Lions have revamped run game but still have pass-rush questions

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

The Detroit Lions ended their offseason program on Thursday. Here’s a look at how they fared:

Offseason goals: The Lions had three realistic goals this offseason — figure out how to work under new coach Matt Patricia, fix the run game, and improve the team’s pass rush. All three of those are still works in progress as the Lions continue to get comfortable with Patricia. They improved their run game on paper but potentially not in reality and still have major pass-rush questions.

How they fared: Too soon to tell

Daniel Mears/Detroit News via AP

Move I liked: The hiring of Patricia. It was the biggest move the team could make in the offseason. It targeted Patricia as the coach it wanted from the beginning and then went out and landed him. That’s something the Lions haven’t always been able to say throughout the past six decades. Whether it will work out remains to be seen, but at least they can say they landed the guy they wanted (although their vetting process later came into question when a 22-year-old sexual assault indictment that never went to trial surfaced in May).

Move I didn’t like: Essentially ignoring the pass rush. The Lions hired a defensive guru in Patricia and then didn’t do too much to back up the side of the ball he’s most familiar with. Sure, the draft didn’t exactly fall how the Lions might have wanted it to if they were going to target defensive players, but it became clear they had a plan to improve the run game through the draft. That meant only one front-seven pick — fourth-rounder Da’Shawn Hand — along with no established playmakers added through free agency. There’s a reason Detroit’s front seven is still its biggest unknown.

Biggest question still to be answered in training camp: Besides the aforementioned pass rush, it’s how the run game is actually going to work. Detroit added two offensive linemen, a fullback and a potential starting running back (Kerryon Johnson) during the draft. But until pads actually come on, it’s tough to tell whether the league’s worst rushing offense from a season ago will get markedly better in 2018.

Quotable: “I’ve been talking about that since January. I think, like I said I think the other night, last night or the night before, we don’t play until September. So, I think we added some offensive linemen, we’ve added a running back in free agency, we’ve added a running back in the draft, so I think on paper should our run game be better? Yeah, probably. Now, it’s up to the players, the coaches and all of us to make sure we get out to the spring portion of our practices to implement the new guys into the system. Get to training camp and we’ll have a very physical training camp. We’ll see how everything comes together. So, I think the pieces are there; now it’s really up to, you know, all of us in the building to kind of make sure these guys produce at a high level.” – Lions general manager Bob Quinn

Salary-cap space: $9,166,585 per the NFLPA

2018 draft picks: Round 1: Frank Ragnow, OL, Arkansas; Round 2: Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn; Round 3: Tracy Walker, DB, Louisiana; Round 4: Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama; Round 6: Tyrell Crosby, OL, Oregon; Round 7: Nick Bawden, FB, San Diego State.

Undrafted rookie free agents signed: Deontez Alexander, WR, Franklin; Al-Rasheed Benton, LB, West Virginia; Amari Coleman, CB, Central Michigan; Antwuan Davis, CB, Texas; Josh Fatu, DT, USC; Mike Ford, CB, Southeast Missouri; Chris Jones, CB, Nebraska; Chris Lacy, WR, Oklahoma State; Chad Meredith, LB, Southeast Missouri; John Montelus, OL, Virginia; Beau Nunn, OL, Appalachian State; Brandon Powell, WR, Florida; Teo Redding, WR, Bowling Green; Ryan Santoso, P, Minnesota; JoJo Wicker, DL, Arizona State.

Unrestricted free agents signed: Devon Kennard, LB; Christian Jones, LB; Kenny Wiggins, OL; Sylvester Williams, DT; DeShawn Shead, DB; Luke Willson, TE; LeGarrette Blount, RB; Levine Toilolo, TE; Matt Cassel, QB; Wesley Johnson, OL; Jonathan Freeny, OL; Trevor Bates, LB; Adam Bisnowaty, OL; Wes Saxton, TE; Marcus Lucas, TE.

Restricted free agents signed: TJ Jones, WR.

Players acquired via trade: None

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/33971/despite-busy-offseason-lions-still-have-pass-rush-questions

Will Lions-Calvin Johnson rift ever be resolved?

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

Every week, we take some of your questions for a Detroit Lions mailbag. To ask questions for a future mailbag, use the hashtag #LionsMailbag on Twitter or email me at michael.rothstein@espn.com.

Now on to your questions after a quick programming note: This is the last Lions Mailbag until just before training camp starts in July.

Peter, I’ve learned to never say never, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be imminent. The issue, as we reported a year ago, has a lot to do with the Lions asking Johnson to repay some of his signing bonus (at least $1 million). Other franchises, for the most part, have not done that with generational talents who were the face of the franchise for a significant period of time. Of course, Detroit has shown to be different in this area since the club did a similar thing to Barry Sanders.

The situations were different, though. Sanders officially retired on the eve of training camp (although there were signs to expect it earlier). Johnson gave the Lions plenty of notice and retired during the offseason following the 2015 season. Johnson also retired, in part, due to accumulated injuries. So – and this is my opinion – he has a reasonable beef with the organization for asking for the money back.

But going back to the Sanders example. Sanders and the Lions had a rift that went to arbitration and eventually mended feelings. Sanders has been involved with the organization in recent years and was employed by the Lions as an ambassador to the community last year. But that took almost 20 years (although it thawed well before that). So my best guess is that at some point there is a reconciliation – but it could be a while.

Joe, this will be one of the most-watched things during training camp, in part because of who is going to be involved for the likely final spot or spots. Working on the likelihood that LeGarrette Blount, Kerryon Johnson and Theo Riddick will be on the roster that leaves one or two spots for Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington and fullback Nick Bellore.

And really, the path to five running backs happens one of two ways. The first would be if the Lions choose to keep a fullback – and that seems probable since Bellore is a three-pronged player who is a fullback, can play linebacker if necessary and is a special-teams stalwart. The other way is if one of the three expected-on-the-roster backs ends up injured during camp but might only be out until Week 3 or 4. If that happens, Detroit might keep five backs until that player is healed. At this point, those two scenarios are the most sensible for five backs.

JonJon, based off the spring it is likely Sylvester Williams. Now, the Lions didn’t have Ezekiel Ansah doing much during the spring, but Williams took a bunch of first-team reps and seems to be in line to get a lot of work in the middle of the defensive line. Of course, this could change if the Lions sign another free agent who could handle the middle but as of now, the Lions might rely on Williams more than initially thought. Whether that’s a good thing or not is unknown because Williams clearly has talent – but he’s also on his third team in three seasons. DeShawn Shead could make a big impact, but right now it appears he’s behind Teez Tabor and possibly Nevin Lawson on the depth chart opposite Darius Slay. Christian Jones also should make an impact, but more probably will be expected of Williams based on his position and the amount of snaps he could play.

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/34011/will-lions-calvin-johnson-rift-ever-be-resolved

Matt Patricia runs a much different practice than Jim Caldwell

By Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Matt Patricia’s practices at the helm of the Detroit Lions are a bit different than Jim Caldwell’s. After watching five of them throughout the course of the spring, there’s no doubt about that.

Patricia’s practices, at least by feel, lasted longer. They also seemed to have less full-team work involved than 7-on-7 periods and individual position group time intermixed with special teams. Considering the tree he comes from (Bill Belichick and, by extension, Bill Parcells), that should come as no surprise.

The Lions – like the Patriots before – did a good bit of running concluding practices, either with gassers or jogging. Patricia also used running as an admonishment tool – something I never remember Caldwell doing in his four years in Detroit. Not saying one is better than the other, but it’s just different.

“It’s just practice,” Patricia said. “So I’m not sure what was done before, but we’re just trying to practice.”

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

There seemed, throughout the five open practices, to be a premium spent on taking correct angles for both ball-carriers and would-be tacklers. A lot of special teams work. And not nearly as much rotation in first-team units – at least when the first-teamers were there – throughout those days.

There has been adjustment for Patricia, too, during his first spring as Detroit’s head coach.

“Everything is new, everything is different. You know, you can always prepare for how much you’re not, you get divided in a couple different ways from what needs to be done from a team standpoint,” Patricia said. “You’d love to be involved more with every minute of football, but you just can’t. The requirements are different. So, that’s kind of the biggest adjustment from that standpoint.

“What’s good is that I can go in at the end, at the end of the day, or in the middle of the meeting or in the morning and kind of just make changes and I don’t really have to worry about it.”

How much he has adjusted is still an unknown and could be more evident once training camp starts.

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/33999/matt-patricia-runs-a-much-different-practice-than-jim-caldwell

After time away for family, Glover Quin returns to Lions

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Glover Quin pulled up the sleeve on his left wrist a little bit, just enough to take a peek at the watch he was wearing. He checked the time. The Detroit Lions safety estimated he had been in Michigan with his teammates for about 27 hours at that point.

And he was using that time to learn as much as he could after being away from the team for most of the rest of offseason workouts.

“When I’m here, I’m here, you know?” Quin said. “When I’m here, I’m at work; I try to be at work. What’s going on at home, I deal with it whenever I leave here, so when I go back to the hotel, I deal with it. But when I’m at work, I’m at work.”

Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports

He arrived in Michigan on Monday to take part in the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp this week. That Quin hadn’t been at work throughout the rest of the offseason was a change for the 32-year-old. Throughout his career to this point, Quin had been a regular attendee in the offseason program.

After being a fourth-round pick in 2009, he worked his way into being a starter in Houston. Then he came to Detroit as a free agent in 2013 and has been one of the team’s core defensive players since. Made a Pro Bowl in 2014. Hasn’t missed a game since the 2009 season. Turned into the team’s emotional defensive leader over the past few seasons, signing two more contracts with the Lions along the way, including a two-year extension last year that will carry through the 2019 season.

Quin said Tuesday he was not thinking about retirement, but he also admitted that when it’s time for him to leave football, he’ll know when that is.

“Went from a fourth-round draft pick to 10 years in the NFL, started 132 straight games, and I’ve done things that I wouldn’t have even imagined I would have been able to do just coming out,” Quin said. “So when it’s time for me to walk away, I will peacefully and gracefully bow out and let the young guys have it.”

But this year was a first for him, spending most of the offseason away from his team. He made this decision after realizing how short the offseason really was. Quin knew the work he had to do to remain among the top safeties in the league. He also felt he could get more out of his own workouts than standing around working out and watching in Allen Park. Instead, he could spend time with his family in Houston, get his workouts in and also get the time with his family.

“The thing that was tough for me was the fact that when I was coming into the offseason program, it was kind of like our season started in the end of April,” Quin said. “So it was like come April, basically you’re kind of like in-season and then you get a little break and you’re really in-season. I think I need to devote a little more.

“If you come home in January and you got to go back in April, I mean, it takes you kind of a few weeks to a month to kind of get settled in, get into the routine, but then all of a sudden you got to start back training to get ready to come back and it’s on your mind. OK, it’s February and once March gets here the new league year starts, it’s time to be thinking about going back … and so I was just like, I needed some more time and some stuff I had to deal with.”

Quin wouldn’t get into much detail about what he needed to deal with other than spending time with his family. His time away did allow him to think about his future, though, and look at football differently than he had in the past.

He hadn’t been away from the game like this before — at least not since his time as a junior college player in Mississippi. Since then he has played at New Mexico, in Houston and Detroit. He’s made millions of dollars, invested smartly and even started coaching his son’s Little League baseball team last year.

Now he’s back, and on Tuesday he slid right into his old spot in the back line of the Lions’ defense, the unit’s smartest player and the defense’s only player over 30 appearing once again to be preparing for another season in the NFL.

“It was more of a, ‘Man, I kind of miss being around the guys, but more of me, just take a step back and just kind of separate myself,'” Quin said. “And give myself fully to my wife, to my kids, and enjoy that time. But understand that I still have a job I got to do so got to make time for that as well, and that was it.”

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/33952/after-time-away-for-family-glover-quin-returns-to-lions

Lions’ Golden Tate, IndyCar champ reconnect through pingpong

DETROIT — They embraced early Wednesday evening like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, which, in fact, they hadn’t. More than a decade had passed since Golden Tate and Josef Newgarden were both students at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and up until six months ago the two hadn’t spoken since their days in the halls together.

They now are professional athletes at the highest level — Tate a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and Newgarden the reigning IndyCar champion. Back then, they barely knew each other — an association only through Tate’s younger brother, Wesley, and a few challenges at the donated pingpong tables set up at Pope John Paul II during lunch breaks.

“This is weird and such a strange deal, but it’s like nothing has changed,” Newgarden said. “He doesn’t seem any different, which is great. Humble guy, super nice, down to earth and just seems like the same old player. Star player, ready to get after it, and very competitive.”

Michael Rothstein/ESPN.com

It was pingpong that brought them together Wednesday — months after a Twitter challenge was issued for the two to play when Newgarden came to Detroit for a pair of IndyCar races this weekend.

Tate and Newgarden are a combined rarity — an NFL player and IndyCar champion who went to the same high school at the same time.

“It’s awesome to be around such amazing athletes and people who are elite at what they do,” Tate said. “You could always learn something. I wish I could sit down with him a little bit more and just talk to him and see what makes him so good at what he does because I don’t know much about racing at all.

“It was fun, man. He made a bold move at a very young age and it worked out, and he’s considered one of the best at what he does. To leave high school and move to Europe and know this is my calling in life, that’s pretty special. It kind of shows you that fire he has deep, deep down that you can’t necessarily see out here.”

That didn’t show much in high school, either. While Tate was the flamboyant star of the football team who once signed autographs at an opposing school after a game, Newgarden was reserved. Overly polite.

Wesley Tate said not many people understood what Newgarden did back then — or how good he could end up being. Golden Tate, meanwhile, had stardom attached to him from the start.

“We’d talk about motorcars, talk about different things. What you did see was a transformation when he talked about race cars, racing, that kind of thing,” said Mike McLaren, the dean of students at Pope John Paul II. “You saw a personality come out. It was deep down, kind of hidden. There was an excitement in things that you didn’t see him talking about in other subjects.

“Golden was living the success with the football team, with the basketball, everything on campus. Golden is a very kind … he’s actually very humble underneath, but he’s a character. He’s gregarious, outgoing. He’s dynamic.”

They both showed that Wednesday, spending about 10 minutes catching up on their lives before warming up for their pingpong exhibition. Tate asked about Newgarden’s career. Newgarden inquired about Tate’s brother and his new family.

And if there’s proof they haven’t spoken in so long, they exchanged phone numbers for the first time as professional athletes after the match — hoping pingpong can be the impetus for a newfound friendship. Tate talked about visiting Newgarden in Charlotte, North Carolina, to learn about racing. Newgarden said he would love to stop by Tate’s charity events in Nashville.

Neither one could remember who was better during the few matches they played at lunchtime during their final year at the school. Tate conceded Newgarden — who beat him in back-to-back games and won $2,500 for the SeriousFun Children’s Network after an impromptu bet — likely was the better table tennis player then as well.

Table tennis was a thing at the school. Challenge matches happened at lunch. So, too, would a pingpong version of the basketball game Knockout. Newgarden and Tate interacted the most there — even if both don’t remember much about it.

“Those were always fun times,” former Pope John Paul II football coach Jeff Brothers said. “And when [students] would play head-to-head matches, small crowds would gather, that type of thing. It was, that was everything. It was the thing to do, hang out and play pingpong.

“When anybody would have challenge matches, and I specifically remember Golden, he’s competitive in everything that he does, so I remember those times. Pingpong was a big deal, for sure.”

Tate is considered the best pingpong player in the Lions’ locker room, although Wednesday he said he hadn’t played in months. Newgarden brought his own paddle, hosted a pingpong challenge in Indianapolis in May and comes from a table tennis lineage. His grandfather, Joe Newgarden, is in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame and founded Newgy Robo-Pong, a table tennis equipment company — a company Wesley Tate said Newgarden would talk about in high school around the table.

After they finished playing, Tate and Newgarden had a future idea: make this a yearly game. Maybe even expand on it.

“You know what I think, I think more sports should jump in on this,” Newgarden said. “There should be annual pingpong competitions inter-sport, see who is the best. I don’t know how good LeBron [James] is, but if he’s good, he should play. People should play. It’s a good idea, right?”

To which Tate responded: “Let’s set it up.”

It already reconnected two athletes whose paths crossed years ago, so who knows how big it could get?

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/33924/lions-golden-tate-indycar-champ-reconnect-through-pingpong

College game prepped new Lions DC Paul Pasqualoni for return

By Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Even when he was working as a position coach the past four years for the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Boston College, Paul Pasqualoni still worked like he would one day get back to this.

One day, he’d return to making defensive decisions – and it took his former Syracuse graduate assistant to get him there. The Detroit Lions will run mostly Patricia’s multiple front defense, but Pasqualoni is expected to be calling the plays this fall.

“I’ve always prepared like that was going to be a responsibility you needed to be prepared for,” Pasqualoni said Tuesday, the first time he spoke with the media since being hired in February. “Even as an assistant coach I was always kind of in that mode.”

Michael Rothstein/ESPN

Lions coordinator Paul Pasqualoni wants to build a defense that stops the run and makes QBs uncomfortable. Michael Rothstein/ESPN.com
Pasqualoni called defenses in the NFL for Miami in 2008 and 2009 and then in Dallas in 2010 and part of his head coaching stint at Connecticut from 2011 to 2013. He was part of the reason Syracuse had a strong defense when he ran that program from 1991 to 2004.

It has been almost a decade since he has been an NFL decision-maker, though. Those offenses incorporate more read option and have found ways to use certain players in specialized roles to take advantage of their skills.

Even though he hax been away from that part of coaching, where he has been has actually helped.

“If they’ve changed, they’ve gone a little bit more to the college-spread set, the zone-read set, so the past two years in the ACC, I promise you, I’ve seen that a little bit, up front and very, very close and personal,” Pasqualoni said. “So if anything, that’s probably helped me a little bit.

“And there’s been some good quarterbacks in that league, too. A couple good ones. It’s helped.”

Among those quarterbacks: Now-NFL quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Brad Kaaya.

For the 68-year-old coaching lifer, it’s a long way from his first job as an assistant coach at Cheshire (Conn.) High School in 1972 when he was also teaching physical education at three different elementary schools in his hometown. That path eventually led to Syracuse, where he began as a linebackers coach and then the head coach – where he worked with Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney and hired a bunch of the current Lions staff, including Patricia.

After being fired following the 2004 season after a change in athletic directors, Pasqualoni bounced around a bit before Patricia called this offseason, offering him a job to run his defense – not dissimilar to when another former Syracuse assistant under Pasqualoni, Steve Addazio, hired him to go to Boston College in 2016.

This staff has even more Syracuse connections. As he spoke Tuesday, Brian Stewart – whom he hired as a defensive backs coach in 2001 at the school – was a few feet away also chatting with the media as a member of the Lions staff. And it’s well known how many Syracuse-Pasqualoni connections there are on the Lions’ staff now in both the coaches and support staff to those coaches.

A lot of that comes because of Pasqualoni, who was all of their bosses at one point or another.

“The Syracuse program was a developmental program. We worked hard, tried to develop players, tried to always be prepared, and the GAs who came in there had a lot of responsibility, had a lot of jobs they had to do,” Pasqualoni said. “They worked very, very hard at it, and a lot of good things happened to a lot of those guys.”

Other than Patricia, though, Pasqualoni’s job will be the highest profile. The two of them together will be looked at if Detroit’s defense fails. And it’ll be Pasqualoni coordinating Patricia’s vision for the defense, a philosophy the two of them have spent years honing.

“Defensive philosophy is going to be smart, you know, to be tough, and that means to be able to perform at a very dependable, high level on a consistent basis,” Pasqualoni said. “Like you’ve heard a hundred times, stop the run and try to make the quarterback uncomfortable. You’re not going to sack the guy, but there has to be in a variety of ways discomfort created for the guy playing the quarterback position, whether it be disguise or pressure, whatever it might be. You just can’t let quarterbacks at this level operate and be comfortable because in the end, you know, they’ll get you.

“In a nutshell, that’s kind of it.”

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/33918/college-game-prepped-new-lions-dc-paul-pasqualoni-for-return