Lions mailbag: Talking top concerns heading into season

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Golden Tate

Allen Park — Welcome to our Detroit Lions mailbag.

While there's a break in the action before the team's second preseason game, it felt like a good time to field some of your questions.

@Justin_Rogers likelihood we see three players w/ 80 receptions each again this year? And if so, who are the favorites to reach the mark?

— Daniel De Felippis (@DGarraston) August 17, 2016

I won't call it likely, because there are a lot of health-related contingencies, but it's certainly possible. As you mentioned, the Lions did it just last year, becoming just the fifth team in NFL history to accomplish the feat. If it happens, I would expect the trio to be Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Theo Riddick. Expecting 80 grabs from Anquan Boldin out of the slot is a bit much, and that's an unrealistic production jump for Eric Ebron, especially until he proves he can stay on the field for 16 games.

@Justin_Rogers Do you think they are hiding (wide receiver) Jay Lee to put on the practice squad or is (Quinshad) Davis that much better?

— Tim Smith (@tims987) August 17, 2016

Interesting you bring this up because I made a similar comment in the press box in Pittsburgh. The practice of hiding young players in the preseason isn't uncommon. Lee has shown plenty of positive ability on the practice field, but he's also struggled more than expected on special teams, where he would need to contribute as a rookie to be a viable roster option. The practice squad would be a good spot for him to continue to develop as both a receiver and coverage unit contributor.

@Justin_Rogers Let’s say late in the season the Lions are 9-4 and lose (Marvin) Jones. Do you call Mega? Or Terrell Owens to come out of retirement?

— J Crowley (@JackCrowley_) August 17, 2016

IIf you call Calvin Johnson, expect it to go straight to voicemail. He's not coming back. Owens would probably jump at the opportunity, but he'll be turning 43 in December. So yeah, not realistic. The more likely option in this scenario is the Lions would promote a young player off their practice squad and expand the roles of Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts, TJ Jones or Jeremy Kerley.

@Justin_Rogers Is (Brandon) Pettigrew not expected back for a long while (hence the signing of Andrew Quarless)? When will (Ameer) Abdullah be ready? He's an X-factor for success.

— MotownMarcinGB (@MarcAPerna) August 17, 2016

The typical recovery time for a torn anterior cruciate ligament is between 6-9 months. Pettigrew's injury occurred in December, so he's in the middle of that range. I've seen him doing some light jogging around the practice field, but not anything official with the trainers to this point. We'll have a better grasp of the situation in three weeks, but worst-case scenario, he starts the year on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which would keep him sidelined through at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

@Justin_Rogers Give me one good reason why anyone should be a fan of this team or organization?? Growing up here can't be one of them.

— Andrew Heath (@andrewhth) August 17, 2016

Geography is clearly the easy answer, but you've taken that one away. Other reasons could be you are fond of ugly shades of blue or you are a masochist. Those two aren't mutually exclusive.

@Justin_Rogers If (tight end Cole) Wick continues to grow as a player how expendable does (Eric) Ebron become next year?

— Davis Williams (@ch0z3n1) August 17, 2016

About as expendable as Corey Fuller made Calvin Johnson.

@Justin_Rogers Is this season a throw-away season where the Lions transition to (the Bob Quinn) regime? Any chance there are any coaching changes?

— Dan Welling (@spacecataz1663) August 17, 2016

No, it's not a throw-away season. There's enough talent on the roster to compete for a playoff spot, but a lot of things have to go right, starting with the offensive line gelling in a hurry. And if Detroit bombs in Bob Quinn's first season, ending with six or fewer wins, coaching changes are not only on the table, but likely.

Ameer Abdullah

@Justin_Rogers list your top three concerns heading into the season based on camp observations to this point? Top 3 surprises?

— A (@yourmommy88) August 17, 2016

Top three concerns are offensive line, offensive line and offensive line.

No, that's not fair, but that unit is number one, far and away.  Other issues would be the running game and the health of DeAndre Levy. Obviously the ground game goes hand in hand with the O-line, but the Lions' running backs need to be able to create on their own occasionally. Ameer Abdullah has shown this ability, but how big of a workload can he handle and will his ball security issues crop back up?

As for Levy, he's an unknown factor after missing nearly all of the 2015 season and just getting activated off the PUP list on Tuesday. If he's anything close to the player he was in 2013-14, the defense has a chance to be a pretty good unit.

@Justin_Rogers how big of role do you see for Quandre Diggs this year? Will it be a breakout year for him?

— Michael Hoffman (@hoffmanmj) August 17, 2016

Diggs is penciled in as the starting nickelback, meaning he should be on the field between 50-70 percent of the snaps each week. There will likely be games where the Lions utilize multiple nickel options, with a bigger safety in place of Diggs to counter certain matchups, but he's going to be the primary guy in that role.

As for his performance, I'm not as high on him as some others. I thought he played well for a rookie, and where I really like his game is in run support. In coverage, he's still spotty, especially the further his assignment travels from the line of scrimmage. If he can improve as a cover corner, he can have the breakout year you're hoping for, but I still see enough coverage lapses on the practice field that I'm not willing to make that prediction.

@Justin_Rogers when will (Ameer) Abdullah see game action? Will (Eric) Ebron be ready for week 1?

— Jason Usher (@jayusher67) August 17, 2016

I expect both to be ready for the regular season. Before that, I'm not sure the value of the risk. Ameer Abdullah is getting plenty of live reps, without contact, so he's getting a good feel for how his blocking is setting up and the timing for when to hit the hole. It's not ideal, but it's good enough to have him ready for the regular season.

@Justin_Rogers (Zach) Zenner or (Stevan) Ridley who's the third back

— Cody (@CodyAlliecats) August 17, 2016

Right now, you have to lean toward Zach Zenner. The Lions indicated as much with their usage of the two in the preseason opener. That said, the competition is far from over.

@Justin_Rogers how is this offense different from what Chip Kelly ran (in Philadelphia)? Or is it more like the (Buffalo Bills) K-Gun offense (Jim Kelly era, early 1990s)?

— Brandon Kerr (@SFHCommissioner) August 17, 2016

Let's not get carried away with embracing the no-huddle offense quite yet. Yes, the Lions are running more of it, but it's premature to suggest it will be the team's modus operandi once the regular season rolls around. The Lions want to dictate pace on offense, but that doesn't always mean blistering speed. Playing fast is something that requires extra work, which is why it's been a focus during training camp.

@Justin_Rogers is (Kyle) Van Noy going to start over (Josh) Bynes?

— Tyler Chick (@TCizzle386) August 17, 2016

They play different roles in the defense. Kyle Van Noy plays the strong side, lining up on the side of the formation across from the opposing tight end. It generally requires a bigger, more physical linebacker who can hold his own in run support and occasionally rush the passer. Josh Bynes has been playing on the weak side, where his athleticism and coverage range are a better fit.

@Justin_Rogers is there any real possibility that (Bob) Quinn replaces (Laken) Tomlinson with (Joe) Dahl this season despite the fact he was a high draft pick

— Davis Williams (@ch0z3n1) August 17, 2016

It wouldn't be a Quinn decision, unless you're talking about cutting Laken Tomlinson at some point. The GM won't meddle in day-to-day coaching decisions. I look at Joe Dahl more as a potential replacement for Larry Warford in 2017, assuming the Lions don't like the price point in extension talks. If the team lets Warford walk, they could even move Tomlinson to the right guard spot, where he played in college, and plug Dahl in at left guard.

@Justin_Rogers what are the chances that after signing Quarless the Lions release him? Dependent on Ebron and Pettigrew's health or no?

— Ryan (@Ryan_POD) August 17, 2016

It's too early to slap odds on it, but it's completely within the realm of possibility. There is no guaranteed money attached to Andrew Quarless' contract. Obviously, if Eric Ebron can't get medically cleared before the regular season, or Matthew Mulligan's injury ends up being a long-term issue, Quarless' roster odds improve.

But even if those two guys are good to go, Quarless only has to beat out Cole Wick, which isn't unreasonable. I understand the hype Cole Wick has generated, but it was largely relative to his status as an undrafted rookie out of Incarnate Word. Quarless has four years of NFL film with the Packers and that matters.

@Justin_Rogers over under 7.5 wins?

— Vincent Vitale (@vitale_vincent) August 17, 2016

Right now, under, but I'm open to adjusting if the offensive line and DeAndre Levy are looking better by the time Week 1 hits.

@Justin_Rogers If you had to pick the life and demands of one Detroit sports coach, Caldwell, Ausmus, Blashill or VanGundy?

— Kyle (@kpaff3587) August 17, 2016

Interesting question. I think I'd be most open to running a baseball team. While the daily questioning of the lineup and bullpen management would drive me crazy, I've always loved the mathematical elements of the game of baseball.

@Justin_Rogers who do you think will make the team from the group of young WRs that are in camp right now?

— CSteele_Austim Dad (@curtissteele14) August 17, 2016

Maybe none of them. No, really. You have two or three open spots and TJ Jones, Andre Roberts and Jeremy Kerley all have strong cases as well. At this point, I could see both Quinshad Davis and Jay Lee on the practice squad.

Ezekiel Ansah (94)

@Justin_Rogers is that (defensive line) as good as it appears? Is the silver rush back?

— schrad/cooter-rooter (@ds1434) August 17, 2016

Again, that's probably getting carried away, but it can be a good group up front. Ziggy Ansah is a bonafide stud and Devin Taylor has the skills to be a strong complement on the opposite edge. I'm also high on the starting tackle tandem of Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, who both look healthy and explosive. The backups leave something to be desired. Wallace Gilberry is solid, but the rest of the rotation is about potential. The key will be whether A'Shawn Robinson, Caraun Reid and/or Stefan Charles can consistently contribute.

@Justin_Rogers If we keep 3 QB, what position group will we take from?

— Erik Kaseta (@ekaseta) August 17, 2016

It would most likely come from another offensive position group, and the one that probably makes the most sense is receiver. As mentioned, you can put a couple young, talented guys on the practice squad for a rainy day.

@Justin_Rogers who's the offensive line coach and why do we never question his ability to get them to gel?

— Randy Burns (@RandyBurnzy321) August 17, 2016

Ron Prince is the offensive line coach and he certainly merits scrutiny if the group struggles into the regular season. That said, Prince took over in the middle of last season and deserves praise for playing a role in the offense's resurgence down the stretch. With no new pieces, the line showed significant improvement those final eight games.

This year, Prince has been handed a first-round pick, Taylor Decker, to plug into his lineup. That's a blessing, long-term, but can be a curse during the early going, especially when that rookie is expected to play left tackle. There's plenty of recent history of young players struggling at that position during their inaugural season.

If the line struggles, the offense will struggle, and ultimately, the team will struggle. If that's the case, Prince will probably be looking for a new job, along with the rest of the coaching staff.