Lions mailbag: How can Jared Goff keep his starting job heading into 2023?

Detroit News

Allen Park — With a little bit of a lull between free agency and the draft, it seemed like a nice window for a Detroit Lions mailbag. On to your questions:

► Question: What is the floor performance you need to see from Goff this year to know he’ll be the starter in 2023? — @FrinkThinks

► Answer: I’m not sure the value of slapping any specific statistical benchmarks into this discussion. More than anything, I look at the way Jared Goff closed the 2021 campaign and I’m interested in seeing a continuation of that level of play.

We know that Goff isn’t going to suddenly develop dual-threat ability, so he has to be efficient from the pocket. From Week 11 through the end of the regular season (five starts for Goff), he completed 69.6% of this passes with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. His 107.1 passer rating during that stretch ranked third behind Aaron Rodgers and Joe Burrow.

If Goff can maintain a passer rating near or above 100.0, like he did during his Pro Bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018, all while keeping his turnovers in check and being more aggressive downfield — like he did during his late-season stretch — he’d absolutely merit sticking as a starter.

► Q: Are the Lions done at corner? — @RickyH174

Are the lions done at wide receiver?  — @fraiby

► A:  I lumped these two together for obvious reasons. And the answer to both should be no. Realistically, a three-win team should never be content with its talent, at any position.

That said, I’m reasonably confident the team won’t be making any more impactful additions to either position via free agency. But the draft is about taking a long-term look at the franchise, and currently the Lions have just 16 players under contract for the 2024 season.

There’s little doubt in my mind the team should continue to pursue receiving talent in the draft. I really like the potential of the DJ Chark addition, which filled that glaring need for a big-bodied threat on the outside, but it comes with the caveat that it’s a one-year deal. Sure, re-signing is always on the table if things work out as planned, but the draft should offer far cheaper, potentially equally talented options.

More: Still shopping: Five lingering free agents who could help the Detroit Lions

As for cornerback, the Lions are loaded with a lot of young potential at the position, but also plenty of question marks. Will the team be able to get an extension done with Amani Oruwariye? Will Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs return at full strength after their season-ending injuries? Is AJ Parker really the long-term answer at nickel?

General manager Brad Holmes has amassed enough depth at both receiver and cornerback that the Lions don’t have to press to fill an immediate hole, but if the draft board falls in a way where either position offers the best player available, as early as pick No. 32, there should be no hesitation to add that piece.

► Q: Is Barnes your opening day MIKE linebacker? Who are the best candidates in the draft to improve that group? — @Drewchenko

► A: I still think it’s Alex Anzalone who starts at middle linebacker. Even with the flaws from last year’s performance, namely the missed tackles, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn trusts the veteran to handle the calls coming in from the sideline.

Remember, when Anzalone went out with an injury, Glenn handed the communication reigns to Josh Woods and Jalen Reeves-Maybin ahead of Barnes. The trust with last year’s fourth-round pick is still being earned, and I thought it was telling the defensive coordinator wouldn’t commit to labeling Barnes a future three-down linebacker late in the season.

More: Justin Rogers’ 2022 NFL mock draft 2.0, post-free agency edition

Given his frame and collegiate experience rushing the passer, Barnes is probably best suited to be a strongside linebacker when the Lions put three on the field. My early thought is Chris Board will see the field on passing downs because of his success in those situations with the Ravens the past two seasons.

As for the draft, there seems to be a growing belief Georgia’s Nakobe Dean could make it to the Lions at No. 32. That still feels like a long shot, despite obvious concerns about the prospect’s size. If he is there, they should happily snatch up the instinctual playmaker.

As for Day 2 prospects who could help beyond 2022, I like Dean’s college teammate Quay Walker, Wyoming’s Chad Muma and Montana State’s Troy Andersen. The good news for the Lions is there is a ton of high-end athletes with this crop of prospects, so there are another half-dozen guys they could select and lean on position coach Kelvin Sheppard to develop them.

► Q: If we draft an interior offensive lineman in the top 60, do you see us moving on from Big V, and what would that cost us by doing so? — @Maass79Mike

► A:  Let’s start with the second part of your question first. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has an $8.7 million cap hit for the 2022 season with $5.2 million in dead money tied to his original signing bonus and last year’s contract restructure. Hypothetically, the team could free up $3.5 million in space by trading or releasing the player.

But I don’t see that happening, regardless of what Detroit does in the draft.

First of all, the team was happy with Vaitai’s performance in 2021. Secondly, he quietly served as an important mentor for Penei Sewell, playing an underrated role in the rookie’s adjustment to the pro game.

That’s not to say the Lions should rule out drafting a guard with an eye on 2023, although a top-60 pick might be a little rich. The discussion with Vaitai is entirely different next offseason, with a $11.2 million cap hit and the potential for $7.8 million in savings.

Also, let’s not rule out Tommy Kraemer as the long-term replacement. The undrafted rookie from a year ago exceeded expectations when pressed into action in 2021. It will be interesting to see if he stays ahead of Logan Stenberg on the depth chart through the offseason program.

► Q: Hypothetically, if the Lions decided that Aidan Hutchinson was the guy they needed for their defense, what would be the (ballpark) cost to move from No. 2 to No. 1 in the draft? — @TayyWhite1

► A:  The old draft trade value chart often gets thrown out the window at the top of the first round because of the premium placed on the quarterbacks typically the focus of those deals. That wouldn’t be the case here, since the Jaguars already have a franchise passer and there isn’t one who merits being the top pick year.

Any talks would boil down to how much competition there is for the pick from other teams, as well as how much the Jaguars might view some of the other prospects at the top of the draft. If they don’t see Hutchinson as the far and away best player, they’d obviously be more open to moving down a spot.

More: Lions must determine if Hutchinson’s arm length is a concern or a non-factor

Honestly, the No. 32 pick would be enough, maybe even No. 34. But the real question is why would the Lions do this? They’re not close and one player isn’t going to put them over the top. Detroit is better served staying put and taking a worthwhile consolation prize if the Jaguars do draft Hutchinson.

► Q: Given that choosing the wrong QB of the future could ultimately cost them their jobs with the Lions. Who do you think gets the final say, Holmes or Campbell? — @pauliewalnuts67

► A: Holmes is the GM and gets final say on the roster, but I genuinely believe he wouldn’t saddle his coaching staff with a player they didn’t truly want. The potentially franchise-altering decisions will be made in lockstep, with a singular, shared vision.

► Q: I keep seeing mocks where we take a QB at 32. Is that 5th year really worth taking a project over WR/LB/S that should be a starter year 1? — @gigasmith67

► A: There’s no debating quarterback is the most important position on a roster, but I understand your point and largely agree with it. The history of quarterbacks taken that late in the draft isn’t good, and it’s bad business to strategize around exceptions to the rule.

The question I’ll always come back to is tell me where the ceiling of a quarterback prospect lands compared to Goff’s current level of play and how likely is it that prospect reaches that ceiling?

More: Lions GM Holmes has continued confidence in Goff, but sees value in drafting a QB

If Holmes, Campbell and company have conviction about a quarterback prospect at 32, whether it’s Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder or Sam Howell, then so be it. But I’d rather see them pursue an impact defender and wait on QB until next year.

► Q: Travon Walker? Do we really want a Trey Flowers 2.0 with our 2nd overall pick?  — @UKlionfan

► A: I don’t really see the comparison. Flowers was undersized and a relatively average athlete coming out of Arkansas. Walker, on the other hand, looks to have been built in a lab, both from a measurables and athleticism standpoint, with exceptionally long limbs and elite speed, explosion and agility.

Yes, both players earned a reputation for being exceptional run defenders, and Walker’s limited sack production at Georgia somewhat mirrors some of what we have seen from Flowers at the pro level, but the ceiling for Walker in that department far exceeds the former Detroit edge rusher.

If you want to argue against banking on potential that early in the draft, I totally understand, but not because Walker somehow reminds you of Flowers.

► Q: Where would Ziggy Ansah go in this draft vs. Walker, Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux? — @zachgollach

► A: Now here’s a comparison I can get behind. Walker reminds me a lot of Ansah from size, athleticism and production standpoints. Remember, Ansah had only 4.5 sacks during his college career, all coming in his final season.

I believe Hutchinson, based on the consistency of his performance last season, remains as the top option. I’d slot Walker just ahead of Ansah, with the level of competition in the SEC being a separation, with Thibodeaux not far behind, but fourth.

► Q: Outside of our caffeinated coach who will be the break out star of “Hard Knocks”? — @JalenRoseBat

► A: That player may not be on the roster yet. The show’s producers love highlighting an underdog, so it very well could be an undrafted rookie fighting for a job.

Among the players returning from last year who have a lot of personality are Levi Onwuzurike, Jerry Jacobs and Godwin Igwebuike. Obviously Sewell and Jamaal Williams are both entertaining as well, but I’m not sure how much either needs the spotlight.

More: Niyo: NFL Draft, ‘Hard Knocks’ to put spotlight on Lions, Detroit

Another easy story for the program to focus on would be Jarrad Davis’ run at redemption. His one-year deal to return to Detroit carries almost no guarantees for the former first-round pick.

► Q: What do you feel would be the Lions worst action at 2? What do you feel their best move would be at 2? — @TeachingZeus

► A:  Worst case would probably be drafting Malik Willis. I understand why there is a segment of the fan base who want the exciting, dual-threat quarterback out of Liberty, but the learning curve is so steep based on scheme he ran in college. That’s just not a risk I’d be comfortable taking because it could derail the early momentum of the franchise’s rebuild.

As for the best case, it remains trading down. Of course that requires an interested partner, but if the Lions could somehow convince one of the teams just behind them to come up for an offensive tackle, even if it nets little more than an extra second-rounder in return, it would be a major win, in my opinion.

More: ESPN’s Mel Kiper: No. 2 too high for Malik Willis, but could see QB going in top 10

► Q: DK Metcalf and the No. 9 pick for the No. 2 pick straight up. Think Seattle would do it? — @LaPerriere_11

► A: I don’t know if Seattle would do it, but I don’t really feel like it makes sense for the Lions. Metcalf is an exceptional talent, obviously, but he’s also entering the final year of his rookie contract. That means on top of the trade, you have to have plans in place for an extension.

Have you seen the contracts receivers are getting? Based on the recent deals for Tyreke Hill, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and Christian Kirk, I’d safely speculate Metcalf will be looking for $24 million or more annually.

I’m not even saying he’s not worth it. That’s market rate for the talent. The bigger question is does it line up properly with Detroit’s rebuild? And doesn’t it largely make the $10 million the team just committed to Chark sunk cost?

The timing just doesn’t feel right to pursue a player of Metcalf’s caliber. It feels more like a move for a contender.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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