Lions' rookie crop paying early dividends

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions' 2017 fifth-round pick (No. 165 overall) Jamal Agnew has been a dynamic punt returner this season.

Allen Park —The best way to build a foundation in the NFL is through developing young talent, and for the third consecutive season, the Lions are getting extensive contribution for the team’s rookie class.

Look no further than the Lions’ most-recent game, a 20-10 division win over the Chicago Bears. In the contest, the Lions’ top seven draft picks had major roles, with an undrafted rookie getting significant work in the backfield.

“I’m appreciative of those guys, how they work,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “I’m proud of them, the way they play, the way they fight. They’ve got the right kind of attitude.”

First-round pick, linebacker Jarrad Davis, had one of his best games against Chicago. Showcasing quickly improving pursuit angles, he recorded six tackles in the victory. Cornerback Teez Tabor and tight end Michael Roberts both had season-high workloads, while wide receiver Kenny Golladay was on the field for at least 50 snaps the second consecutive week.

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Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a fourth-round pick out of Tennessee, and sixth-round defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter continue to have steady rotational roles on defense. And Jamal Agnew, making his return to action after missing three weeks with a knee injury, picked up right where he left off, as one of the league’s most electric punt returners.

Then there’s Tion Green, who was a healthy scratch the first 11 games, but has quickly carved out a role as Detroit’s best power-running option. In his first three appearances, he’s churned out 101 yards on 26 carries.

“I think the guys that started out early in the season, they’ve gotten better and they’ve improved,” Caldwell said. “They’ve played some valuable minutes for us, made some valuable contributions for us, as well. And I think the guys playing here late in the season, getting more reps, guys like Teez, like Tion, it’s the kind of progression you’d anticipate and expect.”

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Caldwell said the amount of playing time the rookies are receiving is unusual, which is probably more relative to his own coaching experience than what’s currently going on in the league. Not that he’s opposed

“It’s a difficult learning curve in our league,” Caldwell said. “It’s why you don’t see a lot of rookies playing for a lot of people because it’s not easy to do.”

Prior to coming to Detroit, Caldwell spent 12 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, franchises that won 10 games 10 times during that stretch. Successful teams are often drafting later and laden with veterans. Last year’s Super Bowl participants, New England and Atlanta, have been among the teams least reliant on rookies in 2017.

The number has trended up in recent weeks, especially with Tabor’s rapidly expanding role and Golladay shaking a lingering hamstring injury, but the Lions rookies rank in the middle of the pack in playing time, according to Pro Football Focus. The group has combined to take 2,171 snaps, which checks in at 13th. But of the teams who are leaning on rookies more, only three have better records than the Lions — the Saints, Rams and Jaguars — and none made the playoffs in 2016.


And while first-year players are bound to take their lumps as they figure out what it takes to succeed at this level, there’s no substitute for experience. Every time the rookies make a mistake, every time they see something for the first time, it’s an opportunity to learn and to get better. That should lead to increased production down the road.

Not that Caldwell is thinking beyond this weekend’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. He understands how tenuous job security is pro and college sports and that he might be replaced before he ever sees the fruits of the players’ developmental progress.

“I still look at it one way, and one way only: What does it do for us to win this weekend?” he said. “I think that’s how coaches have to look at it. We don’t look down the road. We don’t scan ahead. There was one year I had a really good class of freshmen (at Wake Forest), a really good group that I ended up redshirting in college and that group was playing for somebody else.”

But if Caldwell is back next season, he should reap some benefits, the way he is from his 2016 rookie class. That group ranked seventh in the league in playing time last year. Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow, A’Shawn Robinson and Anthony Zettel are all quality starters, Miles Killebrew and Joe Dahl are serviceable backups who could start in the future and Jake Rudock has shown enough to be a viable backup for Matthew Stafford.

Twitter: @justin_rogers