By: Will Burchfield
Scan the Lions’ roster, and far more talent stands out on one side of the ball than the other.
General manger Bob Quinn isn’t hiding from it.
“I think strengths wise we have a lot of good skill players on offense. We have a really good quarterback. We have good personnel on the offensive line. I think on defense we need to add some pieces,” Quinn said on Monday following the dismissal of Jim Caldwell.
The Lions’ offense finished 7th in the league in points per game (25.6) and 13th in yards per game (337.8) this season. Their defense, meanwhile, finished 21st in points against per game (23.5) and 27th in yards against per game (355.8).
The latter unit was hindered by losses to the likes of Haloti Ngata and Tavon Wilson, not to mention the recurring injury woes of Ziggy Ansah, and Quinn commended the coaches for doing a good job “piecing it together.” But even when fully healthy, the defense doesn’t offer much in the way of playmakers.
“I think I need to do a better job on that side of the ball,” said Quinn. “There’s some guys that are under contract that’ll be coming back, so hopefully those guys develop. I think that’s the key thing, too, is younger players in their second and third year have to show improvement. You can’t be stagnant.”
Rookie Jarrad Davis was plugged into middle linebacker from the first day of training camp and struggled in his first season. He’ll need to build on his improvement down the stretch. Fellow rookie linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin will have to get bigger and stronger. And rookie cornerback Teez Tabor, the team’s second-round pick in 2017, must play his way onto the field next season.
Among second-year defensive players, both tackle A’Shawn Robinson and defensive end Anthony Zettel made big strides in 2017. Safety Miles Killebrew likewise saw an increased role, but wasn’t as consistent.
It’s telling that perhaps the three leading candidates to replace Caldwell — New England’s Matt Patricia, Houston’s Mike Vrabel and Carolina’s Steve Wilkes — are all defensive coordinators. Patricia is considered Quinn’s favorite, although the GM declined to discuss anyone in particular on Monday.
It’s also telling that four of the Lions’ five biggest contracts (in terms of average annual value) are owed to offensive players. Darius Slay is the only defensive player among them, while Glover Quin ranks sixth. Those two are hands down Detroit’s biggest difference-makers on defense, if not on the entire team.
Perhaps Quinn’s biggest decision this offseason is in regard to Ansah, an impending free agent who can be franchise tagged for about $18 million in 2018. When fully healthy, Ansah is one of the most dynamic pass rushers in football. He hasn’t been fully healthy since the 2015 season.
If Quinn lets Ansah walk, expect him to make the pass rush a priority in the draft and/or free agency. Also look for him to fortify the linebacker corps, particularly if he doesn’t bring back Tahir Whitehead, and beef up the interior of the defensive line.
On the offensive side of the ball, Quinn made it clear he’s hunting for a running back.
“Will we add someone to that room? Absolutely,” Quinn said.
But elsewhere on offense, the Lions are pretty much set. They have a top-10 (bordering on elite) quarterback, a slew of good receivers and the makings of a stout offensive line. At tight end, Quinn indicated he’s prepared to bring back Eric Ebron on his approximate $8.25 million tender.
“I think we have enough players to contend. The question is, do we have enough players to get over the top?” said Quinn. “Every offseason’s different. There’s free agency, there’s the draft. 30 percent of our team’s going to be different, so my job is to make sure that thirty percent is better than the thirty percent that’s leaving.”
Expect the bulk of that 30 percent to consist of defensive players.