The 2018 season was more than a sit, watch and learn experience for the Detroit Lions' draft class.
With one exception, the six players taken in Bob Quinn's third draft as general manager have gotten enough playing time to form a base of experience will carry over to next year and speed their development.
The exception: Fullback Nick Bawden, a seventh-round pick who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the offseason workouts.
Of the other five, three were starters – guard Frank Ragnow (first round), running back Kerryon Johnson (second) and defensive end Da'Shawn Hand. Safety Tracy Walker (third), and offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby (fifth) got quality playing time.
As the Lions close out their home schedule today against the Minnesota Vikings, Crosby can look at how his playing time the last two weeks benefits his development. He played 35 snaps against Arizona two weeks ago, with the last 32 at right tackle after starter Rick Wagner went out with a concussion, and all 57 snaps last week at Buffalo.
With Wagner back at full practice this week, Crosby might return to his backup role, but that won't diminish the experienced he has gotten. Extended playing time is a lot different than going in for a play or two.
"It's fun to be out there and having the chance to work with everybody," Crosby said this week. "You're able to understand the guy you're going against throughout the game – pick up strong points and weak points and see how I need to change my game."
As head coach Matt Patricia said this week, the biggest development for rookies is between their first and second seasons. With the draft preparation behind them, they have a full offseason to rest and prepare for Year 2, with a year of experience.
With that in mind, here's a brief look at the Lions' five draft picks who played this season:
- G Frank Ragnow: Tough, smart and athletic with a bright future as an interior offensive lineman. Through 14 games, he's the only Lion to play all 927 offensive snaps. Center Graham Glasgow missed one.
- RB Kerryon Johnson: In 10 games with seven starts he gave the Lions what they were looking for – a back with breakaway ability who can get yards on his own. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry. The only issue is durability.
- S Tracy Walker: Good size (6-1, 207), range and ball skills for a strong safety. His snap count picked up lately, with 66 in the last two games combined. Playing in a veteran secondary helps learn how to be a pro in a hurry.
- DL Da'Shawn Hand: Probably the surprise of the draft, considering how he played and where he was drafted. Hand was in the regular rotation from the opening game, with eight starts before going out with a knee injury in Week 13. Size and quickness fits the defensive scheme.
- OL Tyrell Crosby: An offensive lineman was not a primary consideration, but the grade the Lions had on Crosby made his value in the fifth round too high to pass on him. He has lived up his rating.
Four keys for the Lions:
Protect Matthew Stafford: That's the priority. The Vikings sacked Stafford 10 times in the first meeting. It looked like a pass-rush drill in training camp – with the quarterback not off limits to contact. The offense isn't designed to function with the quarterback on his back.
Contain Dalvin Cook: Head coach Mike Zimmer changed offensive coordinators to stress the run before last week's win over the Dolphins. Cook made it pay off with 19 carries for 136 yards and two carries. He closed out the scoring with a 21-yard TD run that featured a spin move that got him in the clear.
"See the end zone, try to make a play," Cook told reporters. "I try to make a play every time I get the ball in my hand. Change the scoreboard and move the chains. Usually, If I make a move like that, it's a house call."
Kirk Cousins, target turnovers: He has a record of turning the ball over at inopportune times, and it's continued of late. Two weeks ago, Cousins had a fumble returned for a touchdown in a loss to the Seahawks. He had an interception returned for a TD in last week's win over Miami.
In the Week 9 Lions-Vikings game, Darius Slay baited Cousins into an interception. It set up a field goal that cut Minnesota's lead to 7-6.
Own the home: For the second straight season, the Lions will not have a winning record at Ford Field. They were 4-4 last season – and it kept them from making the playoffs – and they're 3-4 this year.
On Vikings WR Adam Thielen: Nevin Lawson covered him most of the first meeting and held him to four catches for 22 yards to end Thielen's streak of eight games with at least 100 receiving yards. Thielen's had one game of over 100 yards in the last five.
On Darius Slay's motivation: You have to love this answer when asked why he plays hard with no chance of making the playoffs: "I've got a name to represent. My name is on the back of my jersey. I've got guys who depend on me to go out there and go hard. That's what I play for every game. Whatever comes with it comes with it. My first thing is going hard for got guys who depend on me to go out here and go hard. That what I play for every game."
On Vikings' defensive sag: They're obviously not the team they were in 2017, when they went 13-3 and won the NFC North by four games over the second-place Lions (9-7). A lot is pinned on Cousins not playing up to what most expected, but the defense hasn't been as strong. With two games left, the Vikings already have given up 56 points more than a year ago (308-252). They have a league-high 46, but 19 were in two games.
On Joe Dahl, 305-pound fullback: He's been a backup guard most of his three seasons as a Lion, but he's gotten snaps of late at fullback – a position he never played at any level before this season.
"I've never been in the backfield at all," Dahl said. "It's definitely a lot different, that's for sure. It's pretty fun getting a head start (blocking)."
With gameday roster spots at a premium, versatility adds value – and extends careers. Converted linebacker Nick Bellore has been the primary fullback this year, when healthy.
Sticking with my pick: The Lions have scored three offensive touchdowns in the last two games. Zach Zenner scored on two one-yard runs. Stafford went deep for the other – a four-yard pass to Andy Jones. The Lions will give the Vikes a battle, but they lack firepower.
Vikings 23, Lions 20.