They’ve waited months for this. Sure, they’ve gotten in some strength and conditioning. Many of the players also have trained on their own. But now, this week, is when the Detroit Lions can truly start to get a feel for what their team might look like under first-year coach Matt Patricia.
The draft is over. Most of free agency – although there’s always some shifting of the roster from now until the start of training camp – has taken place. And the Lions have what they have and can start to figure out both what they need and where they might be better than previously thought.
And with that comes questions in Detroit, most of which won’t truly be answered until somewhere in the middle of September or early October. What does Detroit’s run game look like? Is the offensive line really better, or did Bob Quinn plunk all of those resources into a group that still struggles to protect Matthew Stafford and open holes for backs? And the defensive line – can they really get pressure?
The Lions are expected to have their first open-to-the-media OTA later this week, but as things get going, here are some questions that might and might not get answered as things go along.
What will the defense look like? Since any true judgment of the offensive line and the running backs won’t come until this summer, the major question that can be answered in May and June is what will Detroit’s defense truly be. Both Patricia and Quinn have explained that it’ll be a varied system with multiple looks based on the opponent. So the Lions will be working on a lot – with a lot of progress needing to be made – over OTAs. But what Detroit decides to focus on first and second could give an idea of what way the franchise would prefer to play.
“Once you guys see us line up in OTAs, you’re going to see that you’re going to have to really pay close attention to where guys line up,” Quinn said after the draft. “We’re not going to have a base 3-4, a base 4-3.”
It’s why positional flexibility along the defensive front and with some linebackers has been critical the past few weeks. Fourth-round pick Da'Shawn Hand could line up on the inside or outside of a front. Devon Kennard could become a pass rusher both with his hand down and standing up. A multitude of returning linemen (Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel, Kerry Hyder) could line up in multiple spots.
It's going to be a mix-and-match game for a bit, and it’ll probably be the most interesting thing that comes out of the next few weeks on the field for the Lions.
Where will Frank Ragnow play? Quinn has shown no problem pushing his first-round picks to play with the first unit, and Ragnow should be no exception to that. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis did the same last year as did left tackle Taylor Decker two years ago. The question with Ragnow isn’t if he’ll be with the No. 1 group. It’ll be where. Ragnow was a center at Arkansas but can play guard, too.
“He has position versatility, trust me,” said Kurt Anderson, his position coach at Arkansas. “He’s played guard, and he would be our best left tackle and best right tackle if we had to play him out there. I just felt the further I got him away from the ball, as strong as it would be to let him play left tackle and block Myles Garrett, well, they got three other dudes that can play, one, and I’m losing the communication piece to it.
“But he could play left tackle in the NFL if someone wanted to play him there. There’s no doubt about it. He’s long enough, athletic enough, and he can do it. He’s strong enough. I think he’s just best served in [the interior] and I told people that.”
Where that is will start to shake out this week depending how the Lions want to use him and Graham Glasgow, who can also play guard and center. Both players have said, essentially, that they are interior offensive linemen and wouldn’t give much as to where they would prefer playing. But considering the importance of cohesion on the line and in the protection of Stafford, how they line up in May and June should be a harbinger for what they do in the fall.
The defensive back plan: This is coming from an area of perceived strength for Detroit, but the Lions have questions to sort at cornerback. Darius Slay is a given, but who plays with him is unknown. The Lions signed DeShawn Shead in free agency, and he’ll have a shot to win the starting job along with the re-signed Nevin Lawson and last year’s second-round pick, Teez Tabor. The three will also join Jamal Agnew and perhaps Quandre Diggs as options in the slot. This probably won’t be sorted until live action occurs, but in a competition that should be exceedingly tight in a defense that is new so it won’t favor the returnees over the newcomers, there’s a chance someone could make a move earlier than expected.
The return of a key piece: Hyder was out all of last season with an Achilles injury. Now he’s being looked at as a key piece to the defensive line. But his speed and explosiveness coming off the injury are unknowns and should start to be answered this week. If Hyder can return to his 2016 form, the Lions have a better chance of being a disruptive defensive unit. Hyder's presence in the lineup would give Detroit another versatile defensive lineman and also another option to rush the passer besides Ezekiel Ansah.