Which third-year Lion is about to leap ahead?
Allen Park – In the immediate aftermath of the NFL draft, there’s a rush to evaluate and grade the job general managers did putting together their classes.
It’s good for banter, but ultimately a fool’s errand. Most analysts can see how a player might fit a team’s needs, but no one can accurately predict how an individual player will adapt to the speed and strength of the professional game or fit within the scheme of his new employer.
The rule of thumb is three years. There’s some obvious fluidity there, based on the individual, but after three seasons, you generally have a good idea what you have in a player.
“Usually it’s in the third year when you’ve kind of been through the cycle of seeing different fronts, different stunts, all those kinds of things, routes, combinations, etc., that’s typically about how much time it takes you to get it right,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
It took three years for Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead to see defensive snaps and he’s turned into a quality starter. Running back Theo Riddick, now considered one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, caught 38 passes his first two seasons before breaking out with a franchise-record 80 for his position his third year.
More recently, center Travis Swanson and defensive back Quandre Diggs put things together in their third seasons. After a pair of inconsistent seasons, Swanson was arguably the Lions best lineman in 2016 prior to suffering a season-ending concussion. Unfortunately for the team, he seems to have regressed a bit this year.
As for Diggs, he shook off a sophomore slump to put together an impressive string of performances in the slot this season. And, in recent weeks, after an unexpected move to free safety, he’s further flourished, generating three turnovers, including the first two interceptions of his career, in three games.
It begs the question, who is the next Lions player who will deliver on their promising talent in 2018?
Here are three options:
After emerging as a third-down stopper his rookie season, Killebrew appeared on the cusp of a breakout entering 2017. The early-season returns looked to align with expectations, but the safety out of Southern Utah, has slipped out of the defensive rotation in recent weeks.
The coaching staff still views him as more of a matchup piece, not ready to handle a full workload. And with the emergence of Diggs at safety, there hasn’t been a need to push Killebrew’s developmental pace. He remains a valuable special teams contributor, but 2018 will determine whether he can shake the specialist label and become a bigger part of the Lions do on defense.
The raw skill is there, and so is the work ethic, it’s simply a matter of putting it all together.
Robinson has been a steady starter for the Lions this season, but hasn’t provided many splash plays from the interior of the defensive line. Conceding there was an adjustment period as he learned to play in Detroit’s attack-based front, he’s hasn’t found his way into opposing backfields nearly enough.
Through 14 games, he no sacks, just four tackles for loss and 14 QB pressures. Those numbers are all on the lower end for starters at his position.
Robinson’s ability to bat down passes at the line — 11 in two seasons, plus an impressive interception — combined with his extraordinary athleticism, still give him a tantalizing ceiling. And, despite appearances, he’s only 22 years old. Improvement is almost a given, and his impact could be significantly aided by the offseason addition of a capable pass rusher to play beside him.
While Graham Glasgow has already begun to find his groove in his first full season as a starter at left guard, Dahl is coming off his first start on the offensive line. While there was some noticeable rust following his lengthy stint on injured reserve, particularly in pass protection, Dahl shined as a run blocker. And there are few things the Lions could use more in 2018 than consistent run blocking from their interior offensive linemen.
With Swanson set to hit free agency next season, the Lions are able to slide Glasgow over and Dahl could get a shot to start. Like Robinson, Dahl had to overcome a big schematic adjustment in Detroit, but with two years to develop on the practice field, it will be sink or swim in 2018.
Lions playoff picture
The Lions (8-6) need to win their final two games to have a shot at extending the season. Here are the possibilities:
Scenario 1: Atlanta (9-5) loses its final two games. And there’s a realistic possibility of this happening with the two foes in the mix for the NFC South crown. The Lions could end up tied with the Seahawks (8-6), Rams (10-4) or Cowboys (8-6) for the final spot, but would hold tiebreakers over all three. If the Rams lose their next two, the Lions would finish with a better conference record, the second tie-breaker after head-to-head. Detroit would have the same conference record as Seattle and Dallas. Moving to the next tiebreaker, common games, Detroit holds the advantage over both, having gone 4-1. There’s no way for Detroit to jump Atlanta, which holds head-to-head tiebreakers with Dallas and Seattle, and potentially New Orleans. Atlanta holds a two-game lead in conference record.
Scenario 2: The remaining ways the Lions get in are all multi-team, tiebreaking scenarios. The Panthers would have to lose their final two games in this scenario and would be eliminated in the tiebreaker because of the worse conference record. It would then go to the teams’ common games, where the Lions beat the Seahawks and Cowboys.
Scenario 3: The other NFC South possibility is the Saints lose out with the Cowboys/Seahawks winning out. Losing out would give the Saints five conference loses, eliminating them. Again, it goes to common games, where the Lions win out.
Scenario 4: Any four- or five-team tie between Carolina/Seattle/ Dallas/New Orleans/Los Angeles/Detroit finishing 10-6 would result in Detroit making the playoffs.