For decades, NFL teams have built their rosters by investing significant capital in players closest to the ball, and in turn, placing a reduced value on players farther away from it. This ideology matched scheme concepts at the time, where executing a bruising offense was valued over the passing game.
Currently, the NFL is very much a passing league, but only recently have we seen franchises making conscious efforts to move away from old strategies in team construction and evolve into a more modern approach.
Earlier in the week, Chris Spielman appeared on local radio station 97.1 The Ticket to discuss several Detroit Lions topics including how he was impressed by Shelia Ford Hamp’s involvement in team meetings and his philosophy on roster building. His approach moves the Lions toward adapting to this growing trend in the NFL.
“I’ll have to ask Brad (Holmes) or Dan (Campbell) this theory, but I have a theory that you kind of, back when I played… you used to build from the inside out,” Spielman said via the Free Press. “Well, today’s league, I think you build from the outside in.”
The concept of building from the outside in puts an emphasis on quickly getting the ball in your playmaker's hands on offense. On defense, coverage takes precedence over stopping the run.
“You can always create pass rush with pressuring,” an NFL coach said to the Chicago Tribune. “But it’s hard to create pass coverage — the ability to cover one-on-one. If you’ve got a guy you know can wipe out one side of the field, that’s pretty damn valuable. I’d like ’em both, but if I’ve got to pick one, I’m taking a cornerback.”
Pro Football Focus did a data study on coverage vs. pass rush and their findings also support this idea, pointing to both being valuable in their own ways. The ability to cover has more significance when measuring the value of a particular player, though.
This concept has led to teams altering their recent draft strategies, as defensive players who can cover—linebackers Devin White and Devin Bush, as well as corner Jeff Okudah—have been drafted higher than previous trends.
Spielman’s comments could also hint that the Lions may prioritize pass catchers and defenders who can cover this offseason. That would line up with expectations that the Lions will model some of their defense based on the 2020 Rams, who constructed their defense from the secondary in.
Shifting their defense to one influenced by the Rams makes sense on many levels. The Lions won’t have to make major adjustments in player personnel, the Rams defense was the best in the NFL in 2020, and Holmes ran their college scouting department for the previous eight years—giving him a unique understanding of how to execute this transition.
The Lions have a young secondary base to build on with corners Okudah and Amani Oruwariye developing their craft, as well as safeties Tracy Walker and Will Harris— both of whom are looking to improve on a difficult 2020 season. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn even made a point to mention them at his press conference earlier this month, pointing at how these players reminded him of the group he had when he first took over in New Orleans.
But the Lions’ back-seven are by no means a complete unit. Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman are potential cap casualties and starting safety Duron Harmon is a free agent who may or may not fit in with the schematic change. Aside from Jamie Collins, the Lions lack linebackers who can cover.
That means the Lions may need to prioritize finding a starting safety, a nickel option, and a speedy coverage linebacker in free agency or the NFL draft. Keep an eye on John Johnson (Rams safety) and Marcus Williams (Saints safety) as potential game-changing additions in free agency, as well as Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round of the draft.
On offense, it’s much simpler: find as many wide receivers as possible.
The Lions will be able to lean on running back D’Andre Swift and pro bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson for offensive production, but Quintez Cephus is the only wide receiver under contract for 2021 who contributed in 2020.
This lack of receivers is why so many believe Kenny Golladay is a strong candidate for the franchise tag or to receive a contract extension in the near future—though the debate of whether to re-sign, tag, or let go, is still being discussed locally.
Regardless of what happens with Golladay, based on the outside in philosophy, the Lions will likely be looking to add more receivers in free agency and/or the draft—and yes, that includes using the No. 7 overall pick on a pass-catching offensive weapon, like Ja’Marr Chase (LSU), DeVonta Smith (Alabama), Jaylen Waddle (Alabama), and Kyle Pitts (Florida).
Based on the depth of talent in free agency and the draft, if the Lions do indeed adapt the outside in roster construction philosophy, expect them to invest significant capital—both draft and financial—into offensive/defensive players who will help them control the passing game.