Detroit Lions mailbag: Stellar rookie class could form heart of perennial playoff contender

Detroit Free Press

I broke down the Detroit Lions’ playoff chances at the top of my weekly power rankings Tuesday, so I won’t spend too much time rehashing that here. I did get a couple questions, though, on whether I think the Lions will make the playoffs, so I figured I’d start this week’s mailbag with a prediction.

I think we all can agree the Lions look like a playoff team with the way they’re playing now. They’ve won four of their past five games and absolutely destroyed the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.

To make the playoffs, though, they likely need 10 wins, and I still don’t see that happening. Winning six straight, which is what it takes to get to 10, is a tall task in the NFL, and the Lions still have not proven they can beat truly good teams (like the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys).

I’m leaning towards picking the Lions to beat the Minnesota Vikings this week, as charmed as the Vikings have been, which would silence that narrative. But road games against the New York Jets next week and Green Bay Packers in Week 18 still seem problematic.

Playing the odds, I think the Lions have one loss somewhere on their schedule (the Jets?), so while they pass the eye test and have emerged as serious playoff contenders, I’m guessing their slow start regrettably keeps them out.

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Onto your questions.

How good has this draft class been? Obviously it is early but most guys have contributed and played well @DirtyJerzFinest

As a general rule of thumb, any team that lands three starters from a single draft has a pretty good class. It’s early, and there’s a lot to be determined with the Lions’ 2022 class, but they could surpass that number with ease.

Aidan Hutchinson should be a mainstay at defensive end for years to come, Jameson Williams gives the Lions another high-end player at a premium position, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph and Malcolm Rodriguez already are key pieces on a fast-improving defense, and James Houston has flashed massive potential as a pass rusher.

The most complete draft I’ve seen in my 12 years covering the NFL is the New Orleans Saints’ 2017 class that included Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara, Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson and current Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone. That’s an impressive haul of six starters, but it’s a cautionary tale for Lions fans who think one or two good drafts is all it takes to win a Super Bowl.

The Saints won 11 or more games in four straight seasons starting 2017, but the organizaion never reached a Super Bowl with that group and has fallen off since Drew Brees retired.

The Lions have had back-to-back solid drafts (landing starters Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Alim McNeill in 2021). That should be enough to get them to the playoffs, but they need to keep drafting well, developing talent and improve at key positions to reap the rewards of those drafts.

Any idea what the succession plan might be for Ben Johnson’s eventual move to HC? — @larrymoreorless

That’s one of the pitfalls of success, of course, is that other teams come poach your talent. The Lions offense is playing at a high enough level — they’re the only team to score 30 or more points in six games this season — and doing so without any true superstars, that I could see Johnson landing a head coaching gig this offseason.

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Johnson is a bright, young coach who fits the mold of what NFL teams are looking: Offensive-minded, creative and gets the most out his talent. His loss would be a huge blow for the Lions, and I’m not sure there is an obvious successor in house.

Duce Staley, if he wants to add play-calling to his resume, would be one candidate, and Tanner Engstrand seems to be on the very early coordinator track. But if I had to make a prediction right now, I’d guess the Lions look elsewhere if Johnson leaves in January.

What type of increase in snaps Do you expect for Jameson Williams this week? — @GOLIONS09

I think you’ll see a gradual ramp up in work for Williams, the former Alabama receiver who made a quiet NFL debut last week.

Williams played six snaps against the Jaguars and ran two pass routes, a post on the first play of the third quarter where he stumbled off the line and a nine route later in the second half when he drifted out of bounds while trying to make a catch.

Williams has Road Runner speed and the Lions want to incorporate him in their offensive game plan, but playing receiver in the NFL is not easy. I could see him playing 15 or so snaps this week, but the Lions have three pretty dependable receivers ahead of him in their rotation in Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds. I’d guess Williams continues to operate as a deep threat and the Lions try to get him a catch with space to run in the screen game. But I don’t think you’ll see him play truly significant snaps, barring injury to one of the players in front of him, until next season.

What do you make of Campbell planning to use Jameson at the gunner position this past week? Is this the plan moving forward for the remainder of the season and if so how worried are you of him risking another injury? — @TTime90

I was taken aback when my colleague Carlos Monarrez showed me Jay Glazer’s initial report that Williams would play as a gunner against the Jaguars. I know Williams played that role some in college, and did it well, but it seemed like an unnecessary risk to take with a talented rookie in his first game back from a torn ACL.

After doing a little research, the injury risk seems somewhat overblown. Jack Fox is averaging less than three punts a game this season, and the more serious injury concern on special teams plays has always been concussions.

But I was covering Michigan State when Drew Stanton tore his ACL while playing on the punt team years ago, and the Broncos lost their best special teams player to a torn ACL (on a freak sideline play) earlier this season. I wouldn’t use Williams as a gunner myself, no matter how big a weapon his speed is at that position.

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Who are your top 5 players for the draft for the Lions? — @crowlick

When it comes to the draft, I’ve always leaned heavily on my scouting sources to help shape my opinions. They do this stuff for a living and can turn me on to some of the nuances I sometimes overlook.

I share that to say I’ll have a more firm answer to this question after the season, but my early thoughts are that four prospects stand above the rest: Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson, Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and Ohio State quarterback C. J. Stroud.

I suspect Anderson and Carter will have higher grades than Hutchinson, who the Lions took No. 2 overall last spring. Both have transformative talent and would look good on a Lions team with defensive needs. Young and Stroud play a premium position and are good enough prospects to warrant a top-five pick, even with Jared Goff under contract for two more seasons.

Beyond those four, there are a number of players I’d consider for the Lions early. I’m a quarterback guy, always have been, and as such I’m very intrigued by Kentucky’s Will Levis. Clemson’s Myles Murphy is probably the top defensive end in the draft, and would help the Lions immediately. And there’s a good group of cornerbacks led by Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, South Carolina’s Cam Smith and Penn State’s Joey Porter that I need to gather more insight on.

Do we trade our 2 number 1’s to get Will Anderson? — @steve_taulbee

As good a prospect as Anderson is, and he should go one or two in this draft, that’s a not move I see the Lions making. If the Lions land a top-four pick thanks to the Los Angeles Rams, they’ll get a pretty good player no matter who is on the board. If they don’t, I think the extra draft capital could be valuable in other ways.

With two first-round picks, the Lions might be able land a defensive contributor and a quarterback, or two Year 1 defensive starters. As an alternative, the better play may be for Brad Holmes to continue playing the long game and deal out of the second No. 1 choice for future draft capital.

The 2024 draft has the makings of a really good quarterback year, and if the Lions don’t like their options at the position in April they might start hoarding ammunition for a run at a signal caller down the road.

Who are your candidates for most improved player on the roster? — @ko_slick

This sounds a little weird to say considering how improved the Lions are, but I don’t see many “most improved” candidates on the roster. The Lions basically have nine new starters on defense, everyone but Anzalone and McNeill, and the offensive players they return are playing at a similar level to how they finished last season.

Jeff Okudah would probably be my choice, though he’s a better candidate for a comeback player award. We barely saw him last season, but he is significantly better than he was as a rookie. You could make the case Jamaal WIlliams is the Lions’ most improved player. He has more rushing touchdowns (14) this season than he did in the first five years of his career, but I think his improvement is as much about opportunity as anything.

Derrick Barnes probably hasn’t played enough to be “most improved” player, but both he and Anzalone deserve a mention for playing perceptibly better than they did last season, too.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

Tipoff: 1 p.m. Sunday; Ford Field, Detroit.

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