The Lions have lost three straight and just traded starting safety Quandre Diggs. Lose another and the wheels might come off the bus. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — While the Detroit Lions view the decision to trade starting safety Quandre Diggs as a big-picture move that will make the team better long-term, coach Matt Patricia insists the franchise's short-term goals aren't altered by the surprisingly sudden departure.
"When you’re trying to build a team, you are always trying to balance decisions that are good now versus decisions that are good for the long term," Patricia said. "But in the current moment, we’re always about competing and doing everything we can to win, so that never changes."
The Lions' playoff chances have unquestionably taken a hit the past two weeks, after losses to rivals Green Bay and Minnesota sent them from competing for first place in the NFC North straight to the division cellar. But with the schedule easing up after a brutal starting stretch, beginning with this Sunday's home tilt with the New York Giants, a postseason berth remains within reach.
And the Lions clearly believe they can make that run without Diggs.
"At the end of the day, you’re going to build relationships with people throughout the NFL," Lions safety Tracy Walker said. "Just because they go to a different team doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with them. It doesn’t mean you can’t hang with them in the offseason. It’s a business. That’s the business aspect of it. You can’t have your feelings connected to it. Just because Quandre is gone — I wish him the best — but at the end of the day, I have to focus on what the Detroit Lions have going on right now."
Much of Detroit's faith comes from the depth they've built up at the safety position. Walker obviously will remain in his starting role, while rookie Will Harris, a third-round pick this year, and veteran Tavon Wilson figure to see the majority of Diggs' reps.
With Diggs recently hampered by a hamstring injury, Harris saw his playing time skyrocket, averaging 37 snaps the past three games. And in the two weeks he played the most — against Kansas City, when Diggs exited in the first quarter, and against Green Bay, when Diggs was sidelined — the Lions didn't allow a passing touchdown to two of the league's more prolific quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
"Those are two really, really difficult quarterbacks to play against," Patricia said. "I think (Harris) did a really job of understanding the roles that we needed him, and how we needed him to play. Certainly, in the back end, those guys can have different assignments based on maybe the other team’s personnel, and I think he did a good job of kind of taking all of that in and understanding what he was going to have to do.
"Just his work ethic, the way he approaches, the way he’s been consistent has allowed him to improve through the course of the season. He has a long way to go and he has a lot of work to do, but he also I think has a skill set that we haven’t really tapped into yet, too. There are some other things that I think he can do to help us, and we’ll see if given that opportunity if he can perform at a high level with that, too. He’s an instinctual player, especially when he’s down close to the line of scrimmage, so we’ll see if he has any opportunity to show us that also."
Lions coach Matt Patricia said trading players is never easy, but it's about doing what's best, long-term, for the team. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Harris acknowledged there can be a stigma to matching up against the best the NFL has to offer as a rookie, but the best way he knows how to calm his nerves is through detailed preparation.
"After all the film study you do, and after all the work you put in during the week, you get to game day and you’re just playing football," Harris said.
As for Detroit's depth at the position, Patricia highlighted a pair of names, one largely unknown and another likely forgotten by fans. Undrafted rookie C.J. Moore has been a stellar contributor on special teams this season but has been on the field for just five defensive snaps.
Additionally, the Diggs trade could open the door for Miles Killebrew to rediscover a role after not having one on defense the past two seasons.
"Yeah, I have a lot of confidence in Miles," Patricia said. "I thought he did a really good job in training camp, and I honestly think he did a really good job in preseason. He showed up a lot for us and he is certainly someone that is doing a lot of us currently on game day on special teams.
"He is a guy that I do have high confidence in if he has to go out and play a role, that he’ll do it at a high level just because of the work he did through the spring, through training camp, and through those preseason games. I thought he really made himself better."
As for the long-term benefit of the trade, it's multi-faceted. First, the Lions added a asset in a fifth-round pick. That might not seem like much, but it can be valuable as a trade chip as the Lions proved a year ago when they sent a fifth-rounder to the Giants for defensive tackle Damon Harrison.
The Lions are currently browsing the market to see if they can find some help with a bargain price tag before next week's trade deadline.
Diggs' absence also opens up playing time for Harris, accelerating the development of a player the franchise clearly believes to be their future at safety.
"I think the first six weeks I’ve definitely learned a lot," Harris said. "I’m definitely a different player — in a good way — than I was six weeks ago. In this league, you try to get better and better every week and that’s something I’ve focused on from week to week."
Finally, it clears millions of dollars of cap space the next two years, providing valuable free-agency spending money to add a good player or two at positions of need.