During the months leading up to the 2016 NFL draft, there was no shortage of speculation about what the Detroit Lions were going to do in the draft. For those of us interested in such things, speculating on the approach they would take in the draft is all we could do. The Lions previous regime hinted plenty at where they were leaning, and there was enough history with their requirements at certain positions that you could get a fairly decent feel relating to where they were going to go in the draft. Those days are over.
You have to give first-year general manager Bob Quinn credit as he has closed all doors of communication and there were no leaks coming from inside their building. That’s no small accomplishment. While there was no information before the draft, there is plenty of information now.
With the draft in the books, we can glean some information on Quinn’s thoughts on the Lions roster via the players he chose to select. While Quinn still isn’t talking specifics, it speaks volumes when looking at the position groups he chose to target, and those he chose to leave alone. This is the first of a series that will look at the messages Quinn sent on draft day.
The Lions hit the trenches early and often in the 2016 draft, selecting three offensive linemen and a defensive tackle with four of their first five picks. The Lions had 10 total selections and they certainly addressed needs this year while giving the team tremendous roster flexibility in 2017, but one position they didn’t address is what we’re going to look at here.
When wide receiver Calvin Johnson retired, it was immediately presumed that the Lions would have to fill that void in both free agency and the draft. They got wide receiver Marvin Jones in free agency, but neglected the position in the draft, and that is an intriguing decision.
By all accounts, Quinn is a shrewd football guy and the lack of a receiver in the draft means they like what they have out of their current group of pass catchers. If the solution didn’t come from the outside (Jones is not replacing all of the production Calvin gave this offense), that means there is an in-house option that the Lions like that most aren’t thinking about.
Looking at the retirement of Johnson and how losing his combination of speed and size will force the Lions to alter the fundamental way their offense does business. They won’t be throwing the ball deep down the field much as they don’t have the weapons to do that on a regular basis. This means they will bill be spread out, running out of a shotgun set and it also means the ball is going to come out quickly.
This plays into quarterback Matthew Stafford’s strengths a we’ve seen him tear apart defenses when he’s comfortable. It also puts less stress on the offensive line as they don’t have to sustain blocks for long periods of time. One of the biggest failures from the tenure of former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was asking for 5-step and 7-step drops from Stafford and forcing an offensive line ill-equipped to handle that kind of task.
When looking at all the pieces of the puzzle, there is one player that benefits from this situation and that player is running back Theo Riddick. It would be fair to assert that the unique role that Riddick might have also will benefit the running backs in multiple ways as well, and we’ll get there in a minute.
Riddick is a fantastic route runner, a slasher capable of using his elite lateral quickness to cut on a dime and create instant separation while running his routes. When he catches the ball, he is very likely to make the first man miss and that means yards after the catch. These are all things that will benefit this particular offense needing a playmaker with Johnson retired.
Think of the Lions offense with Riddick and second-year running back Ameer Abdullah on the field at the same time. There is a bit of redundancy in their individual skill sets, but it is fair to say that Abdullah is more running back and Riddick is more pass catcher. However, they can be interchangeable in ways and keeping them on the field at the same time would give defenses multiple issues to resolve, and that’s before the snap.
There is an argument that can be made that Riddick abused linebackers trying to cover him out of the backfield in previous years, and that’s fair. However, I’d say that if he draws a cornerback out of the slot, that’s a win for the offense and likely a matchup he’ll take advantage of anyways.
If defenses are overly concerned about the Lions slot receiver, that’s a benefit and likely going to make things easier on offense. Riddick might not be the man actually carrying the ball at times, but his use out of the slot will be causation for a better offense.
Now to how it helps the running game and why improving the running game is a gigantic factor in where this offense goes moving forward. If teams decide to throw another defensive back on the field because of the matchup problem with Riddick then the Lions are in an advantageous situation. Deploying Riddick out of slot will make it easier to run the ball and that is a move that certainly should be made.
Do Lions fans remember what a play action pass is? I googled it because I’ve never seen it, and it’s this thing where you fake a running play and defenses overreact to the run. They bite on the play and take a step to the line of scrimmage……..okay, enough. You get the point.
Play action is a particularly potent option for an offense, but it only works when there is some semblance of a running game. This is all a bit of a circle without a starting point. One part does its job in helping the other parts to work more effectively, but all the parts matter.
It’s fair to think that Quinn knows this and these need to be his primary motivations for this offense. If there’s a hope with the Lions bringing in Quinn, it is that he is tied to the New England Patriots. It’s obvious when looking at the Patriots’ personnel that they understand exactly how each of their players need to be utilized to succeed.
More importantly, they implement plans to put players in the best possible situation given what they do well. If Quinn can give the Lions coaches specific, detailed plans on how to utilize their players to put them in the best position to excel then that’s a winning formula. That formula starts with Riddick.
I’d argue that the weapons the Patriots use out of the slot make it significantly easier for them to run their offense. It’s easy to see that strong slot receiver play helps to keep Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a rhythm while throwing the ball, but as teams focus on stopping Brady, it becomes easier to run the ball.
Riddick is every bit the playmaker that other outstanding slot receivers are in other cities, and if used in this manner he could hold the keys to unlocking this offense.