Lions mailbag: Breaking down the rebuild, injuries, GM decisions and dinner

Detroit News

Allen Park — After a bye-week break, we’re back with another Detroit Lions mailbag.

▶ Question: Pretty tough ask, but on the surface, what do you think other rebuilding teams have done that has contributed to ahead-of-schedule success that the Lions have not? — @Gregss_

▶ Answer: First, let’s establish parameters. Let’s put all the teams that finished with six or fewer wins last season into the rebuilding bucket. Obviously, some others have since joined that mix such as Seattle, but let’s not overcomplicate the discussion. That leaves us with the Bears, Giants, Jaguars, Jets, Panthers and Texans for this evaluation.

Obviously, each rebuild is a little bit different, but let’s specifically focus on the timelines. Notably, the Bears, Jaguars, Giants and Texans all have first-year head coaches. So, those teams are technically behind the Lions, even if a couple of those franchises have had GMs in place prior to this year.

In terms of performance this season, the Bears, Jaguars, Panthers and Texans all have two wins or fewer. Quality of wins or closeness of losses aside, each is still struggling to win consistently, just like the Lions. That leaves us to dissect what’s going on with the two New York squads.

The Giants are a fascinating one, to be sure. They have five wins, all by one score — including two against other teams from this rebuilding discussion — besting Chicago and Carolina. But that doesn’t negate beating a couple of historically good franchises in Green Bay (in London) and Baltimore.

Looking at the numbers, a big component of the Giants’ success has been a few key defensive metrics. They rank fifth on both third downs and in the red zone, while they are a top-10 team against the pass. It’s interesting, because they are the only team blitzing more than the Lions, but they are still generating pressure at a slightly above-average rate and their passer rating against is middle of the pack. They are clearly embodying bend-don’t-break defense, consistently coming up with stops in critical situations.

Offensively, they’re not good, but they’re improved under coach Brian Daboll. Fourth-year quarterback Daniel Jones is playing his best football and Saquon Barkley, the team’s true engine, is finally healthy again. That successful ground game is letting them control tempo and clock, further accentuating a defense that’s limiting scoring.

As for the Jets, they’re getting it done in a similar way, with good defense, even if the statistical strengths are different. They rank ninth in total yards allowed, fourth in yards per carry, and they’re near the top of the league in pressure rate and turnover generation. Additionally, both New York teams are near the bottom of the NFL in missed tackles.

By playing well on defense, it’s lessened the strain on the Jets’ young offense, which has shown flashes, particularly the backfield tandem of Breece Hall and Michael Carter, but remains inconsistent with second-year quarterback Zach Wilson still settling into life as a pro.

So, what’s the difference? It’s defensive success. Those teams are having it and the Lions are not, which is admittedly an understatement for a team ranking at or near the bottom in points allowed, third downs, red-zone conversion rate and turnover generation.

▶ Q: Do you think Romeo Okwara has played his last down for the Lions? — @FriedrichsJk

▶ A: Without a clearer update on his rehab process — and believe me, I’ve asked multiple times — it’s tough to ascertain when the elder Okwara brother will see the field again. It’s been more than a year since he tore his Achilles, and the Lions have given no indication he’s close to returning to practice. That’s both understandable — given the type of injury — and concerning, in terms of what, if anything, he’ll be able to contribute this year.

Whether he plays this season is a different discussion than if he plays another snap for the Lions. In 2023, he’ll be entering the third and final year of the contract extension he signed in 2021. He’s scheduled to have a $14.5 million cap hit, while his release would create $7.5 million in cap space.

If he comes out of the rehab process with similar athleticism and strength as he had prior to suffering the Achilles injury, retaining him is a coin-flip decision, in my opinion. Some of it will probably depend on where the Lions land in the draft order and whether they are in position to land a top edge defender like Alabama’s Will Anderson or Clemson’s Myles Murphy (and if the team doesn’t plan on taking a QB). Pairing Anderson/Murphy with Aidan Hutchinson would make Okwara expendable, freeing up cap space to spend on other areas of need.

▶ Q: Seeing Micah Parsons’ individual success with the Cowboys, shouldn’t we as Lions fans expect Aidan Hutchinson to be on par with that? — @crossnoe7

Do you think any of Hutchinson’s struggles can be attributed to his short arm length that was a concern during the draft process? — @c0mradeCody

▶ A: It’s not a mailbag unless we’re answering at least one question about Hutchinson. In this case, we’ll cram two together.

Look, I haven’t shied away from criticizing Hutchinson’s slow start, but within that, I’ve tried to note that slow starts are a common part of the rookie process. Remember, he wasn’t breaking Michigan records his first three seasons. It wasn’t until his senior year that everything came together. And while no one is saying it should take him three full pro seasons before things click at this level, an adjustment period is standard for first-year players.

No, I don’t think his arm length is an issue. While it merited evaluation in the pre-draft process, on film, Hutchinson negated many of the issues a lack of length can cause at the position with first-step acceleration and change-of-direction quickness. Even if we haven’t seen it consistently on Sundays, he’s one of the most athletic defensive linemen on the field each week. Once he calibrates, that should become more apparent.

As for Parsons, he rapidly developed into one of the game’s dominant defensive players, not needing the runway most rookies need. But that makes him an anomaly, not someone who resets expectations for future prospects.

Parsons is already a top-five defensive player in the NFL. Hutchinson might never reach those heights. That’s OK, too. Sure, that’s the dream when you take a player No. 2 overall, but more realistically, the goal is he becomes a guy who routinely records double-digit sacks, takes over a couple of games each season and rarely has an awful performance. By year three, that should be the baseline expectation for Hutchinson.

▶ Q: Realistic week to see Jameson Williams on the field? — @HiMyNameIs275

▶ A: Had you asked me when he was drafted, or even during training camp, I would have guessed this would be the week he returned to practice, with the Nov. 13 game in Chicago as the target for a debut. Clearly, that projection was overly optimistic.

All we know to this point is coach Dan Campbell said it would be a while after the bye before Williams starts practicing. It’s unclear whether that means 10 days or another four weeks. I still fully expect Williams to see playing time this year, although it probably won’t be more than 20 snaps in a given game down the stretch. It’s always felt like they wanted to get him a taste in 2022, with eyes on a bigger role starting next season.

▶ Q: Were you able to enjoy a dinner or two with the family over the bye? — @FrediThePizzamn

▶ A: Fredi, let me tell you, I cooked up a storm during the week off.

For those who follow me on Twitter, you know cooking is a bit of a stress-relieving hobby. Unfortunately, during the season, paired with the schedule demands of the school year, it gets tough to make meals for the family. This week, I whipped up a Sunday sauce over some rigatoni, made some fried rice (with Chinese sausage) and made another run at perfecting Banh Mis, but I remain convinced it’s still not worth it compared to ordering them takeout.

Regardless, it was a good week on that front.

▶ Q: Do you think Campbell’s risk-taking would be curbed if he knew he had a reliable kicker and a reliable defense? — @PhilipFracassi

▶ A: To a degree, yes. Campbell has said it before, he’s inherently aggressive, but we can all see that some of his decision-making on fourth down is compelled by his lack of faith in the other units more so than basic analytics. Still, I think he’s going to go for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield most of the time, a fact that should excite a fan base. But fourth-and-9 with the option to kick a 50-yard field goal? Different personnel is likely going to alter that decision.

▶ Q: Do you think the Lions are going to be sellers before the trade deadline? Which players do you see getting traded? — @arielcandal

▶ A: The NFL trade deadline has been a little more active in recent years, but it still pales in comparison to the other professional leagues because of how difficult it can be to incorporate a player mid-stream. Barring wins against Dallas and Miami in the next two weeks, and maybe regardless, the Lions should definitely field calls from interested teams.

As to who could be on the block, anything I say here is merely speculation, based on the talent and the contract situation. Some players who could generate interest, in my opinion: Amani Oruwariye, Austin Bryant, Evan Brown and Chris Board.

Oruwariye should be obvious, at this point. While the team is trying to spin it as positively as they can, he was benched and the depth chart will only get more crowded once Jerry Jacobs returns. Oruwariye, at his best, isn’t a Pro Bowler, but he’s been a solid performer who has held opposing QBs to a completion percentage under 60% the previous two seasons, while racking up six interceptions last year.

As for Bryant, Brown and Board, all three are quality depth pieces in the final year of their contracts. Brown is a plug-and-play interior lineman for any team battling injuries, Bryant could give someone situational edge-rushing help and Board is an elite special-teamer with some coverage and blitz ability on defense.

Getting a late-round draft pick for any of them, and potentially a mid-rounder — think a fourth or fifth, not a second — for Oruwariye, would be worth making the move.

▶ Q: Do you think general manager Brad Holmes starts paying quality money for impactful free agents? — @DirtyJerzFinest

Looking at available free agents next year on defense, which ones do you think Holmes should look at? — @CesareCasadei1

▶ A: At some level, we have to recognize the Lions had cap limitations this offseason, but what money they did have to spend was mostly focused on retaining pieces, with the primary outside expenditure being wide receiver DJ Chark. That move made sense for a team desperate for a true X option on the outside, and Holmes has done a good job with the offense, through free agency and the draft, turning around a hapless unit in just one year’s time.

Defensively, not so much. The additions of Board and DeShon Elliott have done little, and reinvesting in Charles Harris, Tracy Walker and Alex Anzalone hasn’t paid off as the GM hoped, in part because Walker suffered an unexpected season-ending injury.

What we typically see in these situations is general managers making adjustments to their strategy. So, yeah, I’d expect the Lions to spend more on the unit next offseason, given the team is bottom-10 in cap space committed to the defense. Of course, some of that should come in the form of draft assets, where the Lions will likely have three top-50 picks come April.

As for pending free agents whom I think could help, it’s easy to look at the group of off-ball linebackers on track to hit the market. Just to name a handful, Lavonte David, Dre Greenlaw, Roquan Smith and T.J. Edwards are set to be free agents and could each bolster one of Detroit’s least-effective position groups.

▶ Q: In the event this staff wins 5 or less games again, do you bring DC back? And if so, how would you justify it? — 2mryoungl

▶ A: While it would be a disappointment, there’s a reason the Lions gave Campbell a six-year contract. They knew what they were asking of him, beginning with the pending trade of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford. Regardless of what you or I think, this franchise isn’t about to reverse course on that thinking and eat the final four years of that contract.

You can call that being cheap, but it’s also impractical to abandon a rebuild plan so early. This isn’t like the previous regime, where Matt Patricia inherited a roster that was on the cusp of playoff contention and burned things to the ground. When Campbell took over, he received the worst defense in franchise history, a quarterback with a trade request and the team’s top-three receivers all hitting free agency.

We all knew what it would look like last year. And while optimism was admittedly higher entering this season, it was probably too high. Vegas had them pegged for 6.5 wins. So yeah, five would be disappointing, but the way this thing was being built, year three was always going to be when this was supposed to round the corner.

▶ Q: What sort of improvement does the defense need to show in order for Glenn to save his job? — @Oh_ok_right

▶ A: It’s tough to get a gauge on what kind of leash Campbell will provide Glenn. There’s a lot of history between the two, and with that, a lot of belief. But if the Lions finish dead last in scoring, particularly if there’s not clear improvement in the second half, what message is the head coach sending about upholding standards?

Obviously, putting any hard statistical benchmark on job retention is unrealistic, but holding opponents closer to 25 points per game, as opposed to nearly 30 — when you factor out the three offensive turnovers returned for touchdowns — would be a solid starting point. On top of that, improvements on third down in the red zone, closer to league average in the final 12 games, would be good barometers toward sticking with Glenn.

Obviously, success in those latter areas should naturally lead to fewer points.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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