Lions mailbag: Revisiting the mock draft, plus trade and free-agency options

Detroit News

With the Super Bowl on deck for this weekend, and free agency a little more than a month away, we had a window to churn out a Detroit Lions mailbag. So, let’s see what’s on your mind.

▶ Question: In your mock draft you just wrote, you mocked Bijan Robinson to Detroit at 18. If Bijan is already gone, what position do you feel the Lions might or should target there, considering their needs at defensive line, linebacker, secondary and even right guard? — @andrewkeck

▶ Answer: As I noted in the introduction to said mock draft, we shouldn’t take the projection all that seriously. It’s still so early in the process, Robinson could easily be off the board, as you said, or the Lions might have a far lesser need at the running back position because of how they handled Jamaal Williams in free agency.

There are a number of factors we just don’t know, which prohibit us from making an informed prediction, including what needs the Lions address in free agency, who the team selected with their earlier selection (No. 6) and the 17 players who will already be off the board.

At this moment in time, all the positions you mentioned make sense. The Lions have a sizeable need for an interior lineman, and someone like Clemson’s Bryan Breese could make sense, assuming he lingers to the middle of the first round. And cornerback is obviously in play, especially if the Lions don’t address that spot at No. 6.

At this stage, I’m less keen on picking a linebacker that early. It’s just not a top-heavy talent pool, and if general manager Brad Holmes is truly concerned about his own depth at that position, he can do some shopping for reinforcements on the draft’s second day.

As for guard, it’s shaping up to be an obvious need for Detroit. I really like O’Cyrus Torrence, out of Florida. It might be a touch early for the position, but if he ends up checking all the boxes through the pre-draft process, it’s a justifiable way to use the asset.

▶ Q: Percentage chance the Lions make the Super Bowl in the next five years? NFC Championship? — @MichaelAbrams

▶ A: Just as with the previous questions, there are so many unknown variables to reasonably predict something like this. At the top of the list are injuries. As we learned when Matthew Stafford was here, a key injury can tank a season in a hurry. Then, there’s the massive roster churn in the NFL. In five years, 80% or more of the current roster is likely to be gone. And, if Detroit is able to sustain any level of success, they’re probably looking at a new offensive coordinator in the next two years.

What we can say is the Lions look to be on the right track, and they’re in a conference with far less elite-level quarterbacking talent to stand in their way. While I’m not ready to tell you all the stars will align for a Super Bowl run in the near future — let’s maybe start with winning a division title for the first time in 30 years — they’re building a nice foundation with a strong culture that suggests some level of playoff success in the very near future.

▶ Q: I remember at the time of the Jeff Okudah pick, a lot of opinions were that cornerbacks selected in the first round were ill-advised. Any truth to that, especially with such a deep cornerback class? — @TomKeat54743969

▶ A: I think your memory isn’t quite reflective of the analysis from that time. It’s not that cornerbacks are a bad idea in the first; it’s that the position doesn’t typically offer a good investment in the earliest portions of that round. Remember, at the time, Okudah was the first corner taken in the first three picks since 1997, and only a dozen had been snagged with a top-five choice across a three-decade period.

Of course, some from that group turned out to be studs, such as Charles Woodson and Jalen Ramsey. Others have busted, including Bryant Westbrook, whom the Lions selected fifth in ’97.

The way things are shaping up this year, I don’t think it would be a poor decision to draft a corner, even as early as No. 6. Sure, the depth of the class can alter perceived urgency, but that shouldn’t prevent you from taking the top player on your board, regardless of position, especially if there’s a need.

Between Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez, Joey Porter Jr., Cam Smith, Kelee Ringo and Clark Phillips III, the Lions should be thrilled to add a first-round corner if that’s where their evaluation process leads them.

▶ Q: The Lions appear to be happy with Jared Goff, but will they draft an understudy at QB? — @MrPostmaster

▶ A: The short answer is yes, it would be a good decision to draft a young, cost-controlled backup who can be developed as an injury replacement, trade chip, or even as a potential long-term starter. With that last component, it doesn’t necessarily need to be the focus, but you leave the door for it to happen organically, a la Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. He was selected No. 53 overall in 2020, less than a year after Carson Wentz signed a massive extension. Now, Hurts is playing at an MVP-caliber level and leading the Eagles into the Super Bowl.

To be clear, I don’t love the idea of using the No. 6 pick to answer that question. The Lions are on the verge of competing, and a quarterback who assuredly won’t start in 2023, and maybe not in 2024, all while taking the place of a potential instant-impact piece, isn’t congruent with the goal of taking the next step forward as a franchise.

But, anywhere else in the draft, including No. 18, sure. You could convince me that it’s worth rolling the dice on Anthony Richardson at that spot, if he lingers on the board that long. As far as Day 2, Hendon Hooker or Jaren Hall both intrigue, because of their dual-threat abilities.

▶ Q: Would you like to see the Lions trade for Maxx Crosby and what would it take? — @ODog___

▶ A: The genesis of this question comes from a mic’d up segment at the Pro Bowl, where Crosby was chatting with Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell, relaying within that conversion he grew up a Lions fan. It was an interesting comment, since Crosby actually grew up in a Dallas suburb, but the fandom could have been sparked when he was playing for Eastern Michigan.

Still, it doesn’t mean much of anything. Most kids grew up rooting for a different team than the one they play for, but it doesn’t mean they pine for suiting up for those franchises. Crosby’s relationship with the Raiders has always seemed good, at least from the outside looking in, and that was reflected in the massive four-year, $94 million extension they paid him last March.

Pursuing a trade for a player that would likely require multiple first-round picks to acquire doesn’t mesh with Holmes’ rebuild approach of loading up the roster with young, cheap talent through the draft. Obviously, his mentors with the Los Angeles Rams never shied away from pulling the trade trigger on a big name, but the Lions are in a different place in their journey. As amazing as Crosby has been, it’s just not a realistic option.

▶ Q: Which positions do you think the Lions are better off upgrading via the draft, and which position with more experienced players via free agency? — @IgorPetrinovic

▶ A: Generally speaking, almost all of them. It’s the economical approach to long-term success, given draft picks are under team control for four years and cost far less than their free-agent equivalents. Where it’s good to have veterans in place are on-field leadership positions, such as safety, middle linebacker and quarterback. Extending that further, it’s good to have an experienced veteran in every position group, just to set a tone and lead by example.

The Lions have key veterans at so many critical spots that there isn’t a pressing need heading into free agency. The one question mark is middle linebacker, and given who is expected to be available, there’s a reason we like the idea of brining back Alex Anzalone, potentially even on a multi-year deal.

▶ Q: What’s your all-time favorite Super Bowl moment? — @daveholz

▶ A: The first Super Bowl I watched was an awful one, at least for everyone not rooting for the San Francisco 49ers. They smashed the Denver Broncos in XXIV, 55-10. If that was my first, it means I missed more than two decades of the big game, so it seems best to limit my favorite moment to something I watched live.

Not that there are any shortages of options, including David Tyree’s helmet catch, Santonio Holmes’ incredible touchdown, Malcolm Butler’s game-ending interception and the Philly special.

But, I’m particularly fond of John Elway’s first win. Maybe it was some built-in sympathy from that 55-10 drubbing several years earlier, but the “Helicopter Run” on third down in the red zone to set up a third-quarter score is such an iconic visual.

▶ Q: How high do you think the Lions can take an offensive tackle to sit behind Sewell and Taylor Decker? — @wellwerewaiting

▶ A: It’s not something I would call a priority. While nothing is guaranteed, those are two tough, durable players. And while it would be ideal to have a quality backup at every spot, it’s probably better to invest the asset it would cost to get a starting-caliber offensive tackle for the bench into a piece that has a better chance of contributing on Sundays.

Taking a Day 3 flier on a prospect with developable traits, who position coach Hank Fraley can groom to be an upgrade over Dan Skipper or Matt Nelson wouldn’t be the worst idea, but otherwise, there’s no urgency.

▶ Q: Your favorite dish you’ve made this offseason? — @_olsen10

▶ A: Cooking is definitely a hobby I’m able to explore in the offseason, working from home. So far, in the first month, my favorite was probably the lasagna, with both the noodles and sauce made from scratch. Not only did it turn out well, but there was a nostalgia element involved, since I have fond childhood memories of my mom tackling the same dish from scratch.

▶ Q: Has the media heard any new uniform updates? — @w1llsp

▶ A: We’re not kept in the loop on such things, but we generally ask about them during the rare chances we get to talk to team president Rod Wood. There might be an opportunity for that during the league meetings in late March.

Here’s what I do know: new uniforms are coming, but a full overhaul isn’t in the plans for this offseason.

▶ Q: Why is Jerry Jacobs not considered a CB2 and left out of most starting defensive backfield scenarios? — @KellyMurdock

▶ A: I’m not sure where you’re reading this, but I think Jacobs still has a place in the starting lineup, even if the Lions draft a cornerback early. Yes, his physical playing style can lead to some penalty issues, but you’re talking about a guy who came off an ACL rehab and held opposing quarterbacks to a 55.0 completion percentage when targeted in coverage.

That’s a good number and doesn’t even account for the emotional energy Jacobs provides the defense. And, while I’m generally in favor of always exploring upgrades at every spot, there’s zero reason to force something at this spot.

▶ Q: Is this the year Holmes and Co. swing for the fences on a free agent? — @billybeans3

How probable is at least one big FA signing on defense such as James Bradberry or a similar upgrade at CB. Or LB? — @JoshDalley72

▶ A: If we’re basing predictions off Holmes’ approach during his first two years on the job, I wouldn’t expect a home-run swing. Clearly, a player like Bradberry or Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne would provide a big boost to Detroit’s defense, but spending on big-ticket players hasn’t been this GM’s MO.

I’d expect that the Lions will stick to the plan of retaining their own free agents, building through the draft, and plugging lingering roster holes mostly with shorter, prove-it deals. Maybe that script eventually changes as the team gets closer to championship-level contention, but this feels to be at least one offseason early for that kind of talk.

▶ Q: Do we pick up Jeff Okudah’s fifth-year option? — @DirtyJerzFinest

With Okudah being benched toward the end of season, is it possible he is not with the Lions for the 2023 season? — @OldSchoolSport7

▶ A: At this point, I don’t expect the Lions to pick up Okudah’s fifth-year option, which is approximately a $12 million guaranteed salary for 2024. He might end up being worth every penny of that if he makes steady improvements his second year removed from an Achilles tendon tear, but it’s a lot of money to commit now to a dice roll, and the team could always explore using the transition tag, giving them first right of refusal in free agency, if he does experience that production jump in 2023.

As of right now, I have no reason to believe Okudah won’t be on the team next year. Sure, there’s always the possibility of a trade, but I’m not sure anyone else is in a rush to take on his $10.7 million cap figure, unless the Lions agree to eat the $4.2 million roster bonus he’s due. The important fact here is the $10.7 million is fully guaranteed, so there’s no benefit to cutting him.

▶ Q: Am I crazy for thinking Darnell Washington is destined to be a Lion? — @rdwiley

▶ A: You’re not crazy for wanting the Lions to add a big, physical tight end with film that screams high-end blocking ability and enough athleticism to contribute in the pass game. But, without moving around the draft board, they might not have a shot at the Georgia standout. There’s a good chance he comes off the board between picks No. 18 and No. 49.

▶ Q: You have covered the team under a few different regimes in your time on the beat — in your estimation from being around them, does this one truly feel different, especially in a better way? — @EricSalonen

▶ A: Culturally, there’s a pretty significant overlap between what is currently being built and what Jim Caldwell had going on during his tenure in Detroit. That’s because both coaches treat players with respect and take a genuine interest in them as people. That fosters an environment where you want to play for your leaders.

The biggest difference between this regime and that one is the relationship between the front office and coaching staff is stronger, with a concerted effort toward always being on the same page. Ownership deserves plenty of credit for putting the pieces in place to foster that kind of environment.

Additionally, Caldwell’s squads were veteran-heavy and largely maxed out on their potential. Dan Campbell and Holmes have a young roster and everything and everyone is growing together. The ceiling for this roster, including the upcoming draft assets, is as high, if not higher, than the 2014 Lions (the most talented team I’ve covered), while having potential for far greater staying power.

▶ Q: With the regular season expansion to 17 games, have there been any rumblings of expanding team rosters? — Paul, via email

▶ A: The NFL kind of patched around that by significantly expanding the size of practice squads and allowing teams to temporarily elevate two players from that unit each week. I haven’t heard any other recent talk of roster expansion.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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