Detroit — Maybe the Lions are just trolling, trying to distract us during the toughest of times. Or maybe they really, truly believe there’s only one way to build a football team, with familiar faces in familiar places, the Compatriot Way, so to speak.
It seems like a weird parody, and based on Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia’s track record, it’s not encouraging. That’s not totally fair, because they did add talent at key positions, signing linebacker Jamie Collins and nose tackle Danny Shelton from New England. They’ve also subtracted talent, including starting linebacker Devon Kennard and Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, who was dealt Thursday to the Eagles for third- and fifth-round picks.
The Slay trade was expected, and also emblematic of the Lions’ confusing ways and woes. They downgraded an important position, partly because Slay was too expensive and didn’t fit the toe-the-line culture they’re trying to build.
Of their hefty total of seven acquisitions the past few days, three are former New England Patriots, including safety Duron Harmon, who arrived via trade. The Lions also added four free-agents at positions of need — backup quarterback Chase Daniel, 33, and defensive tackle Nick Williams, 30, from Chicago, offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai, 26, from Philadelphia, and cornerback Desmond Trufant, 29, from Atlanta.
In these abnormal times, Quinn and Patricia are sticking to their own odd normal. Whatever urgent edict they’re supposedly operating under, they’re all in with what they believe, unwavering in their hunt for players with specific skillsets and mindsets, team-oriented guys that aren’t necessarily individual game-changers. In the process, the roster didn’t get any younger, and still lacks impact players.
It’s impossible to analyze the latest moves without wondering if the plan is simplistic and outdated. It’s like they’re trying to get the old Patriot band back together without the lead singer, drummer, or guitarist. Bill Belichick is still in New England and Tom Brady is headed to Tampa, and the Lions have added their third, fourth and fifth ex-Pats in the past two years, joining Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola.
You might suggest that’s not a bad thing because the Patriots are masterful talent identifiers. Fair enough. If I were to grade the Lions’ free-agent class, based on talent alone, I’d give it a C-plus or B-minus. But you know what else the Patriots do masterfully? Identify when it’s time to move on from a player because of age or expense.
Tearing it down
No matter what Martha Ford appeared to demand regarding playoff contention this fall, Quinntricia acts like they’re entitled to a teardown and rebuild, with an inflexibility that spawned the 3-12-1 dandy. Gone is an array of once-cornerstone pieces that apparently no longer fit, scheme-wise or personality-wise: Slay, Kennard, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Graham Glasgow, Quandre Diggs, Golden Tate, A'Shawn Robinson.
Do some players grow weary of Patricia’s overbearing ways and mentally check out? It sure seems that way, even if he has adjusted slightly. There even have been hints of Matthew Stafford’s frustration, although the Lions worked hard to squash that. Of course, it doesn’t stop free agents from accepting the Lions’ money and hoping for the best.
Shelton, 26, and Collins, 30, are solid players who excelled in New England and struggled during stints in Cleveland, which suggests they also need a specific system to flourish. Good teams aren’t built through free agency, so the absence of a big splash by the Lions isn’t the concern. The concern is, Quinn hasn’t drafted well enough to afford any more mistakes.
These veterans are worth a shot, although perhaps not worth the money. Collins landed a three-year, $30-million deal, and Vaitai, who wasn’t a full-time starter with the Eagles, signed for five years, but with out-clauses.
Patricia was the defensive coordinator in New England during Collins’ original four-year run, so there’s the familiarity requirement. He’s considered versatile with prime pass-rushing ability, similar to Flowers, who signed a $90 million deal with the Lions. Flowers recorded 7.5 sacks his final season in New England and added seven for the Lions. Collins collected seven sacks for the Patriots last season and replaces Kennard, who had seven sacks with the Lions. Whoa. Time to break through the seven-sack barrier.
Shelton, the Browns’ first-round pick in 2015, spent the past two seasons with the Patriots so he didn’t play under Patricia. But he’s a high-end talent who happens to be huge (345 pounds) and had a career-high 61 tackles and three sacks last season. He should ably replace Harrison as a run-stuffing tackle.
There could be more signings, and of course the April 23 draft beckons, where the Lions should add a potential star. But two themes already are obvious: Defense and size. Patricia prefers bulk on his defense, evidenced by second-round linebacker Jahlani Tavai last season and the newcomer Williams (6-5, 309). Quinn prefers bulk everywhere, evidenced by the 6-6, 320-pound Vaitai.
But with a 9-22-1 record the past two seasons, all that bulk has only produced baggage, including the 31st-ranked defense. The problem is, you can’t tell if Quinn is upgrading talent or merely replacing talent with similar, more malleable, talent. Roster upheaval is inevitable in the NFL, especially for a losing team, but it’s alarming how Quinntricia churns through guys they once coveted.
If they’re still looking for “their guys,” who the heck qualifies anymore? Harrison was a prized acquisition, signed an extension, then bolted without many positive things to say. Same for Diggs, who signed an extension, became a captain and was traded. Same with Kennard, who signed a three-year contract, became a captain and started 30 of 31 games before getting released.
Near as I can tell, instead of stacking solid pieces on top of each other, the Lions are binging and purging. Harmon, 29, was a part-time starter in seven seasons in New England and theoretically is the new version of Diggs, just as Shelton is the new version of Harrison and Collins is the new version of Kennard and Trufant is the new version of Slay.
It all seems less by design and more by happenstance. Keep signing and slicing and hope you find a few that fit. It’s the Lions’ Compatriot Way, and we’re still waiting for evidence it’ll ever work.