Lions mailbag: Biggest needs, biggest breakouts for '18

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions have their coach and suddenly I have little to do. With the scouting combine on deck, followed by free agency, it feels like a good time to knock out a mailbag. On to your questions.

Biggest needs this offseason, from the draft to free agency, possible targets? Trades? 

— Sean O'Donnell (@Seanodonnell454) 

The Lions have plenty of needs, but I'll list the top few, based on a combination of current depth and difficulty to fill.

The Lions need help at defensive end, though bringing back Ziggy Ansah could mitigate that.

1. Defensive end

The need would certainly be mitigated by retaining Ziggy Ansah, but the team could still stand to add an impact pass rusher. Kerry Hyder's return and Anthony Zettel's emergence give the Lions a nice rotation up front. Cornelius Washington also offers something as a powerful edge setter, capable of occasionally collapsing the pocket with a bull rush.

2. Defensive tackle

A'Shawn Robinson is a solid piece and Akeem Spence was better than expected as a free-agent addition, but the Lions desperately need interior depth. The Lions can't go wrong with adding a run-stopping nose or a penetrating 3-tech. Re-signing 34-year-old Haloti Ngata could be a stopgap, but isn't a long-term solution.

3. Running back

It's going to be addressed, it's just a matter of what kind of resource the Lions are going to invest into the position. I can't even say I'd be surprised with the team using its first-round draft pick on a back. There are bigger issues with the ground game than the person carrying the ball, but a capable, north-south runner will go a long way toward lifting the Lions from the basement to the middle of the pack.

4. Guard

Another way the Lions can improve their rushing attack is to add a mauling guard to complete general manager Bob Quinn's overhaul of the offensive line. This hypothetical lineman would essentially replace Travis Swanson in the team's starting lineup, with Graham Glasgow permanently moving to center. If the Lions make an addition here, it can't just be a phone-booth blocker. They need someone capable of pulling, getting to the second level and nimble enough to hold his own in pass protection. Keeping Matthew Stafford upright remains priority No. 1.

Would you rather use a pick on a RB? Or go after a FA? Examples of each please.

— Chad Stewart (@Chef_Chadley) 

Oregon's Royce Freeman could be an option at running back for the Lions in the middle rounds of the draft.

With running backs, I almost always advocate looking for an answer in the draft, for two simple reasons — cost and mileage. You can find workable talent in the middle rounds and the price tag is going to be less than $1 million per season, where a premier free agent might run a team more than $10 million per season. Even a mid-tier player, such as Chris Ivory two years ago, can get $6 million per year on the open market.

Yes, the cost argument holds up at almost every position, but mileage matters at running back more than most spots. It feels like there's an expiration date at the position, and the rate of return diminishes pretty quickly once they reach a certain threshold of touches during their career.

As for examples of guys I like in the draft, in those middle rounds: Sony Michel, Royce Freeman, Rashdad Penny, Kalen Ballage, Mark Walton and Darrel Williams are a few who intrigue me. In free agency, the list is shorter: Isaiah Crowell, LeGarrette Blount and Carlos Hyde are probably the guys I like the most.

Since Tennessee is in scheme change for Marcus Mariota, do you see the Lions going after DeMarco Murray?

— Barry (@crossnoe7) 

Murray is under contract for two more seasons, but with no dead money remaining on the deal, he's a potential cap casualty. If he's cut, yeah, he's on the short list. He's coming off a down year, and just turned 30, but his running style and versatility could be a nice fit in Detroit.

Stud running back or stud D/L guy first pick?

— scott vee (@Scottyvee3) 

Well, the odds of landing a "stud" anything outside the top seven or eight picks drops precipitously, but all things created equal, if there's an option of equally graded players at those positions when the Lions are on the clock, they should take the lineman.

What flavor of Paczki is Patricia’s favorite?

— JC (@legendjc13) 


Who do you believe are the breakout players on offense and defense in 2018?

— Randy (@SpaceCowboy20XX) 

Maybe it's too easy of an answer, but it's tough not to pick Kenny Golladay on offense. If he can stay healthy in his second season, 60 catches for 800 yards and 6-8 scores isn't unreasonable, even with the Lions' wealth of other passing-game options.

On defense, I would lay a significant wager on Jarrad Davis being vastly improved in his second season. He had moments where you could see his potential as a rookie, but too many bad angles led to too many missed tackles. He also struggled mightily in coverage, as many young linebackers do. But his work ethic and genuine passion for the game are among the best on the team, and you know the physical gifts are there. So give me the second-year Mike out of Florida.

Linebacker Jarrad Davis could take a significant leap in his second season with the Lions.

When do most of the players actually meet Coach Patricia? They’re largely out of the city for the offseason, right? Is it during OTAs? After? Some special meet and greet?

— Greg Warren (@gregwarren2) 

Workouts for teams with new coaches can be held the first week of April, so probably then.

Any possibility at all that they could go after Le'Veon Bell if the Steelers don't tag?

— Rob Mapley (@RobMapley) 

Realistically, I don't see it. The cost, as it currently stands, is prohibitive. He reportedly turned down a deal that averaged $12 million per season last year, then delivered more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns after skipping training camp. He bet on himself and is primed to cash in.

Out of the top three free agent pass rushers, DeMarcus Lawrence, Adrian Clayborn, and Alex Okafor, who do you think would be the best fit for the new defensive scheme?

— john curte (@rexum420) 

The beautiful thing about Matt Patricia's scheme is it will be tailored to fit the talent. So what we're really asking is who is the best football player from the group you mention. The clear answer, to me, is Lawrence. And trust me when I say he'll get paid as such. The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder tallied 14.5 sacks and 79 quarterback pressures last season, both ranking in the top three in the league.

The downside with Lawrence are some injury issues and a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs after getting popped for amphetamines. Another violation will bring a longer ban, and that's always a concern.

What do you believe is more likely to make the top 10 next year?
1) Pressures
2) Rushing yards

— The Respected Madman (@KHMakerD) 

I can't wrap my head around the Lions finishing top 10 in rushing, so I'll go pressures. A line of Ansah, Hyder, Zettel, Robinson and a early-round rookie could conceivably do some real damage when at full strength (franchise tag for Ansah pending, of course).

What level of involvement do you expect Patricia to have on offense, with Stafford, both during prep and in game?

— Max Emmer (@MSEmmer88)

Expect new Lions head coach Matt Patricia to be involved in the offense, despite his last role as a defensive coordinator.

A lot of former defensive coordinators are hands-off with the offense as a head coach, but I don't believe Patricia will take that approach. A former offensive lineman, with offensive coaching experience at both the collegiate and professional level, he has an above-average grasp on schemes and concepts.

With that valuable cross-training, expect Patricia to be involved in all aspects of the team, especially in constructing the game plan.

Why is draft talk always about best player available, but mock drafts only select players at positions of need? 

— Kalsarikännit Al (@LethalSax) 

Need is part of the best-player-available equation. It's not purely best talent, it's best talent for your franchise.

The Lions aren't going to draft a quarterback in the first round (and probably not a receiver), because it's a poor use of the resource. You look for the highest-graded player that plugs a hole, especially early in the draft. The deeper into the event, the more a team will go straight BPA because immediate contributions become less expected. Remember, a pick isn't made with only the following year in mind, but the next four seasons.

That's exactly what the Lions did with cornerback Teez Tabor last year. They understood he wouldn't be needed as a rookie, assuming the players in front of him stayed healthy. But with two contributing cornerbacks heading to free agency in 2018, and another in 2019, the Tabor pick significantly increases in importance starting this year.

Give us just 3 reasons, okay 2 reasons, okay 1 reason why we should think 60 years in, with Quinn Era now in 3rd year we should believe anything will be different re: division championship, home playoff game and a playoff win.

— a real piece of work (@ngelfond) 

My job isn't to peddle hope. The Lions have installed two smart, hard-working individuals at the top of their organization, both who were essentially born and bred in the NFL's most-successful culture. That gives the team a fighting chance, but it doesn't make Aaron Rodgers or Mike Zimmer's defense go away.

If I offered to let you have an exclusive interview with me at anytime during the coming year, what day would you choose and what topic would you want your interview to be on?

— Fake Bob Quinn (@fakebobquinn) 

That's a good question. Quinn talks to the media only a handful of times per year — the combine, owners' meetings (mid-March), pre- and post-draft and immediately following the season. I guess I'd look to break up the long window and maybe target just before the regular season, only because I know I wouldn't get much meaningful information before or during free agency.

As for topics, I would never put all my eggs into one basket. As always, I'd hit as many pressing issues as I could in the allotted time.

Any early indicators on whether or not you will have to pull out the abacus this year? Or did you retire it when Caldwell left?

— Ted J (@Spudrock91) 

As a former engineering student myself, I'm going to have to dig out my graphing calculator. That's only because I very much doubt I could capably use a CAD program these days.