We are now about 6 weeks away from the beginning of the NFL season, and training camp just got underway this past week. With it comes the reactivation of my football brain, turned off back in February, slightly turned on in March-April, and then in hibernation since the start of May. All the stats, memories, and thoughts from the 2018 NFL season coming rushing back and I began to formulate my first impressions and notions of this upcoming Detroit Lions season. And uh…
What is that feeling?
I have no earthly idea
Could it be?
OPTIMISM? ABOUT THE DETROIT LIONS?!?!
Well, the Lions did just sign former Pro Bowl DT Mike Daniels away from a division rival…
But, do you remember the picked up flag? Or the Golden Tate play against Atlanta? Or the batted ball in Seattle? Or the Calvin Johnson rule? Or the-
Shut up and go away, damnit!
Yes, yes, I am- actually- optimistic about the upcoming 2019 Detroit Lions season. No, I’m not a Lions fan that is constantly bullish every season. As a matter of fact, I was pretty *pessimistic* a year ago going into training camp, and well, that feeling ended up being right on the money. But looking at this team right now, while there are still holes, I am genuinely excited about for the regular season (and preseason) to begin. Why?
A Dominant Defensive Line
Let’s turn back the clock a year. At this time in 2018, the Detroit Lions were heading into camp with a defensive front of The Artist Formerly Known as Ziggy Ansah, Ricky Jean-Francois, Sylvester Williams, and Eli Harold as their starting defensive line, with reserves being the decaying Kerry Hyder and a perpetually underachieving (at that time) A’Shawn Robinson. A fourth round rookie named Da’Shawn Hand was also in the mix at the time but not much was expected of him. I had severe internal dread about the defensive line entering last fall, and it was no surprise that the Lions got run all over like a track course. The Lions were starting four guys who should not be starting anywhere in the NFL at all four positions on the line! Hand began to develop into a key contributor within the first few weeks of the season, but he was the only bright spot through the first little while.
But what about now? The Lions have completely and totally rebuilt their defensive line in just a year. They now project to be starting a defensive front on rushing downs of Trey Flowers-Snacks Harrison-A’Shawn Robinson and on passing downs of Trey Flowers-Mike Daniels-Da’Shawn Hand. Flowers has quietly become one of the NFL’s best edge defenders, not someone who racks up sacks but who constantly pressures the QB and is also tremendous in run defending at setting the edge. Snacks Harrison has long been one of the NFL’s five best nose tackles at run stuffing, and he single handedly helped flip the Lions from the worst rushing defense in the league to one of the best after being traded for mid-season in 2018. Then there’s A’Shawn Robinson, who went from looking like a borderline bust to Snacks Jr. after the Lions acquired Harrison, a budding dominant nose tackle in run defending himself. On passing downs, the Lions can turn to Da’Shawn Hand, who was one of the NFL’s best rookie defenders last year, a silent rising star who proved great at rushing the passer. And last but not least, they signed Mike Daniels, the aging three tech DT who is a pass rushing savant from the interior. In one calendar year, the Lions have gone from having the NFL’s worst defensive line to maybe its best.
I can’t lie, that’s got me pretty damn excited.
So what’s that they always say about training camp hype?
Don’t you dare
Something about never taking it seriously?
No No No No No No No
Nice try, I’m going all-in this year. The TJ Hockenson hype is real.
Just two days into Lions training camp and first round, #8 overall draft pick TJ Hockenson of Iowa, a tight end, has been earning all the hype. And more. And more. I don’t want to be hurt again, but aaaargh I’m buying in. I chronicled the conflictions of drafting a tight end in the high first round (again) in this article back in May, but the bottom line at the time was that Hockenson was the best and most NFL-ready tight end prospect in nearly 15 years. Now he shows up in training camp and starts torching the defense in the red zone, hauling in TD after TD? Yep, it’s real.
I’m still tempering expectations given production (or lack thereof) of rookie TE’s in the NFL, but I think Hockenson might be the real deal, especially as a red zone weapon and a blocker right away. Think Joseph Fauria, if he could not just block, but block like an above average tight end. Furthermore, with the Lions also signing Jesse James to a sizable contract in free agency, as well as Logan Thomas, who seems to be a Very Large Human option in red zone situations, the TE situation appears to be vastly improved compared to this time last year. And yes, having a functioning NFL tight end of any capacity was going to be a tremendous upgrade compared to last year’s team, which had zero, but now the Lions seem to have two, with better reserves at the position than last year too.
Darrell Bevell might be slightly more competent than Jim Bob Cooter
I was once a hardcore Jim Bob Cooter supporter. I understand the good that he did in helping Stafford take fewer risks and become more efficient. The 2017 season was probably the best of Stafford’s career and it came with JBC at the helm. But the reality is that Cooter could never get a decent running game going and he no longer fits the style of football that Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia want to play. That became painfully clear last season when Cooter was unable or unwilling to update his system to fit the personnel that he was being given, especially after the Golden Tate trade. Rather than reworking the offense around the new pieces, he tried to repeatedly slam a square peg in a round hole, running Tate’s signature bubble screen with far less athletic guys who were Not Golden Tate (like Andre Ellington) and slip screens with LeGarrette Blount, whose 2018 running speed could be described as Peyton Manning-esque.
Cooter was no longer a fit with the players that Quinn was bringing in and a change was needed. Enter Darrell Bevell. The former Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator when they won their Super Bowl in 2013 is a much more logical fit with Patricia’s overall scheme. The emphasis now will be on stretching the field deep with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay contrasting a heavy dose of Kerryon Johnson running the ball mostly in 12 personnel (2 TE sets). I’m not sure if it’s going to work, but it’s hard to be worse than the atrocious fit of Jim Bob Cooter in the Patricia/Quinn system.
So, there you have it. It’s July 29, 2019, and I am officially on the Detroit Lions optimism train. That is, until the football gods violently kick me in the crotch like every year until something reasonable is presented as evidence to the contrary and I revise my position. The first hurdle is preseason, as last year’s disastrous preseason portended negatively the awful regular season beginning that would come. If the Lions look much sharper this preseason, then my optimism reaches the pinnacle. If it’s a replay of last year, then that will be a splash of cold water in the face. But for now, I’m completely on board the optimism train. Hand me a glass of honolulu blue Kool Aid because IT’S FORWARD DOWN THE FIELD BABY. There’s absolutely nothing that could go wrong this time.
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