Allen Park — Even though there’s a few weeks remaining in the season, it’s easier to shift focus to the Detroit Lions’ future. As much as we’d prefer to be writing about the upcoming games, only a small percentage of readers are interested in matchups against Tampa Bay and Denver.
This is reality when your team is eliminated from postseason contention before Dec. 1.
So with an eye toward the future, we thought we’d take a look at the Lions’ foundation, the building blocks in place as the franchise’s tries to work back toward respectability this offseason.
Here's our ranking of the roster's top-10 building blocks.
► 1. Quarterback Matthew Stafford: If you don’t have a franchise quarterback in the NFL, you don’t have much. Purely from the perspective of age, Stafford has plenty left in the tank, it’s a matter of whether his body will cooperate after significant back injuries the past two seasons. Prior to being sidelined this year, he was posting the best numbers of his career.
As long as he’s here, Stafford remains the face of the franchise and the roster's most important piece.
► 2. Defensive end Trey Flowers: After a sluggish start, due in large part to limited offseason reps, Flowers has essentially been the player the Lions expected they were getting when they signed him to a massive, five-year contract in March.
Fundamentally sound, Flowers plays the run and pass well, but still hasn’t figured out how to convert his steady pocket pressure into bigger sack totals. Maybe he never takes that step, but even without double-digit sacks, he’s the cornerstone of the team's front seven and only 26 years old.
► 3. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay: Building on his breakout campaign from a year ago, Golladay is on pace to top 1,200 yards and he currently leads the league with 10 receiving touchdowns. A true big-play threat, he’s averaging yards per catch this year.
Golladay’s rookie deal expires after the 2020 season when he’ll be 27 years old. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll be in line for a massive extension.
► 4. Center Frank Ragnow: After an up-and-down rookie year, Ragnow’s performance has taken a significant step forward in his second season. A powerful run blocker and above-average pass protector, he arguably Detroit's lone building block up front, unless the team re-signs guard Graham Glasgow.
► 5. Safety Tracy Walker: Walker’s first season as a starter has been hindered by a knee injury, which has sidelined him for all or parts of five games. Despite that, he leads the team in solo and total tackles, and is also top five in tackles for loss and pass breakups.
His size and skill set would play in any scheme, and he only stands to get better with additional seasoning.
► 6. Cornerback Darius Slay: Three years ago, he would have been closer to the top of the list, but cornerbacks age poorly and Slay turns 29 days after the season ends. He’s likely got at least two more good years in him, but it’s become increasing unclear whether those will be played in Detroit.
Slay’s effort in run support has looked lackadaisical at times this season, and he’s even had some hiccups in coverage, his bread and butter, but even at his 2019 level, he’s the best option on Detroit’s roster by a mile.
► 7. Tight end T.J. Hockenson: After a tantalizing debut, Hockenson didn’t do much the remainder of his rookie year, prior to an ankle injury ending it prematurely. Over those final 11 games, he averaged a paltry 21.5 receiving yards. His blocking, a selling point when he was selected No. 8 overall in the draft, would also be considered a work in progress.
But tight ends historically take a little time. George Kittle, one of Hockenson’s mentors and a popular comp, more than doubled his production in his second season with the 49ers. The Lions will be looking for similar improvement from Hockenson’s in Year 2.
► 8. Defensive tackle Da'Shawn Hand: Hand should be higher on this list, but durability concerns (he was placed on injured reserve on Thursday) have anchored expectations after his impressive rookie year. His positional flexibility and athleticism provide continued optimism if the second-year defensive lineman can shake the injury bug going forward.
► 9. Running back Kerryon Johnson: Similar to Hand's predicament, Johnson has suffered a pair of knee injuries that will have robbed him of at least 14 games his first two seasons. Johnson was electric as a rookie, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but that plummeted to 3.3 yards in 2019, prior to landing on injured reserve.
That’s hardly all his fault. Only a handful of backs gain fewer yards per carry before contact, an indictment on Detroit’s blocking. When given holes, Johnson remains elusive. He also offers something in the pass game.
► 10. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai: This should be Jarrad Davis' spot on the list, but the middle linebacker has failed to put it together and take a step forward in his third season.
Tavai, a second-round pick sold as an ideal scheme fit, has shown some flashes in a rotational role this season. He’s still a long way from being a Dont'a Hightower-type player, and Tavai’s value likely plummets if Detroit changes coaching staffs.
► Honorable mention: Davis, Taylor Decker, Marvin Jones, Justin Coleman, Will Harris, Devon Kennard, Austin Bryant, Amani Oruwariye, Bo Scarbrough