I get the feeling that this is the offseason pundits and Lions fans alike will point to a few years down the road.
Exactly what they’ll be saying remains to be seen.
General Manager Bob Quinn came to Detroit with the task of transferring a middling team into a contender. His first draft haul produced a potential franchise left tackle, a building block defensive tackle and a host of other contributors.
That was good enough for a playoff berth but under no circumstances were the Lions in the same class as the half-dozen or so true contenders in the league.
That’s what makes this offseason so critical for Quinn. He owns a roster that is positioned to grow into the contender role but he has to make the right moves while the window is still open.
Matthew Stafford is in his prime at 29 years old while Ziggy Ansah, also at his peak, will be 28 when training camp starts.
Whatever your opinion is of those two, the truth is that they are Detroit’s only realistic chance at an elite quarterback and an elite pass rusher – the two foremost ingredients to Super Bowl success.
Quinn spent resources in free agency to upgrade the offensive line and, if those investments pay the dividends he expects, it’s all going to boil down to the 2017 draft class.
If he has enough hits – and the right hits – within those nine selections, this roster could truly take form in the next couple of years and propel the Lions through a playoff run as they add the last remaining pieces.
If there are too many swings and misses the Lions could be left with a quarterback approaching his mid-30s, a down-swinging Ansah and a squandered opportunity.
Best Case Scenario
First-round selection Jarrad Davis, who seems like a relatively safe pick, develops into a Pro Bowl middle linebacker that combines with Ansah and A’Shawn Robinson to transform the front seven from a weakness to a strength.
Davis’ athleticism and instincts would be the perfect counter to the short-passing game that killed the Lions last year while his presence in the middle would couple with Robinson to shore up the run defense.
If Detroit can consistently stop both the run and the short passing game in the middle of the field, the opposition will have to test the outside. That could play right into Detroit’s strengths where they’d have Darius Slay and this year’s second-round pick Teez Tabor patrolling the boundaries.
The knock on Tabor is his top-end speed – which has been scrutinized due to his poor 40 time. However, the tape suggests there isn’t much to be concerned about as he was arguably the best member of a star-studded Florida secondary over the last couple of years.
One of the people that would argue in Tabor's favor is one of that unit’s most notable products – 2016 No. 11 overall selection cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
Hargreaves said Tabor was “without a doubt” the best cornerback in college football while also telling SEC Country that Tabor’s “talent level was through the rough” and that “if you get to know him, you’ll understand why he will be the best.”
If Hargreaves is right about Tabor, the Lions could leverage their strength in the secondary and in the middle to manufacture a pass rush via the blitz, voiding any concern about them not adding a true pass rusher beyond Ansah.
On the other side of the ball the revamped offensive line is paving the way for a strong running game – even if it is by committee – while Stafford continues to be the focal point.
Of course, Stafford would be aided by strong contributions from his pass catchers. Enter third-round selection Kenny Golladay - a big, sure-handed athletic receiver who has the potential to develop into a true contributor on offense.
With his exciting combination of size, speed and catch radius it’s not hard to have visions of a lethal Stafford-to-Golladay connection developing.
Throw in tight end Michael Roberts, the team's fourth-round pick, and you can see an offense with size and speed that is able to deploy a two-tight end set that will give defenses nightmares.
All this while maintaining the standard of excellence Quinn believes in with his special teams due to the additions of fourth-round picks Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Jamal Agnew.
Worst Case Scenario
There’s another side, a darker side, to this picture.
This draft class, and this offseason, could go the other way for Quinn & Co.
Outside of injuries derailing his career, it’s hard to imagine Davis being a bust. Still, it’s feasible he becomes a serviceable starter and nothing more.
From there, the rest of the picks have question marks. Tabor’s measured speed could translate to the field where he becomes a burn victim to quicker receivers while the defense never progresses due to the leakage in the secondary and the absence of a true pass rusher beyond Ansah.
Golladay might be an intriguing prospect but he didn’t face the greatest competition as a member of NIU and is just as likely to bust as he is to boom. If he doesn’t work out, the Lions will need to hit on a wide receiver next year or risk having major holes at that spot a couple years down the road.
If Roberts doesn’t pan out as a No. 2 tight end and the Lions neglect to pick up Ebron’s fifth-year option, the team could be starting from scratch at the position as early as next year.
Lastly, the running game is far from a sure thing. With legit injury concerns surrounding Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick.
If the worst case scenario is realized, the defense will be easily attacked by the league’s true contenders while Stafford will be left to shoulder too much of the load on offense. The holes that would exist in this scenario would likely take multiple years to fill and, by that time, it may be too late.
Any GM will tell you it takes at least two years to evaluate a draft class, that’s especially true with the 2017 class for Detroit.
The newcomers all have visible upside but, beyond Davis, all come with notable risk.
If all goes according to plan, the Lions can use next year to plug the few remaining holes on the roster en route to being true contenders in 2019 or 2020.
Either that or we’ll be looking back at this offseason as the one that cost the Lions their chance to stand with the league’s elite.