Four Downs: Playing sixth-stringers, draft spot variables for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 38-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

First down

There were two meetings of intrigue involving coach Matt Patricia during the early part of the afternoon. 

The first, about an hour before kickoff, was an extended conversation with owner Martha Ford, daughter Sheila Ford Hamp and her husband Steve Hamp.

For those needing a refresher on the franchise's power structure, the four Ford children carry equal vice chair titles, but Ford Hamp unquestionably has the most sway within the organization.

Patricia stopping to chat with the Ford family before kickoff is part of his game day routine, but this conversation went on for more than 15 minutes. And while reporters sit seven stories above where the chat took place, the body language didn’t hint toward jobs being on the line, as many fans suspect or even hope.

Lions head coach Matt Patricia looks up towards the video board in the first quarter Sunday.

In fact, the interaction was jovial. Patricia seemed gregarious, animatedly emphasizing his words with exaggerated hand movements. There were smiles, a little laughter, and when the group finally parted, about 40 minutes before the game was to start, they broke with hugs.

Then, around 90 minutes later, Patricia was the centerpiece of a second meeting on the sideline, a few feet away from where he had met with the Fords. And though the words were again muted from our vantage point, the coach's body language was far less pleasant this time. 

After his defense has surrendered consecutive touchdown drives in the opening quarter, with the second going 99 yards in five plays, Patricia gathered the entire unit and delivered an impassioned speech.

Whether it worked is up for debate. The unit did allow another lengthy touchdown drive, but they also forced punts on three of the next five possession.

Second down 

OK, Detroit’s injury situation is getting ridiculous.

It’s not an excuse for the team’s early-season struggles. In the first half of the year, there were some bumps in the road, but nothing any other team couldn’t be reasonably expected to overcome. But now, good luck winning a game with the roster that’s being put out on the field on Sunday.

Of course, if you ask my cynical side, that's part of the plan, given draft positioning is the most valuable asset when the playoffs become unattainable. More on that in a minute. Let's get back to the injuries. 

More: Niyo: Fan apathy sets in as Lions' season circles the drain

The Lions placed four starters on injured reserve last week and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a couple more land on the season-ending list in the coming days. That’s not even factoring in starting quarterback Matthew Stafford, the most notable injury of them all, as he continues to hold out hope of returning this season despite missing the past six games with a back injury.

Looking at the bigger picture, when you consider the projected depth chart at the start of the regular season, the Lions were missing starters at seven spots on offense and three spots on defense. Additionally, the Lions are running out an extra rookie after trading away safety Quandre Diggs in the middle of the season.

When you consider in-game injuries, the Lions were leaning on a third-string quarterback, the team’s sixth starting running back, a fourth-string guard, and fifth- and sixth-string defensive tackles. Most fans don’t even know who Frank Herron is, but he played 43 snaps after being signed five days earlier.  

What a mess. 

Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai waits on the snap during the first half Sunday against the Buccaneers.

Third down 

One of the most disappointing parts of this disappointing season was how little the Lions have gotten from their draft class. When you select inside the top 10, it feels fair to expect a little more from the rookies. While the Lions have gotten plenty of snaps from their first-year group, the impact has been minimal. 

First-round pick T.J. Hockenson's season is already done. After a dynamic debut, he hit the snooze button on the rest of the year, catching 26 passes for 236 yards and a score over his final 11 games. 

And with more than 1,000 snaps between them, second-round linebacker Jahlani Tavai and third-round safety Will Harris have combined for 85 tackles, but just five behind the line of scrimmage, with one forced fumble and one interception, both by Tavai. 

The sample sizes for the remainder of the class are too small to merit detailed evaluation, but only Amani Oruwariye had merited any optimism from the group, and he unquestionably had his worst performance against Tampa Bay. He allowed a reception on all four targets his direction, for 83 yards and touchdown. 

It's far too early to suggest this past draft was a bust, but if the Lions are going to go anywhere in 2020, this group's development into more consistent playmakers will be key. 

Fourth down 

The Lions’ draft position didn’t change on Sunday, but it did get a bit clearer heading into the final two weeks of the season.

After the loss to Tampa Bay, Detroit is still scheduled to select No. 5 in the first round of the 2020 draft. But with a loss to Denver next week, Detroit will climb at least one spot, maybe two.

Currently, Miami, Washington and the New York Giants are all a half-game worse than Detroit, but Washington and New York play head-to-head next weekend. Barring a highly unlikely tie, the winner of that game will jump ahead of Detroit in the standings.

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Ugly outing for David Blough, secondary

The Dolphins, meanwhile, are playing 1-13 Cincinnati Bengals. Lions fans should be rooting for the Dolphins in this game. That victory, coupled with a Lions’ loss, would get the home team to No. 3 in the draft order.

If that scenario plays out, the No. 2 pick would remain in play. Beyond Detroit losing out, the loser of this week’s Washington/New York game would need to close the year with the victory. Washington finishes on the road in Dallas while New York hosts Philadelphia.

While either one of those might seem unlikely, it's worth noting  the NFC East race might already be decided, giving Dallas and Philadelphia nothing to play for the final week of the season.