We’re in a lull in the NFL calendar, one the league that never sleeps is probably dreaming up ways to exploit.
The draft is over, rookie minicamp is done, the start of organized team activities is a few days away and football’s summer hiatus is nearing, so it seems like a good time to knock out a mailbag.
If you missed my game-by-game picks during last week’s schedule release, I had the Detroit Lions going 7-10. It’s way too early to make that my stick-with-it prediction, but I like the Lions’ chances of surpassing the Vegas over-under for wins for this season (it’s still at 6.5, @DarkMark28).
I’m not quite all in on a run to playoff contention, for reasons I’ll explain shortly, even with one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. But I continue to like the direction the Lions are headed.
Onto your questions:
Do you think there is way too much optimism and fans are setting themselves up for an all too familiar fall? Or is it different this time? — @drunkenpunter
I’ve covered the Lions for the Free Press since 2010 and Lions fans have rarely been more optimistic about their team than they are now. Going into the 2012 season, I remember there being a great deal of excitement about a young Matthew Stafford and with the Lions coming off the first playoff appearance in more than a decade, but fans were quickly let down. In 2015, there was optimism, too, though I think Ndamukong Suh’s free agent departure was a blow to the most realistic of Lions fans.
Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell had the right approach last season, tearing down the roster with one big whack of the hammer and starting their rebuild young. Fifteen or so months later, they appear to have one of the youngest rosters in the league and a good nucleus of talent to build around.
The Lions are positioned to take a step forward this season, but I would caution it’s easier to jump from three wins to seven or eight than it is to go from 7-10 to 12-5. I don’t see the Lions contending for the NFC title this year (barring an Aaron Rodgers injury), though I am bullish on the organization as a whole. The Lions made one notable free agent addition (DJ Chark) this offseason and are otherwise counting on a couple high rookie draft picks — one of them coming off a torn ACL — and good health to lead them to success. It’s rare that rookies are true difference-makers, and rare still everyone stays healthy over the course of the season.
Ultimately, the Lions will need to upgrade their quarterback position to make the leap to perennial playoff contender. Jared Goff remains serviceable for now, but the roster is set up well with a good offensive line and capable young skill players to turn over to a young signal-caller in the near future.
What happens if the Lions win too many games to be in the running for one of the top QBs in next year’s draft? Not like “playoffs” too many, but like 7 or 8. — @TheOneTrueLang
That’s precisely where I expect the Lions to be after this season, not quite playoff material but not picking top-five anymore, either. And this may fly in the face of logic to some, but being in that spot is not necessarily a bad thing. The object is to win games, and taking a step forward at the cost of an unknown draft pick is what this franchise needs.
We don’t know how strong next year’s draft will be at the quarterback position, though it certainly looks meaty now. In all likelihood, the Lions will miss out on the draft’s two best QBs if they are not picking in the top three. For the sake of this discussion, let’s expect the top four quarterbacks to come off the board in the first 10 picks, which is what happened in 2018.
The four 7-10 teams from last season picked eight through 11 in this year’s draft, so that’s in quarterback range. If the Lions go 8-9, they likely would need to trade up (with the extra first-round pick they have from the Los Angeles Rams) to land a top-four QB.
Even without a trade, all is not lost. Goff still has two years left on his contract after this season and recent years have taught us that NFL teams are not anchored to their quarterbacks like they were in the past. I do not know which quarterback will be next to follow Matthew Stafford, DeShaun Watson, Russell Wilson and others in talking his way out of town, but there’s a good chance someone will do it in the near future and the Lions should have the draft capital to pounce.
Outside of Jamo and Hutch, who do you think of the rookie class may be most impactful? — @crossnoe7
I’ll go with third-round pick Kerby Joseph.
Joseph is far from a finished product after playing some receiver at Illinois, but he had an impressive statistical 2021 season with five interceptions and three fumble recoveries and he has a chance to get on the field this fall in more than just a supporting role.
I’d pencil in Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott as the Lions’ starting safeties, with Will Harris playing a nickel role. But Elliott has a lengthy injury history, and Harris has been so-so as a safety so far, so Joseph could get significant snaps.
The Lions are counting on second-round pick Josh Paschal to be an important part of their defensive line rotation, but they have enough depth up front that his Year 1 impact could be muted. And fifth-rounder James Mitchell should play as the No. 2 tight end, but I don’t foresee him having a high target share given the Lions’ other weapons on offense.
With a crowded WR room who doesn’t make it to the opening week roster? — @JohnPapp2
What a difference a year makes. Last season, the Lions had one of the weakest receiving corps in the NFL. Now, John is wondering what they’re going to do with all their depth.
The Lions kept seven receivers on their initial 53-man roster last season, which seemed odd considering their lack of talent at the position but could be a glimpse into how they’ll construct their roster this fall.
At a minimum, they seem like a good bet to start the year with six receivers, and if I was doing a 53-man roster projection today I would include Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond (who doubles as return man) and Quintez Cephus on my list. Williams is a bit of a wildcard because of his knee injury. He could open the year on the physically unable to perform list, but that would preclude him from practicing until mid-October and the Lions will need him on the field before then if they hope to get meaningful contributions this year.
Tom Kennedy is a fan favorite, and I know Brad Holmes talked up Trinity Benson this offseason, but they don’t provide much on special teams and will need strong training camps to make the cut. The Lions have three undrafted rookies on their roster, too, who could push for practice squad spots at a minimum.
If we have 3 LBs in the field, who do you think is the 3rd on the field? Another off-ball guy (like Board/Woods/David), James Houston (eventually), or what about Julian Okwara? — @alex_lanser
A. The Lions have moved to an even-man front as their base defense this fall, though the majority of snaps will come with one or two linebackers on the field. We’ll get our first glimpse of how this could shake out at OTAs next week, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis and Chris Board on the field together with the first team.
Anzalone is locked into a start spot as long as he stays healthy. The coaches trust him and he knows the defense well. Board played in sub packages with the Baltimore Ravens last season because of his coverage ability. It’s possible that’s his role this fall, but the organization lured him to Detroit in part by promising him a chance to compete for regular defensive snaps.
I’m not sure what to make of Derrick Barnes heading into Year 2, so I’m penciling Davis in as a starter for now. Barnes could start at outside linebacker, but Davis and Board get the edge for now based on experience.
There’s a lot still to be sorted out at linebacker. Houston and fellow rookie Malcolm Rodriguez probably play as backups and on special teams to start, and Okwara’s best fit is as an edge rusher in a group that includes Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, Austin Bryant and Romeo Okwara.
THE CLASS OF 2022: Get to know Lions’ 12 undrafted free agents
How many UDFAs make the team this year over under 2.5? — @dropiety
I’ll take the under. The Lions have a stronger roster than they did a season ago, so it should be tougher for undrafted players to make the team. I mentioned Central Michigan’s Kalil Pimpleton as a player who stood out in my observations from rookie minicamp, but as John pointed out, the Lions have the makings of a solid receiving corps this fall.
It’s way too early to say whether any of the four UDFA linemen have a shot to make the team — ask me about them when pads come on this summer. But with eight draft picks and most of last year’s young roster returning, I’d be surprised to see more than one undrafted rookie on the roster Week 1.
Will Dan or Ben be calling offensive plays this year? — @ted_hutson
Campbell has declined to answer that question on multiple occasions in recent months. Here’s what he said on the topic last week: “I’ll promise you this, if I don’t call them, (offensive coordinator) Ben (Johnson) will. I’ll promise you that right now.”
For what it’s worth, I’d put the odds slightly in Johnson’s favor of calling the plays and I think that would be the right thing to do. Head coaches have a ton on their plate on game days and throughout the week, so it makes sense to separate play-calling duties whenever possible. And Johnson has done nothing but earn Campbell’s trust so far. The two worked together previously with the Miami Dolphins, and Johnson had a big hand in the Lions’ offensive success in the second half of last season, so he should have a good grasp on what Campbell wants.
Now, it’s easier to give Johnson play-calling duties at a later date than it would be to take them away if the offense struggles under his command. But everyone I’ve talked to believes Johnson is up to the task, and I suspect Campbell will eventually see it that way, too.