With a little extra time following the team’s annual Thanksgiving Day game, it seemed like a good opportunity to knock out a Detroit Lions mailbag. So what’s on your mind?
► Question. What are reasonable expectations for year two? — @JohnHowell77
► Answer. The Lions had a reasonable chance to win seven of their 11 games this season.
Outside of Week 1 against San Francisco, where some late scoring made it look closer than it was, Week 2 against Green Bay when the Packers weathered an unexpectedly impressive start and pulled away the final two quarters and blowouts against Cincinnati and Philadelphia, Detroit has been close in the remaining contests.
So, for me, expectations start with turning at least half of those close losses into victories. You can’t continue to come up on the wrong side of 50/50 games. That often points to bad coaching.
Additionally, there have to be fewer blowouts. This draft and free-agency period offer a chance to close the talent gap with the league’s better teams, and while there’s always the possibility of a bad loss any given week, you can’t be nail to someone else’s hammer three or four times.
Finally, player development is the key to a rebuild. We need to see steady progress from the 2021 draft class, with modest contributions from the incoming group of rookies.
In terms of victories, six wins would be a good start, with an eye on playoff contention in 2023.
► Q. If we get pick 22-25 from Rams, thoughts on Lions grabbing a WR or QB with that pick? — @OldSchoolSport7
► A. How quickly things change. A month ago, it felt as if there was a healthy percentage of fans resigned to the idea the Rams were winning the Super Bowl, Matthew Stafford was going to be named MVP and the Lions would be stuck with the No. 32 selection from the two teams’ offseason quarterback swap.
Suddenly, the Rams look very beatable. As has been noted elsewhere, the Lions actually had a better record in the month of November (0-2-1 vs. 0-3). I don’t believe Los Angeles is in jeopardy of missing the postseason, but with a tough closing stretch, a 10-7 record isn’t out of question for a team that started its year 7-1. And a loss in the opening round of the playoffs would net Detroit a pick no worse than No. 24.
As to what they do with that choice, it’s nearly impossible to predict. Assuming they take one of the two edge rushers with their top choice, I would agree both wide receiver and quarterback would be in play with the second first-rounder.
At QB, Kenny Pickett, Sam Howell and Malik Willis could conceivably be available at the spot, or with a modest trade up, if they love one of the passing prospects. And the options figure to be even better at receiver with USC’s Drake London, Arkansas’ Treylon Burks or one of the two Ohio State standouts all making sense.
That said, the Lions have a shallow enough talent pool you can’t limit targets to one or two positions. They have to go with the best player available at any of their positions of needs. That means safety, linebacker or even another defensive lineman should be considered.
► Q. After last week, how much of a hit have your expectations/optimism towards Campbell taken? — @WvdH01
► A. Things haven’t really changed throughout the course of the season, if I’m being honest. Before the season, I predicted a 4-13 record for the newspaper, but only because I didn’t have the guts to write 2-15. The offense was so, so bad in training camp that I legitimately believed it would be the worst unit in the league, which is close to true.
I had a more optimistic view of the defense, which might have been clouded by its day-to-day performance against the team’s own offense. Plus, I wasn’t really considering Romeo Okwara and Jeff Okudah being lost for the season.
But none of what has happened has changed my opinion of Campbell. His team fights hard and his players love him, plus they’ve been competitive in the majority of their games. Is being winless embarrassing? Absolutely. But I’m going to need to see how the coach handles a more talented, seasoned roster before I write off his ability to lead this franchise back into relevancy.
► Q. They started out the season being super aggressive and now it seems the pendulum has swung completely to the other side. Any plans on bringing back some of the aggressiveness offensively? — @licknavigne
► A. One would hope. We know — both because we have eyes and Campbell has told us repeatedly — the Lions margin for error is slim. Well, the defense has been playing better recently, so it’s probably worth taking advantage of that gift and ramping up the risk tolerance on offense. That means more than one deep shot, going for it more frequently on fourth down, and maybe a trick play here and there.
Just think, if the Lions had approached the Steelers, Browns or Bears game with the same throw-caution-to-the-wind approach they had against the Rams, when they faked two punts and sprung a surprise onside kick, they might have won one of those more recent games by two scores.
► Q. “A true alpha knows when it’s time to concede” Do you think this will apply to Dan Campbell calling the plays any time soon? — @gregkeesee
► A. Please note, Greg’s question actually included a chart of Jared Goff’s throws from the Chicago game, a visual representation of the passing game’s conservative approach.
Well, Greg, I have bad news. The Lions were conservative before Campbell took over play-calling and remain so with his voice being directly piped into Goff’s helmet. That’s not so much a symptom of the calls, but rather the talent the Lions have on the outside. We’ve known this since Week 1 and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn wasn’t any better at getting the ball downfield during his eight weeks calling plays.
Now, is this a setup that can continue into next season? Probably not. But it remains unclear what that looks like. Do things get reset and revert back to Lynn or do the Lions have to make a change at coordinator? We don’t have those answers yet, but it would be less than ideal if Campbell is still running the show in 2022.
► Q. Did they completely misjudge the Trinity Benson trade or is there a chance he develops into a contributor? — @DingleKringle
► A. The Benson deal has been a flop to this point, and given the expected overhaul at the position coming this offseason, time is running out for the young receiver to make a case to be part of the mix going forward.
Currently, Benson is dealing with an injury that’s sidelined him the past two games. When healthy, he’s appeared in seven games, hauling in just eight of the 18 passes his direction for 72 yards and three first downs. Even at the modest cost of a late-round draft pick (Lions sent two Day 3 choices to Denver, but got one back), it’s a disappointing return.
At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Benson isn’t on the roster for Week 1 of the 2022 season.
► Q. Do the Lions realize if they don’t draft Aiden Hutchinson the fans will burn Ford Field to the ground? — @jbrandimore
► A. All season, Hutchinson has been viewed as a potential top-10 draft pick, but it’s a testament to his steady dominance that he’s pushed himself into the conversation to be the No. 1 choice.
As always, I think you have to be careful of local biases. There’s a sentimental quality to taking the hometown kid, but it doesn’t always work out for the best. Taking Charles Rogers over Andre Johnson in 2003 comes to mind.
Obviously Hutchinson doesn’t come with Rogers’ baggage, but general manager Brad Holmes will have to decide, in a vacuum, how the Michigan defender’s floor and ceiling stack up against Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux. If you genuinely believe the latter is a better prospect, you take him and weather that wave of initial disappointment from crossover Wolverine fans.
► Q. Do you see the Lions pursuing a starting QB in free agency since this appears to be a less-than-stellar draft class? — @dwmaki
► A. The Lions are going to need to do something at quarterback, seeing as only Goff remains under contract after this season, but I’m skeptical the team brings in an accomplished veteran for that spot. Money is the primary reasoning.
Remember, Goff has a 2022 cap hit north of $31 million. Adding an experienced backup, like an Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota would likely cost between $4-8 million. Unless you believe there’s the possibility one of those guys could be your long-term answer at the position, which makes little sense, it’s a bad use of resources.
► Q. Is there any hope that some good free-agent wide receivers get signed in the offseason or has the Lions’ losing culture turned them toxic to any player with real talent? — @howdesign
► A. Money and opportunity will always carry the greatest weight in free agency. Of course players want to win, but for most, it’s third or later on the wish list.
If the Lions open up the checkbook and pay at or above-market rate for one of the many receivers expected to hit the open market, they’ll have little problem adding one, just like they did with Nate Burleson and Golden Tate in the past dozen years.
► Q. Despite the record, what’s working? Anything that can be built upon going forward? — @charleshbryan
► A. The offensive line remains the team’s foundation. Even without Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow much of the season, the front has been a strength. With them, the unit still has the potential to be among the best in the league.
With that, the ground game has finally arrived. The Lions are averaging 4.6 yards per carry, despite facing plenty of stacked boxes because opponents know what they want to do. The biggest problem is the Lions haven’t always been able to stick with it because of second half deficits.
► Q. Does the Lions’ defensive scheme use “edge rushers”, in the new traditional sense, enough to take one in the top 35 picks? — @ResistDaOrange
► A. Absolutely. Don’t be confused by the positional name change from defensive end to outside linebacker, the primary responsibility of that position remains rushing the quarterback in passing situations.
To put some numbers to it, courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Romeo Okwara rushed 90 times and dropped into coverage 16 before his injury. Trey Flowers has rushed 162 times and dropped on 26 snaps. And Charles Harris has 273 rushes to 37 coverage drops.
The problem, obviously, has been the effectiveness of those rushers. The Lions should be desperate for someone capable of consistently winning one-on-one, and that’s the appeal of Hutchinson and Thibodeaux.
► Q. Any chance they try Ifeatu Melifonwu at safety? Similar size and athletic traits to Marcus Williams and can’t be much worse than what we have now. — @larrymoreorless
► A. I’m doubtful the Lions go that route this season. In fact, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn clearly rejected the idea in training camp because he didn’t want to overwhelm the rookie while he was still learning the ropes in the NFL.
But I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of exploring a change in the offseason, depending on what the team is able to accomplish via free agency and the draft. While the Lions have decent depth at cornerback, particularly if Okudah’s recovery goes smoothly, they’re going to need help at safety. Tracy Walker, Dean Marlowe and C.J. Moore are all set to be free agents, and it would be foolish to continue to bank on Will Harris as a starting option.
Ideally, the Lions re-sign Walker (or go after Williams in free agency) and draft a starting complement in the first three rounds. But if they don’t, that’s where exploring Melifonwu’s potential versatility could be in play.
► Q. What is the current probability that Jared Goff is the Lions opening day QB in 2022? — @trumanfrancis
► A. Despite ESPN making the bold prediction Goff would never start another NFL game after the 2021 season, I’d probably put the chances of Goff being out there Week 1 next season around 85%.
Given his performance this season, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to trade for him, even after the Lions eat his $15.5 million roster bonus due in early March, leaving an acquiring team with $10.65 million cap hit for 2022.
Alternatively, let’s say the Lions do draft a quarterback, likely with that second first-round pick. Outside of injury, Campbell and Lynn, assuming he’s still here, aren’t the type of coaches to immediately thrust an unproven rookie into the fire.
► Q. Have you noticed any truths to the report of a rift between Goff and Lynn? — @RyanF0garty
► A. I haven’t, but it’s important to note Lynn and Goff have been two of the more inaccessible individuals this season. Obviously, we continue to be limited by COVID restrictions, so locker rooms remain closed. Going on two years of that environment, it continues to be far more difficult than in the past to get a feel for an organizational pulse.
And in press conference settings with the quarterback and offensive coordinator, both keep their thoughts and emotions closer to the vest than Campbell, Glenn and many of the roster’s players.
The only thing from the CBS Sports report that made it to my ears ahead of Lynn being stripped of play-calling duties was some friction relating to the vision for the ground game and blocking schemes. Maybe the quarterback’s sentiments were wrapped into that, but no one has told me that, on or off the record.
► Q. Does this team have an identity? Will Penei Sewell help shape that through his emerging personality on the field? — @DaveReimink
► A. It’s difficult to establish an identify when you can’t get a win. Right now, the team is hanging its hat on effort, which is always a positive, but also isn’t enough. Nobody cares about hardhats and lunch pails if it doesn’t translate to wins.
But you’re on to something with Sewell. He fits that all-effort, all-the-time theme, but also brings a flair to his game reminiscent of the Bad Boys. He plays with a physical and mental edge, not backing down from everyone. That’s definitely an attitude you can build around.