Lions mailbag: It’s a rebuilding year, but defense, rushing attack could see improvement

Detroit News

Now that the NFL Draft is complete, and the roster for the 2021 season largely set, it felt like a good time to knock out a Detroit Lions mailbag. On to your questions.

► Question. Where will the Lions defense rank in 2021? — @FieldDiamond

► Answer. There are simply too many unknowns to even attempt that projection, with an emphasis on the coaching staff and the schemes they intend to utilize. Instead, of throwing out a relatively meaningless ranking prediction, how about some reasons why the unit should be better in 2021 than last year’s version, which broke records for franchise futility?

• The emphasis on interior pressure. The Lions have been among the worst teams in the NFL at disrupting the quarterback from the defensive tackle position. To address the issue, the team traded for Michael Brockers and drafted athletic options in Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill.

With the integration of that trio into the mix, the Lions should easily best the 36 pressures the position group generated a year ago. That should lead to more negative plays by the opposition, whether it’s sacks or rushed throws resulting in incompletions, or better yet, turnovers.

• While injuries are part of every NFL season, the Lions figure to have two key defensive cogs back at full strength to start the year with Trey Flowers returning from a broken arm and cornerback Jeff Okudah coming off groin surgery, which he claimed was hindering his movement much of his rookie season.

Despite sack totals never worth a call home, Flowers long has been a productive producer of pressure. As for Okudah, Year 2 is almost always better for young cornerbacks, particularly from a mental standpoint. Pair that with full physical capabilities and he should show some signs of playing up to his potential.

• I can’t be alone in expecting a rebound year out of Tracy Walker. Viewed as a foundational piece with Pro Bowl potential after the 2019 season, his performance fell off a cliff when the Lions changed his role after adding Duron Harmon. It’s safe to suggest the new defensive staff, which is led by a former All-Pro defensive back in Aaron Glenn, will find a way to get Walker back on track.

► Q. Did Levi Onwuzurike ever go head to head against Penei Sewell? Both played in PAC-12 so you’d think they would have crossed paths. Interesting to hear their comments on that. — @LFG2021

► A. I agree, which is why I asked Onwuzurike about his former rival and new teammate the night he was drafted by the Lions.

“Oh yeah, he’s an elite player,” Onwuzurike told me. “He’s a dog, quick. For sure should have been, or he was, the first tackle out, first O-lineman out. That’s well deserved. He deserves all of that. One of the quickest players I’ve ever played against. Very balanced, very big, but also has an athletic build. He’s almost like a tight-end at the tackle position. He’s elite, so we’re going to make s— happen up in Detroit.”

► Q. How many rushing yards will Lions have in total for 2021? — @Steve11243

► A. Again, there are so many variables at play here that a guess really isn’t beneficial to anyone. And we do know, even if there’s a commitment to running the ball, the ability to do so hinges on the flow of the game. If you’re down 17 points early in the third quarter, you’re probably abandoning the run as part of a comeback effort.

Case in point: The Lions were committed to the run last season, but finished the season with the third-fewest carries. And the overall offense, on paper, has worse personnel than a year ago, particularly at quarterback and receiver.

Instead of focusing on total yards, the better metric to study will be efficiency. It’s been a decade since the Lions have averaged better than 4.1 yards per carry. Improving there is the start of a successfully established rushing attack, and it’s a reasonable expectation.

Remember, D’Andre Swift, who I expect to averaged between 40-45 snaps per game as the lead back, averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a rookie. Jamaal Williams, the next man up, averaged 4.3 yards the past two seasons in Green Bay. And there’s some real promise in rookie Jermar Jefferson, a one-cut-and-go back with excellent vision.

That trio, behind what we can all agree is a solid offensive line complemented by quality blockers at tight end and receiver, there’s simply no reason beyond injuries that the Lions shouldn’t be more effective running the ball in 2021.

What could really put an exclamation point on improvements would be more explosive gains. The Lions had just five rushes of 20 or more yards in 2020. Only the Jets had fewer.

► Q. Who is going to return kicks and punts? — @mdriddlen

► A. The early leader is Kalif Raymond. The speedster handled both for the Titans last year, averaging 9.0 yards on punt returns and 18.3 on kickoffs. Another contender is Amon-Ra St. Brown, who did a little bit of punt return work at USC,

► Q. Will the lions require you to get a haircut? — @BruceFox457

► A. I’ll cut it when they win the NFC North.

► Q. The versatile linebacker who can do all three phases, run stop/rush/cover is a very rare find. What has free agency and the draft done to create a better LB room — @Doorknob1974

► A. You can argue the Lions have a linebacker with that coveted, three-down skill set in Jamie Collins, but how long is he realistically here? Not only does he turn 32 this year, but his contract balloons in 2022, with a $13.3 million cap hit.

So, yeah, linebacker was a major long-term concern entering the offseason, and the Lions aren’t in a much better place now than they were in February. In free agency, they plugged holes with stopgaps, bringing back Jalen Reeves-Maybin on a one-year deal and adding Alex Anzalone, also for one year.

In the draft, there was some consideration given to Micah Parsons, despite the character concerns. But Penei Sewell falling to Detroit at pick No. 7 made for an easy decision to go a different direction. With the way their board fell, the Lions didn’t end up taking a linebacker until the fourth round, trading up to select Purdue’s Derrick Barnes.

Barnes certainty carries some intrigue. At 6 feet, he’s a little short, relatively speaking, but he is solidly built with long arms. He’s played on the line, so he knows how to rush, and as a stack backer playing off the ball, he’s proven to be a steady run defender.

The coverage skills, well, they’re a work in progress based on limited experience. The upside is he’s extremely athletic, posting excellent speed, change-of-direction quickness and explosion numbers at his pro day. The physical gifts are there; it’s up to the Lions to coach him up.

Optimistically, he can be part of the solution, but you might not see it click until his second, possibly third season.

► Q. Based on the roster right now, how many wins do you think we will get? Also who do you think will play better than expected? — @chrismagee83

► A. My gut says the Lions are probably looking at between 4-6 wins. That’s just a reality of the roster in the early stages of the rebuild. If you’re looking for optimism, set your sights on the future and focus on how the young players are developing through the course of the year and how hard the team is playing down the stretch. The latter will indicate how well coach Dan Campbell’s culture is taking.

As for players who could play better than expectation, I’ve already mentioned Walker. I’d also throw Okudah into that mix. Many fans already have soured on the young cornerback after a disappointing rookie season, but I think the pairing with Glenn will be highly beneficial.

On offense, I won’t go as far as to say he’ll return to Pro Bowl form, but I expect Jared Goff to exceed expectations. The Lions have given him promising protection, a capable backfield and an intriguing amount of speed in the receiving corps. That will create opportunities to stretch the field and attack soft spots underneath. Expanding his shotgun looks should also bring back some of the confidence and accuracy that made him the No. 1 pick five years ago.

► Q. Starting Lions QB in 2022 — Sam Howell, Spencer Rattler, other? — @threedailypicks

► A. I fully expect Goff to be the Week 1 starter next season. The bigger question will be whether he’s still the starter for the final game of the season. Nothing about this front office or coaching staff suggests they’ll rush their methodical process, and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn already has stated his preference is to sit a rookie quarterback and allow them to develop.

Lynn’s record shows as much with Tyrod Taylor starting last season ahead of Justin Herbert, who went on to win Rookie of the Year.

Forgive me for not wanting to get into guessing who the top one or two quarterbacks are next year. I’m still digesting the 2021 draft and haven’t shifted my focus that far into the future. I’m familiar with the names, including the two you mentioned, but haven’t watched any tape or even talked in depth with those who study college prospects for a living. Taking a stance now would be disingenuous and I’ll leave the disingenuous takes for others.

More: 2022 NFL mock drafts: Will the Lions grab their franchise quarterback?

► Q. Do you think we turned the corner with Matthew Stafford gone? —  @Maladjusted1111

► A. The only corner the Lions turned by trading Stafford was recognizing they didn’t have the talent or the necessary resources to acquire it to build around the gifted quarterback who was becoming an increasing durability risk in recent years.

When the team acquiesced to Stafford’s suggestion he be dealt, the Lions came to grips with the need to reboot the franchise — a few years too late in hindsight. Credit to general manager Brad Holmes for the haul he got in exchange for his quarterback, including a pair of future first-rounders and Goff, who could conceivably be another trade chip if and when the Lions draft a franchise quarterback in the future.

► Q. When NFL schedule comes out in a couple of days do you think Lions v. Rams is a nationally televised game? — @spleen95shortbr

► A. A reasonable suggestion, but it would have to be early in the season. The Lions aren’t likely to be good and the networks aren’t going to want a 3-8 team on national television. It could certainly work as a Monday or Thursday night matchup in the first couple of weeks.

► Q. Will Lions add to the safety position or are we set with Harris/Walker as starters? — @UKlionfan

► A. I’ll admit that I was surprised the Lions didn’t draft a safety to compete with Will Harris. Maybe they like Dean Marlowe, a free agent who played 230 snaps for Buffalo last season, more than we know. Heck, maybe they like Harris more than we know.

There are still some interesting veteran names on the market, including Malik Hooker, a former first-round pick coming off an Achilles injury, or the perennially underrated Tre Boston, who has ties to this coaching staff.

► Q. Which UDFA do you see making the 53-man roster? Which do you see having an impact on game days? — @TeachingZeus

► A. Based on depth, it feels like there’s a good chance one for one of the receivers or offensive lineman to earn a spot. There’s been a lot of attention on Sage Surratt, but Jonathan Adams, who went over 1,100 yards at Arkansas State last season and has a better athletic profile, interests me a bit more.

Among the linemen, Drake Jackson, a 44-game starter in the SEC is technically sound. If he shows adequate play strength on the practice field, he could push to be Frank Ragnow’s backup.

► Q. Perriman looked good on deep balls with Joe Flacco. Is Goff closer to Flacco or Sam Darnold in that ability? — @toddkrogh

► A. Goff is probably closer to Darnold, considering Flacco used to have one of the strongest arms in the NFL.

From my film study on Goff, I found he rarely threw the ball longer than 35 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was consistently at his best throwing corner patterns, with excellent placement on those tight-quarters throws near the sideline.

On go patterns, Goff was less consistent, but when he missed, it was generally long, which, at the very least, decreased the chance of a turnover.

► Q. I know the WR unit is considered weak, but how do you feel about the duo of Quintez Cephus and St. Brown going forward? Seems like they could both be mainstays there. — @JustJake981

► A. I like both players, but neither is likely to develop into a No. 1 options. Cephus’ ceiling is probably a No. 3 receiver, but you’d feel better if he was the fourth on the depth chart.

As for St. Brown, you can’t help but see some Anquan Boldin in his game, as a solidly built, physical slot receiver. St. Brown possesses an all-around skill set that lacks a dominant feature. I could see him develop into a No. 2 receiver.

► Q. Was Tim Tebow even looked at for LB core? — @pjcalverley

► A. Get out.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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