Detroit Lions mailbag: What could help team exceed expectations; ‘Hard Knocks’ takeaways?

Detroit News

Allen Park — Welcome back to a long-overdue Detroit Lions mailbag. We’re going to make every effort to get back to doing these on a regular schedule this season. Let’s get right to it.

► Q: If this team exceeds expectations, what will be the reason? If this team fails to meet expectations, what will be the reason? — @MichaelAbrams

► A: To exceed expectations, first and foremost, the Lions need to be blessed with reasonably good health. Beyond that, it will most likely come down to the production of the defense. If the front can be middle of the pack, generating pass-rush pressure, without sacrificing its ability to stop the run, that should result in more sacks and turnovers, and ultimately fewer points allowed.

As for falling short of expectations, that too starts with injuries. If quarterback Jared Goff were to go down for any extended period of time, good luck winning more than a handful of games. That’s reality.

Beyond that, and the defense not gelling as noted above, an inexplicably ineffective run game could quickly derail any reasonable hope for the offense, which is predicated on the belief the blocking can be dominant, helping establish an efficient play-action passing game.

► Q: Let’s get nerdy. What are the third-down rush packages going to look like? — @WhatSymondsSays

► A:  Nerdy is good. Based on what we’ve seen throughout training camp, Aidan Hutchinson is getting bumped inside for obvious passing situations on third downs. His first step and lateral quickness can really give guards issues.

I also got the sense that second-round pick Josh Paschal was in line for an interior role in this package, but with his sports hernia, it’s frequently been John Cominsky filling that role.

On the edges, Charles Harris is an obvious choice. On the opposite side, when healthy, Julian Okwara seemed to be Detroit’s preferred option. But after missing a few weeks because of a hamstring strain, and only recently returning to practice, Austin Bryant might be the better bet.

► Q: I get the logic that if Goff gets hurt, we’re going to be awful — so why care about backup QB — but wouldn’t that hurt Campbell’s message about competing?— @PeteAnd2000

► A: I understand where you’re coming form here, Pete, I really do, but backup quarterback is a more nuanced conversation than it might seem on the surface.

Would the Lions like a better veteran backup? Yeah, obviously, but the truly good ones cost significantly more than the $2 million they gave Tim Boyle during the offseason. So with a starter carrying a cap hit north of $31 million, and the team butting up against the salary cap at the start of the regular season, there simply weren’t the available resources, unless you wanted to redirect them from somewhere else this offseason.

Would you rather have a better backup QB more than having DJ Chark or DeShon Elliott, or Charles Harris or Tracy Walker, who were able to be re-signed in March? I’d hope the answer is no. Remember, Goff has been very durable during his career, so a backup should be viewed as an unlikely-to-be-needed emergency situation.

OK, so no high-priced veteran, but how about a rookie? Yeah, that’s an option, but there are generally two types of rookies: One being groomed to be the starter and a late-round lottery ticket in need of significant development. The latter doesn’t help the Lions any more than their current situation and they haven’t been ready to commit the required resources to an heir apparent.

We can agree or disagree on whether that has been the right strategy, but it’s clear this season is about making Goff feel fully supported as the guy. Adding a high-round draft pick naturally generates quarterback controversy on talk radio and around water coolers. This year is all about Goff and, in hindsight, it was always going to be that way.

► Q: Is the Eagles’ defensive line better inside than out? I only ask as I’m not sure doing anything with our bookends, Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, makes the most sense. — @dansmarmite

► A: Honestly, I agree. Maybe three years ago, when Fletcher Cox was at the peak of his dominance, you could justify throwing Sewell inside to counter their top defensive lineman. Now, with speed rushers like Josh Sweat, Haason Reddick and even 34-year-old Brandon Graham, I’m not moving Sewell and starting Matt Nelson, who struggled with edge benders as a starter the first half of last season.

Maybe the Lions are just trying to keep the Eagles guessing, but I feel the best option is to either start Evan Brown at guard, where he’s played some before, or temporarily slide Frank Ragnow over and let Brown handle center. In my opinion, Brown established himself as Detroit’s sixth-best lineman last season and the aim should be getting your best five on the field.

► Q: What’s the deal with T.J. Hockenson’s contract? — @DLFPtweets

► A: Let me be clear, right from the jump, I have no new information on Hockenson’s negotiations. GM Brad Holmes won’t discuss contract talks, on or off record, and the player’s agent, in this instance, takes a similar approach, based on my experience.

Detroit obviously has time on its side, with Hockenson under contract this year and next, but he’s likely not going to get any cheaper. And as some of the league’s other young tight ends, such as David Njoku and Dawson Knox, get signed to extensions, the parameters is being continually raised.

Based on what we know, Hockenson is tracking toward a deal that will pay him around $14 million per season.

► Q: Can they stop the Eagles’ run game this year? Say, less than 100 yards rushing? — @spleen95shortbr

Does the defense have anyone capable of being a spy and shutting down Jalen Hurts rushing out of the pocket? — @9257c6ad697142e

► A:  Nothing is impossible, but it’s pretty unlikely the Lions hold the Eagles under 100 yards. In 17 games last season, the Lions only held four opponents under that mark. Conversely, the Eagles topped 100 yards 15 times and led the league with a 159.7-yard average.

A more reasonable target might be 130 yards, and that starts with slowing down Hurts, who chewed them up for 71 yards on seven carries in last year’s matchup. Detroit’s preseason opener only heightened concerns, given Atlanta’s Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder were able to regularly escape the pocket for big gains.

The Lions needed that wake-up call and there’s been an added emphasis on discipline with the pass-rush lanes. We haven’t had the opportunity to see them face another mobile QB, so we don’t know the level of improvement, if any. We’re all in wait-and-see mode.

As for a spy, no one in Detroit’s linebacking corps can match Hurts’ speed, but I’d like to see what Malcolm Rodriguez can do as a spy. The rookie is instinctual, takes good angles, understands how to use the support around him and is a solid tackler.

► Q: Are you buying the Jared Goff Revival Tour pitched by many others? — @DarkoStateNews

Is this Goff’s make-or-break year for the Lions? — @LustyNorsemen

► A: Yeah, I suppose I am buying stock in Goff rebounding in a meaningful way. The factors swaying that opinion are the way he finished last season, the genuine chemistry he has with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, the upgraded weapons and the eye test.

What do I mean by that? Well, I didn’t hide my opinion coming out of camp last year that the Lions might have one of the worst offenses in the league. Goff looked particularly shaky, in some part due to his lack of quality options to throw the ball to in 2021.

This year, I can’t say the same. He’s been sharp and you can genuinely see how the pieces the team has assembled fit together. That should add up to serious improvement.

On the flip side, if it doesn’t, it should tell the Lions all they need to know about Goff’s long-term viability. If he can’t succeed in a setup designed for him to thrive, it’s time to pursue an alternative.

► Q: Predict the defensive captains for 2023 — @BarmitzvahBarry

► A: I see what you’re pointing to with this one, given Michael Brockers is a potential cap casualty and Alex Anzalone is operating on a one-year contract. Taking a stab in the dark, it’s safe to say Tracy Walker retains captaincy in 2023 and a second “C” will go to either soft-spoken but hard-working Charles Harris, or the mature-beyond-his-years Aidan Hutchinson will be deemed ready to lead, despite his age and experience.

► Q: Who will be the surprise player of the year standout nobody saw coming? — @thatguysdad

► A: It wouldn’t be a surprise if I, or anyone else, saw it coming.

That eliminates guys like Alim McNeill or Rodriguez from the conversation. Among the players not generating too much buzz heading into the year who could exceed expectations, I’d look to Elliott or Cominsky.

Elliott is a rock-solid player, but that gets forgotten in a career filled with durability concerns. If he can avoid injury in 2022, he could stabilize the back end of Detroit’s defense.

As for Cominsky, he’s going to play a rotational role and has the potential to surprise some people with his relentlessness as a pass rusher. I could see him ending up with four or five sacks in limited work.

► Q: I believe this is Jamaal Williams’ final year (with his contract). What do you predict happens with him?  — @DirtyJerzFinest

► A:  Williams will be 28 years old next season, and having never carried the ball more than 153 times the first five years of his career, there’s a reasonable amount of tread on the tires.

Considering his durability, ball security and leadership, I could see the Lions trying to re-sign Williams. They could probably get it done in the same ballpark as the two-year, $6 million contract they gave him to come to Detroit.

► Q: What did Hard Knocks do a great job of accurately showing? What did Hard Knocks do a poor job of portraying? — @Doorknob1974

Do you think Hard Knocks could have the effect of being a reason why future free agents might choose to come to Detroit? — @Tim1213

► A: Without question, the series captured the culture being established by franchise leadership, as well as the authenticity of the various members of the coaching staff. We’ve been writing about those things for a while, but it helps to have a visual representation.

As for what I didn’t like about “Hard Knocks,” topping the list was some of the forced storylines. It felt as if the crew selected a handful of players at the start and wasn’t able to deviate from those stories, even if they weren’t panning out the way they hoped or anticipated.

For example, Kalil Pimpleton was an easy choice to follow from the start. He’s a local product, having played for both Muskegon High School and Central Michigan, but despite being presented as if he was on the roster bubble throughout training camp, that was never reality.

On the other hand, some of their player selections worked out perfectly. Malcolm Rodriguez anyone?

And maybe it just wasn’t compelling for television, but I would have liked to see a little more with the Ben Johnson/Goff dynamic.

As for it being a recruiting tool, it doesn’t hurt. But as always, money and opportunity are always going to be the top two factors for free agents searching for new homes.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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