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Breaking down expectations of Detroit Lions’ 2017 draft class in Year 3

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The last Jim Caldwell draft class faces an uncertain future with Matt Patricia’s new direction.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Common understanding in the NFL is that for most positions you expect to see development from the rookie year to second season followed by a possible breakout in Year 3. As we enter that third year for the Detroit Lions’ 2017 draft class, it’s not as certain that we’re going to see that big leap that fans expect. Certain or not, it’s worth taking a look at the class and looking at both how they’ve progressed in their NFL careers and how they may be used in the coming season. Drafted for a different coaching staff than the team fields presently, there’s plenty of uncertainty in this group.

LB Jarrad Davis (First round, 21st overall)

2018 status: Starting ILB all year

2019 status: Starting ILB once again

Looking purely at statistics, Jarrad Davis improved from his first year in the league to his second. His tackles ticked slightly upwards, but his sack total tripled as he was used in a more versatile role in the passing game rather than he was used the year prior. As far as the eye test goes, the story is pretty much the same. Davis struggled in coverage as a rookie but was beastly at times against the run. In his second year, he seemed like he was able to do good work in every phase, but never all of them at the same time. It can be incredibly frustrating as a fan to witness, since it always seemed like he took a step forward and a step back at the same time.

Entering his third season, we’re going to see if Davis’ preparation and hard work finally start to pay off. Often the first player on the practice field and last one off, speaking in real terms and not cliche, Davis is putting in the work to become the leader of the Lions defense. In his second year in Matt Patricia and Paul Pasqualoni’s system, he doesn’t fit the mold of what they each have traditionally wanted as an inside linebacker. Not fitting the mold doesn’t mean he can’t be successful, however, and if he’s able to put his tremendous talents together with the strides he took in 2018, we could be looking at the flamethrower Teryl Austin could never seem to find.

CB Teez Tabor (Second Round, 53rd Overall)

2018 Status: Reserve cornerback, fighting for a role

2019 Status: Reserve cornerback, fighting for a roster spot

When you take a cornerback who lacks both speed and explosiveness, you’re banking on some other trait being strong enough to offset that lack of physical talent. With Tabor, it was his football intelligence and ball skills that set him apart enough that many were willing to overlook his athletic flaws and justify the high selection in their minds. Now entering his third season, we’re questioning both of those supposed strengths as Tabor has yet to record even a single pass deflection and seems to have struggled to grasp even the simplest of NFL defensive concepts.

After being overtaken by an undrafted rookie in 2018, it seemed like things were looking pretty grim for Teez Tabor on the Lions roster. The Lions would then go out and draft a third-round safety who is could potentially play some nickel corner and a fifth rounder with promising prospects. That is on top of making cornerback one of their free agency priorities, signing in both Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin to contracts that sugggest they will be commanding snaps. With many ahead of him who could be considered locks, Tabor has to show some pretty huge leaps forward to even make the 2019 roster, let alone find his way to the active gameday lineup. Like his rookie season and its follow up, Tabor has started off 2019 pretty hot, so here’s to hoping this is the year he takes that much needed step this time.

WR Kenny Golladay (Third Round, 96th Overall)

2018 Status: Breakout star

2019 Status: Starting receiver trying to decide if he’s WR1 or WR2

A surprise selection (for most) in 2017, Golladay burst onto the scene as a rookie showcasing powerful hands and a dangerous knack for getting open over the top. In his second year, he would break 1,000 yards, taking a Lions’ share of the team’s targets as Marvin Jones dealt with injury and Golden Tate dealt with being thrown passes by a different quarterback on a different team.

If there was one criticism for Golladay worth having, it would have to do with his ability to create separation. If the ball is in the air and he’s fighting for it, the Lions’ Kenny G is as money as the musician Kenny G is with a saxophone, but ask him to get far enough away from a defensive back as to make a completed pass a non-question, and it’s a different story. The focus on the run game and potential to open up the deep passing game again puts the Lions in an interesting situation with their receivers, but Golladay has had a strong enough start to his career to make fans comfortable in what to expect from him.

LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Fourth Round, 124th Overall)

2018 Status: Reserve linebacker

2019 Status: Fighting for his roster spot

Few were impacted more by the change in defensive staff than Jalen Reeves-Maybin. After a decent start as a rookie where he found a role as a cover linebacker and sub-package linebacker, his usage and effectiveness tanked in 2018. Injuries further dulled his impact with the team, which was a concern coming out of Tennessee.

Matt Patricia has talked about what traits he favors in his linebackers and based on his comments and our brief view of his tendencies we can state with certainty that size is chief among those traits. It’s also a trait that Reeves-Maybin lacks, and that lack of size and length is likely a contributor to his drop in usage.

After the team picked up Devon Kennard and Christian Jones in 2018, many thought JRM would find a decent role based on his previous usage, but it didn’t come to pass. In 2019, the team drafted a larger, versatile linebacker in Jahlani Tavai and a pass rusher in Austin Bryant that appears to be headed to a similar role as Kennard. This is a bad sign for Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who seems to be on the outside looking in.

TE Michael Roberts (Fourth Round, 127th Overall)

2018 Status: TE3

2019 Status: Fighting for his roster spot

The warning signs were there when the Lions selected Roberts in the 2017 draft. He had the worst measurements of all of the drafted tight ends in what was considered at the time the best tight end draft class in a very long time. His size, a big selling point, didn’t seem to translate to blocking as he was viewed more as a receiving option only by most of those who had evaluated him. Mid-round pick expectations should always be tempered, but with Toledo being considered a local school and with such a positive attitude out of the gate, Roberts was a hard guy to root against.

His rookie season was rough, but it often is even for the higher drafted tight end, so few were very concerned. His second season saw him entering a squad with Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, a group he could very easily have overtaken. This was an ideal situation to break out and take a starting job for yourself. As the season wore on, Luke Willson disappointed and while Toilolo’s blocking was phenomenal, he offered little as a receiving threat. And still, Roberts looked well out of his element. The TE3 on a team that barely had three tight ends.

Now, the Lions signed a tight end early in free agency in Jesse James, drafted one eighth overall in T.J. Hockenson, and made the tight end group one of the most crowded positions on the team. Best of luck to him, but this isn’t going to be an easy group to break into in 2019.

CB Jamal Agnew (Fifth Round, 165th Overall)

2018 Status: All Pro punt returner, but injury shortened his season.

2019 Status: Likely looking at the same role, fighting for more defensive snaps.

Jamal Agnew was the fastest player at 2017 Lions training camp. Yes, faster than Darius Slay. The Lions wanted to find a use for him immediately, so he became their returner and thrived in that role. For a while he was one of the most electric players in the NFL, even seeing the field for gadget offensive plays to try to take advantage of his ludicrous speed.

2018, unfortunately, went differently. He was still a strong returner, but he struggled in his time as the team’s nickel. The good news is that he started to improve in each of the games he played, picking up the role well and learning as he went. Sadly, he was injured and lost for most of the season, so we never got to see how that development would have panned out. The team signed Justin Coleman in free agency, and early predictions have Coleman locking down that slot job. It will be tough for Agnew to gain snaps in a now crowded defensive backfield, but his special teams value can’t be overstated.

DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (Sixth Round, 205th Overall)

2018 Status: Cut and signed by the Buccaneers

2019 Status: Not here.

Though he had a promising rookie campaign, Ledbetter was unable to retain his roster spot last season and ended up with Tampa Bay. He didn’t do much for them but has a shot to stick if he can regain or build upon the flashes he had as a rookie.

QB Brad Kaaya (Sixth Round, 215th Overall)

2018 Status: Injured reserve for the Colts

2019 Status: Unrestricted free agent.

Kaaya failed to crack the roster as a rookie and after bouncing around the NFL for a bit remains a free agent today.

Pat O’Connor (Seventh Round, 250th Overall)

2018 Status: Buccaneers practice squad.

2019 Status: Fighting for his roster spot with the Bucs

O’Connor, like Kaaya, failed to make the roster as a rookie. Like Ledbetter, he ended up with the Buccaneers. He remains there, hoping to latch on.