Lions mailbag: Thoughts on defensive malaise, Hockenson’s future and … the draft?

Detroit News

Allen Park — Welcome to another edition of our weekly Detroit Lions mailbag. Let’s get right to the questions.

▶ Question: Do these last four games automatically mean the Lions aren’t drafting a QB? — @szn_lions

▶ Answer: No, I don’t think we can make any proclamations four games into the season, but yes, Jared Goff is making a strong case to be the franchise’s long-term solution with his recent performance. I’ve long been of the opinion he needed to show he could build off his finish to last season and get back to producing at or the near his Pro Bowl levels from a few years back. Through the first month of the season, he’s clearly doing that.

Still, you don’t need to make any decisions about the future of the quarterback position in October. If Goff continues on this path, and finishes the way he’s started the 2022 season, general manager Brad Holmes probably won’t be compelled to seek a replacement via the draft.

But that doesn’t mean the Lions shouldn’t consider drafting a more viable backup solution, as early as the second round. There are some quality options emerging, and I think the Lions would do well to look at adding a dual-threat in that role, someone like K.J. Jefferson, Hendon Hooker or Jaren Hall.

▶ Q: How much of the problems on defense are scheme vs. talent? — @EvanSchnaitman

▶ A: It’s tough for me to provide percentages, but it’s a little bit of both. Up front, Charles Harris is probably more of a No. 3 edge rusher than the guy being asked to play 81% of snaps, and Alim McNeill is the only interior lineman that likely starts for another team. And in the second level, Malcolm Rodriguez has shown he’s starting-caliber, and I like what Chris Board brings as a situational piece, but Alex Anzalone still strikes me as a replacement-level talent.

On paper, Detroit’s secondary has the most to work with. Jeff Okudah is clearly turning into a solid piece, and despite his recent struggles, Amani Oruwariye is a proven talent. And, when Tracy Walker was healthy, he made a strong safety pairing with DeShon Elliott.

The biggest issue is the lack of playmaking. The Lions simply don’t have any consistent pass-rusher threats (although Hutchinson should get there) or anyone in the middle of the defense capable of generating turnovers. Both are worthwhile areas to address next offseason.

The schemes and play calls, on their own, are proven concepts that exist in plenty of playbooks around the league. It’s always about either the timing of the calls and having the players in position to execute their assignments. Watching the film, it’s the latter area where the Lions often fall short.

Is that due to a lack of talent? Or is it having too much faith in young talent to execute? Or poor teaching of concepts on the practice field and in the meeting room? It’s probably safe to say it’s a little from all three columns.

▶ Q: May be too early/difficult to tell, but are there any defensive players on other teams who could be realistic trade targets for Brad Holmes before the trade deadline? — @andrewkeck

▶ A: I haven’t really been keeping up on talent that may be on the block, other than former Lions receiver Kenny Golladay. But let me say this about trades — they’re generally not the cure-all they’re made out to be. I think they can be beneficial for a contender to plug a hole, but they rarely make sense for a rebuilding team.

What’s the goal here in Detroit? It’s not to win seven games instead of five in 2022. It’s to build a roster that can compete year in and year out. You don’t do that by giving up draft picks to chase short-term solutions.

You have to remember, there’s a reason talent is available at this time of year, even if it’s not immediately apparent. For example, Snacks Harrison was seemingly an absolute steal for the Lions when they picked him up in a trade a few years back, immediately improving the run defense. But then he pushed for a new contract, got it and his performance fell off. You have to believe the ability to project that scenario was part of the reason he was on the block in the first place.

▶ Q: The defense has the top offense at its disposal several days a week at practice. Are they getting smoked there too and if not, how? — @MarkVanBuren

▶ A: After training camp, the starting offense and defense don’t go head-to-head all that often in practice. It’s more about preparing for the upcoming opponent. That means the first-team units battle against scout teams made up of backups and practice-squaders, who simulate the formations and play calls the Lions expect to see on Sunday.

▶ Q: Is T.J. Hockenson returning this offseason or do they let him walk? — @DetroitMoments

▶ A: Barring something unexpected, Hockenson will remain with the Lions in 2023. That’s because he’s under contract after the team picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. And that’s now guaranteed, unlike when the team picked up Eric Ebron’s fifth-year option and cut him in March, before it vested.

Your confusion is likely centered around talk of an extension for Hockenson this offseason. That’s because teams frequently negotiate extensions and build the fifth-year option into them, much like the Lions did with center Frank Ragnow last year. It’s unclear if cap limitations or a larger, ongoing debate about whether to pay the tight end played a bigger role in a similar deal not getting done with Hockenson, but as noted at the start of this answer, time is on the Lions’ side.

▶ Q: How do you think our rebuild is going compared to the Jets’? Robert Saleh was the big name a lot of people wanted. — @DetroitOilMoney

▶ A: In a lot of ways, the franchises are in the same boat. The Jets have got one more win than the Lions, but it’s less about the 2022 record and more about the young talent they’ve been adding through the draft. Wide receiver Garrett Wilson, offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, wide receiver Elijah Moore running back Breece Hall, corner Sauce Gardner and edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II are all showing early promise.

But, we can all agree, much of the Jets’ future hinges on quarterback Zach Wilson. If he develops into a Pro Bowl-caliber player, it drastically increases the chance of a successful rebuild.

The Lions, on the other hand, have quickly pieced together a potent offense. It’s the defense that’s dragging behind. With the stability Goff provides at quarterback, the Lions could hypothetically invest aggressively in the defense this offseason, both in free agency and the draft, spurring a similar turnaround for that unit that propels them into playoff-contender status in 2023.

▶ Q: Any particular reason why Amani Oruwariye has regressed so much? — @IanEvan71041877

▶ A: It’s a really good question. I had always thought Oruwariye was a really good No. 2 cornerback, but with the way he finished out the 2021 campaign (prior to suffering a season-ending injury), it really felt like he was blossoming into a low-end No. 1 guy.

But that’s been anything but the case this season, and he’s not living up to the previously established qualities that made him that reliable No. 2, when he was holding quarterbacks under 60% when throwing his direction. And it’s not scheme-related, because he’s long proven comfortable in man coverage, whether pressing at the line or playing off.

He’s just been a half-step slow, for whatever reason. I don’t know if the back injury that abruptly sidelined him in Week 2 is a bigger issue, but something is clearly off. That’s rough for a guy playing for his next contract.

▶ Q: When will Anzalone be moved out of the starting lineup? — @StevenElwart

▶ A: Speaking in absolutes is a quick way to end up looking stupid, but I find it difficult imagining a scenario where the Lions bench Anzalone. He might have his flaws, but it’s not like there’s another option on the roster nipping at his heels for playing time.

Even if we agree that the veteran’s reaction times are often too slow, the coaching staff trusts Anzalone to know where to be and to execute his assignment, while also relaying the calls and getting his teammates properly aligned.

But I also think it says something that he was only re-signed for one season as a free agent this spring. The coaches may like a lot of what he brings to the table, but that deal recognizes there’s room to upgrade that spot as soon as next offseason.

▶ Q: When you’re with the players and coaches, do you have a sense that they are also frustrated? Is there a visible change in morale? — @lamos_mary

▶ A: I probably sense it most with Campbell, who knowingly wears his heart on his sleeve. In the locker room, it’s been business as usual and I don’t get any sense anyone is downtrodden by the recent struggles.

They could probably stand to have a guy on the defense being more vocal about the unit’s issues, but they don’t really have that fiery, rah-rah guy and it’s unreasonable to expect players to be something they’re not. There again, maybe finding more vocal leaders on that side of the ball should be added to the offseason wish list.

▶ Q: Is there any hint that Aaron Glenn’s job is in jeopardy? — @oldmancoyote22

▶ A: None at all. Campbell has thrown his backing behind Glenn multiple times this week. If there are going to be any conversations about Glenn’s role on the staff, it would most likely occur in the offseason.

▶ Q: How big of a hit was the loss of Cominsky and when do we think he will be back? — @NJdetlionsfan

▶ A: Bigger than we could have imagined coming into the season. He was playing really well, leading the team in QB pressures, while also creating opportunities for his teammates with his combination of power and relentlessness.

I’ve talked with Cominsky a couple of times in the past week and the thumb he had surgically addressed is healing well. Still, it was bad enough that it required multiple screws to fix, so the team won’t rush it. Honesty, I think there’s a shot he’s back after the bye, just because he’s tougher than a $2 steak, but realistically, it will be a couple more weeks after that.

▶ Q: Who are the Lions going to pick in the draft? — @bigtunawayne

▶ A: Well, at least we made it four weeks into the season before some of you were ready to take a plunge into next year’s draft.

▶ Q: Before the season started, Campbell said they need a big second-year leap from last year’s rookies. If not, they’re in big trouble. How does that draft class look? — @SeanyLDR

▶ A: Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown are continuing to build on their strong rookie seasons and are clear foundational blocks for the franchise. And McNeill is also a solid piece who continues to get better and be productive.

Unfortunately, the rest of the class isn’t providing much. Levi Onwuzurike is threatening to be a bust if he can’t get healthy, while Ifeatu Melifonwu, Derrick Barnes and Jermar Jefferson are offering minimal contributions so far, although Barnes appears to be working his way back into the linebacker rotation on run downs.

Getting two stars and a solid starter in a draft class is a pretty good haul, but the Lions probably could stand for a little more from that second group. It’s not too late for any of those guys, but the developmental jump hasn’t come at the start of their second seasons.

▶ Q: What realistic expectations should Lions fans have for Josh Paschal after his sports hernia? — @notishiiii

▶ A: It’s a core muscle injury, so it’s going to take him a minute to get up to speed, especially after missing all of his first training camp. It’s easy to see him ending up a healthy scratch on game days shortly after he’s added to the active roster, at least until the team is confident he’s ready to contribute.

Once active, the role will likely be situational, something like the 15-20 snaps Benito Jones sees each week. I’m not trying to be pessimistic when I say I don’t expect a whole lot of production out of the second-round pick this season.

▶ Q: Should Glenn change how he’s using Hutchinson? When they changed him at Michigan, there was a drastic change in his performance. — @jbsdbrhklsy

▶ A: I honestly believe they’re exploring it, but there are some limitations, based on personnel. The Lions use Hutchinson as a closed-side defensive end, meaning he’s across the strong side of the offense’s formation. That requires him to rush more out of a three-point stand and take on more double-teams, in the form of a tight end or chipping back. But given the other starter is Charles Harris, who is smaller and less stout against the run, it’s not realistic to simply swap them.

Instead, the Lions are going to have to explore someone who can replace Hutchinson on the strong side, whether that’s Michael Brockers, undrafted rookie Demetrius Taylor or Cominsky, once he’s healthy, freeing up the rookie to move around a bit more and create pass-rush mismatches.

▶ Q: Craig Reynolds got one carry in the first half and went for 21 yards and didn’t see another touch until the fourth quarter. Do you think he’s more involved this week? — @MichaelFickII

▶ A: Yeah, Reynolds’ workload was a little curious given the absence of D’Andre Swift, but we know the Lions like to ride the hot hand — and Jamaal Williams was running pretty well against Seattle. Plus, the Lions trust him because he’s durable, decisive, rarely losses yardage and is ball secure.

Do I expect Reynolds to see a little more work against New England? Yeah, probably, but not significant enough to start him in fantasy football or anything wild like that.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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