearly every time he stepped on the practice field. That’s why his absence is predictably and understandably dominating the headlines as the team prepares to open training camp on Friday.
But Johnson’s unexpected retirement, which he formerly announced in March after nine professional seasons, can only be the focus for so long. After all, recent history shows championship teams haven’t relied on dominant receivers. Of the past 10 Super Bowl winners, only one had a first-team All-Pro receiver and just two had Pro Bowlers at the position.
No, championships are won in the trenches. Look no further than Super Bowl 50, where the Broncos defensive line dominated the Panthers offensive line. Therefore, it should come as no surprise Lions rookie general manager Bob Quinn made the lines his focus during his inaugural offseason with the organization.
Training camp will be the early proving grounds for Quinn’s additions, primarily the rookie class. The general manager spent his first three draft picks, and four of his first five, on linemen. The priority was on the offensive side of the ball, bolstering a unit that has struggled to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford and open holes for the running backs in recent years.
“You win football games in the trenches and you’ve got to have big, strong, tough, durable, versatile guys in there,” Quinn said after the draft.
Regardless of where he ends up playing, the selection of Ohio State’s Taylor Decker in the first round fills the Lions’ biggest need, stability at right tackle. After rotating through a slew of options the past three seasons, Detroit can either plug Decker into that spot or slide the solid and durable left tackle Riley Reiff over and start the rookie on the blind side.
Quinn also added competition at center, taking Michigan’s Graham Glasgow in the third round. Travis Swanson, another former third-round draft pick, underwhelmed in his first year as a starter and finished the year on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. The incumbent will enter camp the frontrunner to maintain the role, but it figures to be one of the fiercest position battles through the month of August.
Stafford has been sacked a total of 89 times the past two seasons and the Lions’ running game was the least productive in the league in 2015. These additions seek to immediately remedy those issues.
On the other side of the ball, Quinn largely kept intact a front four that performed well last season, particularly down the stretch. While defensive end Jason Jones was allowed to walk, the team re-signed Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker and added veterans Stefan Charles and Wallace Gilberry to the mix.
But like the offensive line, the biggest boost to the defensive front came through the draft, when the team was able to snag Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson in the middle of the second round. Perceived by many analysts as a first-round talent, concerns about how his skill set translated to the professional game caused Robinson to slide. And if the Lions’ early offseason practices were any indication, it’s a decision many teams could regret.
“Athletically, strength-wise, he’s all the things we thought, and he can do what we’re going to need him to do,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said last month.
Up until this point, the rookies have only practiced in shorts. Coach Jim Caldwell likes to point out how limited the evaluation process is without pads. Training camp when the pads come on. Now it’s time for Quinn, Caldwell and the Lions to see what they have.
Johnson will unquestionably be missed, on the practice field and on game day, but the Lions have enough offensive weapons to make up for the lost production. Success in 2016, it will start up front. Let’s see if these offseason investments are capable of paying early dividends.
Projected defensive line starters
DE – Ezekiel Ansah – The former first-round pick took a big step toward stardom last year, finishing third in NFL with 14.5 sacks.
DT – Haloti Ngata – One of the era’s dominant interior lineman, he battled numerous injuries during his first season with the Lions, but finished strong before re-signing with the club.
DT – Tyrunn Walker – Fully recovered from last season’s broken leg, Walker earned another one-year, prove-it deal that’s loaded with playing-time incentives.
DE – Devin Taylor – Production finally started to catch up to potential during last season as the quirky Taylor racked up seven sacks, with 4.5 coming in the final six games.
Wallace Gilberry, A’Shawn Robinson – Gilberry essentially replaces Jason Jones while Robinson is a long-term solution at defensive tackle who will immediately push for a starting job.
Projected offensive line starters
LT – Taylor Decker – The team’s first-round pick, he was initially projected as a right tackle this season, but will get every opportunity to lock up the blindside job.
LG – Laken Tomlinson – As a rookie last season, Tomlinson struggled through typical inconsistencies, but significant improvement is common with second-year linemen.
C – Travis Swanson – The Lions drafted Graham Glasgow to push Swanson for this job, but the center position is one of the most complicated to learn, giving a leg up to the incumbent.
RG – Larry Warford – Arguably Detroit’s best o-lineman when healthy, durability has been an issue the past two seasons. When he’s on the field, no one more consistently opens holes for the running backs.
RT – Riley Reiff – In the final year of his rookie contract, Reiff seems destined to slide to the right side after three years as the team’s starting left tackle.
Geoff Schwartz, Glasgow, Joe Dahl – Schwartz is a talented veteran who has struggled to stay on the field in recent years. He’ll back up both guard spots. Dahl, a fifth-round pick out of Washington State, is the most likely option to be the swing tackle, but he’ll have to earn that job in camp.