Detroit Lions mailbag: NFL draft, free agency and why Matthew Stafford didn’t win here

Detroit Free Press

With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror and the NFL scouting combine a little over a week away, it felt like a good time to answer your questions on free agency, the draft and what the Detroit Lions will be up to in 2022.

First, though, I have to put a bow on the Matthew Stafford-Super Bowl talk, and frequent mailbag contributor @FriedrichsJk asked a question that has been on a lot of people’s minds of late: If you could pinpoint three specific things at which the Lions failed during Matthew Stafford’s time in Detroit, what would they be?

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Stafford proved in his first season with the Rams he was a good enough quarterback to win a Super Bowl when surrounded by the right talent, and it’s painful for Lions fans to think about the squandered dozen years he had in Detroit. I’ve said all along Stafford was a good quarterback, but I wasn’t sure he had the ability to win a Super Bowl. He had spurts of great play, no doubt, but injuries, inconsistency, coaching — there were many things that held him back in Detroit.

As I think back on the first 12 years of Stafford’s career, there are a couple things that stand out, the biggest of which is that playoff loss to the Cowboys. Had officials not picked up that flag, had Stafford thrown to Calvin Johnson on that play instead of Brandon Pettigrew, had Jim Caldwell not punted on fourth down, had Sam Martin not shanked the punt, and had Stafford not fumbled twice in the final 3 minutes, I think the entire arc of the franchise would have been different.

If the Lions win that game, maybe they find a way to keep Ndamukong Suh in free agency a few months later. Even if they don’t, I think they get off to a better start in 2015, they don’t fire Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand at midseason, maybe Johnson doesn’t retire after the year and the organization doesn’t sit in its Patriot-induced limbo the next few years.

Watching the ESPN “30 for 30” on the Tuck Rule a few weeks ago and hearing Tom Brady talk about how that one play changed the course of his career, I think so much for Stafford and the Lions changed with that one game at Dallas.

Beyond that, I would say the Lions’ decision to draft Eric Ebron over Aaron Donald in 2014 and the organization’s cap mismanagement (much of it related to the change in collective bargaining agreement) are two areas that most contributed to the Lions’ lack of success with Stafford.

Inside Detroit Lions’ decision to pass on Aaron Donald in NFL draft ]

Passing on a Hall of Fame talent like Donald at a soon-to-be position of need because he was too small is a microcosm of the struggles the Lions had building an efficient roster. The cap issues they had from drafting Stafford, Johnson and Suh under the old CBA and constantly restructuring their contracts under the new CBA was another major contributing factor.

None of that absolves Stafford of the role he played in the Lions’ losing, but those are the first things that come to mind.

DAVE BIRKETT: Matthew Stafford got his ring, now Detroit Lions must focus on the future

Onto the rest of your questions:

What’s the likelihood that the Lions draft Willis at 2? — @TheRic22

There still is debate over who is the best quarterback in the draft, Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett or Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, but I think Willis will emerge as the top choice on draft day because his skill set is one teams can win because of, not just with.

Willis is far from a sure thing, though, and my sense from talking to people at the Senior Bowl is he’s not quite polished enough to push himself into the mix to go No. 2 overall.

The Lions worked closely with Willis at the Senior Bowl, and they’ll be sure to stay buttoned-up about their thoughts on him in the coming months. I wouldn’t rule out them taking him for that reason — he had an impressive Senior Bowl and they know better than anyone how his personality traits will fit in their locker room. But I think the most likely scenario remains the Lions pass on a quarterback not just at No. 2 but with their first three picks and try to build the best supporting cast possible for Jared Goff and whoever they eventually target to lead the franchise.

DAVE BIRKETT: How Brad Holmes, Dan Campbell should proceed at QB in 2022 and beyond

I have seen Kyle Hamilton being drafted at 2 in some mocks. Is that a legitimate option? I think edge rusher would be a wiser use of the No. 2 pick but wanted to hear your thoughts. — @mcsimich

Hamilton is a freak. He has the size, range and ball skills to go down as one of the best safety prospects in NFL history. But he’s still a safety, and for that reason, I won’t be slotting him to the Lions when I do my first mock draft next week.

I believe the Lions will end up with either Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, and that taking an edge rusher is the proper thing to do at No. 2. Neither of those prospects will carry a Myles Garrett or Chase Young-like grade, but they both project to be impactful players and we saw in the Super Bowl how important it is to have a good pass rush.

I suspect you’ll hear in the coming weeks how deep the edge rush class is, and that the Lions could land a better pass rusher at 32 or 34 than safety. All that is true, but it doesn’t change the reality that taking Hutchinson or Thibodeaux is the right thing to do.

Why did Brad Holmes pass on Justin Fields and do you think it comes back to bite the Lions given this year’s weak QB class? — @LionPride8123

Frequent readers know I’ve been on the Lions to find their long-term quarterback the past two drafts, but I wasn’t as high on Fields as some others last spring. I think the Lions made the right decision to take Penei Sewell and pass on a quarterback at No. 7, though I might not feel the same had Trey Lance been on the board.

The Lions, for what it’s worth, had Lance graded higher than Fields, too, and once he went No. 3 they were out of the first-round quarterback market. Here’s what Brad Holmes said when asked about Fields after Round 1 last spring: “Obviously, he’s a very, very talented player. There’s no doubt about it, but I will say that we did have Penei ranked higher. So, even with him being there in the hopper, we felt better about Penei.”

Fields would probably be the first quarterback taken if he was in this draft, but the worst thing teams can do is force a pick at that position. Fields may end up making the Lions regret their choice, but since the Lions did not wholeheartedly believe in him, the mistake would be in their evaluation not their pick.

All I hear about is draft. Are Lions going to be able to add talent in free agency — @rwsound

Now to the free agency portion of the mailbag … yes, the Lions will be more active in free agency this year than they were last, when they largely stayed out of the top of the market. I wouldn’t expect the Lions to go crazy. They have about $25 million in cap space right now and could easily free up more room by releasing a high-priced veteran like Trey Flowers. But I do think they will add one high-end talent, with safety and wide receiver seeming like the most obvious bets.

New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams is one frequently mentioned name. He’ll be one of the top safeties on the market and won’t come cheap, but he has extensive ties to the Lions coaching staff and would fill an obvious need. If the Lions sign Williams and/or bring back Tracy Walker, that may take them out of the previously mentioned Kyle Hamilton market.

If the Lions go big at safety, they still should have enough cap space to add a solid receiver in free agency and perhaps get a starting-caliber linebacker on a prove-it-type deal.

More likely target in FA… Safety or WR? Both have big names hitting the market. — @JamisonB56

Both groups are pretty deep in free agency, which should help the Lions, but I’ll say safety. As badly as the Lions need a receiver, I don’t know how wise it is to spend top-of-the-market money on the position, and I don’t know how many top receivers will be itching to play in the Lions’ passing game.

Remember, Holmes did not make any meaningful free agent signings at receiver last year and waited until the fourth round of the draft to address a position everyone felt was a major need. If the Lions re-sign Josh Reynolds or Kalif Raymond to go with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Quintez Cephus, it’s possible their biggest receiver addition comes in the draft.

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Dave, fire up your trade machine! What are the chances the Lions could trade picks 2, 34 and 66 and get 4 and 10 from the Jets OR 5 and 7 from the Giants? If they could, would you do either? — @pfnnewmedia

Using the trade value chart as a guide, the Lions would be giving the Jets and Giants a slight discount in both those deals. I don’t think I would do either if I was the New York teams, though. This is not a draft with one or two amazing prospects up top, and certainly not the kind of quarterback teams generally trade up to get. The player the Giants and Jets get at 4 and 5 will be comparable to the player the Lions get at No. 2, and the player they get with their second top-10 pick will be at least a tier above the player the Lions get at 34 (or 32).

If you’re thinking of potential Lions trades in the draft, dealing out of No. 32 might be more logical, especially if the Lions continue to play the long game and want to accumulate draft capital for a run at a quarterback in 2023.

Mr. @Dave_Adams_1 asked how far the Lions would have to go back at No. 32 to get a first-round pick next year. The answer: Pretty far. When the Ravens traded up to No. 32 to take Lamar Jackson in 2018, they gave up Pick No. 52 in the second round, a second-rounder the following year and swapped fourth-round choices. There aren’t that many teams picking that low in Round 2 this year that would appear desperate enough for a quarterback.

If Aaron Rodgers retires or is traded to the AFC, do the Lions abandon the rebuild and spend on free agents/trade away their high picks and take their shot in the NFC North now, or do they stay the course and take their time? Seems the NFC North would be there for the taking. — @MGoBleaux

The Lions’ chance at immediate contention is tied in large part to Rodgers’ future. If Rodgers stays in Green Bay, the Packers once again will be the heavy favorites in the NFC North. If he doesn’t, the Lions could sneakily challenge for the division title.

I suspect the Lions will stay the course with their rebuild, no matter what Rodgers decides this fall. If Holmes truly wants to build a long-term contender, he needs to add more talent on both sides of the ball and eventually find his own version of Rodgers to play quarterback. Trying to approximate the Rams’ version of all-in while not having that kind of roster could come at a costly expense without any meaningful short-term gain.

Maybe the Lions would be slightly more aggressive in free agency, but if Rodgers leaves, and given the state of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, I suspect the Lions would be division contenders no matter how their offseason played out.

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

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