Five thoughts on Lions' draft and what's next
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions added nine players in the draft this week, with several drawing the standard visceral reaction from fans. If we're being realistic, we won't have a true sense for the impact of this group for at least a year, probably two. But after having a night to ponder the additions, we do have some thoughts we'd like to share.
Is bigger better?
There was a consistent theme with the defensive players the Lions added this weekend — they're big. We're talking notably bigger than average for their positions, whether that's height in the secondary or weight throughout the front seven.
"Bigger, longer, if they’re athletic enough, that’s what you want to build," general manager Bob Quinn said after the draft. "There’s a few guys at certain positions that really matter in our defense, and you guys have been studying the kind of players we’ve picked here the last year-and-a-half. So, that kind of goes into the equation of how you do the evaluation process."
Quinn's preference came through early, when the Lions surprised observers by taking Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the second round. I won't pretend to tell you I've watched Tavai in action, beyond a few highlights shortly after the selection was made, but it's still worth drawing a parallel to what the Patriots have done in New England at the position, since that's the foundation of the scheme the Lions are running.
In New England, there's long been a preference for thumpers in the second level. In an ideal world for the Lions, Tavai would become Detroit's Dont'a Hightower, but that might be an unrealistic expectation. Hightower, a college All-American and former All-Pro was 10-15 pounds heavier than Tavai coming out of Alabama, and far more athletic to boot.
I'm more intrigued by the gem the Patriots appeared to mine last offseason in Ja’Whaun Bentley. Written about as a potential undrafted free agent a year ago, he was selected by the Patriots in the fifth round and had an immediate impact within their scheme. And while no two players are exactly the same, the frame, playing style and athletic testing numbers show a significant overlap with what the Lions appear to be getting in Tavai.
Yes, Bentley was a fifth-rounder, but there's no doubt his value is perceived differently in hindsight. And the Lions felt there was a scarcity of big-bodied linebackers in this class, pushing Tavai up their board.
Bentley unfortunately didn't finish his rookie season, landing on IR after three weeks with a torn bicep, but he was averaging 46 snaps per game to that point and playing years beyond his experience.
Beyond Tavai, the Lions added a beefy 270-plus-pound defensive end with long arms in Austin Bryant, two 6-foot-2 defensive backs with above-average speed with Will Harris and Amani Oruwariye and P.J. Williams, a 334-pound behemoth of a nose tackle who can back up and be mentored by Damon Harrison.
Veterans on the bubble
While the depth chart will ultimately be decided on the field — through the offseason program, training camp and preseason — you get a sense for which veteran players have a steeper hill to climb to maintain their spots after the draft.
The first three who come to mind are tight end Michael Roberts, safety Tavon Wilson and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Roberts, a fourth-round pick two years ago, was primed for a breakout in his second season, but struggled to maintain his momentum as he drifted in and out of the training room. Suddenly, he's looking at six new competitors for his playing time, including a top free-agent addition and a first-round draft pick. Yet, it might be the seventh-round selection of Isaac Nauta that ultimately squeezes Roberts out.
Nauta, despite some less-than-stellar measurables at the combine, was a highly efficient receiver at Georgia, making the most of each route while rarely dropping a pass. He also has plenty of experience lining up as an H-back, where he offers more natural blocking leverage at 6-foot-3 than the other trees in his room. Finally, there's more special-teams experience and potential, which is often a deciding factor in those end-of-the-roster decisions.
As for Wilson, he's been a solid bridge player for coach Matt Patricia during the team's scheme change, but Wilson is coming off a season where he saw a sharp decline in his defensive role. He accepted a pay cut to stick with the team this offseason, but with a second third-round pick in as many seasons added to the safety room, Wilson's locker room leadership and special-teams ability will need to weigh heavy into the team's evaluation of his value.
Reeves-Maybin, another fourth-round pick, was drafted for a previous scheme. He's a smart, instinctual player with special-teams ability, but he remains undersized and looks more and more out of place as the Lions stock up on thickly built options like Tavai.
The Lions didn't draft an offensive lineman and are heading toward training camp with a potential weak spot at right guard. As it's currently shaping up, that job opening will be contested between Kenny Wiggins, Oday Aboushi and Joe Dahl. Some still believe Tyrell Crosby will be in that mix, but Patricia seemed to shoot the idea down earlier this offseason.
The problem here is twofold. First, none of the trio of contenders has ever been viewed as an above-average starter. And even if one does emerge and successfully fills the void this year, none are under contract beyond this season. Well, other than Crosby.
Zooming out, that's largely how the Lions handled a number of concerns on offense. Quinn went all in on repairing the team's tight end problem, signing who many believed to be the best option in free agency in Jesse James, followed by drafting arguably the most compete prospect to come out of college in 10 years in T.J. Hockenson. The general manager couldn't have done more in this department.
At slot receiver, the team added a Band-Aid in Danny Amendola. He's a capable, productive veteran, but also one on the downside of his career. He'll turn 34 this season. At running back, the Lions got a young, hungry reclamation project in C.J. Anderson. And it's reasonable to expect he'll bring more to the table than LeGarrette Blount did a year ago, but it's another one-year contract. Third-down back Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner also are on expiring deals.
In the draft, it's a challenge to project much from fifth- and sixth-round picks Travis Fulgham and Ty Johnson. Fulgham was successful as a deep threat, but he has average speed and played against lower-level competition. Johnson is a hard runner with good play speed on film, but has minimal experience contributing in the pass game.
Maybe Quinn unearthed a gem with one or both of these late-round weapons, but we can't reasonably predict that now.
Quinn put far more energy and effort into bolstering Detroit's defense this offseason. That's not a bad strategy, considering that unit is the closer of the two to being dominant. But it's fair to ask whether enough resources were allotted for an offense that finished 24th in yardage and 25th in scoring a year ago.
QB plans unchanged ... for now
For the second straight year, the Lions didn't draft a quarterback. It's not a big deal given the franchise isn't at a stage where they're looking for a replacement, or even viable competition for starter Matthew Stafford. Additionally, they have a couple under-30 options with NFL experience to compete for the backup job.
As I've written several times in recent months, this season, more than any other since he was drafted, will set the table for Stafford's future in Detroit. Last year, due to a combination of performance, scheme and injuries, things bottomed out. A repeat performance by the offense should have Quinn laying the groundwork for a new direction, similar to what's happened in Kansas City and Baltimore in recent years.
The offseason shifts into Phase II next week, which means players can start working through individual drills on the field, with OTA practices right around the corner.
Meanwhile, Quinn and his staff will continue to look at possible upgrades for the roster. They'll double back on the remaining free agents, while preparing to pounce on a veteran option who might come available in the coming weeks based on shifting post-draft depth charts around the league.
For all we know, the starting guard might not be on the roster. And we all witnessed how quickly a trade can change perceptions of a unit after the Lions added Harrison before the trade deadline last year.
The Lions have plenty of cap space to work with if a player who can help does hit the trade market. New England offensive lineman Ted Karras stands out as an early option after the Patriots drafted Hjalte Froholdt on Saturday.