Grading the Lions' 2017 draft picks, three years later
Allen Park — In NFL circles, it's often said you don't fully know what you have in a player until after three seasons. With that in mind, we've long preferred holding off on grading a draft class until that much time has passed.
Last year, we gave a favorable review to the Detroit Lions' 2016 draft, Bob Quinn's first as the team's general manager. A year later, those marks have largely held up with altered opinions on defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson and offensive lineman Joe Dahl offsetting.
This year, we turn our attention to Quinn's second draft at the helm. Let's take a pick-by-pick look at how those nine selections have turned out.
► Linebacker Jarrad Davis (Round 1, Pick No. 21)
Analysis: In terms of football character, Davis has been everything the Lions imagined and more. The middle linebacker eats, drinks and sleeps his profession. He leads both vocally and by example, while being accountable for his mistakes.
Unfortunately, the production has failed to mirror his work ethic and passion for the game. After laboring through his rookie season with missed tackles and coverage issues, which cost him playing time during second half of that year, Davis showed real signs of progress in 2018. He greatly improved his performance in coverage and developed into a weapon as a blitzer, racking up six sacks.
But 2019 brought regression, potentially related to a nasty ankle injury he suffered during the preseason. He never used that as an excuse — part of his aforementioned character — but his pass-rush role and overall production decreased.
The Lions enter 2020 at a crossroads with Davis. He's the model employee, but they need more consistent output from the defensive signal-caller if there's hope he'll be franchise's long-term answer in the middle.
► Cornerback Teez Tabor (R2, P53)
Analysis: Tabor is the pick Lions fans will never let Quinn forget. Despite concerns about the corner's speed throughout the pre-draft process, the general manager opted to roll the dice on the Florida standout. After making the selection, Quinn explained his confidence was rooted in the film and he had watched more of Tabor's tape than other prospect during his lengthy career as a scout and front office decision-maker.
Given Quinn's background, and a quality draft class in his debut as a general manager a year earlier, he earned the leeway to take the risk. But looking back, it was clearly the wrong decision.
As a rookie, Tabor didn't see the field much, buried on the depth chart behind Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden. But in those fewer than 200 snaps, Tabor did flash some promise, especially in a physical matchup with Tampa Bay Buccaneers star receiver Mike Evans.
Unfortunately, that might have been the peak of Tabor's time in Detroit. After failing to secure a starting job the following training camp, he struggled mightily in 12 appearances in 2018, allowing a perfect passer rating when targeted in coverage.
Despite Quinn and the coaching staff continuing to express confidence in Tabor's ability to put things together in his third season, he never got the chance. The Lions cut him prior to the start of the 2019 season and he spent much of last year on the 49ers practice squad.
► Wide receiver Kenny Golladay (R3, P96)
Analysis: After hitting on Graham Glasgow in the third round the previous year, Quinn did it again, trading down 11 spots, picking up an extra fourth-round pick in the process and snagging Golladay out of Northern Illinois.
Golladay wasted little time introducing himself to the league, catching two touchdown passes in his debut. That included a 45-yard bomb that proved to be the difference in the victory. His early momentum was derailed by a hamstring injury that cost him five games, but he finished the campaign much like he started, with a season-high 80 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception in the finale.
Since then, he's shown nothing but steady improvement. After the team traded away Golden Tate and Marvin Jones suffered an injury during the 2018 season, Golladay embraced being the team's No. 1 receiver down the stretch, more than doubling his rookie-year production with 1,063 receiving yards.
An established entity heading into his third year, he got better still, leading the team with 65 catches and 1,190 yards while pacing the NFL with 11 touchdowns.
With Golladay's rookie deal set to expire after the 2020 season, it's now on Quinn to find a way to lock the receiver up with a contract extension.
► Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (R4, P124)
Analysis: The Lions thought they had found a bargain in Reeves-Maybin after an injury-plagued senior season weighted down his draft stock. Undersized when he arrived in Detroit, the team asked him to bulk up.
After showing some promise as a rookie, particularly in coverage, his skill set (and size) haven't ported over well to Matt Patricia's defensive scheme, which prefers bigger bodies in the second level.
Still, Reeves-Maybin has maintained an important role on special teams. He took those contributions to the next level last season, when he tallied 13 tackles on the coverage units. That ranked fifth in the NFL.
► Tight end Michael Roberts (R4, P127)
Analysis: Roberts was a matchup nightmare in college and the Lions hoped his scoring prowess would carry into the next level.
With Eric Ebron and Darren Fells shouldering the pass-game load in 2017, the Lions focused on building up Roberts' blocking ability during his rookie year. And to his credit, he showed steady improvement as both a run blocker and pass protector throughout that season. Things did end on a sour note, though, when he was benched for for the finale after missing a team meeting.
When the team abruptly parted ways with Ebron before the 2018 season, it opened a window of opportunity for Roberts, but he wasn't able to capitalize. Bumps and bruises slowed his early offseason momentum, and he proved unable to maintain a foothold on meaningful playing time as the season progressed.
After trying to trade Roberts last offseason — a move that fell through because of a failed physical — the Lions opted to cut their losses and release the tight end. He's currently on the Miami Dolphins roster.
► Cornerback Jamal Agnew (R5, P165)
Analysis: Watching a little bit of Agnew's college tape, it was easy to see what piqued the Lions' interest. While he hasn't been the ball-hawking defensive back he was at the University of San Diego, his quickness and open-field elusiveness has allowed him to have some success as a return man.
Agnew hit the ground running as a rookie, earning first-team All-Pro honors after averaging 15.4 yards and scoring two touchdowns as a punt returner. The Lions also sprinkled him in on offense, using him for 12 snaps, largely as a decoy.
Penalties committed by his blockers and a significant knee injury brought Agnew crashing back to earth his second season. He only appeared in six games and his punt return average plummeted to. 4.8 yards.
Plans to rebound in 2019 were temporarily paused by ball-security issues that led to a brief benching. When he returned to the return role, he brought a kickoff back 100 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles. While not at the All-Pro level of his rookie season, he averaged a healthy 9.2 yards on punts and 26.7 yards on kickoffs last year.
As a defender, a role hasn't developed. After an ugly stretch during his injury-shortened 2018 season, he saw fewer than 30 defensive snaps last season.
► Defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter (R6, P205)
Analysis: Ledbetter had a largely forgettable run with the Lions. It might surprise you to learn he played nearly 350 snaps as a rookie. That's because he didn't do much with the opportunity, tallying 14 stops, a half-sack and three quarterback hits in the playing time.
When Patricia came on board in 2018, the new defensive scheme put a premium on defensive tackles who could control multiple gaps. Ledbetter was undersized for the task and didn't survive post-camp cuts as the team moved forward with veterans Ricky Jean-Francois and Sylvester Williams to start the year.
► Quarterback Brad Kaaya (R6, P215)
Analysis: For Quinn, Kaaya represented value too good to pass up. Once viewed as an early-round talent, the Lions were surprised to find him still on the board deep into the sixth round.
Detroit already had committed to moving forward with Jake Rudock as Matthew Stafford's backup during the offseason, but, on paper, Kaaya was good enough to compete for the job.
But on the field, it was no contest. Rudock easily won the job and the Lions opted not to keep three quarterbacks on the roster. Somewhat surprisingly, in an interview before the start of the season, Quinn called Kaaya the toughest cut.
Kaaya actually rejoined the Lions in October, claimed off waivers from the Panthers, but the second stint lasted all of five days. He has yet to appear in an NFL game and it's difficult to not see at the pick as a total waste.
► Defensive end Pat O'Connor (R7, P250)
Analysis: In general, seventh-round picks are little more than fliers. Many of the players don't stick and such was the case with O'Connor, who starred at Eastern Michigan before joining the Lions.
Even though the Lions had finished 30th in sacks the previous season, the team opted to keep two undrafted defensive ends (Jeremiah Valoaga and Alex Barrett) over O'Connor.
After he was cut, he briefly landed on the team's practice squad, but that lasted all of two weeks. His next stop was Tampa Bay, where he's spent the past three seasons, splitting time between the practice squad and the main roster.
► Overall Grade: C-
Analysis: With nine swings, Quinn found two starters and one clear long-term building block. The general manager whiffed on his second-round choice and has gotten little beyond special-teams contributions from six Day 3 selections.
Fair or not, the evaluation also includes the prospects the Lions passed up. Within 10 spots of where the Lions drafted Davis, the Buffalo Bill grabbed cornerback Tre'Davious White and the Pittsburgh Steelers scored T.J. Watt.
Whether either of those players were ideal fits for Detroit's defensive scheme is debatable, but the team had clear needs for a pass-rusher and cornerback, while White and Watt have gone on to achieve Pro Bowl-level success.
The problem was the Lions had painted themselves into a corner heading into the draft, desperately needing an off-ball linebacker. The other top option that year was Alabama's Reuben Foster (selected No. 31 by San Francisco), but there were character concerns the Lions correctly identified as a future problem. None of the other off-ball linebackers from this class have developed into Pro Bowl performers.
Still, it's safe to say the Lions would be in better shape now had they selected White or Watt in the first round and complemented that pick with either Raekwon McMillan or Zach Cunningham in the second.