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Projecting the future in Allen Park, Part 1

Photo by Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press

Written by: JT Bowen

Instagram: @_jtbowen

In a shocking turn of events, the Lions dropped a close game this weekend at home against Dallas.

I’ll spare you from the nitty-gritty: Jeff Driskel played well and solidified himself as the team’s backup, unheralded Alabama product carved out a role as the workhorse until Kerryon is healthy, Marvin Jones scored twice, Darius Slay and Trey Flowers played well, and the defense allowed almost 600 yards of total offense.

I fully expected Detroit to lose this game — they’re a listless team that’s lacking an identity and leadership across the organization. However, the Lions ragtag offense, spearheaded by Jeff Driskel and Bo Scarbrough (yikes), put up a fight, losing by just eight points against Dallas’ explosive offense, and for that I give them credit.

But it’s time to look to the future, much like we did last year around this point once we had been realistically eliminated from any contention. There are a plethora of questions regarding Detroit’s roster and front office, with a distinct lack of apparent of answers. So I’ll provide some suggestions on the offensive side of the ball for a team that has found themselves among the NFL’s bottom feeders, as they look to turn the franchise around entering a new decade next season.

Let’s begin with the offense, shall we? The offseason hiring of the infamous former Seattle coordinator Darrell Bevell drew the ire of much of the fanbase, but Bevell has largely kept the offense efficient despite major injuries throughout the season. There was no clear ‘learning curve’ or ‘reworking’ of the offense that Bevell struggled to navigate through at the start of the season; since Week 1, Bevell’s rock-solid offense has been the only reason the Lions have contended in the games they have and the only reason they looked like a sneaky-good team early on. Obviously, some credit must go to the revamped Matthew Stafford, who was performing at a Pro Bowl level until his injury, as well as arguably the league’s top receiving duo in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., but Bevell has done a stellar job in his first year. Regardless of what happens in the offseason regarding the rest of the front office, Bevell has reasonably locked up the offensive playcalling position for the foreseeable future.

In terms of personnel, the results have been all over the place. As already mentioned, Stafford is undoubtedly still the franchise quarterback, and will retain his job into next season, as he should — he’s a vocal leader, loved by the city, and the team’s best player by a mile.

However, he can’t do everything on his own. Sure Golladay and Jones have been stellar, and Amendola has done an admirable job of putting on a Golden Tate Halloween costume, but it goes beyond the receiving corps. TJ Hockenson, this year’s first round selection by Detroit, has been admittedly disappointing after his Week 1 explosion in Arizona, and offseason signing Jesse James has been a complete bust. That’s not to say either can’t improve down the stretch or next year, but poor tight end play continues to plague the Lions, and must improve. In terms of pass protection, results have similarly been mish-mash. Injuries have marred the line across the board, but it must be consistently better. Frank Ragnow has had a criminally underrated sophomore campaign after a rough rookie season, and Graham Glasgow is playing his way into a new contract. Joe Dahl and Kenny Wiggins round out the interior of the line, and despite their struggles, play well enough to see the field.

The tackles, though, are a bigger issue. Ohio State alum and former first rounder Taylor Decker maintains his status as not a bust, but an underwhelming pick. While he shows flashes of being a franchise left tackle, like shutting down Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa for zero sacks, he also has moments where he looks like shouldn’t be an NFL starter, such as when he had his teeth kicked in against Chandler Jones in Week 1. Across the line is Rick Wagner, the former Raven and coveted signee before the 2017 season. Much like Decker, Wagner’s performance has been all over the place. Overall, he’s been an average starter, but his expensive contract and injury history make his future with Detroit blurry as he enters contract extension territory. Oregon product Tyrell Crosby, in his second year, has provided a mediocre backup, but his billing as a ‘fifth-round steal’ that would anchor the starting spot across Rick Wagner in a few years has not come to fruition.

The main hindrance to the Lions otherwise effective offense is indubitably the running game — or lack thereof. Bevell’s narrative as a run-first offensive guru has been completely flipped on its head, as Detroit remains a squad staunchly committed to establishing the passing game. Kerryon Johnson, who showed immense promise his rookie year before an unfortunate injury and was slated to have a Pro Bowl-caliber sophomore season, played fairly poorly before being shut down with an injury yet again. From there, things continue to spiral. Detroit has thrown darts and largely missed, trying their hand with rookie Ty Johnson, waiver wire pickup JD McKissic, former Giant Paul Perkins, and former Packer Tra Carson, all of which failed to take the reigns as the starting running back for the remainder of the year. The aforementioned Scarbrough may have ensnared the job for the rest of the year after a solid game against Dallas and Patricia’s strange infatuation with LeGarrette Blountesque bruising backs, but the future is bleak at the position. Kerryon has shown capabilities of being a three-down workhorse back, but renewed injury problems and an absence of a strong backup make things tough at the position. Detroit can and should address running back in the draft, hopefully semi-early, with the intent to build a quality runner if Kerryon can’t stay healthy for the season.

And that about wraps up the state of the Lions’ offense currently. It’s been marred by injuries, struggled to live up to draft hype, and had to adapt to new coordinating, but it’s the clear bright spot of this team. As long as Stafford has decent receivers and a few seconds in the pocket, this team can contend against any opponent on any given day. The offense is the reason this team has a beating heart, and hasn’t joined the ranks of Washington and New York as the absolute worst in the conference. However, without consistent offensive line play and and balance on the ground, this team won’t be able to take the next step and become a top-tier offense.

With that being said, here are a few suggestions to advance this Lions offense.

Let young players play: Beau Benzchawel’s and Isaac Nauta’s of the world, stand up. Detroit has shown a willingness, especially at the running back position, to try new players out and evaluate potential. But with playoffs well out of sight, it’s time to test out some younger players. Let Beau Benzchawel replace Glasgow at center for a few drives. Try Travis Fulgham or Chris Lacy on some receiver sets instead of Marv or Kenny. Give Tyrell Crosby a few more minutes. Heck, even see what you’ve got in David Blough if you go down (or up) a lot early. The Lions, moreso on defense but still on offense, have lots of talented young players that never get to see the field. Now, in the season’s garbage time, where the only play is for draft position, is the prime window to give some young guys a chance to play. Maybe not for the whole game, but some of these later-round players deserve to see the field. Kenny Golladay wasn’t supposed to be as good as he is, but the Lions let him play a lot, and look where he is now. Detroit desperately needs to unearth a gem as they did in Romeo Okwara last offseason, and they could do so if they gave some youthful offensive players more opportunities

Bolster running game: Kerryon Johnson has the tools to be a great NFL ball carrier. We all know that. Unfortunately, though, injuries have ravaged the Auburn product’s career early on. Although I firmly believe he can and will be this team’s franchise back for the next five or six years, we can’t wait around forever. The Lions are built to win now, with backloaded contracts and a quarterback in the midst of a career renaissance. But they desperately need a running back, and with Kerryon’s health issues, the answer is unclear. Detroit could opt to draft one early. Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and a bevy of other names should be available in the second to third rounds, and (barring injury) would give the Lions a starting back while still working with Kerryon. Additionally, if they wanted to be more conservative with things, they could shake things up in the offseason. Running backs have relatively limited shelf lives, and as a result, can be had via trade for bargain prices. Kenyan Drake was acquired for just a sixth, and looks like a starter. Though Drake would’ve been the perfect target, they can still look to gain a similar player via a trade or free agency, such as Chase Edmonds, Rashaad Penny, Gus Edwards, TJ Yeldon, or D’Onta Foreman. Yes, all of these players are markedly worse than Kerryon, but are young, healthy, and can offer a serviceable change-of-pace at a position of need.

Take a receiver early: This would be a luxury pick, sure. But adding a receiver in a stacked class would undoubtedly take the Lions passing game to unknown heights. Marvin Jones Jr. is currently enjoying arguably his best campaign yet, tied with Golladay for an NFL-leading eight receiving touchdowns. He and Golladay form a menacing downfield and redzone duo that most defenses haven’t been able to stop. If, though, the Lions could add a do-it-all pass catcher that could add more of a threat in the short passing game and open up the middle of the field, the Lions’ passing attack would join the league’s elite. Selecting Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, or Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III, as well as resigning Marv, as I firmly believe the Lions should, would elevate an already-prolific offense. That, with the impending breakout year by TJ Hockenson, would be a near-undefendable offense that could help the

Lions overcome their struggles.

Build around Darrell Bevell: As I already stated, Bevell has essentially sealed up his position as the offensive coordinator. He has squashed offseason questions about conservative play, revived Matthew Stafford, and admirably navigated through myriad injuries. Although Matt Patricia is the head coach, Bevell is the real engine of this team. His playcall has kept this offense unpredictable and prolific, and if there were a defense to stop other teams, the Lions would likely be contenders currently. Regardless of what happens in the offseason, even in the unlikely chance Bob Quinn and Patricia are out, Bevell has done enough and then some to show he’s the guy here. I don’t think he should be considered for a head coach, but his work in turning a lackluster offense around is stellar and should solidify him as the future of offensive playcalling and scheming in Detroit, regardless of the regime.

These are just a few ideas for the Lions on the offensive side of things. I will hit on Part 2 in my next article, as well as bigger-picture implications in Part 3.

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