The Detroit Lions enter their fifth game of the season facing their first inter-divisional opponent in the Green Bay Packers. The Honolulu Blue leaves their early bye with an unpredicted 2-1-1- record, and fan confidence at an unexpected high. Like the team, I rested over the bye week and decided to come out firing like we all hope the team does against the Pack in Lambeau, so here are some quick observations and opinions on the state of the Lions after a quarter of seasonal play.
Free agent who impressed - Justin Coleman
The Detroit Lions pass rush in 2018 was abysmal despite solid sack numbers, and their inability to pressure pass rushers was maddening from a fan’s perspective. Though the team went out and signed Trey Flowers as the big money move to fix their defense, it was the signing of Justin Coleman that is more likely to receive praise as the season progresses.
Coleman had a comically bad training camp and preseason, but he has been one of the best overall cornerbacks in the NFL through four games, let alone one of the best nickel corners. He has more than lived up to his contract so far and will be considered one of the best roster moves of the offseason league wide if he keeps up this pace.
Free agent contract the team may regret - Rashaan Melvin
Prior to the season, we here at Pride of Detroit discussed on our podcast about which free agent contract the team may regret. At the time, Trey Flowers was still injured and not practicing, Jesse James was sitting behind T.J. Hockenson who looked like a stud, and Justin Coleman as mentioned was (still hilarious in hindsight) playing poorly and looking shaky against everyone. Flowers has improved steadily the further removed from surgery, Coleman is playing phenomenally, and while you could argue Jesse James is a bit disappointing so far, I won’t because this is about what I, personally, expected out of him as a TE2.
On the podcast I went with Rashaan Melvin and I’m sticking with him now for the same reasons. We’re deep in the explanation here, but no, I’m not claiming Melvin is playing poorly, quite the opposite. The problem is that he’s playing well. I know. Good problem to have, right?
The issue is what the team does going forward, and with Melvin signing only a one-year deal, the team could have essentially backed themselves into a corner for 2020 and beyond. Melvin playing well means we know what this defense looks like with a strong CB2, and that makes the position critical for any future plans. Luring Melvin back if he keeps playing as well as he has been would be costly and, given his age, unlikely. I still worry that Melvin playing well or poorly on a one-year deal would limit the team’s draft and free agent options in 2020, and that hasn’t been mitigated with him shoring that spot up completely so far.
Best Rookie - T.J. Hockenson
Not a cop out, just a fact. Hockenson came out hot to start the season with a historic debut, but tapered off quickly in the following weeks (both wins, mind you) despite a ton of snaps. This was partially schematic, but it was promising against the Chiefs when Hockenson looked like the weapon they expected once again before going down with injury.
He should be back from injury soon and is looking to be worth his top-10 selection so far. Jahlani Tavai is not showing many flaws, and though he hasn’t shown many strengths to hang his hat on, he has done well as a rookie. Will Harris is the only other rookie making a consistently strong impression, though only in spurts similar to rookie Tracy Walker. None of the rookies have looked poor, which is a good sign.
Best second-year player - Frank Ragnow
Presently the highest graded center in the NFL per Pro Football Focus, the return to his natural position has been a kind one for the former Razorback. The Lions running game has been hit or miss for one reason or another, but it has never been through a lack of push from the interior lineman. Graham Glasgow at right guard is currently the third-highest graded guard and eighth highest graded offensive lineman overall, while Joe Dahl at left guard ranks 29th among guards (not great, but top half of the league even if only just).
Camp Cockroach - Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Every year there is a player who lights up training camp and the preseason who looks like a breakout star, but then disappears once the lights come on. Usually that player is on the offensive side of the ball, a wide receiver (remember Patrick Edwards?) or a running back, and it’s usually a rookie or second year player. This year it has been pretty obviously third-year linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
After a strong rookie campaign where he looked like he could be a long-term starter, JRM’s snaps cratered in 2018 with the new defensive scheme. He looked amazing in the preseason this year and with Jarrad Davis’ early injury he looked poised for a big leap. Lauded as a cover linebacker, Reeves-Maybin has allowed every throw into his coverage to be completed this season, and after Jarrad Davis returned to the lineup, JRM saw his snaps plummet from 83 defensive snaps in Weeks 1-2 to only seven in Weeks 3-4 combined.
Biggest Surprise - J.D. McKissic
The Lions don’t like to show their hand very much in camp or the preseason under Matt Patricia. Still, their personnel moves and usage hinted that they would be using gimmick plays less than they had under previous offenses after the release of Theo Riddick, trade of Golden Tate last season, and bare bones usage of those types of plays with Brandon Powell, who was eventually released.
The team then brought in utility man J.D. McKissic and expectations weren’t very high. McKissic has looked every bit the player you would expect from your versatile swiss army knife. His role isn’t very large in the offense (and I don’t expect it to grow), but unlike previous seasons where the gimmick plays were infuriating departures from schematic elements that were working, I think Darrell Bevell’s usage of the former Seahawk will continue to be effective.
Biggest 2020 need - Offensive Tackle
This is going to alternate for me between this and cornerback from week to week, but since I’ve already covered their eventual need for a CB2 above, I’m going to go into the other big need for the Lions in future seasons, offensive tackle.
Taylor Decker gets a ton of flack due to his disastrous start to the season, but he’s actually played well since returning from injury Week 3. Decker rates 12th among left tackles per PFF even including his horrid start, and has only allowed a hit and two hurries with no penalties over the past two weeks.
It’s the other side of the line that gives concern, with Rick Wagner hitting the wall like many expected coming into the year. He’s currently the Lions lowest graded offensive lineman (just below Kenny Wiggins), and he’s hitting a potential out in his contract in 2020. If his current play continues, bets are he’s gone, and the Lions look to the draft to replace him. I would list free agent options at right tackle, but after reviewing that crop I think it’s best to just say it’s not likely (and you should probably worry if that’s their eventual move).
Best Position - Cornerback
While I spoke about how CB2 will likely be a concern in 2020 due to the likely departure of Rashaan Melvin (and I didn’t even go into the looming contract with Darius Slay), the position is still the most impressive of the team through four weeks. Slay has been back to his former level of play after a down 2018, Rashaan Melvin has been a stalwart starter on the opposite end, and Justin Coleman has been incredible.
The depth at the position has also been solid, with 2018 starter Mike Ford sliding in due to injury Week 4 without missing a beat. Ford and 2017 fifth-round pick Jamal Agnew haven’t shown that they’re capable of being long-term starters. While 2019 fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye has yet to see the field, so the position is still very much in limbo going into 2020, but for 2019 this group has been very impressive.
Most disappointing player - Damon Harrison
There is a schematic element to consider here with how the defensive line has played as the team rushes three more than almost everyone in the NFL each week. Harrison has rated around 90 by PFF in five of the last six seasons, one of the best players overall over that span.
His current grade through four games? 59.1 overall with one of the worst tackling grades in the NFL. Perhaps this is just rust as he barely got any work preseason, but I have to wonder what else is going on. It’s only four games and Harrison has a long resume of top-tier work, but we’re entering “Should we worry?” stage now as we’ve passed ‘poor start’ as an excuse.
Big plays waiting to happen
One interesting aspect of 2019 so far has, frankly, been how interesting this offense is. This team was the most boring in the NFL in 2018, with play calling and approach that could put an insomniac to bed. Darrell Bevell has transformed this group into one of the most complete and dangerous units in the NFL, and he’s done so by utilizing nearly every player on the offensive roster. You need chunk yardage, we’ve got Kerryon Johnson and Kenny Golladay for you. Need a big play? Golladay can do that, as can Marvin Jones, T.J. Hockenson, and even undrafted signee Marvin Hall got in on that action.
This team has the potential to go toe-to-toe with any team in the NFL. They built an identity without having to overhaul the roster, and that’s huge for this team’s prospects both in 2019 and beyond. It’s exciting to watch, and if they keep getting better we could be in for something special.