What seems like a lifetime ago, in 2011, Jim Schwartz signed or traded for several players that he often referred to as having been “Square Peg” players, or players that were essentially playing out of scheme, so they played or appeared to play poorly. The success rate for those signings was very high, with Corey Williams (A 3-4 DE at the time), Shaun Hill(the exact opposite of their starting QB), Rob Sims(a natural pass blocker, but unspectacular at the time), Nate Burleson(a possession receiver signed when the Lions were preaching speed) and Chris Houston(a complete flop in Atlanta) front-lining the bunch that were definitely more hit than miss. There were also a few that were a wash, such as Tony Scheffler, Alphonso Smith, and Stefan Logan who started strong and then nosedived as their careers as Lions progressed. There were a few other signings, but those (Like Vanden Bosch) were more traditional see a need fill a need signings. The Lions weren’t active in the 2012 Free Agent Market, so we didn’t really hear the “Square Peg Philosophy” thrown around a lot. Several signings have already made people scratch their heads in the 2013 offseason, with people quickly forgetting that these types of signings (You know, ones that make no sense) are more the MO for Jim Schwartz and co. than signing immediate need players. So today we’re going to look at some of this season’s signings that make no sense and see what I can shake out.
The most recent signing of the bunch, Chris Hope was a Pro Bowler back when Schwartz was a coordinator in Tennessee, but a spinal cord injury quickly and seriously affected his play in 2008 and he has never played anywhere near that level again. Benched by the Titans for the terrible Jonathan Babineaux, Hope would spend 2012 with the Atlanta Falcons where he would make a surprising impact on Special Teams, a role he’d never had before. What makes Hope a Square Peg is his style of play. A consummate “Box Safety”, Hope was at his best playing close to the line of scrimmage, but struggled when asked to back up and play simple coverage or provide field reads. While I’m not surprised the Lions signed a Safety, let alone ANOTHER Titan, I was surprised they signed a Box Safety. The Lions played with their Safeties deep almost 75% of the time in 2012, meaning a player like Hope would likely have been subbed out on a majority of defensive snaps, even if he was the starter.
What does it all mean!?! While he’s being touted as insurance for Louis Delmas, whether or not Hope makes the roster could signal something a lot bigger and more important than just who is playing and where, but a shift in defensive philosophy. The defense won’t change because of the Hope signing, but his signing could signal that the Lions intend to use their Safeties completely differently in 2013. This was already a probability when the team signed Glover Quin, who can play both cover and in the box, but has the speed and range to play one deep coverage with minimal rush. In the end, Hope is a long shot to make the roster, let alone take starter snaps even if Delmas isn’t healthy. If he takes snaps over Don Carey, a cover safety, it will be a little more interesting, hinting toward larger moves.
I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t a fan of this signing from the moment it was announced. Putting aside my personal feelings about Harris and what he brings to the team, I am going to discuss one big factor as to why I disliked the signing. Leroy Harris is a zone blocker. Now for those unfamiliar with the difference between a zone blocker and a man blocker, the most basic explanation is that they are completely different schemes that require almost opposite skillsets and physical makeups for their players. In general, the difference in scheme is far less noticeable the further from Center you get, so a zone blocking Center and a man blocking one have COMPLETELY different jobs, while OTs are a lot closer in makeup. Guards fall somewhere in the middle. Harris is a zone blocking Guard who will be playing Center in the Lions offense. The very definition of a square peg, he will be playing a different position in an entirely different blocking scheme.
What does it all mean!?! I have no earthly idea. I’m exaggerating of course, but in the Madden era, fans don’t normally understand the pronounced nuances of the differences between schemes and how much it affects players, and the fact that it is a difficult idea to quantify doesn’t help. Considering who else the Lions have on the roster in terms of players and coaches, a move to a zone blocking scheme is nearly impossible. One thing that stands out, though, is how Harris played on screens and sweeps all the way back in 2011. Back then (and before, though not nearly as well), Harris was very good at breaking off the line when he needed to when he had to flip position. Considering the Lions obvious, and unmasked need to pull on screens and backfield passing plays in 2013, it’s possible Harris was signed for this reason. In theory, if Raiola were to go down with injury, the team could continue to run their offense the same way with limited dropoff on the homerun plays. That is, again, assuming it’s as heavily built towards the RB catching the ball.
I know, I’ve beaten this horse to death. I’ve started to have a sort of cautious optimism about Jones’ role when taken as a part of the bigger picture for the defense, but there’s still no denying he was a much better interior pass rusher (1 pressure every 10 pass snaps) than he was rushing from the edge (1 pressure every 30 drops). Jones had a career high 5 sacks his rookie year in 2008, but has been a situational rusher ever since and has seen his numbers decrease each year, largely due to health. He is severely miscast in the role of LDE where Jones has been unable to beat athletic OTs off the edge, making it unlikely he can take advantage of the double teams the Lions interior pass rushers will demand.
What does it all mean!?! So there’s this other theory I’ve been trying to work out. I went back and tried to find an example of a defense that used a personnel grouping like the one the Lions have put together. There have been instances where a team has attempted to field ‘big men’ at DE before, but not once was it with a team that had the kind of inside force the Lions are able to field with Suh and Fairley. The closest I found was Bruce Smith early in his career when he played across from Leon Seals. Smith and Seals were both in the 6’4″-6’5″ range and about 260 lbs a piece. The problem with that comparison is that the two DT/NTs that played between those two were 6’2″ and 275 lbs a piece (as in, almost smaller). That’s the closest comparison I could find. The good news in this is that it could, once again, signal a change in the defensive alignment the Lions put forth in 2013. The downside is, we have no idea what that means.
Hey wait a minute, you say, Quin is a very good player, why is he considered a square peg? Well, because he is. Quin was a very good signing, no doubt about that, but what fans tend to gloss over is that Quin has not been playing Safety for all that long, and when he was he was playing it in a defense that is almost the polar opposite of the Lions defense. Quin was drafted as a Corner, and although people knew then that conversion to Safety was a possibility, the Texans didn’t do so right away. When they did, there were some growing pains, but Quin eventually became a very good cover Safety who could also play well in the box. The Texans defense, however, relied heavily on man schemes and various blitz packages, requiring Quin to move all over the line and all over the field. The Lions scheme is almost completely zone, almost never blitzes, and tends to keep the Safeties back in coverage.
What does it all mean!?! Thankfully, Safety is one of the easier positions to switch scheme. Transitioning from man to zone will be a harder change, as Quin will have to not only learn the personnel around him, but also learn the nuances of where he should expect those corners to be on any given play since they won’t be manned up. It’s a tough transition, but considering Quin’s entire career up to this point has been transition, I think he manages fine.
Scott falls into this category for the same basic reason as Harris, he is a zone blocking Guard who will be in a very complicated Man blocking scheme, now. What makes Scott a somewhat easier transition in scheme is that he wasn’t the liability in pass pro that Harris has been (outside of 2011) and isn’t changing positions.
The Lions last used a FB in 2009. While Owens played some RB last season due to a decimated RB corps in Jax, his natural position is one the Lions haven’t used in years and would be unlikely to switch back to.
Menzie comes from playing in a 3-4 Man scheme to the Lions 4-3 zone. A more difficult transition than Quin will face, as Menzie is also likely moving from CB to S.
Your New Lions! A list of every pickup the Lions have made this offseason, including all draft picks, UDFA, and FAs.