Allen Park — Training came is upon us. The Ravens were the first team to report, coming back to town Wednesday, and the Lions’ veterans will return from their summer break next Thursday. While those veterans enjoy an extra week of rest and relaxation, the team’s rookies are reporting today.
Relying on rookies to make a significant impact isn’t a great model for NFL success, but a talented first-year class can do wonders for a franchise.
Take last year’s Saints for example, which boasted the league’s offensive and defensive rookie of the year in running back Alvin Kamara and corner Marshon Lattimore.
Those two led a strong group that propelled the Saints to an 11-5 record – a four-win improvement from the year before – and a miraculous touchdown short of making the NFC Championship game.
Detroit’s incoming rookie class isn’t likely to match New Orleans’ crop from a year ago, but there’s plenty of potential for fruitful returns.
Let’s consider the best, and worst case, for each of the team’s six draft picks.
Offensive lineman Frank Ragnow
Best case: A dominant college center, Ragnow is trending toward serving as the Lions’ starting left guard this season. Ideally, he will have a similar rookie impact to Larry Warford in 2013, who after some struggles through training camp in the preseason, was the team’s best offensive lineman that season. If Ragnow could have a similar impact, Detroit’s left side of the line, with Graham Glasgow and Taylor Decker, could be the key to a turnaround in that department.
Worst case: Ragnow has a rookie season less reminiscent of Warford and more like Laken Tomlinson, Detroit’s first-round pick in 2014. Despite being one of the top interior lineman prospects in his class, Tomlinson struggled with his initial adjustment to the quickness and strength required by the pro game. It’s not unusual for a rookie offensive lineman to go through these struggles, but if Ragnow’s adaption mirrors Tomlinson, it will hinder the offensive line’s ability to improve on last season’s performance.
Running back Kerryon Johnson
Best case: The Lions have a wealth of running back options, but Johnson showed at Auburn he can be a three-down workhorse. If he proves a capable pass protector, and a quick study as a route runner, there’s the possibility he can overtake LeGarrette Blount and become the franchise’s featured back by season’s end. And maybe, just maybe, Johnson can snap that pesky drought of games without a 100-yard rusher.
Worst case: As mentioned, the Lions have a lot of talented, experienced options in the rotation. That group won’t concede carries easily, and it’s possible Johnson’s first-year workload will be limited by the team’s depth, similar to the way cornerback Teez Tabor struggled to see the field as a rookie last season.
Safety Tracy Walker
Best case: The best case for the Lions is Walker doesn’t play much as a rookie, because that means Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson and Quandre Diggs are staying healthy. In that scenario, the Lions can bring Walker along slowly, working him into a narrow set of packages. All this while serving as a key contributor on special teams.
Worst case: Walker is pushed into action too early because of an injury and struggles with the complexity of the team’s new defensive scheme.
Defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand
Best case: Formerly one of top high school recruits in the country, Hand’s skill set was forged playing in Alabama’s defense, one that has some striking similarities to the scheme the Lions are installing. That should reduce some of the mental stress of the pro transition, allowing Hand to become an immediate contributor to the team’s interior rotation, with an eye toward producing at or near a starting level by the end of season.
Worst case: Remember Gabe Wright? In almost identical fashion to how the Lions landed Hand, the team gave up a future third-round pick to trade into the fourth round to draft Wright in 2015. They’re different players, with different skills, but Wright, who played for Auburn, never found his footing in Detroit and was a healthy scratch by the end of his rookie year, in favor of Andre Fluellen.
Offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby
Best case: Like Walker, the best case is Crosby doesn’t get much playing time as a rookie. The Lions have two quality offensive tackles, so if Crosby is out there, it likely means Decker or Rick Wagner are hurt. That said, Crosby has the upside to establish himself as the team’s swing tackle, over Corey Robinson, and if pressed into action for injury-related reasons, Crosby could easily be an upgrade over the various backup options who struggled when their numbers were called in 2017.
Worst case: A serious injury forces the Lions to lean on Crosby early in the season, and whatever reasons that caused him to slide a couple rounds further than expected in the draft, lead to struggles on the field.
Fullback Nick Bawden
Best case: A full recovery with eyes on winning a job in 2019.
Worst case: We’re living it, with Bawden tearing his ACL earlier this offseason.
Undrafted free agents
The Lions are coming into camp with more than a dozen undrafted rookies and odds are good, given the team's track record, at least one of those players will open the season on the 53-man roster. At this point, who that will be is anybody's guess.
Wide receiver Teo Redding was one of the standout's from the team's mandatory minicamp and Chad Meredith, a productive small school standout, checks many of the boxes Patricia is looking for at linebacker.