The Detroit Lions Safety group was as good as we thought, just not in the way that we thought.
The Detroit Lions secondary has been the strength of the team over the course of the 2018 season. Injuries have limited the team’s options at the corner spot, but not so at Safety. In fact, if there has been a position more stalwartly manned through the sixteen games of 2018, I cannot name it. It has not been what we may have hoped, but it has equaled those hopes in otherwise unexpected ways. The Lions had a pro bowler, a veteran starter doing a decent job alongside him, a player on his rookie deal who stepped up, one who has not, and an overpaid backup who none the less made getting on the field difficult for the youngster with adequate play.
The first of those is also the first unexpected outcome on the list. None can say that they saw the ascension of Quandre Diggs coming. Even with his transcendent finish to the 2017 season, we merely hoped that he might be a solid third safety. The most kool-aid fueled fever dreams that the Lions fan base had for Diggs had him playing second fiddle in the safety group. Diggs, however, had no intent to limit himself to our mediocre expectations. Not only did Diggs step into the starting safety role, but he also performed on such a high level that with no reputation to coast on, and on a team whose outcomes disappointed at almost every turn, Diggs made his first Pro Bowl. Though he is an alternate, the feat remains an impressive one.
Glover Quin had a sunset season that was more predictable if one’s temperament leaned toward cynicism. His age made the eventuality of a drop in effectiveness all but inevitable. As the coaches, and presumably the player, came to terms with the new physical limitations to his game, Quin deployed a parachute to save his season after an early drop in effectiveness akin to falling out of a plane. It was this paradigm shift in his usage gave the Lions a solid pair of safeties. Quin will never be one of the league’s most dangerous ballhawks again, but he was still an effective player for the team.
The young safety who stepped up is another pleasant surprise. With the right listening equipment, an astute observer may have been able to detect a single word uttered by millions of Lions fans when they heard the name of the team’s third-round selection in the 2018 NFL entry draft: “who?” Tracy Walker answered the doubters early with flashes of amazing play intermingled with the mistakes that can be expected of a rookie. In the final quarter of the year, he has entrenched himself as the team’s third safety. The genesis of the opportunity may have been the team’s ill fortune. It is easier to trust the new guy when literally nothing is on the line after all. Walker stepped up to the challenge though, and there is a lot of reason for optimism.
Miles Killebrew, on the other hand, has given the team no indication that he has any role to play in their long-term plans. His offseason and preseason were so poor that he did not play a single snap on defense for the team. He possesses the physique of a Greek god, but he has not translated the athletic ability of an Olympian into success on the football field. A defensive-minded head coach known for putting players in a position to succeed has put Killebrew’s chiseled hindquarters on the bench. He has fallen to the level of fellow benchwarmer Charles Washington.
Tavon Wilson did what he was retained to do. He played until someone else played better. That is the role of the marginal starting player in the NFL. Wilson has carved out a niche in Detroit as the gatekeeper standing between applicants and a full-time job. He is also a versatile player familiar to the coaching staff and valuable on special teams. If there is a better fourth safety in the NFL, his name escapes me.
The Detroit Lions Future
Glover Quin may not have a future with the team. Moving on from him would save the Lions $6.3 million or so in salary cap space. He has $1 million in roster and workout bonuses this offseason, so we will likely know before the league year opens whether or not number 27 will return. It is likely that he will never be the player that justified that kind of salary. Tavon Wilson is in a similar situation but with a much more affordable ticket price. The Lions save just shy of $3 million by deciding to look for another special teams ace. Lions GM Bob Quinn‘s brief history with the team tells us that he will likely retain one of the two until Walker proves he can shoulder the load full time.
Walker is the wildcard in the Lions future plans. Assuming that he will step into a starting role is the sort of thing that Lions regimes of the past have done. Lions rosters of yore are littered with players like Boss Bailey, Devin Taylor, or Kevin Jones who flew too near the sun in their impetuous youth and, like Icarus, felt their melting wings give way before they plummeted out of the league. Quinn is not like previous Lions general managers, however. Whether is Quin, Wilson, or another, there will be a contingency plan in place. Free agency and the draft hold a plethora of options, should the Lions choose to explore them.
The Detroit Lions safety group will undoubtedly look very different six months from now, but it was the strength of the team in 2018.