Lions mailbag: Who’s left at receiver? What’s left of Detroit’s psyche?

Detroit News

Five games into the 2021 season and the Detroit Lions are winless. If you predicted that two months ago, few would have been surprised. But fan frustrations don’t seem to be any lower, likely because of how close the team has come in some of those games and the all-too-familiar, but still heart-wrenching ways they’ve managed to lose.

With passion for this team never quelled, and a hole in our schedule, it felt like an excellent time to knock out a mailbag.

Question. With Cephus out and Williams continuing to have issues with the concussion, do you see the Lions going after another receiver? Or will Kennedy finally get his chance? — @JLuchaIII

Answer. At some point, attrition is going to require the pursuit of additional depth. The Lions entered the year overloaded at the position, carrying seven receivers on the 53-man roster following the late additions of Trinity Benson via trade and KhaDarel Hodge via waivers.

Given Tyrell Williams remains on injured reserve and Quintez Cephus is soon to join him after breaking his clavicle, it’s possible the Lions look to add another, including Geronimo Allison, who currently resides on the practice squad. Then again, they could get by with five, if they wanted.

As for Tom Kennedy, I don’t want this to sound like I’m diminishing the fact he earned a job and deserved his spot, but we have to acknowledge the preseason production largely came against third-string defenders who aren’t in the league presently. And he’s further held back by his inability to contribute much on special teams, unlike Hodge and Amon-Ra St. Brown, who are featured pieces with those units, or Kalif Raymond, who is rightfully ahead of Kennedy on the return man depth chart.

Is Cephus’ injury enough to get Kennedy active? Sure. It might pave the way for a handful of offensive snaps. But my early guess is most of that workload ports over to Hodge, like it did at the end of the Vikings game. Benson, who has averaged 22 snaps the past four weeks, also could see a bump.

Q. What’s going on with Benson? Two draft picks in a rebuild for this? — @Abdulla_Mahgoub

A. First, let’s contextualize what the Lions gave up to acquire Benson from the Denver Broncos. Yes, they shipped out two Day 3 picks, a fifth- and seventh-rounder, but they also got a sixth in return. That’s a net loss of one draft pick, and in terms of overall value, probably a late fifth or early sixth, depending where both teams finish in the standings.

So, has Benson been worth pick No. 180, approximately? It’s certainly up for debate. Through six games, he has five catches for 55 yards. Worse yet, he’s dropped two balls. That’s a pretty disappointing stat line.

But what kind of production would you expect from a draft pick in that range? The Lions didn’t have a fifth-rounder this year, but they have a fourth-rounder from a year ago in Logan Stenberg who has played four offensive snaps in two seasons, and a fifth-round running back in Jason Huntley who didn’t even make the roster.

Think of Benson like Cephus, but without training camp to get acclimated within the offense. A fifth-round pick in 2020, he caught 20 balls as a rookie. He started this year as a backup, but injuries thrust him into a bigger role and he was performing well before his own injury.

Let’s give Benson a little more time before we make a definitive judgment. He’s learning this system on the fly and still building rapport with quarterback Jared Goff.

A late-round draft pick is generally a lottery ticket and so was this trade. Your bar shouldn’t be high, but if he develops into a nice depth piece who can give you 30-40 catches as a third or fourth receiver, it ends up being a good deal. If not, in no way does it hinder the rebuild.

Q. What’s the mood in the building after the 0-5 start? DC has been preaching about keeping heads up, how is everyone doing with that? — @adkammeraad

A. One of the most difficult aspects of this job during the pandemic is it has robbed us of time in the locker room. Without those opportunities after practices and after games, it’s more difficult to accurately gauge the overall mood of the franchise.

What we’re left with is smaller windows, often in press conference settings, which can be sterile and don’t offer a same ability to get those reads. Therefore, it’s best to lean on actions. How is the team playing through the adversity?

There, our views are on equal footing, and I have not seen a lack of effort. To date, nothing about this team suggests they are feeling sorry for themselves or quitting when in unenviable spots late in games.

Obviously, misery can be accumulative. It’s worth keeping an eye on effort and intensity weekly, but so far, the culture is holding strong.

Q. Out of the available college QB’s coming out after this season, which one best suits the Lions? — @DudeBro2020

A. I don’t think there’s any limitations on Anthony Lynn’s ability to construct an offense around the different styles of the quarterbacks in this year’s class. Detroit’s offensive coordinator has shown he works well with dual threats and pocket passers throughout his career, so if the Lions want to go that direction, and take a quarterback early, they aren’t limited by scheme fit.

If anything, when it comes to that time, I think they’ll be looking for strong leadership skills and good on-field decision-making. A year ago, that might have disqualified a player like Matt Corral of Ole Miss, who tossed 14 interceptions in 10 games. But he’s assuaged some of those fears in 2021, with 12 touchdowns and zero picks.

Q. (Will we see) more snaps for Onwuzurike or Bryant? — @willian_chivas

A.  We’re already starting to see Levi Onwuzurike’s snap count trend slowly upward, and my initial impression is the second-round pick had his best performance last week against Minnesota. That bodes well for getting more snaps, but, at some point, Da’Shawn Hand will return and potentially factor into the equation.

As for Bryant, I have concerns about his run defense. I don’t know if it’s strength, leverage or some other technical flaw, but too often I see him getting driven out of his gaps. That’s troubling, given his relatively stout frame.

Charles Harris also has some inconsistencies defending the run, but he’s been much more consistent rushing the passer, which explains why the Lions have leaned more heavily on him when Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara have been sidelined.

Q. Travis Fulgham for a tryout? — @arielcandal

A. It didn’t work out for him here last time, with a front office and coaching staff that liked him enough to draft and develop him, but weren’t satisfied with the results.

He obviously had that flurry of production in Philadelphia last season, but he didn’t make their roster out of camp and they just released him off the practice squad. I’m not one to rule anything out, but I can’t say that I see the point.

Q. AJ Parker looks like he could be a future piece. Seven tackles in this week’s game, what is your opinion of him and what do you think is his ceiling? — @pfnnewmedia

A. Let me be transparent: I knew absolutely nothing about Parker when he signed with Detroit, but by the end of the preseason, it was clear he was Detroit’s best option at nickel cornerback. He earned the job with his play and I think there’s reason to believe he could be a long-term piece.

Here’s what I really like: He’s a physical and effective run defender, despite weighing just 180 pounds. You simply can’t teach that kind of toughness. And more often than not, he manages to chop down larger ball carriers in the open field, although bouncing off Vikings running back Alexander Mattison was a reminder Parker has to focus on being consistent with his tackling technique.

He’s also solid in coverage, particularly man coverage. He gave up one of the early receptions to Justin Jefferson, but only because the throw on the corner route was perfect. Parker was tight on his assignment throughout.

Where he needs continued growth and development is his role within zone coverage concepts, as well as matching with an assignment out of stack and bunch formations. Given everything else I’ve seen, he strikes me as capable of improvement in those areas with the experience gained through repetition.

Q. You think Tracy Walker will break the bank to re-sign him?  — @sirFeelGood87

A. No, I don’t see Walker drawing top-market money as a free agent. He’s a good player, but he’s not on the game-changing level of a Harrison Smith or Jamal Adams, who each signed for $16 million-plus per season.

Walker is in the midst of a rebound season, and if he can finish strongly, John Johnson’s free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns from this past offseason might be the ceiling I’d put on what Walker nets on the open market.

Johnson, the former Rams standout, got three years, $33.8 million with $13.3 million guaranteed, primarily in the form of a $12 million signing bonus.

Q. With the restructured contract, what does it cost to move on from Goff next year or the year after? — @MikeMit49832806

A. Ahead of this season, the Lions converted $20 million of Goff’s 2021 base salary into an immediately paid bonus. That allowed the team to spread that cap hit evenly across the four remaining years on the contract.

The way Goff’s contract is structured, he has a base salary of $10.65 million in 2022, along with a $15.5 million roster bonus. Both would transfer fully to a new team if Goff were traded ahead of the roster bonus vesting on March 19. If the Lions move him after that date, they’re on the hook for that charge. That’s on top of the remaining $15 million from the aforementioned contract restructure.

Basically, after March 19, the Lions would save less than $1 million to move Goff vs. keeping him. But if they were to cut him outright ahead of that date, assuming he’s not injured, the savings would be closer to $16 million. That said, we can safely say that scenario is highly unlikely.

In 2023, his base salary is $20.65 million, he has a roster bonus is $5 million and the remaining, prorated portion of the restructure is $10 million. With a projected cap hit of $30.65 million, trading him or cutting him ahead of the roster bonus coming due would save the Lions $20.65 million. Trading him after paying the roster bonus would drop the cap savings to $15.65 million.

Q. Top draft and FA priorities next off-season? — @TeachingZeus

A. All of them. The Lions project to have needs just about everywhere, outside maybe running back and offensive line.

Obviously, wide receiver is the most glaring need, but the team could really use another linebacker, safety, cornerback and edge rusher. Then, of course, there’s the starting quarterback conversation. Is Goff the answer, long-term? I still lean no, but that doesn’t mean it has to be addressed this offseason.

In terms of priorities, they shouldn’t overspend in free agency at this stage in the rebuild. Use the marketplace to add depth, not starters. And in the draft, don’t reach for a specific position. Draft the best player available at any of those needs. Worry about plugging specific holes when you’re closer to contending.

Q. With the draft QB class seemingly not the best this year, do you think the Lions would consider a trade for an underrated passer like Carolina did for Darnold? — @jimtreacyjr

A.  Isn’t that what they thought they were doing when they acquired Goff? You’re talking about a market-rate, 26-year-old quarterback with two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance on his resume.

No, I don’t think the Lions will be trading multiple draft picks, including one in the second round, for a reclamation project. The next quarterback they target almost certainly will come via the draft.

Q. Coaches said they wouldn’t have played it any differently. Now that it has burned you twice in three weeks, do you think the pressure and coverage (late in games) should be altered/changed moving forward? — @NewYorkDarren

A.  I both genuinely believe Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn will look at alternatives, but ultimately stick with the strategy they’ve been deploying because they’ll point to a young player making an execution error in both instances. The thought is if they can clean that up, and guys are where they’re supposed to be, the call will work.

Q. Should the lions go to Blough and ditch Goff? — @GuldiKurt

A. Anyone holding out hope this happens is going to be disappointed. The only way Blough is likely to see the field is an injury. There’s also a slim possibility the Lions could make a single, in-game change if Goff was having a particularly disastrous performance, but I cannot envision a scenario where they entertain making a permanent swap this year.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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