Lions delve deep into rookie reserves
Allen Park — In an ideal world, an NFL team wouldn’t have to rely heavily on rookies. But the injury rate associated with football doesn’t leave much room for ideal scenarios.
During his three years with the Detroit Lions, coach Jim Caldwell has had to lean a little heavier on his rookie class each season, particularly during the early portion of the campaigns.
In 2013, the Lions were able to show patience with early round picks Eric Ebron, Kyle Van Noy and Travis Swanson because of veteran depth. Last year, guard Laken Tomlison was called upon to start early, but running back Ameer Abdullah, fullback Michael Burton and cornerback Quandre Diggs were eased into their roles.
This season, through six games, the Lions have already had 10 rookies see the field, with three making starts.
“That’s kind of where we are, but they’ve shown a desire to work and try to get better and, you know, they have the right kind of attitude,” Caldwell said. “It’s a very serious group.”
First-round pick Taylor Decker hasn’t missed a snap at left tackle. A’Shawn Robinson has played a healthy role in the defensive tackle rotation. Guard Graham Glasgow came off the bench one week and started the next. And multiple low-round picks, including linebacker Antwione Williams, defensive end Anthony Zettel and running back Dwayne Washington, have seen increased time due to injuries ahead of them on the depth chart.
While the Lions are absorbing the bumps in the road that come from playing young players, the flip side is the added benefit of accelerated development, which should pay dividends for the team down the road.
“They’re going to make some mistakes, there’s going to be some growing pains, but in the long run, obviously I think they’re going to get better as the season goes on,” Caldwell said. “They’ll just keep getting better and better and better, but I think that’s a good thing.”
Decker, Robinson and Glasgow have all flashed the potential expected of players selected in the first three rounds. Each looks like a long-term contributor for the Lions. But the team has been pleasantly surprised with the help they’ve gotten from some of their late-round selections.
Washington looked like a playmaker before an ankle injury. Williams started a couple games when the linebacking corps was decimated by injuries. The same for undrafted rookie Cole Wick, who helped shore up the tight end position early in the year.
There’s also safety Miles Killebrew, who has played as many as 21 defensive snaps in a game. He’s a rare rookie on the roster where his playing time hasn’t been dictated by injuries. Like Diggs the year before, the team has been able to ease Killebrew into the lineup, with the expectation the experience will pay off when he’s competing for a bigger role in 2017.
Consistently finding gems in the late rounds, or among the pool of undrafted players, is the best way to build a contender. In 2013 and 2015, Detroit did well in this area, landing players such as running back Theo Riddick, punter Sam Martin, defensive end Devin Taylor, Burton and Diggs. In other years, they’ve largely struck out.
Time will tell if the Lions can build on their core of late-round contributors with this class, but the early experience the group is getting is a silver lining to the injury woes that have plagued the franchise to start the season.