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Lions mailbag: Can Zach Zenner pick up the slack for Lions if Johnson sits?

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Welcome to the Thanksgiving edition of the Detroit Lions mailbag, where I'm thankful you guys are still coming up with interesting questions. 

Kerryon Johnson's injury could open the door for Zach Zenner to see more work.

Mike Ford better or worse than Teez?

— The Respected Madman (@KHMakerD) November 20, 2018

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Forgive me for steering clear of bold proclamations after Ford played a grand total of 29 defensive snaps in his debut. In that performance, he gave up a reception all five times he was targeted and missed a tackle on two of Panthers' three longest plays, including the 82-yarder to D.J. Moore in the third quarter. 

The Lions have kept Ford around on the practice squad all season and immediately started him after his promotion, so they're clearly pleased with what they've been seeing on the practice field. But even as poorly as Teez Tabor has played this season, it's OK to let the competition play out the remainder of the season before declaring one is a more reliable solution going forward. 

Is there any likelihood that the Lions will find a more productive RB than Blount for Thursday? I would like to see Zenner get an opportunity to carry a load.

— Bruce Walker (@Smoke25) November 20, 2018

I don't anticipate the Lions adding another running back to the roster on the short week. Given the demands of picking up a new scheme, the only one who would make sense is Donnel Pumphrey, who was on the practice squad during the early portion of the season. But if the Lions wanted to poach him off Philadelphia's practice squad, they would have to guarantee him at least three weeks pay. It's probably better to just sit tight.

As for rotation, I can't guarantee anything. The Lions have made things even more difficult to decipher by not conducting any portions of practice open to the media this week.

But I'm with you, despite a less-than-stellar track record as an NFL running back, a bigger workload for Zach Zenner is the most appealing choice from Detroit's current list of options. Just don't be surprised if it doesn't go well. Chicago is coming to town with the league's best run defense. 

I’m guessing this is one that takes a longer look, but over past 5-7 years, what percentage of Lions draft picks gets a second contract, and how does that compare to the rest of the league?

— Ray Burzynski (@rayfrayb) November 20, 2018

Yeah, as you guessed, that's a massive research project. And we'd have to set specific parameters. Does getting cut and signing somewhere on a veteran minimum deal count as a second contract? 

Here's what I can tell you, excluding the past four years — since those rookie contracts would still be in place — five of Detroit's nine second-round picks from the previous 10 years (no second-rounder in 2010), earned a second contract worth more than the veteran minimum: Shaun Cody, Drew Stanton, Louis Delmas, Darius Slay and Kyle Van Noy. 

Safety Daniel Bullocks, a second-round pick for the Lions in 2006, only played two seasons in Detroit.

The other four — Daniel Bullocks, Jordon Dizon, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles — saw their careers begin and end in Detroit. 

If we did put in the research, we'd probably find the 55.6 percent on the low end of average, but there's little disputing only one earning a second deal with the Lions is disappointing. 

What's the record for most field goal misses by opponents? This year sure seems close, especially for a dome team.

— Jeff Nichols (@jdnichols8) November 20, 2018

Eight missed field goals is a lot, especially in this modern era of great kicking, but you have to remember, in the 1970s, the league average for field-goal percentage never topped 65 percent. It didn't top 80 percent for the first time until 1996, yet hasn't been below 80 since 2003.

Opponents have missed more field goals against Detroit than against any other team this season. Going back a decade, the most opponent misses in a season came against Arizona in 2011, when 13 attempts were no-good. There were 10 misses against Detroit in 2012. 

No word on the record for misses off the upright, but it sure feels like Detroit would have the record if one existed. 

The line looked significantly stronger this week. Are they finally gelling with Wiggins or did the Panthers not exploit the matchup?

— Adam Benovic (@darkforce547) November 20, 2018

The line definitely played better than the previous two weeks, but there are two other factors I want to highlight.

First, Carolina doesn't have a pass rush anywhere near as dominant as Chicago or Minnesota. Two, the Lions were able to get their quick-passing game back on track.

According to data tracked by Pro Football Focus, no quarterback got rid of the ball quicker than Matthew Stafford last week. He averaged 2.24 seconds per pass attempt, a quarter-second faster than his season average and 0.42 seconds faster than the previous two weeks, when he was sacked 16 times. 

Do you think Patricia would benefit from having a former HC on staff? McVay has Wade Phillips. Nagy has Brad Childress. Lynn has Whisenhunt. Seems young/new head coaches benefit from someone who’s been there recently.

— Jeff Romback (@JeffRomback) November 20, 2018

That's what Paul Pasqualoni is supposed to represent. I'm aware he hasn't been a head coach on the professional level, but he had 17 years running the ship at Syracuse and Connecticut, compiling an impressive 117-77-1 record. 

I know it is air chair lame to hate the OC ... but are we talent wise that far off the Rams' O? Yet we score half.

— Parth Brooks (@ParthVenkat) November 20, 2018
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay (left) runs one of the NFL's most potent offenses, piloted by quarterback Jared Goff (16).

Knowing what we know now about Kerryon Johnson, you might have been able to pitch me more strongly on this idea early in the season, when Stafford had three really good receivers to target. And maybe, with Cooper Kupp out for the year, the piece-to-piece talent comparison isn't that far off. 

There are some areas where the Rams are clearly better. 

Todd Gurley is the best running back in the business, and it's not fair to say Johnson is close to that level yet, despite the flashes. Los Angeles also has more pass-catching talent at tight end. But I think we all know what separates the two teams more than anything is coaching. Sean McVay is one of the leading offense minds in football. 

With the Johnson injury, do you see Stafford throwing the ball at least 40 times on Thursday. Using the screen game as the run game?

— Dennis Homminga Jr (@homminga_jr) November 20, 2018

As noted above, the Bears are the league's toughest defense to run against. That doesn't mean the Lions won't try, but if Johnson isn't out there, it's tough to envision the team having much success on the ground. 

The number of passes will depend a lot on the game's pacing, but 40 dropbacks seems likely. 

With cap situation in the offseason, what’s a realistic goal for assembling a team that can compete for the division? 1 year? 2? 3?

— Jeff Blanchard (@Blanchje) November 20, 2018

Detroit is set to have a decent amount of cap space, with opportunities to create plenty more. As I noted in last week's mailbag, an aggressive overhaul could leave the team with around $75 million to work with heading into free agency.

And there's no reason to believe a great offseason couldn't thrust the Lions into NFC North contention next season. Look at what the Bears did since 2017, although it's not fair for me to suggest the Lions will stumble into their own Khalil Mack-type trade. 

What happened to the deep passes? Have not seen Stafford throw it deep much in the past 4-5 games?

— Rich Dubois (@Megatrawnikz311) November 20, 2018

The attempts are down, close to one bomb per game. Stafford was as good as he's ever been throwing the deep ball in 2017, attempting 70 and completing 30, for 1,136 yards. That was the second-most production in the NFL, behind only Kansas City's Alex Smith. 

This year, Stafford is on pace to take 58 downfield shots, with 24 connecting. Since training camp, the timing on those throws have looked off. Stafford was regularly overthrowing them on the practice field and that has carried over to the regular season. 

What can we do to bring back the turducken?

— Michael Siffer (@SifferMichael) November 20, 2018

I don't know, but it needs to happen. True story; I once attended a one-hour class at a local butcher to learn how to make one. 

What are your top 3 FA targets for this offseason? Forget about possible re-signing or tags.

— Lancington (@KrimsonB3ard) November 20, 2018

It's a great question, but a topic I haven't researched yet. I want to give you a better answer once I have a clearer idea on the market, so check back in February.

Do you see any winnable games other than Buffalo that are left on the schedule?

— John Popovits (@The_Johnny_Pop) November 20, 2018

How many thought Carolina was a winnable game? New England? How about the Jets? Because I was definitely in the camp that believed a primetime home opener against a rookie QB would be a lay-up. 

Outside of the Rams game in two weeks, which I can't wrap my head around the Lions coming up with the formula to stop that high-octane offense, there isn't another game on the schedule I'm willing to completely write off. 

If my crappy research is right, Caldwell’s best non NFC North win was against an 8-8 Miami team. Patricia already has two non NFC North wins against teams that will end the year better than 8-8. But this year has been rough. Is this actual reason to hope?

— Billy (@comradetrollski) November 20, 2018

Interesting research project, and yeah, there were three wins over teams who finished with records .500 or above, with the best being a victory over a Washington squad that finished 8-7-1.

But that was one of the calling cards of the Caldwell era; beat up on the teams you should more often than not, and lose, often convincingly, to the playoff-caliber opponents on the schedule. 

I don't know if we can learn anything, long-term, from Detroit's wins over New England and Carolina this year, but if you want to use that as your foundation for hope, I'm not going to huff and puff and blow your house down. 

For unknown reasons my mother told me to smoke a pork butt for Thanksgiving. What do you reckon is the better sauce for pulled pork, mustard based or ketchup based? Or some other option?

— A.J. Albright (@ActionJackson84) November 20, 2018

Any mother who wants to make pulled pork a holiday tradition did so because she loves you. If it's me, I'm going creole with a Dijon mustard base. 

Who would be considered candidates for the offensive coordinator job if the Lions decide to move on from JBC?

— JayTee (@jtobin920) November 20, 2018

Much like the free agency question above, I'm not really tracking up-and-coming coaching candidates. Plus, you never know who will be looking for employment after the season. 

In this case, I will throw out two names, given Patricia's early tendency to hire people he knows well and has worked with in the past. 

First, Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. He's in his first year with the Bills, and things obviously haven't gone great, but his resume also includes a national championship at Alabama and two stints in New England. 

Second, because the Rams' offense is one of the hottest thing on the planet, I could see pass-game coordinator Shane Waldron getting a look. A young coach, he came up in New England, getting his start with the franchise around the same time as Patricia. 

How can Bob Quinn defend his statement that a 9-7 season is not good enough?

— Hail Mary I ain't Lion This team makes me crazy (@lamos_mary) November 20, 2018

I don't think Quinn believes the statement any less now than he did then. The organizational standard remains high, even if the Lions fall short of that standard this year.

What the relatively young general manager is learning is that coaching, scheme and culture changes aren't always easily implemented. It's clear Quinn over-estimated the first-year impact Patricia would be able to have. 

How much of a roster overhaul do you expect the Lions to make this offseason?

— Big Biting Pig (@BigBitingPig) November 20, 2018

Significant. The team currently has 35 players under contract for 2019, but I could see a scenario where they move on from another 6-8 from that list. On the other side of the coin, they should look to re-sign a few of their impending free agents, especially a guy like Romeo Okwara.

That said, I would expect to see somewhere in the ballpark of 40 percent turnover. 

Is Ziggy playing well enough right now to generate the thought of possibly re-signing him in the offseason? Or has he cemented his departure with the injuries.

— Matthew Ratliff (@md_ratliff) November 20, 2018

I don't know how you can justify it at this point. Yes, Ansah is playing at a high level in his limited, yet increasing workload, but how do you trust the guy? There are enough pass-rushers on the market that it could depress his price tag a bit, but what does a bargain contract matter if you don't know what kind of availability to expect over the course of the deal? 

Fill that need in the draft, even if you have to trade up to get a guy you really want. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers