Lions mailbag: Sorting out North race, RB rotation, Quinn’s impact

Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Zach Zenner

With a dominant win over the Saints, the Lions are closing in on the NFC North crown and a home playoff game. But there's still a month to go, and you still have questions, so let's knock out this mailbag. 

@Justin_Rogers so we're like, actually good, huh?

— Jay Winkler 🍊 (@jmwink_) December 5, 2016

Entering the New Orleans game, I was firmly on the fence about whether the Lions were a good team. It's easy to respect the record, and you can't argue this team's ability to finish in crunch time, but they hadn't put away an opponent, which was concerning. 

The victory over the Saints answered some questions about the Lions' ability to win a tough road game and to beat an opponent convincingly. The sample size is still too small to go making definitive declarations, but I'm pulling a leg off the fence and putting it on the ground. If nothing else, this team is more than capable of winning a home playoff game. 

Now, if they go out and beat either the Giants or Dallas on the road, I'll have no choice but to fully buy in. 

@Justin_Rogers so cutting Forsett means Abdullah ready to come back (please say yes)

— Darren Leurer (@fbiagent4hire) December 5, 2016

No, there is no correlation between the two. The Lions needed to add a receiver, to compensate for Marvin Jones' injury, and Forsett had minimal value to the roster at the time. He had been inactive for weeks and wasn't about to pass Dwayne Washington or Zach Zenner on the depth chart without contributing on special teams. 

@Justin_Rogers what are the odds that the Lions make the playoffs with a week 17 loss to Green Bay?

— Al Buquerque (@LethalSax) December 5, 2016

It's certainly possible. The finale against the Packers might not matter if the Lions can beat the Bears this week and the Giants next week. 

That would give Detroit 10 wins and force Green Bay to run the table. That's a tall task given they welcome Seattle to town this week. 

@Justin_Rogers is Zenner going to usurp Washington in depth chart? How come Burton never gets his number called?

— j. harley (@jeffreyharley) December 5, 2016

I'm not a big fan of small sample sizes dictating decisions. Zenner had a nice stretch against the Saints, no question, but so did Washington, who tallied 31 yards from scrimmage with four carries and two receptions in the first quarter. Zenner squandered some opportunities to lock down the backup job earlier this season, but might get another shot with Washington suffering an ankle injury against the Saints.

As for fullback Michael Burton, his role has evaporated. It's possible the Lions felt his presence on the field made running the ball too predictable. It appears his snaps have gone to tight end Matthew Mulligan, who is an excellent blocker in his own right and offers more in pass protection. 

@Justin_Rogers Game on the line, what 4 DL do we have rushing the passer?

— Erik Kaseta (@ekaseta) December 5, 2016

Ziggy Ansah, Kerry Hyder, Armonty Bryant and Haloti Ngata.

Hyder is inside on this one, which admittedly limits his effectiveness, but the Lions don't have another consistent interior pass rusher. I'm probably running some kind of stunt with him and Ansah, hoping it gets one a free run at the quarterback. Ngata has played well since coming back from his midseason shoulder injury. He can collapse the pocket and is aware enough to get his hands in the passing lane if his rush stalls. The second defensive end spot is up for grabs, but based on per snap production, I'm taking Bryant. 

Bob Quinn

@Justin_Rogers how much credit does Bob Quinn deserve for the Lions success this season?

— Ruben Cueva (@youkwait) December 5, 2016

It's tough to quantify, but clearly the general manager has had a hand in the team's success. You start with his biggest moves, the signing of Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin and the team's first three draft picks -- Taylor Decker, A'Shawn Robinson and Graham Glasgow. 

Jones' production has dropped off as the season has progressed, but 42 receptions for 730 yards and four touchdowns is solid. Boldin has caught 52 balls for 432 yards and six scores. That easily replaces the production lost when Calvin Johnson retired while providing more balance and flexibility to the offense.

As for the draft picks, they've brought a level of stability to both lines, especially the offensive unit. Decker hasn't missed a snap this season and has exceeded expectations in every way, performing at an above-average level as a run blocker and pass protector. Glasgow hasn't been nearly as good, but he provided the Lions with an alternative when Laken Tomlinson was struggling.

Beyond the obvious, you look at the depth Quinn has brought in. Andre Roberts has been a solid punt returner and made two of the biggest catches of the season. Johnson Bademosi had helped elevate a good special teams group into an elite unit. And even though it took a while, free agent safeties Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush, along with some Day 3 draft picks and waiver claim Armonty Bryant, have all played roles in the progressive improvement of the defense. 

@Justin_Rogers do you see them moving Josh Bynes to MLB and moving Whitehead outside given the defense's performance at the Saints?

— drewskyj (@aholowchak5) December 5, 2016

It's a similar, but better-worded question than the one asked of Jim Caldwell this week. The Lions aren't about to bench Whitehead, but is moving him to the strongside, where he played last season, a realistic possibility? 

I doubt it. But if DeAndre Levy comes back (I know you guys are sick of hearing it, but we can't ignore this hypothetical), you could see something similar to 2014, where Whitehead and Bynes rotated at middle linebacker with Whitehead sliding outside in some of those packages. 

@Justin_Rogers Do you think if levy returned it would mess up chemistry at this point ?

— KRAMPUS (@detroitslasher) December 5, 2016

No. While we don't know where Levy will be physically, he has exceptional instincts and is a field general. You can rely on him to be in the right position. His return would only give the Lions more personnel flexibility.

@Justin_Rogers#Lionsmailbag The lions have shown a big improvement down the stretch; Can they realistically beat NYG? what about Cowboys?

— PatBerWA (@PatBerWA) December 5, 2016

Sure. I've been saying it for weeks, the game in New York is winnable. That's a good team, with a very good defense, but they don't put up a lot of points and can't run the ball consistently. It should be close and we all know Detroit knows how to win tight games.

The trip to Dallas will be tougher. That Cowboys offense is really clicking, but if you can slow down running back Ezekiel Elliot (easier said than done, I realize), then you have a shot. For as good as quarterback Dak Prescott has been, he's still a rookie susceptible to rookie mistakes when more responsibility is thrust on his shoulders.  

@Justin_Rogers is Martin's punt yardage falling off as the season wears on? Is it a pattern over past years, could kickoffs be contributing

— Mike Wilder (@Cartinthewater) December 6, 2016

Martin's numbers are dipping, but you have to understand, it's more about circumstance than fatigue. Length of punt is, in part, dictated by field position. If Martin is punting from midfield, he can't boom one 60 yards because that would be a touchback. He's trying to pin the opponent and that often leads to shorter kicks. You saw that on his final boot last weekend. It was only 32 yards, but put the Saints at their own 11.

As for the net average, Don Carey's absence has mattered. That 24-yard return the Lions gave up against the Saints was the result of the gunners not being in position to make a quick stop. 

@Justin_Rogers@fbiagent4hire With Forsett waived & Washington possibly hurt, should they consider Bell?

— Boyd Williams (@PatchingBirder) December 6, 2016

The Lions could need another back, but Joique Bell strikes me as an unlikely option. You're going to want someone who can effectively contribute on special teams and that's not Bell as this stage of his career. 

Matthew Stafford

@Justin_Rogers Next mailbag: How many QB's would you rather have than Stafford?

— Horace Koch (@Horace_Koch) December 6, 2016

It seems like this question comes up every few months, but I don't mind adjusting my answer based on the latest information. 

There are two ways to view this. You can debate which quarterback you would take for one game or which you would want if starting a franchise from scratch. I'll be answering based on that latter, so age is a significant factor and forces me to put Stafford ahead of guys like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees.

Here's the pool of players I'm choosing from: Stafford, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz. 

Stafford and Ryan are very similar, but Stafford is three years younger. Wilson is the same age as Stafford and offers more mobility, but there's also a more concerning injury history, causing me to question his future durability. 

Wentz, Mariota, Prescott are still too unproven, although the futures look extremely bright. 

I guess that leaves with with Luck and Carr. And honestly, even those are coin flips.