Detroit Lions mailbag: Biggest needs this offseason begin with fixing defense

Detroit Free Press

Spent another Tuesday answering mail, and even after two straight wins a lot of your questions are about the Detroit Lions’ plans for the offseason.

My sense is there’s not a lot of buy-in on the last two weeks and the Lions turning this season around, but hope is percolating again for the not-too-distant future.

Your questions:

What do you think are the 3 biggest targets for the Lions in the offseason? Personally, I think it is another edge rusher, LB and DB, with a honorable mention at QB and WR. @c_garza7

This is a good question, and a good place to start, because the Lions still have so many needs and so many unknowns with some of the players they are projecting to play big roles down the road.

I would prioritize taking a good quarterback over every other position because of the value, but that’s not the Lions’ biggest “need.” Their biggest need, in my opinion, is another defensive playmaker, and I’d be less concerned what position he plays than I would with simply finding someone who will be an impact player defensively. If that’s a cornerback to pair with Jeff Okudah, great. If it’s an edge rusher, even better. But I think if the Lions can find someone who fits that description they can fill in the rest of their defense from there.

More:How close are Detroit Lions to playoff contenders (cue Jim Mora voice)?

Positionally, as I look at the Lions’ roster, their contract situation and where they might be thin this offseason, I’d put defensive tackle (where Isaiah Buggs is a pending free agent, Levi Onwuzurike can’t stay healthy and Michael Brockers will be a cap casualty) near the top of the list, though there’s a good chance Buggs returns in 2023. Safety will be a position of need, too, with DeShon Elliott on an expiring deal. Tracy Walker should be back from his torn Achilles at some point, but there’s no telling if his rehab will look more like Jeff Okudah’s or Romeo Okwara’s.

Offensively, I heard someone compare building a passing game recently to building an NBA roster, where teams want as many scorers as possible. Depending on what we see from Jameson Williams this year, I do think it will be important for the Lions to add another receiver. I’d prioritize that position over running back and tight end based on value, though Jamaal Williams’ expiring contract, D’Andre Swift’s continued health problems and the recent trade of T.J. Hockenson make those positions bigger actual needs.

How much salary cap will the Lions have this offseason and will they finally spend on Vets? — @jamara23732

The way things stand now, the Lions will enter this offseason with a cap cushion similar to what they had in 2022. According to Spotrac, the Lions currently have about $199 million in cap commitments for what’s projected to be a $230 million salary cap.

The biggest offseason decision the Lions will have to make is what to do with Jared Goff. Goff is set to count $30 million against the cap next season, but the Lions could save $20 million by releasing him. They’d have to find a replacement, of course, so I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario right now, but we’ll find out early in spring as Goff is due a $5 million roster bonus in March.

Cutting Brockers would free up $10 million in cap space and the Lions have decisions to make on Okwara ($7 million) and Halapoulivaati Vaitai ($6 million), too.

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As for the second part of that question, and whether the Lions spend in free agency, I don’t expect their approach to change much, yet. I may be in the minority, but I like the approach Brad Holmes has taken in free agency. He’s missed on some of the players he’s signed, but he has not saddled the Lions with a single bad contract and he hasn’t blocked young players from getting on the field. There will come a point where it will be important for the Lions to spend in free agency, but I don’t think that point is 2023.

Do we re-sign jamaal? Anzalone? Two vets who’ve played well and could net 1-2 year reasonable deals — @DirtyJerzFinest

The Lions like both Williams and Alex Anzalone, and I agree, both are having pretty good years. Williams leads the Lions in rushing and is trending toward a 1,000-yard season, and Anzalone is the team’s leading tackler and the nerve center of the defense.

The Lions (and both players) are still a few months from making decisions about their futures, but I’d put the chances of a Williams return at better than 50%. He fits what the Lions want to be as a rushing team and I think the Lions are more apt to chase a Swift replacement in the draft.

Anzalone is in a slightly different boat as where the Lions go at linebacker may hinge more on the development of Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes. Anzalone is a better player than both right now, but if the Lions truly believe in Barnes, they have to give him a path to a starting job. I definitely can see Anzalone back, but the final eight weeks will tell us more.

Kerby Joseph, real one or no? He had a great game against Rodgers and the Packers and looked absolutely awful against the Bears when he got torched by Kmet — @pbartosz7

Growing pains are to be expected from a rookie with six starts under his belt, so I wouldn’t read too much into Joseph’s performance against the Bears. He did some good things the previous few weeks, causing four turnovers in three games, and I can say without hesitation Joseph is further along than the Lions thought he would be at this point.

I asked Dan Campbell a question similar to PB’s last week, how he discerns whether young players have staying power or are simply filling roles out of necessity because the state of the Lions roster. He said it’s too early to know with most rookies, and I think that’s the case with Joseph.

If I had to guess halfway through his rookie season, I’d say Joseph will be a regular starter for the Lions over the next few seasons but never quite a Pro Bowler. That’s the history of safeties Brad Holmes has had a hand in picking over the years. Joseph’s ball skills give him the chance to be more, but he still is very much a work in progress at the position.

More:Detroit Lions GM has knack for finding gems at safety — and may have found his best yet

Is quarterback still going to be a priority given how bad this defense is, he is going to have two fairly high first round picks, might he package them to move up to get Stroud or Young? – @ronniereb1963

I’ve beat this drum for years and I’ll continue to until the Lions have their long-term answer at quarterback: It should be an organizational priority to find a young quarterback to build around. That doesn’t mean the Lions should sell out to get a player they don’t believe in at the position, but they will have to roll the dice at some point.

I like Young and Stroud, probably in that order, but I don’t think they will have the kind of grades that would warrant trading your draft to go get. The Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers seem destined to take quarterbacks early, but there aren’t a whole lot of quarterback-desperate teams at the top of the draft.

If the Lions don’t finish with a top-four pick — there are two really good defensive players in next year’s draft, too — they might be able to land a really intriguing prospect at the position, Kentucky’s Will Levis, by holding tight, and they could give him some time to learn on the bench to learn behind Goff in 2023.

Daniel Jones, NYG quarterback. Over or under 100 yards rushing? – @spleen95shortbr

If you read last week’s mailbag, you know Spleen asked me the same question about Justin Fields and I whiffed badly. I predicted Fields would end up in with 80 or so yards. He had 147 on 13 carries. I guess what I meant to say was Fields would have about 80 in the fourth quarter on one long touchdown run. Hey, at least I didn’t bench him on my fantasy team last week.

Jones is a threat with his legs, too. He’s not the same caliber runner as Fields, but that could work to his advantage as the Lions’ gameplan will focus primarily on taking Saquon Barkley out of the game. Jones had 107 yards on 11 carries in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last month, so he’s capable of hitting the century mark.

I’m taking the under on his rushing yards, though, not because I think the Lions have learned from their mistakes — they also struggled to stop Geno Smith and Jalen Hurts on the ground this season — but because I think Barkley will have a good enough day that Jones won’t do much running. I’ll say Jones finishes with seven carries for 54 yards.

Why do you pretend that your getting Taylor swift tickets for your daughter but really they are for you lol #lionmailbag@swank102

When I asked for mailbag questions Tuesday morning I was passing time waiting to see if I could get Taylor Swift concert tickets for my 13-year-old daughter, but Zack, I can’t lie, I like Taylor Swift’s music, too! As for the concert, that’s more my wife’s domain. If we score tickets, she’ll be taking my daughter and they’ll be going with my sisters and their daughters. My son’s already planning a boy’s day, though maybe we’ll blast some T-Swizzle on our way to whatever steak joint we eat at.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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