The first wave of free agency is in the books, the pro day circuit is coming to an end and the draft is later this month. What better time to check in on the state of the Detroit Lions.
I asked for your questions, and, like always, you delivered. Welcome to the mailbag.
► Question: Do you think the Lions have a chance at Kyle Pitts? — @evangecube
► Question: Regardless of how good Pitts is, it would be a disaster to start this rebuild with a tight end when its the only position we are set at. The roster has so many holes, particularly on defense. Why is anyone even entertaining this idea? — @godisalobster22
► Answer: Ah, it’s good to be back.
I think it’s safe to say Pitts is the most divisive prospect among Lions fans. It’s not the talent, or the measurables, which border on undeniable. No, the Lions fans who want nothing to do with the Florida standout are largely troubled by the historical rarity of addressing the position so early in the draft, with the Lions a threat to do it for the third time in eight years. Or, as the above reader notes, they feel the Lions are “set” at the position.
I think we can poke holes in the latter argument. While there’s no denying T.J. Hockenson is a good player on his way to the upper echelon of his position, there’s room for two productive tight ends on a roster. The prime example is the Patriots’ squads with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. We’re a decade removed, but in 2011, those two combined for 169 receptions, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. Read that stat line a second time because it’s staggering production.
A more recent example is the Rams’ squads. In 2019, Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee split 106 receptions for more than 1,100 yards. And the talent there doesn’t hold a candle to the potential Hockenson/Pitts pairing.
Don’t be fooled by those arguing Pitts is really a wide receiver. He isn’t. He’s a tight end, but his receiving skill set, from his route running to his catch radius to his hands are elite for his position and allow you to comfortably line him up in the slot or out wide. Even matched up against a top cornerback, he’s more than capable of holding his own. The Lions would have no trouble getting both him and Hockenson on the field at the same time.
As to whether he’ll be there at No. 7, it’s too early to say. We can be fairly certain three quarterbacks are coming off the board in the first six picks, with the potential for a fourth. Pitts is in the conversation for the top non-QB prospect, along with LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Oregon’s Penei Sewell. That leaves a path for Pitts to be there, even if it’s increasingly unlikely.
► Q: Did Sam Howell throw at UNC pro day like Kedon Slovis at USC? If so how he look? — @ebonywi66844188
► A: Howell, who if you don’t know, is considered by many analysts as the top QB prospect for the 2022 class, did throw at North Carolina’s pro day. I scoped out a few clips on Twitter, and, as I generally feel after watching a quarterback throw in shorts and a T-shirt without defenders, I wasn’t moved to feel much differently about them, either way.
Howell’s participation in the pro day did give scouts an early preview, but the day was more about North Carolina’s 2021 draft prospects, such as running back Javonte Williams and wide receiver Dyami Brown. Howell provided them familiarity in pass-catching drills, giving them the opportunity to look their best.
I’m going to hold off on digging into the 2022 class of prospects for a while.
► Q: Based on past regimes, how different does it feel covering an organization that suddenly seems to want to talk to reporters and fans? — @thebeerbarrel
► A: I think we’re all in the rose-colored glasses phase of the working relationship, so I’m not making too much of it. For example, the day Matt Patricia was introduced, he had get-to-know-you meetings with each beat writer, which I found engaging and personal.
So far, we’ve each had something similar with Dan Campbell, a 30-minute Zoom call, but the other access has been equivalent for this time of the offseason, correlating with the combine and owner’s meetings interviews both he and Brad Holmes would give.
Campbell clearly has a big personality, and he admittedly doesn’t always fully filter his thoughts before they leave his mouth. Of course that makes my job easier and more enjoyable. But the Lions haven’t played a game yet. We haven’t seen what Campbell is like when there’s adversity and his decisions are being questioned. Maybe he’s exactly the same, but we won’t know until we get there.
Additionally, the off-the-record channels you build through the years are reset with a regime change. In a post-pandemic world, I’ve found building those back up has been going slower than I would have hoped. Remember, the reporter-team interaction the public sees is only a part of the job.
► Q: If Penei Sewell is gone, what’s the case for Rashawn Slater at 7? — @kyle_warwick
► A: I don’t love it. Slater is a good prospect, but he doesn’t have Sewell’s ceiling and his height and arm length will require him to be a dominant technician if he wants to avoid being moved permanently to guard.
Regardless of what he projects to play within Detroit’s scheme, that probably puts him on the bench as a rookie, behind Halapoulivaati Vatai and Tyrell Crosby.
► Q: With the new regime talking about Vaitai playing guard, how likely is it that they see Crosby as a long-term solution at right tackle? — @MichaelFickII
► A: I very much doubt they’re at that stage in the evaluation, but assuming they don’t draft Sewell or Slater, Crosby will get every chance to prove he’s worthy of a contract extension this season.
As it currently stands, Crosby is probably tracking toward a deal that pays him between $4-6 million per season. He’s a better pass protector than run blocker at this stage of his career. Overall, he ranks in the bottom half of the league among starters at right tackle. There’s still room to grow, but I’m not seeing a player that’s ever going to be a top-tier starter.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You can’t have stars at every position and reliable starters at market rate are a necessity when building out a successful roster.
► Q: So much is happening above the Lions picks is it possible more could happen? — @dgmccready
► A: Absolutely. In fact, I almost expect it.
At this point, everyone is projecting the first three picks to be quarterbacks, and with several teams eager to address that position further down the board, including Carolina, New England and Washington, there should be a healthy market for the fourth and fifth selections. Miami, at six, probably stays put after recently trading into that spot.
► Q: Why is nobody talking about the Panthers having to trade up one spot to No. 7 with other teams trying to get ahead of them? — @nowoovol
► A: I mean, I kind of just did. The Panthers have clearly been in the market for a quarterback this offseason, heading into the second year with coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Even waiting until No. 7 might be too long to get their guy, which is why I focused on the Falcons at No. 4 and Bengals at No. 5 in my previous answer.
► Q: Can we bring back the “C” back on the Jersey? — @savy_sosa
► A: While there hasn’t been an official announcement, and likely won’t be until the latter stages of training camp, the fact that both the Rams and Saints recognize captains this way, it seems likely.
► Q: With the moves that 49ers and Cardinals have made, and with the losses on the Rams’ defense, what percentage would you predict that the Rams would miss the playoffs next year? — @miracle_bulls
► A: This is of interest, of course, because the Lions are getting the Rams’ first-round pick in 2022 (and 2023) as part of the Matthew Stafford trade.
Obviously, I’m not as familiar with the Rams’ roster, but you’re right, they’ve suffered some losses to a defense that finished No. 1 in the NFL last year. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers landed in Detroit via trade, defensive backs Josh Johnson and Troy Hill signed with Cleveland and defensive lineman Morgan Fox landed in Carolina.
Additionally, they lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. So, yeah, there’s probably going to be some regression. And given they don’t have a first-round pick this year, they’re going to struggle to find plug-and-play help in the draft.
That said, the Rams scored 23.6 points per game last season, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. Stafford should play a significant role in getting that corrected, which offsets a potential defensive decline.
If I was to put a percentage on it, assuming Stafford stays healthy, I’d say the Rams have a 70 percent chance of returning to the postseason in 2021.
► Q: What sort of backfield spilt do you envision among Swift, Jamaal and Kerryon? — @4for4_John
► A: It’s a good question, and one we really won’t know until the competition plays out on the practice field. But here’s my prediction:
Swift will obviously be the lead back and I’m thinking his workload mirrors what the Saints have done with Alvin Kamara, who has a similar body type and skill set. He typically plays around 60 percent of the offensive snaps and carries the ball a little under 200 times per season, while being a key figure in the team’s passing game. That means there should be some opportunities for Swift see reps as a slot receiver in two-back formations.
That leaves plenty of snaps for Williams to pick up as the primary, three-down backup. It will probably look similar to his workload in Green Bay, where he was on the field around 40 percent of the time and averaged nearly 13 carries/targets per week.
Johnson, who served as a third-down back last year, projects to remain in that role heading into 2021, while also serving as a better-than-average insurance policy if either Swift or Williams get banged up.
► Q: Which former Lion that struggled under Patricia will have a rejuvenated career? — @RyanF0garty
► A: There aren’t too many compelling options, but two I’ll be watching closely are linebacker Jarrad Davis, who signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets, and tight end Jesse James, who remains a free agent.
Davis was a first-round pick for a reason, and we saw flashes of that during his time in Detroit. Yes, he had his issues in coverage, especially early in his career, and his run fits and tackling were anything but consistent, but I’m curious to see how he’ll do in a different defensive scheme. One thing is for sure, he’ll throw himself head first into whatever he’s asked to to.
As for James, his two-year stint in Detroit was a disaster and not reflective, in any way, of the player he was in Pittsburgh. Maybe he won’t ever shake the stink of his time here, but seeing he’s just 26 years old, odds suggests he’ll get a chance at redemption.
► Q: Is Alex Anzalone related to Danzig (Glenn Anzalone)? — @PappyDS
► A: When this question came into my feed Wednesday night, I spent more time than I care to admit going down a rabbit hole, trying to find the answer. Seeing as Alex’s hair is prime for head banging, it felt like you were on to something.
My research started with reading biographical pieces on the founder of the Misfits, unearthing sibling names through a hometown obituary, then cross-referencing them with Alex’s family members on Facebook. I wondered, is this how Detroit News investigative journalist Robert Snell does it?
In the end, despite Alex’s hometown of Wyomissing, Penn. and Danzig’s hometown of Lodi, N.J. being a little more than two hours apart, I’m fairly confident the two aren’t closely related. I just couldn’t find a family overlap.
Trust me, I’m as disappointed as you are.