Niyo: Lions’ youth movement will test Dan Campbell’s patience — and his staff

Detroit News

Allen Park — They claim it wasn’t intentional. Yet it obviously wasn’t accidental.

Age may be just a number, but in the NFL — and particularly for a team that’s finally going all-in on a rebuild like the Lions — it’s a number that matters just a little more.

And now that the team’s 53-man roster is largely set heading into the regular season — aside from some transactional gymnastics over the next week or so — we can see just how much it really means here.

“With the youth movement, we didn’t set out to say … ‘Man, we’ve got to get young — let’s find the youngest,’” new general manager Brad Holmes insisted Thursday.

Still, that’s essentially what Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell have done here, assembling what may be the league’s youngest roster — one that features nine rookies, has nearly 70% of the players with two years or less of NFL experience and carries an average age of 24.6 years old.

“Certainly, if you have talent and you’re young and hungry, I mean, it’s hard to ignore those guys,” Campbell explained. “That’s what we felt like we got a lot of, and we’ve said it before: We were looking for the right guys for us and the way we want to be built.”

Developmental year

But if that’s the blueprint, and the procurement phase is over — at least for the moment — it’s time for the construction phase, which figures to be a challenge. And a serious test for this staff that Campbell has assembled here, an impressive group that’s actually loaded with something this roster lacks: NFL playing experience.

We’ll see how well that translates over the next few months. And as Campbell himself noted last week, “the hardest thing is to have urgency and patience at the same time. I don’t know how you do that, but I’m working on it.”

But in theory, this looks like a good match heading into what figures to be, in many respects, a developmental year here, though that’s an admission no one in Allen Park wants to make before Week 1 for obvious reasons. Because communication seems to be one of the real strengths of this Lions coaching staff, and that’s how teaching begins, right?

“From a coaching perspective, you’re going to have some growing pains at times, you will,” Campbell said. “But the important thing is that whatever mistakes are made, they’re not repeated. And if you do that and they stay young and hungry, man, and they’re eager and they continue to put the work out — and I think we have coaches that can develop them — good things will come sooner than later.”

How soon is anyone’s guess with this roster. But clearly Holmes and Campbell are more bullish on the prospects than most of the rest of us. And as they talked through the decision-making process that led to their final cuts this week, they highlighted some of the reasons. Not coincidentally, some of those reasons have more to do with upside and projections than proven commodities.

The defensive line, for example, went from a question mark to a relative strength this summer, thanks in part to the addition of a pair of rookie draft picks. Alim McNeill, a third-round pick who’ll start at nose tackle, quickly impressed the coaches with his athleticism as a 6-foot-2, 330-pounder. And after being held back as an injury precaution early in the training camp, second-rounder Levi Onwuzurike started to flash some of his disruptive potential the last few weeks as well.

“Again, credit to the coaching staff,” Holmes said, “How quickly Alim McNeill got developed, how Levi — when he was able to get back out there more — he just kept getting better each week and each game it showed up. When you draft these guys and they’re rookies, you hope that they can contribute, but you don’t know how quickly they can get acclimated. Alim actually earned a starting role for us, and Levi seems like he’s gonna be a contributor for us, at this point. So we feel good.”

Grooming stage

And they feel better than you might think about the secondary, too, where the oldest player is 29 and three of the six cornerbacks are rookies. Campbell singled out safety Will Harris and cornerback Amani Oruwariye — both third-year pros who’ll be starters in Week 1 — as players who “may have had two of the best camps of anybody on our roster.”

But Holmes went on to rave about secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant, a bright young assistant he watched with the Rams the last four years and whose enthusiastic approach — that’s putting it mildly — has been hard to miss on the practice field in Allen Park.

“I’ve always said that AP is one of — if not the best — DB coaches that I’ve been around,” Holmes said. “He’s extremely impressive in the way that he teaches it in a very digestible manner that allows players to learn quickly and play fast. And the energy that he brings to that group, it resonates with the players. He just relates to players, both on the field and in the classroom.”

It’s also worth noting that one of the first things new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn talked about after he was hired in February was the young secondary he groomed in New Orleans. He started similarly five years ago with a homegrown group that included the likes of Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams and developed it into a top-five unit in the NFL.

“You get to grow these guys as pups: I’m excited about that,” Glenn said. “We get to mold those guys to exactly how I want them to play.”

And they will play — a lot. That’s the other benefit in the way this roster took shape, as young players will get the kind of reps where the real growth happens in practice and in games. All of which is something Holmes essentially promised early in camp.

“It’s great to have a young team, but you’ve got to let them play,” he said. “I remember back when I was with the Rams, (general manager) Les Snead used to say, ‘You’ve got to let them cross the street by themselves.’ Dan and I were aligned in that and said, ‘You know, however this shakes out, we have these young guys and you can’t just be on the driving range just chipping away and practicing. You’ve gotta go out there and play.'”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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