Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia had to face the music on Wednesday afternoon after the team’s unpopular decision to trade away safety and locker room leader Quandre Diggs to the Seattle Seahawks for a late-round draft pick.
While Patricia admitted the decision was “difficult,” he also used the opportunity to express faith in the current set of safeties the team has in its reserves.
“There are certainly things that we try to do to help the team get better in the long run for us, and certainly in a situation where we think moving forward hopefully, we have some players that can still help us, even if we do make a move like we did yesterday,” Patricia said to open up his press conference.
For the long run, it means the Lions get to save some significant cap space in 2020 and beyond while gaining some small, but potentially significant, draft capital.
In the short term, it means relying heavily on some of their more inexperienced players to step up and take bigger roles.
Playing on the back end as the team’s last resort brings a ton of responsibility on young, inexperienced players. That’s not exactly an enviable position to put third-round rookie Will Harris—or any other Lions player—through this early in their career.
“I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge for us,” Patricia said. “Especially as we go through the season and we’re starting to see different looks or multiple looks from teams, and especially good quarterbacks and good offensive schemes, just the experience part of it. Those guys are going to have to catch up on that stuff really quickly.”
Harris certainly seems like the player that stands to benefit most. His skill set fits the deep safety position that Diggs held prior to the trade, and while Harris certainly doesn’t have a ton of experience—he hasn’t started in a game yet and has played just over 38 percent of defensive snaps—the Lions did get a good look at him after Diggs was injured early in Week 4.
“Will obviously played a lot of football for us here through Kansas City and Green Bay, and those are two really, really difficult quarterbacks to play against, and I think he did a really good job of understanding the roles that we needed him—and how we need him to play,” Patricia said. “Certainly in the back end those guys can have different assignments based on, maybe, the other team’s personnel, and I think he did a good job of taking all that in and understanding what he was going to have to do.”
But Patricia was quick to remind everyone that Harris still needs to put in the work and potentially adjust to new roles in this defense he hasn’t assumed yet.
“He’s got a long ways to go. He’s got a lot of work to do, but he also has a skillset that we haven’t really tapped into yet, too,” Patricia said. “There’s some other things I think he can do to help us and we’ll see if given that opportunity if he can perform at a high level with that, too. He’s an instinctual player, especially when he’s down close to the line of scrimmage. So we’ll see if he has any opportunity to show us that, also.”
Harris won’t be alone. This will be a team effort to replace the snaps and production left in Diggs’ absence. They’ll certainly rely heavily on veteran Tavon Wilson, who Patricia called “a good, solid player for us for a long time.” Undrafted rookie C.J. Moore is another player the team clearly likes both as a special teamer and a potential developmental option at safety.
A dark-horse candidate to get some increased playing time is the long-forgotten Miles Killebrew.
“He is a guy that I do have high confidence in if he has to go out and play a role, that he’ll do it at a high level just because of the work he did through the spring, through training camp, and through those preseason games,” Patricia said. “I thought he really made himself better.”
Over the past two years, Killebrew has made the transition from safety to linebacker, making his chances of being a pure Diggs replacement unlikely. However, with movable pieces like Tracy Walker and Justin Coleman, there’s certainly a chance that Killebrew sees some playing time as a box safety again.
Regardless, Patricia knows he and his coaching staff has quite a challenge ahead of him with Killebrew, Harris and the rest.
“We’ll rely on those guys, and we’re just going to have to keep coaching to make sure that we put them in as many of those situations as possible during practice.”