Lions feature new look at tight end with roles still being defined

Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo have the most experience

ALLEN PARK — Overall the Lions offense has not changed drastically from 2017, with the exception of tight end.  Three new faces, three new skillsets.

The Lions open the season against the N.Y. Jets on Monday night at Ford Field.

Eric Ebron and his 53 catches and four touchdowns in 2017 are gone to the Colts. Darren Fells, who had 17 catches for 177 yards and three touchdowns, is now a Cleveland Brown.

Meet Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, Michael Roberts and Hakeem Valles.

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said this week he’s still plugging those guys into different spots.

“I think we’re still keeping an open mind about maybe who our best guy is to do certain things or best combination of guys to work together to do certain things,’’ Cooter said this week. “So, we’re encouraged with the guys we have in that room. … We have a versatile group of tight ends, so it does sometimes change the play-calling from when you’re sort of sticking one certain guy in one certain role and one certain other guy in another certain role. We have guys who can do multiple things well.’’

Lions tight ends coach Chris White said this week he doesn’t consider any of them his No. 1 guy. Coach Matt Patricia agrees.

“That has really become a multiple position, I would say in the last eight years, where you might have two guys that are really ‘starters’ or ‘No. 1 guys.’ So, I think there are a lot of personnel groups where multiple tight ends are used. Sometimes one tight end is used in certain situations, sometimes another tight end is used in a different situation,’’ Patricia said on Saturday.

He compares the tight end position to linebackers.

“There are inside linebackers, outside linebackers, there are different types of players in those positions that need to be utilized in different situations,’’ Patricia said. “I think all those guys are doing a real good job though, like I said, really through camp competing for different spots and responsibilities and playing time. So, we’ll keep pushing that with that group.”

In 2017, the Lions scored 29 passing touchdowns with seven of them caught by tight ends.

Willson spent the last five seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. In 2017, he finished with 15 catches for 153 yards and four touchdowns playing in all 16 games. Over the five seasons, he averaged 17.8 catches a year.

Toilolo spent the past five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Last season he had a dozen catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. He’s No. 2 on the depth chart behind Willson.

Only Roberts returns from last season when he was a rookie who had four catches for 46 yards.

Valles played in one game for the Lions in 2017 and 11 games for the Arizona Cardinals in 2016. He has never caught a pass in the NFL regular season, although was impressive in the preseason games against second and third defenses which earned him a spot on the roster.

Detroit Lions: Five things to know about LeGarrette Blount on eve of opener

Winning more important than number of carries

ALLEN PARK >> LeGarrette Blount is happy to talk about the three Super Bowl rings he’s won in the last four seasons. It’s rare he’ll wear them in public and when he does, it’s the duplicates not the real diamond-encrusted bling. And, oh by the way, the Lions running back says he wears all three together.

However, when it comes to Monday’s season-opening game against the N.Y. Jets at Ford Field, Blount is all business.

“I’m really excited about it, just the opportunity to go out there and play a real game against a lot of different guys, against a really good defense. Obviously we know they’re a good team. I’m excited about it,’’ said Blount whose last game was for the Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.

Five things to know about Blount with the regular season a few days away:

1. He’s one of four Lions’ running backs who should get touches in every game. He’s not concerned about his workload or lack of it. “We’re just worried about winning the games, we don’t care about the touches at this point,’’ Blount said on Friday. Last season he led the Eagles with 173 carries for 766 yards (4.4 yards per carry). He also scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. That’s about 18 carries a game. He was the Eagles’ top producing back. Jay Ajayi had 70 carries for 408 yards, while Corey Clement had 74 for 321 yards.

2. Blount loves the versatility among the Lions’ backs which should cause headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. “(There’s) an unlimited amount of mismatches, let’s just say that. Like I said we have a lot of different dynamics in our room. Obviously Theo (Riddick) is one of the most dynamic running backs in this league. AA (Ameer Abdullah) is also one of the most elusive guys in this league. We have a dynamic group and we’re excited to see what we all can do,’’ Blount said, also mentioning rookie Kerryon Johnson.

3. One reason Blount signed with the Lions is that he had a good relationship with Matt Patricia when they were both with the New England Patriots. It’s a mutual admiration society. “He’s been in a couple different programs, so he can really adapt pretty quickly to different structures, different schemes,’’ Patricia said on Friday. “Obviously a physical presence, he runs the ball with a good aggressiveness, a good nature of trying to get the ball vertical into the defense and with a good run attitude from that standpoint. But he really just does a great job. He’s a great teammate, he works extremely hard, he really cares. He cares about winning, he cares about competition, which is great and which obviously you can just keep pushing everything every single day, as far as that’s concerned, to get better, which is what we’re trying to do.’’

4. Blount seems to be a good fit no matter the team. Since his rookie season in 2010 he has played for Tampa Bay (2010-12), the Patriots (2013, 2014-2016) , the Steelers (part of 2014) and the Eagles (2017). “One thing I can say is I just get along with everybody. I bring a lot of energy and joy to wherever I’m going, I think that’s part of it,’’ Blount said. “I never go into any situation with that thought (that I won’t fit in) in my head. I always make my decisions based on what’s best for me whenever I choose to go to a team — what’s best for me, what’s best for my family. I pray over it and I make my decision. I haven’t been anywhere where I was like, ‘I don’t think this is going to work.’’’

5. Even though he’s a short-timer, he’s aware of the Lions’ sad history in the run game since Barry Sanders retired and the 68-game stretch since a back (Reggie Bush) has run for at least 100 yards in a game. “Our group, we want to step up to any challenge that’s presented to us. I wouldn’t say since Barry, I would say since Reggie. I think Reggie was one of the most dynamic backs this league has seen in a long time. He’s one of the good running backs who’s come through here also. I give props and respect to him. I’ll just take full responsibility on how good our room plays. I want to make sure we’re in the best place possible, the best position possible to win the football game and make sure our group does everything possible to put us in that position.’’ Running for 100 yards in a game isn’t the goal, winning games is.

 

Detroit Lions’ opener vs. Jets should reveal more of Matt Patricia’s influence

Preseason was for evaluation, now is time to win

ALLEN PARK — Matt Patricia admitted he was a little extra fired this week.

The Lions are inching closer to his debut as a head coach when they open the season against the New York Jets on Monday night at Ford Field.

“I’m pretty fired up every day. So, sometimes I come in here and you guys suck the life out of me, but other than that, I’m pretty good because you guys aren’t really excited when I walk in here. So, I’m not going to let you guys do that to me today because we’re going out there and we’re getting ready to go win. I mean the best that we can.,’’ said Patricia who was laughing as the words spilled from his mouth.

It’s an odd week for the Lions since they don’t open the season until Monday. They practiced Monday and Wednesday, had Thursday off and then will practice Friday and Saturday.

“We’re just going to try to prepare — look this is a really good team, I’m just telling you. Todd Bowles, I have the utmost respect for him, his staff, and what they do week in and week out. Obviously been going against him for a while. And he’s a great coach, and he’s an even better person,’’ Patricia said. “So, when you go up against somebody like that and you’re not really sure what it’s going to look like week 1, you have to be ready to go from the start. So, that’s where we’re at.”

It was an unimpressive preseason (1-3) under Patricia who was evaluating his roster, not necessarily trying to win. So the big reveal will be at kickoff Monday night. No one really knows what to expect, but here are five things we might be able to learn about Patricia’s version of the Lions in the opener:

1. The re-imagined defense has been the subject of much discussion. New scheme, new coaches and a few new players. After watching all of training camp and the offseason, it’s difficult to know what we will see. The pass-rush in the preseason was ineffective (and that’s being nice.) Defensive line coach Bo Davis said he’s not concerned. “We get everybody playing together I think it will be a different scene,’’ Davis said. “I think that’s the thing, we have to continue building on, I think the guys are very aware of it. It’s more in being in control of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.’’ We will see.

2. The run game has been a huge focus. Don’t expect they will lean heavily on rookie Kerryon Johnson early on unless he looks so good they can’t keep him off the field. Don’t count out LeGarrette Blount as a key factor and, of course, Theo Riddick. One similarity for the run game, will be the fact that it’s by committee. Don’t look for a No. 1 running back because you won’t find one. Also the back who gets the most carries on Monday night, might not get the same workload the next week at San Francisco. The Jets gave up 117.9 rushing yards per game in 2017, but this is a different Jets’ team also.

3. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis needs to take a big step from his rookie season. He’s got his leadership role down but he needs to improve his pass coverage. It’s not all about Davis, but he’s an integral part of this new-look defense. “We’ve tried to do a few things and played a lot of people in preseason. So, it’s a work in progress. We’ll get better. I think we’ve had some spots where we have done well, and we’ve had some other spots where we have to be more consistent. So, we’ll just keep working at it and keep getting better,’’ defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said.

4. Matthew Stafford, entering his 10th season, should be just fine. He and coordinator Jim Bob Cooter have developed a better relationship over two-plus seasons. “The more we’re around each other, the more we talk through different thoughts and ideas, I think the deeper we get into certain thought processes—sometimes very similarly, sometimes coming from a different angle,’’ Cooter said. “So, we’ve had certain times where he’s walked off the field and maybe I’d go into a discussion about what I was thinking on a certain play and he finishes the second half of that discussion because he was right on the same page. And there’s also times where I might see a certain route one way and he kind of sees the other way and we’re talking through that stuff. Like anything, the more you’re around—players, coaches, each other—you really get to know each other better, you really sort of go through the trials of working through those things.’’

5. On paper, the Lions have a better team with an experienced quarterback. They’ll be facing Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, the youngest QB to start an opening game in the NFL since the AFL/NFL merger. It’s tough to plan a defense for a rookie NFL quarterback. “It’s a big challenge, I think, when you get those guys. And certainly with a new offensive coordinator, maybe a couple different things scheme-wise that they’re going to do with the hiring of a couple new coaches,’’ Patricia said. He doesn’t expect to learn much from preseason game film.

Lions waive Anthony Zettel; awarded DE Romeo Okwara via waivers

Zettel had 6.5 sacks in 2017

In the past two years, Lions GM Bob Quinn has proven that he is not shy about dumping his own draft picks.

It happened again on Wednesday when Quinn waived defensive end Anthony Zettel who was a sixth-round pick in Quinn’s first draft class in 2016.

The Lions were awarded DE Romeo Okwara via waivers from the New York Giants. Okwara, 23, played in six games for the Giants in 2017 due to a knee injury and finished with no sacks. As a rookie he played in all 16 games with four starts and one sack. He was signed by the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2016.

In 2016 with Kerry Hyder out, Zettel started all 16 games and was second in sacks (6.5) only to Ziggy Ansah (12).  As a rookie he played in 13 games with no starts.
Zettel, who is from West Branch, Mich., was listed as Hyder’s backup on the depth chart released this week.

In the final game of the 2017 season, the defensive line starters were Zettel, Ansah, A’Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence who was traded to the Dolphins in May. Ricky Jean Francois and Sylvester Williams are expected to start at defensive tackle with Robinson as a backup. Hyder and Ansah will start at defensive end.

The Lions open the season on Monday night against the New York Jets.

Lions, Diggs agree to $20.4 million extension; Marquis Flowers signed

Flowers played for Patricia with Patriots in 2017

ALLEN PARK — Quandre Diggs got his payday. Today the Lions announced a contract extension for the defensive back through the 2021 season. The three-year deal is worth $20.4 million according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport.

The Lions’ made a roster move on Monday morning when they signed linebacker Marquis Flowers. He was at practice wearing No. 59. Flowers spent last season with the New England Patriots where Lions coach Matt Patricia was the defensive coordinator.

“Quandre has developed into one of our core defensive players and we are excited to come to this agreement that will have him as a Detroit Lion for the next four seasons.” GM Bob Quinn said. “I also want to thank Quandre and his representatives for their work in making this extension a reality.”

Diggs, 25, played five games at safety to end last season. He’s expected to play nickel and corner. Obviously his versatility is a huge plus.

“He’s a another guy who’s obviously a critical part of our team defensively. A guy that has worked extremely hard since he walked in the door,” coach Matt Patricia said on Monday. “Someone since I got here who has embraced everything that we’ve been doing and has taken a big leadership role for us.”

Diggs, a sixth-round pick in 2015, has appeared in 44 career games with 19 starts. His career totals include 131 tackles (110 solo), three interceptions, 16 pass defenses, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one sack.

Flowers, 26, was a sixth-round pick in 2014 by the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s played in all 16 games in each of his first three NFL seasons. He started two games for the Patriots in 2017 and finished with 3.5 sacks and 32 tackles.

Latest practice squad roster:

QB Jake Rudock, WR Chris Lacy, OT Dan Skipper, CB Cre’von LeBlanc, CB Mike Ford, S Rolan Milligan, LB Darnell Sankey, DE Alex Barrett, DE Eric Lee and DT John Atkins.

 

Detroit Lions make cuts, release initial 53-man roster

Changes will likely be made this weekend

A few surprises were included when the Lions released their list of roster cuts on Saturday to get down to an initial 53-man roster. Really, though no shockers among those no longer on the team. A few have a chance of being brought back for the practice squad but first them must clear waivers by noon on Sunday.

Here’s a look at the initial 53-man Lions roster. This will likely change through the weekend, next week and, in fact, through much of the season.

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks (2): Matthew Stafford and Matt Cassel

Analysis: Jake Rudock was the odd man out. If he clears waivers, he could be brought back on the practice squad. This move was pretty much guaranteed when Cassel was signed in the spring.

Wide receivers (6): Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay, T.J. Jones, Bradley Marquez and Brandon Powell.

Analysis: A little surprised to see six wide receivers on the roster, but can’t argue with the choices. Rookie Brandon Powell was a standout in camp and the preseason. Bradley Marquez quietly earned his spot on the roster. Jace Billingsley and Chris Lacy were waived with Andy Jones placed on PUP.

Tight ends (4): Luke Willson, Hakeem Valles, Michael Roberts and Levine Toilolo.

Analysis: It became clear in camp that Valles belonged on the roster in his third year, his first with the Lions. Roberts didn’t get much opportunity in his rookie season last year. He needs to take a step forward and make the most of his chances.

Running backs (5): Kerryon Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick. Ameer Abdullah and FB Nick Bellore.

Analysis: Dwayne Washington was waived after struggled with a toe injury throughout camp. Zach Zenner, who injured his back in the final preseason game, was placed on injured reserve. Who will get the most work? Depends on the game and individual performance. Johnson, the second-round pick, could be something special but give him a little time.

Offensive line (10): Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner, rookie Tyrell Crosby, Kenny Wiggins, Joe Dahl, Brian Mihalik and Leo Koloamatangi.

Analysis: Good depth here with 10. Only seven are active on game days. Tyrell Crosby has been effective enough to make the roster as a rookie. Koloamatangi spent last season on the practice squad in Detroit and obviously learned along the way. If the starting five stay healthy, this line should be improved over last season.

DEFENSE

Defensive line (7): Ziggy Ansah, A’Shawn Robinson, Sylvester Williams, Anthony Zettel, Kerry Hyder, Da’Shawn Hand and Ricky Jean Francois.

Analysis: Seven a low number, although it could change. Also, this is a new defense scheme and the numbers reflect that. Can this group pass rush better than they did in preseason games? That is perhaps the biggest question on defense. Francois has stepped up as a veteran leader which has been a missing ingredient since Haloti Ngata’s departure.

Linebackers (7): Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Eli Harold, Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew and Trevor Bates.

Analysis: Harold was a late addition who could prove to be one of Bob Quinn’s better August moves. Killebrew made the move from safety and Patricia has made no secret that he loves his hard-hitting no matter where he is on the field.

Defensive backs (9): Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Quandre Diggs, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Charles Washington and Tracey Walker.

Analysis: DeShawn Shead was surprisingly waived. He was expected to vie for a starting role but a back injury held him back. Still, they could have found a way to keep him around. Washington’s play on special teams last year, helped him stay around this year. Third-round pick Tracey Walker has been impressive since the offseason.

Special teams (3): Matt Prater, Sam Martin and Don Muhlbach.

Analysis: Martin had a rough year last year coming back from a foot injury but he’s looked fine so far. Ryan Santoso got some film in the preseason game which is the best he could hope for.

The cuts:

RELEASED (VESTED VETERANS)

LB Jonathan Freeny, C Wesley Johnson, TE Sean McGrath and CB DeShawn Shead.

WAIVED

RB Dwayne Washington, DE Alex Barrett, WR Jace Billingsley, LB Freddie Bishop, WR Dontez Ford, CB Mike Ford, CB Chris Jones, WR Chris Lacy, DT Jeremiah Ledbetter, S Rolan Milligan, QB Jake Rudock, LB Darnell Sankey, P Ryan Santoso and T Dan Skipper.

PLACED ON RESERVE/INJURED

RB Zach Zenner

PLACED ON RESERVE/PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO PERFORM

WR Andy Jones

TRADED

Traded T Corey Robinson to the Carolina Panthers for an undisclosed future draft selection.

WAIVED FROM RESERVE/INJURED

DT Toby Johnson

Lions release Jake Rudock; 5 reasons Matt Cassel best choice as No. 2 QB

Cassel’s experience a boost on and off the field

The Lions released quarterback Jake Rudock Saturday as one of their cuts on the way to the initial 53-man roster which was due at 4 p.m.

Matt Cassel, the NFL veteran, will back up Matthew Stafford this season.

Do not think for a minute that the backup has to be the quarterback who has best moved the offense in the preseason games or the younger guy. Look at the big picture.

“Their preparation, their professionalism, how they attack the day, the daily game plan, the weekly game plan, how they prepare themselves, is definitely all part of the evaluation,’’ coach Matt Patricia said.

This is not an attack on Rudock who could land on the practice squad if he clears waivers.

However, keeping Cassel over Rudock is a good move. Here are five reasons why:

1. After watching both at training camp, Cassel at age 36, has a better arm than the 25-year-old Rudock who served as Stafford’s backup the past two seasons after he was drafted in the sixth round out of Michigan in 2016. The Lions wouldn’t have signed Cassel if they thought his arm strength was gone and they wouldn’t have kept him if he didn’t meet expectations in the offseason and preseason.

2. It is not, however, all about arm strength or even the ability to move the offense down the field. Certainly those help, but the backup quarterback serves as another set of eyes for Stafford on the sideline during games, at practice and in the film room. This is a huge part of the job description. It only makes sense that this is the strength of Cassel who is entering his 14th NFL season. Deciphering defenses is second nature. Cassel has seen it all as a starter and backup on six other NFL teams. That experience is invaluable.

3. Rudock had a head-start on the Jim Bob Cooter offense, but Cassel seemed to be a quick learner. It happens with experience. Did I mention the benefits of experience? Cassel has played in 105 NFL games completing 1,571 of 2,666 passes (58.9 percent). As an NFL starter, Cassel owns a 36-45 record. He had two 10-5 seasons — in 2008 (Patriots) and 2010 (Chiefs). Rudock got some garbage time in three games last season completing 3 of 5 pass attempts with one interception.

4. Cassel, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2005 by the New England Patriots, has a history with Patricia. While Patricia ran the defense in New England, the two were not strangers. This is not the only reason Cassel got the nod as the No. 2 quarterback but it helps that Patricia knows him well and obviously trusts him.

5. Rudock is a nice guy and has worked hard the past two seasons. This isn’t a nice guy contest, although Cassel seems like quite a champ in that department too. It’s a business. Remember how Jim Caldwell felt comfortable with Dan Orlovsky as a backup? That’s how it looks for Patricia and Cassel.

(BONUS tidbit: Cassel has NFL career earnings of $61 million, according to FOXsports.)

Expect changes through the next few days. Initial roster cuts:

RELEASED (VESTED VETERANS)
LB Jonathan Freeny
C Wesley Johnson
TE Sean McGrath
CB DeShawn Shead

WAIVED
DE Alex Barrett
WR Jace Billingsley
LB Freddie Bishop
WR Dontez Ford
CB Mike Ford
CB Chris Jones
WR Chris Lacy
DT Jeremiah Ledbetter
S Rolan Milligan
QB Jake Rudock
LB Darnell Sankey
P Ryan Santoso
T Dan Skipper
RB Dwayne Washington

PLACED ON RESERVE/INJURED
RB Zach Zenner

PLACED ON RESERVE/PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO PERFORM
WR Andy Jones

TRADED
Traded T Corey Robinson to the Carolina Panthers for an undisclosed future draft selection.

WAIVED FROM RESERVE/INJURED
DT Toby Johnson