Dave Birkett’s thoughts on Detroit Lions’ bad start: Ranking top NFL draft needs

Detroit Free Press

Sizing up the Detroit Lions at (what used to be) the quarter pole of the season:

The Lions are one of two 0-4 teams left, joining the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s a pretty rotten start to the Dan Campbell era, but if we’re being honest, it’s not out of line with expectations.

SHAWN WINDSOR: After weeks of new hope, these Lions channeled depressing familiarity vs. Chicago

The Lions are young, thin and short on playmakers on both sides of the ball, and you don’t win many games in the NFL when that’s the case. They’ve stuck around long enough to be in every game they’ve played, and that’s caused some consternation among the fan base. But that’s the NFL. Even the bad teams — which the Lions are — have enough talent to keep most games close.

Looking ahead at the schedule, the Lions should not be favored in any game they play until maybe when they host the Philadelphia Eagles on Halloween. Outside of that, I’m not sure the Lions will be favored again this year. Maybe against the Chicago Bears at home. Perhaps when they visit the Atlanta Falcons the day after Christmas, though I doubt it.

Regardless, I still think this team plays hard enough to win four or five games this season — and here’s the important part, will continue doing so late in the year when hope is lost for other teams.

[ Why Taylor Decker will be the Lions’ left tackle when he returns from injury ]

I probably will not be picking the Lions to beat the mediocre Minnesota Vikings this week, but they do need to get a win soon just to validate what Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes are building in Detroit.

“I don’t think anybody in the room believes we’re an 0-4 team,” Lions receiver Kalif Raymond said after Sunday’s loss to the Bears. “We’ve put a lot of work in. And then just the team that we have, man, we have a bunch of gritty guys. It’s not a bunch of hang-your-head, implode kind of guys. we’ve got some guys that go out there and work week in and week out and I’ve got a feeling when we get the first one, it’s going to snowball.”

I don’t know about a snowball, but something to slow the avalanche of losses would be nice.

• I’ve said for months now that the Lions’ final record this season is not as important as the development of their players. The organization signed off on that approach when it went it extremely young at the cornerback position, but the Lions have taken a few unfortunate hits in that regard.

Jeff Okudah’s ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 1 was one. A Week 2 injury to his backup, Ifeatu Melifonwu, was two. Romeo Okwara’s torn Achilles on Sunday was three. And injuries on the offensive line are four.

Okudah and Okwara were supposed to be major contributors on the defense for the next few seasons, and Melifonwu was the type of developmental player — at a key position — who needed seasoning on the field.

There’s plenty of data out there that shows how tough Achilles injuries are to come back from, and now two of the Lions’ most promising defensive players — both 26 or younger — have long recoveries ahead. Melifonwu’s quadriceps injury is not as serious, but it will cost him valuable development time nonetheless.

The offensive line, meanwhile, was supposed to a strength this season and in years beyond, and the group has yet to play one snap together in its intended state this fall: Taylor Decker at left tackle, Jonah Jackson at left guard, Frank Ragnow at center, Hal Vaitai at right guard and Penei Sewell at right tackle.

MORE FROM WINDSOR: Bad calls are one thing, but Dan Campbell can’t let Lions go ‘numb’ already

Decker should return from hand surgery soon, perhaps neweek, but Ragnow is now out indefinitely with a toe injury. Ragnow is a Pro Bowl player and one of the best centers in the NFL, and I am in no way concerned about him long-term. But we also don’t have a firm grasp yet if this line will be as good as the Lions think it can, and on what timetable. If the Lions suffer any more setbacks up front, it will be a lost season of development for that unit as a whole.

• Staying with the offensive line for a second, I think Decker should play left tackle when he returns and Sewell should move back to right tackle. Sewell is the Lions’ left tackle of the future, but Decker is their best option at the position now and Campbell owes it to his roster to put his best players in the positions that best help them win.

I get that developing Sewell at left tackle is important, but he’s 20 years old, won’t be handicapped by playing a dozen or so games at right tackle, and is very much a work in progress as an NFL lineman, as anyone who saw his performance Sunday can attest.

As for Decker, no, I don’t think the Lions should trade him at next month’s deadline. There may come a time and place for that to happen — perhaps next spring, before the draft. But good offensive tackles are an incredibly rare commodity, Decker still has plenty of years left at a reasonable price tag, and why trade one of your five best players to create a hole that will need to be filled with a rookie draft pick?

CARLOS MONARREZ: Lions’ defense was simply inexcusable against a brutal Bears offense

NFL rebuilds are supposed to be quick, and having a good offensive line typically speeds them along. Decker is young enough and good enough to be an important contributor when the Lions start winning. If he resists a future move off left tackle or the return in a trade is too great to pass up, the Lions would have to consider their options. But the time to make those determinations is months or years away.

• OK, let’s get to the biggest topic from Sunday’s Lions-Bears game: Campbell’s fourth-down decision making.

I think Campbell erred in trying to convert a fourth-and-goal from the Chicago 5 early in that game. That’s not a high-percentage conversion spot on the field, the Lions had no momentum after stumbling through their three previous plays and taking the sure field goal seemed appropriate with so much time left against one of the NFL’s worst offenses.

That said, I am a big fan of Campbell’s aggressive overall approach to fourth downs and hope it does not change — this season or in the future.

I’ve heard the arguments he should be more conservative: Jared Goff and the offense have not given him reason to trust them yet in key situations; taking points is never a bad thing in the NFL; and the Lions aren’t good enough to play by anything other than the book.

Well, the Lions are equally bad on offense and defense right now, no one on either side of the ball has proven they can deliver in key situations and the book actually says being aggressive is a good thing.

MORE FROM MONARREZ: It’s time for Dan Campbell to stop being so aggressive on offense

I am a firm believer teams can best manipulate outcomes by keeping the ball in their hands. Certainly, when the Lions have a better team, Campbell’s gambles should pay off more often than they are now, but there’s a difference between being reckless and aggressive while trying to win, and Campbell has settled clearly in the latter camp the first four games.

• The Lions are trending towards having a top-10 pick for the fourth straight year and very possibly a top-five pick for the second time in three seasons. It’s never too early to talk draft in Detroit, so I figured I’d leave you with my six-months-out view on the Lions’ top-five positional needs:

1. Quarterback: Yes, I’m on the bandwagon for a third straight year. Never take a quarterback just to take one, but if a true their potential future franchise signal caller is there, the Lions are not in position to pass him up.

2. Cornerback: This is tough to say two years after they spent the No. 3 overall pick on Okudah, but the Lions have so much uncertainty in the secondary right now. They need an elite cover man.

3. Receiver: There isn’t much of a debate, the Lions have one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL.

4. Safety: Their atrocious pass defense isn’t all on the cornerbacks, and Tracy Walker and Dean Marlowe are pending free agents.

5. Linebacker: I believe Derrick Barnes will develop into an every-down player, which means the Lions only need one more inside linebacker to have two capable starters next year.

*I can’t believe I left edge rusher off the list with Okwara’s injury and the likelihood that Trey Flowers’ big contract means he’s playing elsewhere next year, but that’s the state of the team right now.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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