Detroit Lions mailbag: This year's roster stacks up to 2014's; candidates to fill Kearse's role

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Ty Johnson and the Detroit Lions offense will only go as far as the offensive line lets them.

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions are flying to Houston for some joint practices with the Texans and it's been a while since I've done a mailbag. So let's do one, to bridge the gap on a travel day. 

Q: How much of an issue do you see our offensive line being this year? Both in pass protection and for the run.

— @MattLWK

The offensive line is a unique position group because it's really only as good as its weakest link. Right now, Detroit is pretty solid at four spots, but the fifth remains a legit concern.

If a stable option doesn't emerge for that vacancy at guard, there could easily be a domino effect, especially when it comes to protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford. Surprisingly, the group actually held their own when it came to allowing pressure last year, ranking inside the top-10 of the league, and the 41 sacks given up were middle of the pack. 

I'm less concerned about the ground game, although yards up the gut might still be tougher to come by than you'd like. That's particularly problematic in short-yardage situations. 

Q: Why is this season with Stafford gonna be any different than the last 10 average ones?

— @larrythesmg

You're being disingenuous if you say Stafford has had 10 average seasons. He's had a passer rating of at least 95 three times. But if you're looking for something better than his 2011 campaign, when he threw for 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns, those days are probably in the past. As long as Matt Patricia coaches this team, the Lions won't be a franchise that throws it 35-40 times per week. 

The key for Stafford has shifted to efficiency, and it wasn't close to where it needed to be a year ago. While the competition percentage remained in a healthy range, the yards per attempt were ugly. I think his deep ball accuracy played into that. Take away a handful of big plays and that average is going to suffer. You'd also like to see better numbers in the red zone, but some of the personnel changes should help there.  

Q: Is this the best overall roster the Lions have had since 2011?

— @everybody313

Tough to compare those things, but I think it stacks up against the 2014 roster, which was as good, if not better than the 2011 version. I'll forever contend 2014 was the team most capable of competing for a Super Bowl, at least since I've been on this beat.

The defense was elite that season and the team had a good assortment of offensive weapons. The problem, in my view, was the new offense  was overly focused on managing risk, re-branding Stafford as a game manager. That showed up big time in the playoff loss to Dallas, where the team tried to sit on a decent lead and it backfired, regardless of how you view the role the officials played in that loss. 

Neither Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford or Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played in the first preseason game, which New England won 31-3.

Q: After the first game, does Stafford mean more to his team than any other player in the game? Without him, they look like 0-16 all over again.

— @Spizzly1

There are several franchises where removing the starting quarterback from the equation causes chances for success drop precipitously. The Indianapolis Colts put it to the test in 2017, going 4-12 and finishing 30th in scoring offense without Andrew Luck.

The Lions are no different. Take away Stafford for all 16 games and the team is all but assured to be selecting in the first five picks of the next draft. 

Q: Better defensive line, Chicago or Detroit?

— @MMoneynva

In reality, we'll need to see Detroit's in action before we're able to accurately compare the two. On paper, the Lions have put together a formidable unit. Trey Flowers significantly bolsters one of the team's biggest areas of weakness from a year ago, with his established reputation for pressuring the pocket. And Mike Daniels should also help in that department, but from the interior angles. 

And we already have a sense, based on how the team finished last year, how effective the Lions' front can be at stopping the run. Flowers only strengthens that on the edge. 

The Bears, meanwhile, arguably have the best pass-rusher in football in Khalil Mack. His addition to their scheme helped the defense finish with 50 sacks a year ago, while only the Rams and Steelers were better at generating pressure, overall. 

And while the Lions were great at stopping the run in the second half, the Bears did it all year, holding opponents to fewer rushing yards than anyone, along with a stellar 3.8 yards per carry average. 

Without seeing either team in action this year, I'd have to give the Bears the edge, based on what they accomplished a year ago. It will be interesting to see how much difference a new defensive coordinator makes in Chicago. 

Regardless, I think we can all agree Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers isn't a fan of either unit. 

Q: Should we be concerned that Snacks is still not practicing?

— @JamisonB56

Of all the players on the roster who could be missing practice time, Damon Harrison is among the ones who don't concern me in the slightest. He has established a track record of both dominance and durability. Furthermore, he was dropped into a new system in the middle of last season and didn't miss a beat. People don't appreciate how unique and difficult that is for any player. 

He'll be fine. 

Q: What do you see happening with Tabor? Cut? if not where do you think he falls on the depth chart?

— @HeyBeardMon

Prior to suffering an injury in practice, he was performing well enough to earn his spot on this team. And given his age, and the investment the organization has put into his development, I don't think some down time that's beyond his control is enough to change that outlook. 

I don't have any insight on the severity of his injury. If it's long-term, he might end up on injured reserve and be a candidate to return later in the year. If he can put his current issue behind him in a more timely manner, he probably ends up the team's top backup on the outside. 

Q: What are the best Metro Detroit breweries?

— @jeretics

I'm embarrassed to admit I don't have enough experience to offer a valid opinion here. I've probably spent more time visiting the great breweries on the west side of the state, and even several the northern parts of the lower peninsula. And I'm falling further and further behind, as it seems there's a new option opening up weekly within a 20-mile radius around my home.

Maybe I can get the bosses to fund a tour next offseason. Of course, I'll write about my experiences. Seems like a fair trade to me.  

Q: Since we're told that preseason wins and losses don't matter, what should us fans really be paying attention to in these final three games? What matters, what doesn't?

— @michaelluchies

I'm not an advocate for watching preseason football. It's an inferior product because there's minimal schematic work and the best players rarely play more than a handful of snaps. If you insist on watching, you're looking for solid fundamentals (tackling, route running, etc.) from players who could potentially contribute, particularly those with three or fewer years of experience. 

I know that's a boring answer, but it's the best I can do. 

Q: After the punt competition between the media, what do you think the team will have you guys do next?

— @CallMeDjm

I'd love a shot at kicking some short field goals. I doubt I could make one beyond 30 yards, but it would be fun to try. I'm keeping the request simple, because no one is going to foot the bill for me to head to the Pro Bowl and try the quarterback skills challenge. 

For what it's worth, I'm completely out on the 40-yard dash. I have a small stress fracture on the bottom of my foot that doesn't hurt so much as agitate.

Q: Should we be worried about Stafford's rest days?

— @DetroitOilMoney

At this point, I'd hold off on your concern. It was presented by the organization as a pre-planned time off. New England has done it with Tom Brady, who is admittedly much older than Stafford, but there's something to keeping your veteran quarterback fresh. I cannot imagine the Lions giving Stafford a day off during the regular season. 

Q: Trying not to overreact to a preseason game, but it is very discouraging that the Lions couldn’t even gain 100 yards. So here’s the overreaction — is this another step backwards offensively for this organization?

— @WaiteMarc

You didn't try very hard, Marc. You made it one sentence. 

Here's what we know about the offense. The first-team line played, and so did the top two tight ends. The rest of the group on the field, all backups, with running back C.J. Anderson the only one likely to see meaningful reps early in the season. 

The execution of the basics was troubling, and even considering the small sample size, it can be viewed as an indictment on the roster's overall depth. Let's give it a couple more weeks before we sound any alarms. 

Chris Lacy could be one of the receivers to see more action if the Lions to stay in-house to fill the void left by Jermaine Kearse's injury.

Q: With Kearse out for the year, how do you see them filling that role? In house options or outside options?

— @srein00

I touched on the topic briefly in a couple articles in recent days, but if the Lions go in-house, my belief is Kearse's role will be split between a couple different receivers. I've liked some stuff I've seen from Chris Lacy, Brandon Powell and rookie Travis Fulgham, to this stage. Andy Jones, who had a stellar offseason prior to training camp, is also in the mix thanks to his blocking and some of the stuff he offers on special teams. 

An outside option is certainly a possibility. I noted Dontrelle Inman as someone to monitor. The Lions just got a long look at him while working with the Patriots last week, had previously had him in for a free agent workout/visit, and he fits a similar profile to Kearse with experience, versatility and size.  

Q: Why should fans tune in this year? What do you see as something that's exciting or must watch?

— @bill_blasky

I know I just noted that preseason football isn't worth anyone's time. On the flip side, I'm also not the team's marketing arm. They're responsible for putting a product on the field that compels fans to watch, attend games and load up on merchandise. 

Simply taking the outside perspective, the best reasons to watch the Lions this year will be the team's rising young stars on offense, Kerryon Johnson and Kenny Golladay, and a potentially stellar defense led by the aforementioned, talent-rich defensive line. 

Despite the reactions the preseason opener has drawn, if the defense comes together as designed, it could be enough to keep the Lions in playoff contention deep into the year. 

Q: Who are a few dark horse candidates to make the team? Also, will there be any surprise cuts?

— @FFTylerO

With respect to the hard work each player is putting in to secure a roster spot, I'll skip guessing who will be losing their job in a few weeks. 

As for some dark horse candidates, I wrote about one in Tuesday's paper, cornerback Dee Virgin. He's a good special teams contributor, and in his second year in the defensive scheme, he's flashed some intriguing ball skills. 

Along the defensive line, a guy I've written about a couple times is defensive lineman Kevin Strong. He was solid in the preseason opener and has been a tough assignment on the practice field, particularly as a pass rusher. 

Offensively, he's become less of a dark horse since Kearse went down, but Chris Lacy has had a strong camp performance and offers above-average size. 

Q: What are your thoughts on Isaac Nauta making the 53? How has he looked in practices?

— @sweta2311

He's been a better route runner than I anticipated. He's really smooth out of his breaks and also has above-average hands, making him a viable pass-game weapon. I haven't seen enough of his blocking, or what he can do on special teams, to provide a more complete evaluation. Still, I would currently include him on a 53-man projection. 

Q: How many fifths of bourbon will it take to get through the season?

— @lamos_mary

I must give off the impression I drink a lot. In reality, I don't drink much at all, maybe one or two drinks (not fifths) per week.

Let's assume worst-case scenario, three drinks per week because I'm traveling eight weekends each season and that tends to lead to a small uptick in consumption. Let's also assume a liberal pour of 2 oz, per drink. A fifth is just under 26 ounces, so at six per week, over 17 weeks, four bottles should carry me through the season. But I'll buy five, just in case. 

Lions quarterback David Fales is sacked by Patriots' Derek Rivers in the second quarter.

Q: Where would you rank David Fales among backups?

— @DocWiggs

Fales was signed as a third-string quarterback shortly before training camp. Logically, that puts him somewhere between the 70th-100th best quarterback currently on an NFL roster. 

Q: With roster cuts coming soon, do you see the Lions signing players to the final 53 man roster that are currently fighting for roster spots on other teams? How many and what positions do you think they will target?

— @DFF_Blizzard

Forgive me, but I'm not able to remain in tune with the 90-man rosters of all 32 teams. I have enough to worry about trying to keep up with the one roster I'm paid to cover. But to your larger point, yes, there's probably a player or two who will come available after cuts that could improve Detroit's roster depth. If I were to guess the position(s), I would keep an eye on wide receiver and linebacker. 

Q: A recent ranking of QBs had a quote that Stafford doesn’t make those around him better. Tate and Jones seem to counter that thought process. What do you think?

— @KuehnObserve

Speaking from experience, it can be difficult to avoid falling into cliches when taking on such a big project as ranking the NFL's quarterbacks. Saying Stafford doesn't make anyone better is kind of over-simplified and lazy distillation of the team's lack of success during his time at quarterback. 

Your examples are good, long-term counter examples to the critique. 

Q: You wrote about Patriots bubble players who could help the Lions. Are there any Lions bubble players who have any trade value?

— @IgorPetrinovic

Fun question, and a pretty difficult one to answer. If you had asked me a week ago, I probably would have mentioned Joe Dahl, but his contract extension kills that thought. 

There's always value in good special team players, so in a crowded safety room, Charles Washington or Tavon Wilson could potentially net a late-round pick. Less likely to be shopped, but Miles Killebrew also fits that description. 

Some might make a case for A'Shawn Robinson, given he's entering the final year of his contract and the Lions have plenty of depth at the position, but I would be surprised if they risk weakening the roster's clear strength. 

Q: Who's a better interview? Me, or Darrell?

— @fake_cooter

You were definitely more funny, (fake) Jim Bob.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers