They’ve come to the Detroit Lions one after another over the past few years. Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman. Now Duron Harmon, Danny Shelton and Jamie Collins, too. Over the past two-plus years, the Lions have been mentioned as the Midwest version of the New England Patriots.
Just without all the winning.
From their general manager, Bob Quinn, and head coach, Matt Patricia, to their methods of scouting and a large part of the culture they are trying to create. So much of it has been derived from New England, even as some within the building didn’t necessarily appreciate the constant comparisons to the Patriot Way.
But it has become even more abundantly clear this offseason that with their jobs on the line, Quinn and Patricia are entering a mode in which they are building their team and their program in the only vision they truly know: the New England vision. For better and worse and all that comes with it.
It was a common theme of many of their offseason signings. Between Shelton, Collins and Harmon they brought in a former Patriot on each level of the defense. Some of that is just intelligent -- they already know the scheme and the culture and are comfortable with Patricia. Some of that could end up being positive in an unintended way -- with the unknowns surrounding much of the offseason and when the NFL might get back to work, having players you’re already used to and who are already familiar with you can help ease the learning curve.
“Obviously, it’s going to be some changes between probably the defense from New England to where it is in Detroit, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a lot of stuff that I’m very, very familiar with,” Harmon said. “You get guys who are familiar and know how to play the defense and know the ins and outs of the defense, the weaknesses. We got a lot of guys who are coming in who have played this defense for over four or five years.”
It’s a gamble, without a doubt. But after a 6-10 season in 2018 and then a 3-12-1 season in 2019, Patricia and Quinn had no choice but to go with what they feel best about.
The three former Patriots the Lions have brought in are likely to play key roles. Shelton should replace Damon Harrison as the team’s primary run-stopping tackle in the middle of the defense but not play much on passing downs. Collins can play any of the linebacker positions but could end up seeing significant time on the edge, taking over for Devon Kennard, who was cut. Harmon’s ability as a deep safety will allow the Lions to move Tracy Walker around more, from covering tight ends to having him be a flexible-enough piece to help in run support and deep, depending on the defense for the week.
Beyond their on-field capabilities, bringing in the ex-Pats can alleviate any concerns about players not grasping the culture Patricia wants. Beyond the three free-agent signings with Detroit earlier this month and the acquisitions of Flowers, Coleman and Danny Amendola last season, Detroit has other players with some Patriots ties.
Offensive linemen Dan Skipper, Russell Bodine and Caleb Benenoch, defensive tackles John Atkins and Frank Herron and linebacker Christian Sam all had brief stints on New England's active roster or practice squad before going to Detroit.
It goes beyond players, too. New defensive coordinator Cory Undlin briefly worked in New England in 2004. New linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie, defensive backs coach Steve Gregory, defensive assistant Tony Carter and Ty Warren, who was a volunteer assistant in 2019, all played for the Patriots for at least a season.
So the New England history runs strong, particularly on the defensive side of the ball where only defensive line coach Bo Davis and quality control coach Stephen Thomas don’t have Patriots ties.
Some of this is not surprising -- the systems the teams run are similar, so they are going to want to look for similar players.
But this season, it seems more pronounced, especially on defense. It’s possible five of Detroit’s 11 defensive starters will have played for the Patriots in the past. Other than cornerback Desmond Trufant and defensive tackle Nick Williams, it’s possible the Lions will have every starter on their defense with at least two years' experience in it -- either with the Lions themselves or in a similar system in New England.
Entering a crucial year, that has its benefits. The connections to Patricia's system allow for experience to be the best teacher.
“Rather than a coach saying, ‘Hey, this is how we want to play it.’ When you have guys who have done it and who can show you it, like how you want to play, I think that’s always good,” Harmon said.
The Lions have the players who understand the defense now. They have the players who understand the culture. And entering the third year of this regime, Quinn and Patricia need to hope it all comes together.
Otherwise, their jobs could be on the line.