The Internet seems to have decided that the Detroit Lions are hiring Robert Saleh as their head coach. Here is what that might look like for the Lions roster in 2021.
The rumor mill has basically decided that Robert Saleh is going to be the Detroit Lions head coach. There are a thousand things, including the multiple interviews for other positions that he is still conducting, that could get in the way of that. It is still getting enough buzz to be worth looking at in a little bit of detail. What would the Detroit Lions be getting in the Dearborn, MI native other than a feel-good story?
What Offensive Scheme Would the Lions Run?
Saleh has been closely tied to either San Francisco passing game coordinator Mike Lafleur or run game coordinator Mike McDaniel. Both of these two men would likely be running an offense based on the ideology of the west coast/outside zone scheme that Kyle Shanahan utilizes. This style emphasizes quick rhythmed passes on short drops. It values receivers who get off the line clean and get into their pattern immediately. In short, the only people in the Lions receiver room for the 2020 season who might find any success in this offense are Dany Amendola and Quintez Cephus. Signing Robert Saleh likely means that Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay, two players who are the literal opposite of what this scheme typically wants, are gone as free agents this offseason. While that adds to the Lions’ chances of getting compensatory picks, it leaves the cupboard quite bare at receiver.
T. J. Hockenson is likely to put up even bigger numbers in this system. George Kittle has done quite well, and tight ends like Brent Jones, Shannon Sharpe, and Tony Gonzales have found success in this offensive scheme. Kittle is not an exception, and Hockenson would likely be fine. Jessie James is all but worthless and would probably be shown the door. It is difficult to argue against this move regardless of what offense the Lions are running given James’ huge cap number and minuscule production since he signed in Detroit.
The running backs would be acceptable. Even Kerryon Johnson, who did not look great this season, would have a reasonable chance of bouncing back in this offense. His lack of top-end speed since a couple of knee injuries slowed him down is much less of a liability in the outside zone scheme. This is also the most straightforward running scheme to draft for. This is a scheme that typically allows day three running backs to find success immediately and often. The traits for a successful outside-zone running back are not rare. These are not shifty athletic phenoms. These are guys who spot a hole, make their cut, and go forward until someone stops them. They need to be able to see holes as they develop more than they need to run a 4.3 40 or be able to juke someone out of their shoes. Adrian Peterson as he is now would be a useful piece in this offense.
The offensive line is something that will be interesting to see. The typical traits of a zone scheme lineman are a relatively high level of athleticism and agility. The Lions have famously been focusing on power in their linemen under Bob Quinn. Laken Tomlinson has been a starter for the 49ers for most of Shanahan’s time with the team, and he is about as athletic as a rock. Their offense has looked just fine when a decent quarterback has been running it. The blocking has neither been spectacular nor terrible. The Lions linemen who matter would be just fine.
Robert Saleh’s Defense
I will assume that Saleh either runs the defense or brings in someone who can run the style of defense he has been utilizing. Even making that assumption, it is a little bit difficult to really grasp what Saleh will do with the Lions’ personnel. When he first went to San Francisco, Saleh first ran the classic Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom defensive scheme. But as time has gone forward, he has altered the scheme to fit his current group of players every year significantly. In the secondary, Saleh’s scheme typically involves a lot of cover three and cover four coverages. The corners he typically likes are guys like Richard Sherman. Physical and intelligent guys, rather than speed freaks. There is nothing about the scheme that precludes a fast guy from succeeding. Still, the need for physical play, and to knock receivers off of their intended path, and the mental acuity to play in a deep zone make the corner’s speed less critical than in something that runs straight man coverage all the time.
Luckily the Lions’ young corners, Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye, are bigger guys capable of physical play. Mentally, however, they will have to switch gears completely. This is about the only scheme in which I can see Justin Coleman being salvageable at his cap hit. He has had a couple of tough seasons for the Lions. However, in Seattle playing the nickel role Saleh would likely ask him to play, Coleman was the best nickel corner in the NFL a mere two seasons ago. There are also a ton of guys in the San Francisco secondary who are free agents this offseason. Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, and K’Waunn Williams are all impending free agents. If the Lions do not like their current secondary in Saleh’s scheme, there are replacements available.
At Safety, the Lions don’t have a lot to offer. Duron Harmon and Tracy Walker were redundant pieces. Harmon is a free agent, and Walker still under contract. Walker would fill the free safety role and play a deep middle zone. He has the range and athleticism to perform the role and could rebound from a down 2020 season quickly. Will Harris may be able to step into K’waunn Williams’s role as the hybrid Safety/slot/nickel guy. Unfortunately, Harris has had two years of playing that role in Matt Patricia‘s defense. In that time, he not looked great. If there is a spot in the NFL for him, it’s this spot. I will reserve judgment until I see it.
All of the Linebackers need to go. That might be true no matter the scheme. Jamie Collins’ contract dictates that he will be back with the Lions in at least 2021 unless they can trade him, and he was their best linebacker. Free-agent Jarred Davis does not seem likely to consider returning to the Lions after watching his playing time dwindle in 2020. Jalani Tavai might need to transition to defensive end to have any hope of staying on the roster in Saleh’s scheme. The Linebackers need to be able to cover ground. Tavai has not shown that to be a trait he possesses. Christian Jones isn’t a sideline to sideline player either. He’s shown the mental ability to stay far enough ahead of the game to be in the right place as often as not, so a depth role could keep him from getting cut. Reggie Ragland was also decent for the Lions in 2020. Unfortunately, he’s not a universally loved player archetype, and I don’t see the fit for Saleh’s defense.
The 49ers have been utilizing a four-man front under Saleh, and most recently, they’ve been running a wide nine. That is not a good fit for the Lions’ current personnel along the line. It requires gap shooting twitchy players at all spots, whereas the Lions have been relying on powerful linemen almost exclusively. What I believe Saleh would do in Detroit, however, is revert back to the Seattle LEO front, which utilizes powerful linemen in a four-man line. Half of the linemen are playing two-gap defense in this front, the only style appropriate for the Lions current defensive tackle group, and the other half are playing single gap defense.
The nose tackle plays a 1 technique, just off to one side of the center. He takes two gaps on either side of the center. The Lions could probably keep Danny Shelton and Nick Williams to rotate in this role, or one of them and a cheaper backup. The other defensive tackle is a three-technique on the weak side, who would line up just outside the guard away from the nose tackle. When they beef up for short yardage or apply extra pressure on the quarterback, there are two of these, and the nose is head up with the center. This is the gap shooting style of DT that draft “experts” have loved to send to the Lions because they didn’t have any under the Quinntricia regime. For example, Ed Oliver would have been great for this role. This is similar to what the defensive tackles did under Teryl Austin in the Jim Caldwell era. If the Lions have this guy on their roster, it’s Williams, but I don’t think they do. Dashawn Hand could fill this role if he could stay healthy, but that seems less likely every year. It would be a huge need this offseason to get a DT that gets into the backfield to wreck plays.
The two defensive ends also have very different roles. One is a five-technique, who plays head up, or just slightly outside the strong side offensive tackle. This is where Trey Flowers would likely play under Saleh. The 5 technique is usually a bit bigger than Flowers, but his power-based game fits this role. This player is two gapping as well, taking the gaps on either side of the strong side tackle. The other defensive end is called the LEO, and he plays outside the weak side tackle with single gap responsibility. In short-yardage situations, there are two of these as well. Romeo Okwara would be the best option the Lions have to fill this spot, as the players who can excel in this role are expensive. If Saleh were the Lions head coach, Okwara seems like a more likely player to get hit with the franchise tag than Kenny Golladay. This position is vital to the success of the defense. Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant are also likely players to fill the depth chart for this spot. It would be hard to imagine Saleh wanting to rely heavily on either of those players, however, given their inability to stay healthy. Cliff Avril filled this role, as did Bruce Irvin and Frank Clark. This is a key role in the defensive scheme.
So What Do The Lions Need If They Hire Saleh?
Well, they need pretty much the same number of players they need now. They need to fill an empty wide receivers room, and if they do, the offense will be fine. They need to revamp the linebacker corp completely, but that is the case in any scheme. Saleh could utilize the Lions’ talent along the defensive line with a return to his old methodology, but he may also choose to completely remake that group to better fit his newer tendencies. It would be difficult to blame him if he went that route. The Secondary is a workable fit but needs at least one safety for Lions fans to be at all confident that other teams will not score at will.
Robert Saleh is a head coach that could build on what the Lions have, rather than tearing the roster down to the ground completely. He is the kind of hire that would look to hold onto Matthew Stafford, for example, and give him receivers who make his job a little easier by getting open. He could quickly patch together an adequate defense by holding onto Okwara, bringing in a 3 tech, a coverage linebacker, and a strong safety. The team has gaping empty holes along the defensive line and at linebacker, but that is the case no matter the defensive scheme they are running in 2021. Some schemes would require a 100% turnover along the line. Saleh may be able to utilize at least some of the Lions defensive linemen more effectively.
Basically, a Saleh hire puts the Lions three offensive starters (all wide receivers) and three defensive starters (a 3 tech, a middle linebacker, and a strong safety) away from not being a terrible team. That is not an easy task for the GM to complete in a single offseason, but it is possible, and it is less of a task than many coaches would require. Assuming he can actually do the job, and that’s the wildcard we can never know before a coach has the head gig, Saleh would be a solid hire for the Lions.
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