Allen Park — The Lions’ offense gradually, painfully eroded last season. Injuries, inconsistencies, depleted depth, and yes, a certain aching middle finger on a certain quarterback’s right hand led to it.
General manager Bob Quinn responded with an offseason of diligent trench work, adding Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang, as well as solid blocking tight end Darren Fells. It continued Thursday with a desperate grab for a pair of left tackles, even giving up a sixth-round pick for once-touted Greg Robinson.
Sometimes insurance seems like a waste of money, until you have to cash it in. Clearly, the Lions felt they needed it in case Taylor Decker’s shoulder injury sidelines him deep into the season. But the curious part is, Quinn hasn’t added much veteran insurance where the Lions need it most, at running back and wide receiver, to help Matthew Stafford.
It’s still early, but they’re taking a gamble by not taking a gamble on offensive playmakers. I know, winning teams aren’t built on free agents, and Quinn isn’t eager to tumble into that trap. They’re betting on their own, on their drafting prowess, on the hope that injuries don’t pile up again.
Quinn has not been the risk-taking type, but as the Lions wrapped up minicamp, he took flyers on Robinson and free-agent tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. They were understandable pickups, and not overly costly, even though Robinson was a bust with the Rams after getting drafted No. 2 overall in 2014.
Yet the question lingers: Who will make the big plays and score the big points for the Lions? I mean, the really big plays.
“You put an emphasis on ‘big’ like three or four times,” Jim Caldwell said with a smile. “Like, how big are we talking? I do think (the Lions have big-play capability). Take a look at Golden (Tate). He’s obviously one of those guys that makes things happen. I think Marvin (Jones Jr.) started out the season extremely well, and has been doing even better this spring. … We have some explosive guys, and couple that with the fact we also have a quarterback that can make every throw.”
The Lions scored six, 21, 24 and six points in their final four games last season, including the 26-6 playoff loss to the Seahawks. The decimated backfield lost Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick for much of the season, and the only notable addition is lightly used Matt Asiata. The only notable addition at receiver is third-round pick Kenny Golladay.
Taking a chance
Quinn and Caldwell are showing enormous faith — so far — in who they have, and by extension, faith in themselves. Training camp is six weeks away and plenty can change, and I appreciate that Quinn resists the urge to leap for the shiniest baubles. But there were affordable veteran backs — Adrian Peterson, LeGarrette Blount — signed by others, and there remain veteran receivers — Anquan Boldin, Eric Decker — looking for jobs.
Smart teams don’t load up on expensive free agents late in their careers. But if the Lions hope to make the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, they’ll have to get very lucky with current players, or they’ll have to shop for insurance.
Abdullah injured his foot in the second game last season and is still rehabilitating. When he has played, he has shown flashes. Riddick’s season was cut short by wrist injuries and he’s still working his way back, and he has shown terrific elusiveness catching the ball out of the backfield. Dwayne Washington missed action but showed some speed-power potential as a former seventh-round pick.
Asiata might provide a short-yardage boost and Zach Zenner did all he could as the Last Back Standing, but is that enough insurance?
“I have a lot of motivation — it’s been a while since I’ve played in an NFL game,” Abdullah said. “I felt things were going well last year, and then to have it kind of just stop, of course it’s disheartening. But I feel I’m a lot more mature on the field.”
If he is, and he can avoid another fluky injury, then Quinn’s stand-pat gamble could pay off. It’s the same at receiver, where the Lions got a decent year out of Tate, and are counting heavily on tight end Eric Ebron, who caught a respectable 61 passes. Jones had a great start and disappointing finish, and the rest of the corps is a mix of mostly smallish prospects — TJ Jones, Jace Billingsley, Jared Abbrederis.
Caldwell said “never say never” about the possible return of Boldin, who had 67 receptions and eight touchdowns, but the Lions seem content at the moment. Decker, 30, was released by the Jets because of injuries after playing only three games, but has been productive and could be an interesting option.
The wild card — and the unspoken reason Boldin isn’t back (yet) — is Golladay, who drew raves during minicamp and is easily the Lions’ biggest receiver. He’s 6-4 and raw coming out of Northern Illinois, and was considered a reach by some. The Lions also took Toledo tight end Michael Roberts in the fourth round.
That doesn’t seem complete enough to, you know, complete the offense. But Quinn can only address so many needs at a time, and the crushing loss of Taylor Decker altered priorities. And perhaps it’s good the Lions have a GM who trusts his scouts and instincts enough to stick with his guys, who should have mountains of motivation.
Jones was Quinn’s first big free-agent pickup, and after collecting 408 receiving yards his first three games, he added only 522 the rest of the way. He’s worked out this offseason with Randy Moss and says he’s pumped up his strength.
Not that anything matters in mid-June, but Stafford sounds unconcerned about the relatively unchanged receiving and running groups.
“We have a nice mix of guys, some really big guys, some really fast guys, some are extremely athletic,” Stafford said. “We have a lot of guys that can do a lot.”
If it’s not enough, there are other guys available. Quinn reluctantly purchased left-tackle insurance, and has to be ready to buy more, if necessary. The Lions got caught short last season, and for now, they’re gambling it won’t happen again.