Detroit Lions mailbag: Assessing Brad Holmes’ first draft as general manager

Detroit Free Press

It’s nice to be taking mailbag questions after a win, for once. The tone of your questions (and, I’m sure, my answers) was noticeably different.

The Detroit Lions rank among the NFL leaders in snaps played by rookies this season, so I figured I’d start this mailbag by doing something @detroitman606 requested and evaluating Brad Holmes’ first draft as Lions GM.

With the obvious caveat that it takes two to three years to get a fair read on a draft, I give Holmes a passing mark so far. He took a stud offensive tackle at No. 7 in Penei Sewell who should be a fixture in Detroit for years to come and he landed productive players in rounds 2-4 who are contributing above expectations as rookies.

Fair or not, Sewell will forever be judged against players like Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Micah Parsons, and that may color peoples’ feelings on Holmes’ work. But you can’t watch Sewell at this point in the season and think he’s anything other than Pro Bowl-bound in his career.

The Lions need to get more pass rush out of second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike, but he’s coming off one of his better games of the season. Third-round Alim McNeill looks like a keeper at nose tackle, and while the data is too limited to pass any judgments on Ifeatu Melifonwu and Jermar Jefferson, fourth-round picks Amon-Ra St. Brown and Derrick Barnes strike me as role players who can develop into something more.

He doesn’t count in the draft class, but undrafted rookie cornerback Jerry Jacobs has been a steal, too. Jacobs is a capable NFL starter right now with a bright future ahead.

On to your questions.

When Okudah comes back does (Amani Oruwariye) or Jacobs get pushed, or does Okudah have to prove his position. Where does AJ Parker fit in. 2. Is Reynolds/Amon Ra a WR core or a stopgap. Is WR a huge draft need or a finishing touch. — @DocWiggs

Perfect segue from Doc, and let’s start with cornerback. I still cornerback is a fairly big need going into the offseason. Jeff Okudah is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and has not been great in the little we’ve seen him on the field, so I can’t imagine the Lions feel entirely comfortable counting him to play major minutes in 2022.

Amani Oruwariye and Jerry Jacobs is a good start to the position. Oruwariye has been extremely productive this season, but he’s not the lockdown-type cornerback teams typically want in their No. 1. Jacobs is a tough, physical corner who I think can have a long career. He can play in the slot, so it’s possible an Oruwariye-Okudah-Jacobs trio is what the Lions start next year (with Melifonwu also in the mix, and Parker vying for time in sub packages), but I’d feel more comfortable adding a capable veteran to the group as well.

As for receiver, don’t be deceived by one game. Receiver is still a huge need for the Lions in 2022. Josh Reynolds is enough of a threat vertically that it’s opened some things in the underneath passing game, but this offense could really blossom with a big-play threat on the outside.

St. Brown is a chain mover. He’s tough, has dependable hands and contributes as a blocker, but he’s averaging 8.9 yards a catch. He projects as the Lions’ slot receiver going forward, and he’d stand to benefit from adding some speed at the X position, too.

Have you ever seen a team have this bad of luck with injuries? I feel they can win at least 3 more games next year just based on health of the roster and nothing else. Am I crazy? – @WhatSymondsSays

You’re not crazy, just a little too myopic. The Lions’ injury problems are in line with most teams around the NFL. Yes, they’ve been hit by some big ones. Losing Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow in Week 4 was a huge blow to the offense, and Romeo Okwara has missed tremendously on defense. But look across the league.

The Green Bay Packers might finish as the No. 1 seed in the NFC North. They haven’t had left tackle David Bakhtiari for a single game this season, they’re down their best cornerback (Jaire Alexander) and pass rusher (Za’Darius Smith), they lost Pro Bowl lineman Elgton Jenkins, a guard who was filling in for Bakhtiari, to a torn ACL, and they’ve been without Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones for a game each.

I could run down the laundry list of injuries impacting the Baltimore Ravens (8-4), San Francisco 49ers (6-6) and Arizona Cardinals (10-2), too. Heck, even the Minnesota Vikings last week were without Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and they lost Adam Thielen on the first series of the game.

Injuries happen in the NFL, to everyone. They’re a fact of life in the sport, not an excuse.

Is the franchise tag an option for Tracy walker — @Brad_G_L

This is a fascinating topic because I had not thought of Walker as a franchise tag candidate until Brad sent this question. The tag for safeties in 2021 cost $11.2 million, and prices at that position seem poised to soar after Jamal Adams and Justin Simmons signed deals that top $15 million annually in recent months.

Currently, 10 safeties have contracts that average more than $11.2 million per season, according to Spotrac, and pending free agents Jessie Bates, Marcus Williams and Tyrann Mathieu almost certainly will sign deals north of that number in 2022.

Walker is not considered in that class of player, but he is the Lions’ top pending free agent. He’s had a bounce-back season after a rough 2020, he ranks second on the team in tackles and he should be a priority to re-sign this spring.

It’s a little early for me to have a great read on the safety market, but I suspect Walker, with no interceptions and playing on a one-win team, will fall a little short of the franchise tag threshold. He’s worth keeping around, though, and he said last month he was up for staying in Detroit if the numbers work out.

Hutch or Tibs ? — @ryan2985

I got asked this question last week, and I imagine I’ll get it in just about every mailbag I do from here on out.

It’s hard to envision someone other than Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux or Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson going first overall right now, at least as long as the Lions hold onto the pick. The Lions need another pass rusher to pair with (or serve as insurance for) Okwara, and Hutchinson and Thibodeaux have bright futures ahead.

More: Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux? Detroit Lions’ options with No. 1 NFL draft pick

I’ve been writing for more than a month now that Hutchinson would be in the 1-1 mix, and that Thibodeaux was not the 1-1 lock some media types have made him out to be. I still lean Thibodeaux because of his athleticism, but Hutchinson is a fantastic player with a nonstop motor who seems, from afar, to be a Dan Campbell-type.

I plan to dive into tape of both as an early offseason project, but right now I think it’s a coin flip for the team picking first overall to figure out.

Think there will be any QBs worth taking with the Rams pick? I like Pickett, but my guess is he’ll be gone. If no, is there a specific position they should take or is BPA? — @Eric74846483

A. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Liberty’s Malik Willis and Matt Corral of Ole Miss are the quarterbacks most likely to go in Round 1 of the 2022 draft, and I agree with Eric that Pickett, because of his polish, has the best bet of being the first QB off the board.

When it comes to drafting quarterbacks, my general thought is that if you like the guy enough, if you think he can become a franchise player at the position, you spare no expense to get him and you certainly don’t risk losing him by passing on him at No. 1. If you don’t have that type of conviction in him, then he’s not worth investing any meaningful capital into as a quarterback.

Because there are so many questions about this year’s quarterback class, I do think one or more of those three — plus others like Nevada’s Carson Strong and North Carolina’s Sam Howell — will be on the board for the Lions with their second first-round pick (likely in the 20s). Chances are it will be better to spend that pick elsewhere, on a need at receiver, linebacker or safety, but I certainly wouldn’t rule quarterback out.

One thing to watch: The Lions likely will be coaching the Senior Bowl in February, and both Pickett and Willis are expected to play in the game. It will be interesting to see which quarterback the Lions are paired with for practice that week, and how that time affects their evaluation.

That seemed like a dagger time victory. Is it possible to unfurl the dagger time banner again? —  @spleen95shortbr

Be careful, you may get blocked for suggesting that.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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