Four Downs: Assessing the Lions’ rebuild, Jamaal Williams and John Cominsky’s value, and the Bills

Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 31-18 victory over the New York Giants:

First down

Because of NFL season is so short on opportunities, we’re collectively prone to overreactions after each Sunday. And when the Lions’ woeful start extended two months into the 2022 campaign, it was easy to understand why so many were ready to abandon ship on the team’s latest incarnation of leadership. It’s the nature of our species (as sports fans), to expect instant gratification. And when it comes to the Lions, there’s the added belief the universe owes you something because things have been so bad for so long.

But after weeks of a close-but-no-cigar act, the Lions are seemingly turning a corner and showing there’s still value in having a little patience. The problem with the 1-6 start was we knew these Lions were better. Maybe not worst-to-first better, but certainly not the woeful group that finished 3-13-1 last year. That offense was dismal, while this one flashed true potency. And even though this defense has struggled to live up to expectations of improvement, you could still see the promise of the individual pieces and had every right to believe some experience and chemistry would lead to better results.

Now, halfway through the season, you’re finally seeing some of that come to fruition. It’s not perfect — although shutting down Giants running back Saquon Barkley was as close to perfection as it gets — but this team has the look of one that can give most of the league’s other franchises a run for their money any given week.

This week, you’ll hear whispers of the Lions being on the fringes of the NFC playoff race. It’s OK to have some fun with that, because it’s been a while since it’s felt in sight at this stage in the season, even if making an improbable run remains just that — improbable.

But, I think what we can say somewhat confidently is it appears the rebuild is back on schedule, at least when viewed through the lens of preseason expectations. Vegas had the Lions pegged for 6.5 wins. Your friendly Detroit News crew each had them down for seven, except for this guy, the unexpected optimist in the bunch, who dared to say eight, and felt dumb for doing so as those early-season losses piled up.

Eight still might be a slight stretch. Forgive me, it’s not my fault they blew the game in Minnesota earlier this year. But seven, it’s OK to demand that, with games against Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay and Jacksonville still on deck.

From three wins to seven or eight? That’s a jump from awful to slightly below average. It’s progress that fits the timeline of this particular rebuild and should make (real) playoff contention the reasonable goal in 2023.

Second down

The evaluation of the roster is an ongoing process, and it’s around this time a lot of us are eying next offseason. Frequently, a big part of that conversation centers around which players the team can cut to create some extra cap space to pursue new solutions. But instead of focusing on who should go, this game against the Giants has me thinking about who needs to stay.

The Lions have more than a dozen players who are scheduled to be free agents come March, and at least a handful are worthy of sticking in Detroit as it moves to the next stage of its rebuild. That group starts with running back Jamaal Williams.

Yes, I understand it’s historically bad business to commit excessive resources to the running back position, but Williams’ contributions extend beyond his career-year production, which has him on pace for a 1,000-yard season and on track to break the franchise’s rushing touchdown mark. The veteran back, who will be just 28 at the start of next season, has been the heartbeat of the rebuild: Durable, high effort and a source of energy and inspiration to his teammates.

It will probably require a raise from the $3 million per season his initial contract with the franchise has paid him, but he’s earned it and this regime is about rewarding guys who meet the standards set forth.

Beyond Williams, one player who stands out as a fit for what the team is trying to build is defensive lineman John Cominsky. He brings the right combination of effort, athleticism and production, embracing whatever role is asked of him each week. In this one, he was called upon to make his first start, where he played a key role in the overall defensive showing, starting with a tackle for a loss on the game’s first snap.

Early in the season, Cominsky was coming off the bench, yet still leading the team in QB pressures. He broke his thumb in Week 2, but played through the pain, netting a game-sealing sack. And he rushed back after surgery, operating with a protective club. That endears you to your teammates and the fan base. And while it’s limited his effectiveness his first few weeks back, you saw the early-season ability he flashed return in a big way.

The Lions are going to be in the market for more defensive line help this offseason, but trying to re-sign Cominsky is a no-brainer move.

Third down

All offseason, the Lions’ coaching staff talked up second-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill, but like the rest of that unit, his performance could largely be classified as a disappointment. Interior linemen unquestionably have a way of blending into the background because they’re often asked to do the dirty work to create opportunities for their teammates, but the Lions had made a concerted effort to shift McNeill out of playing nose tackle to unleash his deceptive athleticism.

Through nine games, the best way to describe McNeill was a player that did everything well enough, but nothing exceptionally well. So to see him have a breakout performance against the Giants, where he routinely set up shop in the opponent’s backfield and finished with three tackles for loss, was a sign he could be ready to start delivering on his preseason hype.

For the Lions to stay on track with the rebuild, they’ll need their young players to develop and produce beyond what they have to this point, and McNeill represents one of the biggest opportunities for production growth going forward.

Fourth down

Thanksgiving offers the Lions their first opportunity since “Hard Knocks,” to get larger exposure to a national audience. It comes at a good time, with the team playing with confidence and riding high on a three-game winning streak. On the flip side, they couldn’t have drawn a much tougher opponent than the Buffalo Bills, one of the league’s true Super Bowl contenders. Coming into the contest, the Bills rank in the top five in scoring and scoring defense.

The opening line has the Lions as a nine-point underdog at home. That tracks, even with Detroit’s recent success. Obviously, a win would do further wonders for the team’s confidence, both internally and externally, but not getting run off the field by one of the league’s elite squads should still be looked at as a continuation of recent progress.

Regardless of what happens, don’t let the result of a football game potentially ruin your day. Enjoy good food, maybe an adult beverage or two — if that’s your thing — and some quality time with your loved ones.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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