Lions mailbag, Part 1: Ed Oliver’s value, T.J. Lang’s future, Antonio Brown’s fit

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Ed Oliver

Allen Park -- We're back with another Detroit Lions mailbag, and just like our last one, we've opted to answer more questions and break it into two parts. Here's part one. 

What role did Bo Davis have with A’Shawn Robinson’s improvement and De’Shawn Hand’s ability to contribute as a rookie?

— @DaveReimink 

Position coaches rarely get the credit they deserve for a player's improvement, but these assistants provide the most significant one-on-one tutoring, both on the practice field and in the classroom. And while it's impossible to estimate the impact Davis' previous working relationship with the former Alabama linemen played into the trust and buy-in Robinson and Hand had from the start, they were clearly schematic fits for what Matt Patricia wanted to run and Davis proved more than capable of teaching the desired techniques. 

I keep seeing Ed Oliver to the Lions. With an above average group at DL with Snacks, A'Shawn, and Hand, don’t you think the Lions would be better by picking a DE/CB instead?

— @varun_vadnala14 

General manager Bob Quinn has a knack for addressing a clear roster hole with his first-round picks, but I can't dismiss the selection of a talent like Oliver. There are a couple of factors at play here that keep this possibility afloat. 

First, Oliver and Hand have builds that would allow them to play inside and out in Detroit's gap-control front. Obviously a lot will depend on how the offseason shakes out, but I've had a belief since the acquisition of Damon Harrison that the Lions would spend more time developing Hand to play on the edge in 2019. 

Second, Robinson is entering the final year of his contract. Given his age (23), talent and fit, the Lions should be eager to extend his deal, but if the price tag gets too high, it's nice to have a backup plan in place. It sure would have been nice to have Aaron Donald on the roster when Ndamukong Suh departed in free agency a few years back. 

Could you point out a few solid FA’s that come with lower price tags? It seems like Lions like a good bargain System Fit Players.

— @azcwillams

How about one per position of need?

Running back: Mike Davis

Wide receiver: Adam Humphries 

Tight end: Maxx Williams

Guard: Ted Karras (great nephew of Alex Karras)

Defensive end: Markus Golden

Cornerback: Rashaan Melvin

The boys showed some life on D at the end of the year. Is it too far-fetched to believe we could compete for the North next year with a stellar draft and a few key free agent signings? Sick of always “waiting until next year!”

— @slavichj 

Is it far-fetched? No. But it's also not likely the Lions vault from the lower-end of the middle tier to a division title, given they would have to leapfrog Chicago and Minnesota, teams that have much more complete rosters. And as long as Aaron Rodgers is in Green Bay, they'll be tough, as well. 

As you note, the hope is in Detroit's defense. The unit flashed some serious potential the second half of last season and could take another step forward with the addition of one or two more pieces. If that happens, and the offense is a competent, middle-of-the-road unit, there's no reason the Lions can't be back in the mix for the playoffs in 2019. 

T.J. Lang

How big of a priority will the O-line be in FA? Despite pouring a ton of resources into the OL, why can’t they get it right? Is it a scheme thing?

— @oppsopps

T.J. Lang remains on the roster, but with an $11.5 million cap hit, something must be done, whether it's a restructure or outright release. If Lang sticks in Detroit, there's less of a need and the team might just stick with a Wiggins/Dahl backup situation. 

If Lang is cut, it's a coin flip whether you go with a veteran or rookie at right guard. A capable, durable veteran isn't going to come cheap, but there's no substitution for having years of NFL reps under your belt. A mid-round rookie is far more likely to take lumps on the field, but also has the potential to be a better long-term investment if developed properly. 

That spills into the second part of your question. A good offensive line is like making a cake. Bob Quinn has purchased some premium ingredients for the chef (the coaching staff if you're still with me on this analogy), but there's been breakdowns in the baking process. Some of the issues have been injuries  -- from Taylor Decker's shoulder to Lang's everything -- and part of it has been scheme, which the team attempted to address last offseason by replacing Ron Prince with Jeff Davidson. 

Things were better in 2018, but still not good enough given the investment, especially in pass protection. Taking another step forward will likely depend on how Quinn addresses that right guard spot, and also improving the team's depth when injuries inevitably strike. 

Since drafting a TE early is much-maligned here in Detroit, which FA TEs do you think fit what the Lions want and could they just settle for signing two to shore up the position?

— @glazurk5

I don't think it's drafting tight ends that's the concern, it's taking one in the first round, especially in the top 10. Far fewer fans would have an issue with the Lions taking one in the second round or beyond, or even trading back 10 or so spots in the first round to snag Iowa's T.J. Hockenson. 

In free agency, the Lions are likely to look at well-rounded options compared to those primarily known for their receiving skills. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Detroit Lions Podcast this week, the team should fully throw themselves at Kyle Rudolph if the Vikings cut ties to clear out some cap space. But if the market stays as is Pittsburgh's Jesse James is probably my favorite option. 

Should the Lions target Earl Thomas? If not then who for FS?

— @Leafsfan3431 

One of the best to ever play the safety position, Thomas will be 30 to start next season and attempting to come back from a devastating leg injury. If the Lions were closer to Super Bowl contention and had a big need at the position, I'd have little issue with taking the risk. But as the roster currently stands, it would appear to be a poor use of resources. 

Antonio Brown

If the Lions were to trade for AB, how much cap would be available after that?

— @srein00

Let me start by repeating I don't anticipate the Lions making a play for Antonio Brown. Even though there won't be a better playmaker available, we can't overlook the culture fit. Matt Patricia and Brown are an oil and water combination.

As for your hypothetical, Brown's cap hit for the team that acquires him would be a little more than $15 million. We're only able to roughly estimate the Lions' cap space right now, since the cap hasn't actually been set, but that would leave Detroit with around $20-23 million, pending a decision on Lang. 

Don't you think that Bell and Kerryon run with similar styles and therefore blocking would be same for O-line and we should go after him if he is willing?

— @KadouraMike 

Different than the reasons noted with Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell also doesn't make a lot of sense for the Lions. 

Yes, there's some stylistic overlap with Kerryon Johnson, and we saw how well the incumbent thrived behind the blocking last year, so it's reasonable to believe Bell would, as well. But he is a proven workhorse who will be looking to be paid as such.

Who knows what the market will ultimately end up paying Bell after sitting out last season, but given he's only 27 years old, I can't imagine there's a bargain to be had. 

Todd Gurley and David Johnson both netted deals averaging at least $13 million per season. The Lions can't justify paying that kind of money to a player that will split playing time and touches. 

Hakeem Butler

What are the chances of the Lions drafting Hakeem Butler?

— @LionNation

We think of the Lions needing a slot receiver, but I don't think many NFL teams are in a hurry to skip over someone with Butler's size. At 6-foot-6, he would provide the Lions with an interesting dimension, paired with 6-foot-4 Kenny Golladay. 

Butler actually played in the slot quite a bit for Iowa State, and although he isn't the most polished route runner, his size and ability to extend gains after the catch proved problematic for the opposition. 

On top of that, he's a pretty clean prospect, as far as I can tell, with minimal injury or off-field concerns. So yeah, I would imagine if he's still on the board when the Lions are picking in Round 2, he'll be strongly considered.