With a few days remaining before the NFL Draft, it felt like a great time to run a Detroit Lions mailbag. Let’s see what’s on your mind.
▶ Question: Which mid-round wide receiver do you think would be the best fit for the Lions? — @TeachingZeus
▶ Answer: I’ll give you three mid- to late-rounders who fit the mold of what the Lions could use (size/athleticism) and have the right fit for Detroit’s culture.
Let’s start with Jonathan Mingo, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder coach Lane Kiffin called an egoless player who never complains about playing time. On the field, Mingo is physical as a blocker, can generate YAC because of his bigger frame, has the ability to line up outside and in the slot and doesn’t drop many passes. He should come off the board some time in Day 2.
On the draft’s third day, Iowa State’s Xavier Hutchinson and Stanford’s Michael Wilson similarly fit that mold.
Hutchinson, a volume producer for the Cyclones, caught 107 passes last season. He is a well-rounded, still-developing talent who isn’t afraid to mix it up as a blocker in the run game. And listen to the way The Athletic’s Dane Brugler describes Wilson in the publication’s draft guide: “…consummate teammate and team captain with elite football character, embraces blocking responsibilities, experienced on punt return coverages as a jammer and returner.”
Yeah, there’s an injury history with Wilson, which is part of the reason he should be available late, but he’s big, strong, surprisingly quick changing direction and an explosive leaper who has special teams experience. Add in that elite football character and it sounds like a Lions player to me.
▶ Q: The Lions still have a fair amount of cap space left. Do you get the sense they are eyeing someone else yet to sign? — @DAVIDDalexish
▶ A: One of the great values of attending the league meetings every March is the off-record conversations that expand my knowledge base and make me a better reporter. This question is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate some of that gained knowledge, even if it’s not answering the question in a way you might have hoped.
For years, when writing about the salary cap, I’ve noted the necessity of leaving a buffer for upcoming expenditures. Because the cap calculation only includes the top 51 salaries during the offseason, the upcoming costs include two more roster spots, a 16-man practice squad, replacements for injured players during training camp and the season, a steady stream of temporary practice squad elevations we’ll see throughout the season, plus some playing time bonuses that are actually built into the current years cap.
For a long time, I’ve estimated the buffer to be around $10 million, but when I mentioned this in a casual conversation with someone who works with a team’s cap, it was explained to me my estimates were low and franchises actually need closer to $15-17 million during the season.
Now, you might say, most teams have less than that. And you’d be correct, which is why you’ll see a steady stream of contract restructures before and during the season to create the extra funds needed to get through the year. And if the Lions found a player they really want to add, via either free agency or a trade, they’ll be able to do that, as well, with the contracts of a player like Taylor Decker or Jared Goff. That said, the preference is to not have to rework deals, so I wouldn’t expect many more veteran signings beyond minimum deals.
▶ Q: I’m just curious, which top prospect will be there at the start of Round 2, and what Day 2 prospect gets drafted in the first round that would catch people by surprise? — @mrstingray93
▶ A: Well, given analysts have been saying there are only 15-20 first-round talents in this draft, I’m not sure anyone should be surprised by a prospect sliding to the second round, outside of an unknown or understated injury concern causing a consensus top-20 guy to fall.
If there’s one guy frequently mocked in the first round I wouldn’t be surprised to see slide it’s Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey. The athletic gifts are so impressive, but NFL decision-makers all have preferred measurement thresholds and Kancey’s length has the potential to scare off a lot of teams.
As for prospects who many feel are second-rounders, here are some I think could make their way into the first: Kansas State cornerback Julius Brents, Minnesota center John Michael Schmitz, Northwestern defensive tackle Adetomiwa Adebawore and Syracuse offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron.
▶ Q: Covering tight ends has been an enduring problem for the Lions. Who do Lions draft this weekend to help solve this weakness? — @B_Lake007
▶ A: I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as it was during the team’s peak struggles, during Jim Caldwell’s coaching tenure. Last season, on average, Detroit allowed fewer than five catches and just under 50 yards to tight ends each week.
Room to improve? Sure. A glaring issue? Not really.
Something that should better the team’s performance in the short-term is the addition of C.J. Gardner-Johnson. In his final season with the Saints, he played more than 300 snaps in the slot and allowed a 74.5 passer rating against on 51 targets.
Could the team add a linebacker on Day 2 to further address the issue? Potentially, but none of the prospects stand out as plug-and-play coverage options. If anything, I’d look for developable upside with someone like Washington State’s Daiyan Henley, who like Malcolm Rodriguez at Oklahoma State, had the propensity to stuff the stat sheet in college.
▶ Q: Just reassure me they’re not taking a corner at six. — @StevenElwart
▶ A: I’m sorry Steven, I’m afraid I can’t do that.
If Will Anderson and Tyree Wilson are off the board by that time, and there isn’t a compelling trade offer on the table, cornerback isn’t just a possibility, it’s the likeliest outcome
▶ Q: What player from the 2022 roster who didn’t play much is a breakout candidate for 2023 that nobody is talking about? — @MathBomb
▶ A: It’s a good question, and looking over the roster, I’m not sure there are any obvious candidates. It might have been Chase Lucas had the Lions not gone wild addressing cornerback in free agency.
Two guys I’ll be keeping an eye on are last year’s second-rounder Josh Pascahl, who was highly limited by injuries during his rookie season, and running back Jermar Jefferson, who the team tried to protect from getting plucked off waivers by having him make the initial 53-man roster, even though he ended up spending the duration of the season on the practice squad.
Of course, the addition of another back in the draft probably closes the window for Jefferson.
Tight end James Mitchell probably has the most room for growth between last season and next, but I’m not sure that’s really under the radar.
▶ Q: I like the idea of trading up into late first, early second for Jahmyr Gibbs. He and D’Andre Swift on field at the same time compensates early for Jameson Williams’ (suspension), then as a longer term replacement for Swift. Don’t need to fret then over another receiver. What do you think? — @BisseyJerry
▶ A: I really like Gibbs, and I agree, there’s enough of a skill set overlap that he could be a replacement for Swift, but I struggle to see a scenario where both players share the field in Detroit, and certainly not in a way that mitigates what Williams brings to the table, in terms of downfield speed and opening up stuff underneath.
If the Lions were to go that direction, it would likely signal the end of Swift’s time in Detroit.
▶ Q: Did the Lions make any upgrades to the facilities this year? — @Constrictor_14
▶ A: Some of that stuff typically gets done during the summer break before training camp, but the team did install brand new turf and are working to address spacing concerns in the dining area by moving it to a different area of the building.
▶ Q: Where do you see Tracy Walker? It seems to a lot of people that Kerby Joseph passed him on the depth chart based on ball production. With Garder-Johnson, are we paying our third safety $6M? His cap next year is $12M. We might draft another safety. Is this his last year in Detroit? — @magnvsantonivs
▶ A: Let me start by acknowledging I don’t have access to Walker’s medical records and my only insight into his recovery are the training videos he posts on social media. That said, I don’t see Walker and Joseph as an either/or conversation. The Lions play split-safeties and they should be viewed as your projected starters.
The Gardner-Johnson addition is a short-term move and I’m expecting him to be used more as a nickel, similar to the role he played in New Orleans, where he spent his first few seasons being developed by and playing under Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
To your point on Walker’s cap hit next season, there’s always a financial decision to be made on the final year of a multi-year contract. We can all acknowledge that a $12.8 million cap figure is rich if he doesn’t return at full strength and offer more as a playmaker than he has to this stage in his career. But given what we’ve seen this offseason, with Romeo Okwara, Charles Harris and Halapoulivaati Vaitai agreeing to pay cuts after injury, that option could be on the table.
Finally, while I don’t anticipate the Lions drafting a safety in the first two or three rounds, doing so would offer a big hint to future plans. If the team pulls the trigger on someone like Jospeh’s former college teammate Sydney Brown, it could signal the Lions are preparing to move in a different direction in 2024.
▶ Q: Percent chance they draft QB with their first pick? Dan Campbell admits Jared Goff not going to be here in 10 years. Management is saying they are keeping Goff informed of their plans, (but) not approaching him with an extension. — @jschrieber
▶ A: I think you’re reading into some things more than you should, probably willfully. It’s hardly a stretch to say a player won’t be here in 10 years. How many players, at any position, spend 12 years with one team or play until they’re 38 years old? And it’s also not unusual that the Lions haven’t started contract extension talks with two years remaining on Goff’s current deal. It could definitely happen this offseason, but that stuff almost always happens after the draft.
I’d put the odds of the Lions drafting a QB with their first pick at 15%, and I’m probably higher than most in that opinion. I simply don’t want to ignore the possibility that a top prospect, such as C.J. Stroud, is sitting there and proves to be too great a value at No. 6.
▶ Q: The Saints offense frequently featured a fairly functional fullback. Are the Lions content with what Jason Cabinda offers there, or would they take a flyer on a guy like Hunter Luepke? — @DaveReimink
▶ A: Cabinda is a valuable member of the organization because of his special-teams contributions and his work off the field as both a locker room and community leader. Still, general manager Brad Holmes is always looking to upgrade, at every position. I think a lot of teams would love to find a modern fullback in the mold of San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk, but he’s currently one-of-one.
Could I see the Lions taking a player like Luepke in the late stages of the draft, or signing an undrafted fullback to push Cabinda? Absolutely. But I believe, for the aforementioned reasons, particularly the special teams role, it’s a pretty low priority.
▶ Q: In your years of doing mocks and several versions within a year, was there a particular year when you “nailed” a good portion of what was to come vs. other years? — @MarkVanBuren
▶ A: Overall, I usually feel pretty good about my read on the Lions heading into the draft most years, hitting on several of their first-round picks, or at least the position they’re trying to address. But if there’s one fluky thing I predicted that made no sense whatsoever was the Dolphins trading up to No. 3 to draft Dion Jordan in 2013.
Also, I like to continue to point out I had the common sense to slot them Aaron Donald in 2014, noting the team’s choice was down to the dominant Pittsburgh defensive tackle and eventual pick Eric Ebron.
▶ Q: As exciting as these escalating expectations for the Lions are, what happens if Jared Goff gets hurt for an extended period of time? — @DaveReimink
▶ A: The same thing that happens to most teams when their starter gets hurt — a sharp decline in offensive production. Some teams, like last year’s 49ers, have a strong enough overall roster to overcome such a blow, but Brock Purdy’s acclimation as a seventh-round rookie was an anomaly.
I get it, people want an upgraded backup situation, but there’s only so many resources you can commit to the position. The top backups this year saw contracts around $8 million per year, but those teams also had low-cost starters, while Goff carries a cap hit north of $30 million.
▶ Q: Final thoughts on whether the Lions would take Carter if he’s there? — @DANCAMPBELLSZN
▶ A: I won’t declare it as off the table, but I do not anticipate the Lions drafting Carter. My opinion on the topic has remained unchanged since the combine.