There are a handful of Lions youngsters who could benefit from increased playing time vs. Packers
The transition has happened right before our eyes.
It has been gradual, imperceptible even at times, but the Detroit Lions are several months into the process of replacing one of the longest-tenured and most-respected players on their roster, safety Glover Quin.
Quin has started all 15 games for the Lions this year, keeping his ironman streak of 147 consecutive starts – third longest in the NFL – intact. But his playing time has waned considerably in recent weeks, as the Lions have started to give rookie Tracy Walker a longer look in the secondary.
Walker’s role has increased from spot duty early in the season, to seeing time in two-minute defensive packages, to most recently playing with the Lions’ regular nickel defense for a full series at a time.
He had his first career interception in a Nov. 18 win over the Carolina Panthers, and in last week’s home finale – when Quin went out as a captain for the opening coin toss but played just 64 percent of the defensive snaps and was uncharacteristically not in the locker room after the game to talk about perhaps his last appearance at Ford Field – Walker made a career-high four tackles.
“He’s been in a couple more packages, which has been great,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said in a teleconference Monday. “I think Tracy’s learning the game and really trying to understand some of the situational things that he’s involved in.”
That Walker has carved out a regular role on defense is a huge surprise. He was a third-round pick, after all, and his selection was something Lions brass celebrated wildly in the war room on the day of the draft.
Quin was away from the team at the time, spending the spring in Texas with his family, and whispers of his potential retirement have circulated ever since.
He acknowledged the obvious last week when he said it’s possible he was playing his final few games as a Lion.
Patricia sidestepped a question Monday about Quin’s future and any relevant conversations the two have had.
“I’ve always had the philosophy and we’ve always discussed the philosophy of the season itself is a long, hard grind and sometimes you need to take a couple minutes after the season to just let yourself come back down,” Patricia said. “I think that’s everybody in the entire organization. So for us, we just stay in the moment, try to make sure we’re always handling our business that week and try to prepare to go get ready to go, and that’s really the right way to approach it.”
With one game left in the regular season Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, the Lions would be doing the right thing by playing Walker and some of their other young players more.
Walker needs the development, and the Lions, frankly, can use the reps to assess exactly where he’s at and what their needs are at the position.
All signs right now point to Walker and Quandre Diggs being the Lions’ starting safeties in 2019, but there are other young players who could benefit from a game’s worth of snaps heading into the offseason.
The Lions don’t seem willing to alter their rotation much to accommodate that, but if they’re so inclined, here are five players beyond Walker who could use the work:
OT Tyrell Crosby
Crosby fared well in his first career start in place of an injured Rick Wagner two weeks ago, but he was relegated to swing tackle duties last week with Wagner back on the field. Both Wagner and left tackle Taylor Decker are under contract for 2019, so Crosby does not have as clear a path to playing time as Walker. But the rookie fifth-round pick has shown enough that reasonable people can assume he’s the Lions’ right tackle of the (perhaps very near) future. Matthew Stafford is dealing with a back injury and his health is paramount to any experimentation on the offensive line, but there shouldn’t be any fear of giving Crosby a few series or more at right tackle.
RB Zach Zenner
Zenner doesn’t have the high upside of Walker or Crosby, but he certainly looks like he can have a role on this team going forward. He has run for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries in the past three weeks, and every rushing attempt the Lions give to someone else right now is a wasted play. Kerryon Johnson is your starter for 2019 and Zenner is an unrestricted free agent, but he’s worth bringing back even if the Lions add another rookie to their backfield.
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CB Teez Tabor
Tabor has had several opportunities already this year that he hasn’t done much with, but the Lions might as well give him one final chance Sunday against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Cornerbacks are hard to find in the NFL, and sometimes take years to develop. Tabor is facing a make-or-break summer in 2019. Considering what the Lions invested in him as a second-round pick, they might as well should give him snaps Sunday ahead of DeShawn Shead and Michael Ford.
WR Brandon Powell
Powell impressed during training camp but has barely played this season, even after the trade of Golden Tate. He still looks like he’s thinking on the field, so his role as a gadget-only player the past few weeks is understandable. But he does have some ability in the open field and the Lions don’t have a Hall-of-Fame receiving corps. It’s time to get Powell a few catches in space.
DT John Atkins
Atkins is a 26-year-old rookie who most people had probably never heard of before he was thrust into action last week. The practice-squad call-up had two tackles, one for loss, in 30 snaps at nose tackle. A’Shawn Robinson is ailing and Ricky Jean Francois could be playing his final game as a Lion, so there’s no harm in giving Atkins some run behind Damon Harrison. You never know what will turn up.
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.