Since this is the first installment of a new series I’ll be doing over the coming months, let me just explain the premise a bit. It’s all about hypotheticals. What are the worst and best case scenarios the team will be facing in regards to the draft class, the schedule, the new look offense, etc.? I’ll do my best to give you some reasonable hypotheticals on both sides of the issue. What I think could actually happen in 2016. I’ll always start with the negative scenarios and finish with the positive, so if you don’t want to be brought down, skip past the first section. Capisce? Let’s roll.
What could go wrong?
Basically, there are a couple scenarios where this draft class is either a total bust or simply doesn’t have a great deal of impact in 2017. I’ll focus on the latter because trying to make hypotheticals of all the ways a draft class could bust would be like the proverbial act of moving a pile of sand one grain at a time.
All three of the drafted offensive linemen have great versatility and that is likely to pay off down the line as the team figures out exactly where the greatest needs are, but the flip-side of that versatility is a lack of dominance at any one specific position. Taylor Decker, who has played mostly LT but has the body of an RT or G, is lauded for his run blocking, but not necessarily his pass protection. Despite the team’s desire to improve the run game if he proves to be a liability in the pass game his time on the field could be limited. While the incumbents have less of an upper hand this year, with the likely significant scheme changes coming from Cooter, they do still have some familiarity with him, and unless the rookies really impress in camp that could be enough to keep them off the field. That applies especially to Graham Glasgow, who will likely be competition at center, but isn’t necessarily an upgrade.
Then we have the the defensive linemen, A’Shawn Robinson and Anthony Zettel. Robinson might not see much action if Ngata stays healthy, although that would probably go down in the plus column anyway. But even if he does see the field, there have been concerns expressed about his technique and effort, both things that can be improved on over time, but as a rookie he may leave us wanting. Zettel is another versatile player and could fit at defensive tackle or defensive end. He’s undersized and not strong enough as a DT and doesn’t have the speed to be a natural fit at DE. Technique and bulking could go a long way to finding him an eventual spot in the rotation, but he’s unlikely to start his rookie year high on the depth chart at either position.
Jake “Tom Brady” Rudock will only see the field if something happens to Stafford. I suppose it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that he would surprise and be fantastic. But it’s really, really close. Like, if it happens, I’ll probably start going to church.
For the most part, we are all shaking our heads a bit at the selection of a long snapper in the 6th. I don’t value 6th round picks very highly, but still. Why not just wait until the 7th, when you are still pretty much guaranteed to get the guy? But whatever, that’s not what this article is about. If he does replace Muhlbach, which it certainly seems the team is hoping he will (or why draft him?) then he’ll still be a rookie LS and still be likely to make some rookie mistakes in big pressure moments. Could even manage to cost them a game or two if he botches any important snaps.
I’ll wrap up the pessimism with a couple more “versatile” players. Noticing a theme? Miles Killebrew, aside from helping the Lions in the arms race for the best names in the league, is one of these hybrid safety/linebackers that are seemingly a growing breed in the league. That’s cool and all, but word is that Killebrew is lacking significantly in his coverage abilities. That could result in a limited role and limited impact. Antwione Williams, on the other hand, is more of a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. Similarly, though, he struggles in coverage. The only reason he might see significant time is that the team is low on DEs.
What could go right?
We all know that the o-line struggled quite a bit last year, although there was growth with Cooter. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement. Both Decker and Glasgow will compete for starting spots. I’ll assume right now that Decker will be starting at right tackle in his rookie year, because I think that’s the most likely scenario. Ola played relatively well, but was mediocre in both the pass and run game. Decker may not be great at pass protection early on, but he will help the team find room to run off the right side. Combined with Warford, there should be a lot more space for the RBs to operate. And if the run game improves, it will put the pass game in a much better situation. Swanson needed to be pushed at center, and Glasgow will do it. Whoever wins out at that position, it is likely that the competition will create improvement. Regardless of whether Glasgow or Dahl make an impact immediately, we all know that having decent backups across the offensive line can turn a disastrous injury into a manageable one.
Out of all the draftees this year, Robinson at DT has the most immediate potential for impact in my mind. The team could double him with Ngata on early downs and completely shut down any rushing attempts up the middle. I think people will be surprised at how frequently he gets into the backfield to pressure the QB as well. As much as a fall like that may seemingly throw up red flags, the dude is a beast and is likely to play like a beast. That he wasn’t taken in the first was likely just a function of there being so many talented DTs and other teams having specific preferences to play style. The Lions lucked out big on this one. If nothing else, he’ll be a solid rotational player and having a good rotation on the defensive line is a big key to success.
Killebrew has the potential to come in and play the box safety position as well as Ihedigbo ever did for Detroit. They won’t be relying on him in pass coverage, and he will likely get pulled in favor of Bush or Wilson in situations where pass coverage is more necessary, but between him, Robinson, and Levy returning I can definitely see this defense returning to the top of the league in run defense. He may not be the most instinctive player on the field, but expect him to clean up a lot of plays that could otherwise have been big ones. If Levy misses a tackle, rookie Killebrew will be there to finish the job. I expect him to create some turnovers thanks to his big hits, but he is also an opportunist and could get a few picks and recover a few fumbles.
I don’t expect Antwione Williams to see the field that much, considering Detroit has one OLB spot set, there are a few other vets at LB on the team, and they use nickel packages more often than not. However Williams, along with Killebrew and a few of the free agents, is likely to make an impact on special teams. It was a huge emphasis by Quinn this off-season. I would not be surprised if the Lions had one of the best coverage units in the NFL this year. And this is breaking from the 2016 hypotheticals, but Williams definitely has potential down the line as an OLB, should the team move on from players like Bynes and Van Noy.
Tell us Case, what do you really think will happen?
As you’ll likely get tired of me saying, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I do expect this rookie class to have some impact, even if it’s mostly in regards to depth. That’s okay though, because as we’ve seen time and time again with this team over the last five seasons, it’s been the lack of depth that hurt them the most. Having players who can step in when someone is injured, or even just spell guys when they are fatigued, is so incredibly important. Going into the season hoping for all of your starters to stay healthy is a fools game and not a way to win championships, not that I think they are ready for a run just yet. These additions will also put the team in a cap friendly situation going forward. Overall, I’m happy with the draft class, but have limited expectations for 2016.