A question for every Detroit Lions’ position group ahead of training camp

Detroit News

Allen Park — With training camp opening at the end of July, the Detroit Lions have many fresh faces, from the front office, to the coaching ranks, to the players on the field.

The Detroit News looks at key questions the team faces with every position group.

What better place to start than with new quarterback Jared Goff.

Under pressure

Through the early stages of the offseason program, Goff has looked the part. He’s embraced his role as a franchise leader, organizing workouts with teammates near his California home, and his throwing mechanics, accuracy and anticipation have largely been on point during the practices open to the media.

But those weren’t the issues that have plagued Goff during a two-year stretch of subpar football that landed him in Detroit. No, the biggest problem has been how all those positive traits go out the window when he’s been pressured.

Last season, according to data tracked by Pro Football Focus, Goff completed just 45.7% of his throws when pressured, throwing seven interceptions and posting a dreadful 50.0 passer rating. And those numbers weren’t much better in 2019, or even 2018, when he helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl.

Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn is crafting a scheme he believes will better suit Goff’s skill set, which should incorporate a higher percentage of shotgun snaps, similar to what the quarterback used in college. Hypothetically, that will help him see the field better, which should improve his ability to read the defense and react to pressure. But we won’t really know how much it will help until we see Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara and Michael Brockers bearing down on the pocket during camp.

Getting more out of Swift

Even though D’Andre Swift showed the ability to run between the tackles as a rookie, comments made by Lynn this offseason suggest he’s more comfortable with free-agent addition Jamaal Williams handling a bigger percentage of those types of carries. Still, there’s little question the Lions will still be looking for every opportunity they can to get the ball in Swift’s hands.

More: Niyo: For Lions’ new cast of pass-catchers, opportunity to shine is well received

Hampered by injuries his rookie year, Swift was dynamic when he was in the lineup, racking up 4.6 yards per carry and hauling in 46 receptions, while finding the end zone 10 times. Going forward, he’ll rarely carry the ball more than 15 times per game, but there’s so much room for him to expand his role as a pass-catcher.

Look what Lynn, as the Chargers head coach, did with Austin Ekeler. In 2019, when the back played 16 games, he was targeted 108 times. Most of that production came from traditional backfield alignments, but Ekeler did have 153 snaps where he lined up in the slot or out wide that season. Swift had 52 such snaps last season.

Alvin Kamara — another running back who Swift’s skill set and usage could compare favorably — had 164 reps out wide or in the slot last season. So it will be worth monitoring whether the Lions look to utilize their dynamic dual-threat in a similar fashion.

Who becomes Goff’s go-to?

Realistically, things are setting up for tight end T.J. Hockenson and Swift to be Detroit’s top two weapons in the passing game, but who among the receivers is going to step up as the go-to option on the outside?

The Lions aggressively overhauled their corps this offseason, parting ways with their three starters from the past two seasons. To backfill the void, the team signed a pair of speedsters in Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman before drafting Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round.

Williams has a 1,000-yard season under his belt, but that was five years ago, plus he’s coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him in 2020. And Perriman, a former first-round pick, has had his own issues with durability. That’s held him back from reaching his potential. Six years into his career, he’s never caught more than 36 passes in a season.

During those early offseason practices, neither Williams nor Perriman appeared to be in-sync with Goff. If anyone shined, it was second-year receiver Quintez Cephus making plays working with both the first- and second-team offenses. There’s still plenty of time to sort things out, but the patchwork group could end up being just as big of a problem as many predicted as the Lions pieced the room together.

Finding a higher gear

There’s little doubt Hockenson is one of the foundational pieces for Detroit’s rebuild. Coming off a Pro Bowl season, and turning 24 in July, it’s fun to think about how good he can actually become.

Between his first and second season, Hockenson essentially doubled his production. Appearing in all 16 games in 2020, the former Iowa standout hauled in 67 balls for 723 yards and six touchdowns, while making understated improvements as a blocker.

That’s outstanding production for his age, but still firmly puts him a tier behind the game’s elite at the position. Travis Kelce has topped 1,000 yards five straight seasons, including a record-breaking 1,416 yards last year. AFC West counterpart Darren Waller has also posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns, catching 107 passes and nine touchdowns last year. Then there’s Hockenson’s good friend and mentor George Kittle, who was injured much of last year, but had 2,430 yards across the previous two seasons.

If OTAs and minicamp foreshadowed anything about Detroit’s offense, it’s that Goff is going to look to Hockenson often. Could that lead to a 20-30% increase in targets for the tight end? It certainly seems possible.

Flattening the learning curve

Kudos to rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell for providing a thoughtful and honest answer about the difficulty of switching from left to right tackle. It’s something many of us probably take for granted, but the way he explained it was it’s like being right-handed and suddenly you’re expected to be equally proficient writing with your left.

No one in the building is doubting Sewell’s ability to make the transition, but there’s also an acknowledgement it might take some time before he’s completely comfortable. That means there might be some ugly pass sets in the early part of this season.

Everyone expects the offensive line to be Detroit’s strength, and rightfully so given the investment in the individual pieces. But the unit is only going to be as good as its weakest link. Sewell’s ability to flatten his learning curve through practice and preseason reps will go a long way toward fast-tracking the blocking’s success.

Collapsing the pocket

If you’ve followed the Lions in recent years, particularly if you’ve followed our coverage in the News, you understand how much the team has struggled to generate pass-rush pressure from the defensive tackle position.

Some of that can unquestionably be pinned on the previous defensive scheme, but it didn’t help that most of the personnel the Lions leaned on during that stretch didn’t have an adequate pass-rush tool in their bags for when the situation called for it.

This offseason, general manager Brad Holmes invested heavily into rectifying the problem. The first move was trading for Michael Brockers, who averaged 33 quarterback pressures and racked up 8.0 sacks the past two seasons. Holmes followed up that deal by using second- and third-round draft picks on a pair of interior linemen with some athletic juice in Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill.

New players, new scheme, there’s no guarantees it all comes together quickly. But if that trio, along with holdovers such as Nick Williams and Da’Shawn Hand, can find a way to more consistently disrupt the pocket, it should play a significant factor in the overall improvement of the defense.

Edge help beyond the starters 

There’s no assurance past performance will translate to future production, but there is a comfort level with the top of Detroit’s edge rushing depth chart.

Flowers, coming off a season shortened by a broken arm, has otherwise been a model of consistency during his career. And Romeo Okwara, fresh off his first double-digit sack campaign, shares that unimpeachable work ethic and strong fundamental base. In the new scheme, which should emphasize their pass-rush ability, combining for 16 or more sacks isn’t out of the question.

The bigger concern is the Lions’ depth on the edges. Who will step up beyond the starting tandem? In particular, will Charles Harris, Austin Bryant or Julian Okwara be the answer?

Harris, a former first-rounder, has just 6.5 sacks his first four seasons. But at least he’s been able to stay on the field. Bryant has missed 22 games his first two seasons and was sidelined during mandatory minicamp with another injury. Meanwhile, the younger Okwara was limited to six games and 69 snaps as a rookie.

A breakout year from any part of that trio would be a major boost for the defense.

Lighter, faster, more productive? 

For many fans, Jahlani Tavai symbolizes the failures of the previous regime. In an effort to get bigger at the position, the team seemingly reached for the Hawaii linebacker in the second round of the 2019 draft. And after two disappointing seasons, there was little reason to believe he’d survive a roster overhaul to better fit a new defensive scheme.

But the new coaching staff didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, they challenged Tavai to drop a significant amount of weight to see if he was a salvageable asset. And while no one should be drawing any conclusions from May and June practices, the third-year linebacker looked like a different player, particularly with the fluidity of his movements in coverage.

Carving out a role on defense won’t be easy. The Lions signed Alex Anzalone, re-signed Jalen Reeves-Maybin and drafted Derrick Barnes. Still, Tavai has shown he’s dedicated to doing what is asked of him by this staff, which is all you can ask for at this point.

Sorting out the back end

Presumably, Tracy Walker will be one of Detroit’s starting safeties. His ability to bounce back from last year’s disappointing campaign is a question in itself, but we’re more interested in who will end up starting opposite Walker as the defense shifts to more of a split-safety setup.

The choice likely boils down to Will Harris and Dean Marlowe. Harris, despite excellent size and measurables, hasn’t been able to put things together through his first two seasons. His development will be an under-the-radar litmus test for the coaching abilities of defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant.

Marlowe, a young veteran who played behind a stellar safety tandem in Buffalo, is eyeing a bigger role than the career-high 230 defensive snaps he saw last year with the Bills.

Making the jump

Jeff Okudah switched numbers this offseason, going from No. 30 to No. 23. If that feels familiar, it’s because Darius Slay made the exact same jersey swap between his rookie and second season. Far more importantly, Slay had a massive performance jump that same year.

Like Slay, Okudah labored through his rookie season. Sure, he faced a slew of top receivers right out the gate, and performed far more consistently outside of that stretch, but considering he was the first cornerback drafted in the top three picks in the past two decades, expectations are so much higher for the Ohio State product.

There are plenty of reasons to expect improvement. First and foremost, Okudah is healthy after playing through much of his rookie year with a groin injury that required season-ending surgery. Second, the lumps he took last year amount to a series of invaluable learning experiences that couldn’t have been replicated on the practice field. Finally, the aforementioned shift to a split-safety scheme should provide added protection over the top.

It’s difficult to establish what acceptable improvement will look like for Okudah, but it has to be much better than the 76% completions and 112.0 passer rating he allowed when targeted as a rookie.


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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