Niyo: New Lions GM will find himself on the defensive from Day 1

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

Nashville — One by one, they’re joining the queue for interviews.

Louis Riddick. Rick Smith. Scott Pioli. Thomas Dimitroff. And those are just the guys who are no longer currently employed by NFL teams. The list of known candidates for the Lions’ general manager vacancy will only grow in a couple weeks, when the NFL season mercifully ends here in Detroit and owner Sheila Ford Hamp and her search committee can line up meetings with several more options to lead their front office. Maybe even a dozen more, by the time all is said and done.

But one thing that’s becoming painfully clear as this season nears a conclusion and the search for a solution kicks into gear — the Zooms amid the gloom, if you will — is just how many cracks there are in the foundation.

If this wasn’t officially a rebuild before, when then-GM Bob Quinn fired Jim Caldwell and brought in Matt Patricia following another 9-7 season in 2017, it certainly is now that the Lions have clinched a third consecutive losing season and officially have been eliminated from the playoffs.

We knew that was coming before Sunday’s 46-25 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, of course. Before Matthew Stafford put on a flak jacket and reminded everyone he’s still invested and always a gamer. Before Darrell Bevell’s offense went out and piled up 27 first downs and 430 yards in a game the Lions still managed to lose by three scores. (And by an odd final score that had never been recorded in NFL history, by the way.)

But each week, and each loss, merely confirms the depth of the challenge that lies ahead for the next man in charge. Whoever agrees to take it on will find himself on the defensive from Day 1, in more ways than one.

Now 5-9, with games remaining against Tampa Bay and Minnesota, the Lions have taken another step toward earning another top-10 draft pick, which will come in handy. Losses like Sunday’s actually help more than they hurt, as painful as that is for some to accept, or for the players and coaches to hear.

Charting a course

The Lions own just five 2021 draft picks at the moment, one in each of the first five rounds. And watching this team play week after week, it’d be hard to argue against that new GM deciding to use all five of those selections on defensive players. (Or at least it would be if they hadn’t passed on a quarterback at the top of last year’s draft.)

The all-defense approach actually has been tried before. Just this past April, the Carolina Panthers went out and hired an offensive-minded head coach in Matt Rhule, who then lured Joe Brady away from LSU to be his offensive coordinator. And then Rhule spent the entire three-day draft cracking jokes at Brady’s expense, because GM Marty Hurney decided to take defensive players with all seven of the Panthers’ picks.

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That Carolina defense has a long way to go, but you can see signs it’s headed in the right direction. The Panthers shut out the Lions last month in one of the final indignities of the Quinntricia era, and just this weekend they sacked Aaron Rodgers five times, limited him to 143 yards passing and nearly pitched a second-half shutout. Leading the way were a couple of rookies in Derrick Brown — a player the Lions strongly considered at No. 3 overall back in April — and Jeremy Chinn, along with Brian Burns, Carolina’s 2019 first-round pick and another player the Lions passed on.

A year from now, Lions fans can only hope they’re saying something similar about Jeff Okudah and a rookie or two on defense. Because they’re certainly not saying — or seeing — it much with what Quinn and Patricia put together here.

The 435 points that Detroit has allowed this season already stands as the sixth-worst performance in franchise history. The Lions are on pace to give up nearly 500 points, something only a few teams have ever done in this league.

And while they rank 30th in the league in total defense — ahead of Jacksonville and Houston — for the second straight year they’re threatening the franchise record for most yards allowed. The winless 2008 team in Detroit allowed 6,470 yards. Last year’s group gave up 6,406. And this year’s team is on pace to allow 6,423 after Sunday’s mauling.

Making matters worse, this year’s defense also is running out players to run out on the field in the secondary. That was a point the Titans made early in Sunday’s game, when Ryan Tannehill hit Corey Davis for a 75-yard touchdown pass, spinning safety Duron Harmon like a top at the end. And it’s one Tennessee’s MVP candidate, Derrick Henry, drove home again when he turned the corner on another big gain and sent Lions cornerback Alex Myres — a practice-squad player called into active duty this week — flying with one of his highlight-reel stiff-arms.

More: ‘It’s remarkable’: Matthew Stafford delivers while playing through pain once again

Henry finished the game with 24 carries for 147 yards and a touchdown, sitting out most of the fourth quarter. If the Titans weren’t in a playoff chase and trying to protect their star, or if they’d needed to do more to win this game, Henry easily could’ve rushed for 200-plus Sunday. Just as the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook did in Week 9 and may yet again against Detroit in Week 17, given what coordinator Cory Undlin has left to work with at the end of the season, missing a handful of starters, including Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton and Desmond Trufant.

“It was a struggle, and I’m not gonna make any excuses, one way or another,” Bevell said. “The guys that we have are the guys that we have. And those guys are out there giving everything they’ve got, fighting hard. The coaches are trying to put them in the best situations they can to be successful, and today we weren’t able to do it.”

Construction ahead

That’s not likely to change over the next two weeks. And I’d expect a few more names to go on injured reserve over the holidays here, especially now that the Lions have been mathematically eliminated.

But it’s what happens after the season that bears watching now. Because whoever comes in here likely will begin another major personnel overhaul on defense.

Regardless of what the new regime decides to do with Stafford, there’s a solid nucleus to build around on offense, with a solid line anchored by Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker, a dynamic rookie running back in D’Andre Swift and a tight end in T.J. Hockenson that may be headed to the Pro Bowl in his second season.

On defense, though, there’s a bunch of veterans who were brought in to prop up Patricia’s failed scheme and not a lot of pieces that look like they’d be part of someone else’s vision.

Flowers can play in any scheme, but at that $20 million annual cap hit? Jamie Collins may be here for another year, only because of the contract he signed this past offseason. That’s not the case, perhaps, with players like Shelton or Trufant or Justin Coleman. Frankly, it’ll depend on how much dead cap space the Lions want to accumulate.

On the bright side, Romeo Okwara has eight sacks, including another for a safety in Sunday’s loss, and is proving to be one of Quinn’s better decisions. But he’s headed to unrestricted free agency this winter. Elsewhere, it’s hard to say exactly what the Lions have — or what the future GM and coach will see — in the likes of Okudah, Tracy Walker, Amani Oruwariye, Jahlani Tavai, John Penisini, Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant.

But it’s a safe bet to say, here in the hauntingly familiar twilight of 2020, that at least one half of the Lions’ roster will look a lot different in 2021.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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