Lions Mailbag, Part 2: Breaking down T.J. Hockenson's ceiling, wild-card hopes

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson

Allen Park — As promised, here's Part 2 of today's Detroit Lions mailbag.

► Question: What do you make of the Lions reportedly trying make a deal for Chris Harris before the trade deadline? — @GMart4041

► Answer: There are a couple possibilities here.

First, we can't dismiss this was a contingency to dealing Darius Slay in a separate trade. It's within reason to believe the team had an offer they liked for the Pro Bowl corner, but weren't comfortable with how the roster would look after the move. 

The other, simpler way to view this is Harris is an upgrade over Rashaan Melvin. You're talking about a four-time Pro Bowler compared to a journeyman. That's not to say Melvin hasn't met expectations and done some good things during his first half-season in Detroit, but a general manager can never shy away from upgrading at any spot, and Harris would have been a significant upgrade.

More: Lions Mailbag, Part 1: Run game issues, Stafford’s strengths, Quinn’s mistakes

Q: Can the Lions defense take advantage of a beat-up offensive line in Oakland? — @forlionsforrest

A: The Raiders' biggest concern right now is at center, where starter Rodney Hudson and backup Andre James both missed practice on Wednesday. If neither can go on Sunday, coach Jon Gruden said his plan is to move guard Richie Incognito to center. 

Incognito said it's been a long time since he's played the position, but expressed comfort with the possibility. Unless he struggles with snapping, I don't anticipate he'll be a weakness. At guard, he'd be replaced by Denzelle Good, who has plenty of experience, having played nearly 1,700 snaps the past four years.  

Yeah, there would be a slight drop-off in overall talent, but not enough for the Lions to exploit. This is a really good offensive line, particularly in pass protection. In the past four games, they haven't allowed a sack. In fact, quarterback Derek Carr has been hit just once during that stretch.

Oh, and running back Josh Jacobs has averaged 5.0 yards per carry.

That's a stunning level of effectiveness up front. 

Q: What will Austin Bryant bring to the lineup when he (presumably) joins the active roster? Who gets dropped off the roster? — @PatBerWA

A: I'm not ready to commit to the idea he'll join the active roster. The Lions might look to maximize this three-week practice window before shutting him down, especially if the team is battling injury and depth issues at other spots when they need to make that decision. 

If he is activated, expect a slow build. Lions coach Matt Patricia likes to be cautious in these situations, where opportunities for contact in practice have been limited. Bryant will get only a handful of padded practices, which isn't enough to make up what he's missed during his rookie offseason. 

As for how Bryant could hypothetically be utilized, the Lions seem interested in playing him both on the line and off-the-ball. Among the roles on the roster, Bryant's could most closely mirror Christian Jones'. He has spent much more time on the line this season. 

Lions running back Kerryon Johnson

Q: Why do you think Jim Bob Cooter was able to get Kerryon out wide and into open spaces to the tune of 4+ YPC last year, while Bevell seems determined to run our guys up the middle (unsuccessfully) like they're Beast Mode? — @ALBsharah

A: OK, let's see if perception meets reality, using data provided by Pro Football Focus. 

First, Kerryon Johnson had 118 carries last season. Of those, 36 went to the edges and 64 went between the guards. This year, on 92 carries, 17 to the edges and 47 between the guards. 

What this tells us is yes, Johnson is running to the edges less season, particularly to the left edge where he had a bunch of success as a rookie. But he's also running fewer times up the gut. Bevell seems to have Johnson running more off-tackle than his play-calling predecessor. 

In terms of the production decline, we can look at a couple different things. First, defenses adjust with film. As Johnson established an ability to get an edge, coordinators scheme for these things. Second, the blocking personnel is different, and for all the flaws with last year's tight end group, they were more consistent run blockers than the current group, to date.

Q: Didn’t hear any rumors of possible defensive line trade targets, does this mean the Lions are satisfied with the non-existent pass rush? — @Forrest_Trump_1

A: I know there was this vocal group on social media who wanted the Lions to make a run at Von Miller, or a lesser talent like Ryan Kerrigan, but there wasn't any reason to believe that was ever a realistic possibility.

The asking prices for edge rushers tends to be steep and there were massive contracts to absorb, at least in those instances. I don't think the Lions are satisfied with their edge rush, but we must be cognizant that the scheme, with a plethora of three-man fronts, isn't going to generate a lot of heat on quarterbacks. 

This past game was a good example of what it can look like when it's effective. Trey Flowers' play has been picking up in recent weeks and the incorporation of the linebackers, particularly Jarrad Davis, generated some needed pressure up the middle.

More: Lions' Darius Slay happy to stay in Detroit, maybe for good

Q: How are they going to cover the Oakland tight ends this week if Walker is out? — @ekaseta

A: If the Giants game was any indication, rookie Will Harris will draw much of the work against Darren Waller, one of the NFL's breakout stars this season. 

Q: Does Slay get traded at end of season? Does Marvin Jones get re-signed? Is Glasgow out the door? — @DirtyJerzFinest

A: Three questions? Someone is being greedy. 

You hit on three important offseason decisions looming for the Lions. With Darius Slay, the Lions are going to continue to listen to offers, because they should, but the price tag will remain high, which it should.  

I can't tell you what the other 31 teams might offer, but if one comes to the table with a first-round pick and another Day-2 selection, Bob Quinn is going to have a tough decision on his hands.

Or maybe it won't be that tough. Slay is due a raise, but his next contract won't kick in until he's 30. Age hits cornerbacks hard, where speed and quickness fuel success. 

Lions' Darius Slay

Jones also remains under contract through the 2020 season. I wouldn't anticipate the Lions making an push for an early extension, given he'll turn 31 in 2021. The bigger question is whether the team will look to draft a cheap replacement.

It's tough to imagine now, because of his importance to the offense, but letting Jones go next year would clear $6.5 million in cap space. 

Finally, with Glasgow, I previously thought there was no way the Lions would let him walk, but the opposite is looking more and more likely, particularly with the coaching staff's insistence on rotating him off the field in favor of Kenny Wiggins. Frankly, that's an insulting way to treat your best, most-durable lineman from the past two seasons. 

More: Wojo: Darius Slay stays, which is fine, but Lions still running in neutral

Q: Hard Knocks standout Jason Cabinda was signed to our practice squad at the beginning of the season. Do you have any updates in terms of his progression and/or projection to make the roster down the line? — @bum_thagreat

A: I have no immediate updates on Cabinda's development, other than he's still here, which is indicative that the Lions like what he's bringing to the table on the practice field, even if it's just his role on the scout team. 

Cabinda's promotion is blocked by a crowded depth chart. Beyond the starters, the team has solid depth in Jahlani Tavai and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Additionally, Reeves-Maybin and Steve Longa are outstanding special teamers. 

That means it's going to take an injury or two until the Lions look to Cabinda for help. 

Q: I feel like we see the back of Christian Jones’ jersey in pass coverage a lot. Wouldn’t Reeves-Maybin be a better cover linebacker with his speed, at least on more obvious passing downs? — @Towen15

A: I don't disagree. I like the idea of bringing in Reeves-Maybin on third-and-long situations or during two-minute drives, but the Lions clearly don't agree. After playing extensively early in the year, while Jarrad Davis recovered from injury, Reeves-Maybin has been on the field for just nine defensive snaps the past five games. 

Q: Will T.J. Hockenson eventually become as dynamic as he seems capable? Is he being used in max protect packages often? — @SteveB5477

A: As with all rookies, but especially at the tight end position, patience must be preached. That might seem like it goes out the window when a guy has 131 yards in his debut, but it doesn't. 

I have little doubt Hockenson is going to develop into a reliable receiving option at tight end. He's already showing the ability to be a matchup problem, but with Kenny Golladay, Jones and Danny Amendola, the rookie isn't in a spot where he needs to be a go-to guy every week. 

The Lions don't do a lot of max protect, and when they leave a tight end in to help with pass protection, it usually isn't Hockenson. He's run nearly 170 routes, while staying in to pass block a touch more than 20 snaps. 

Hockenson does help out regularly as a run blocker, and that's an area where he clearly needs to improve, both with his strength and technique. He's obviously driven to be successful in this area, and it was a big part of his resume coming into the league, but it's a skill where he's clearly struggling with the adjustment. 

More: EMU's Maxx Crosby, UM's Maurice Hurst bring the heat on Raiders' defense

Q: Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman: Good or not so good? Seems as though they have been very up and down. Both looked good early in the year, but seem to be backsliding. — @DanielCarlson_1

A: Both players are upgrades from the previous setup, and Coleman is the better player, in large part because of his consistency. Unfortunately, that evaluation is clouded by his awful performance against the Giants, which was littered with missed tackles. 

As for Melvin, he's about what we should have expected. He's going to get beat, at times, but he does a decent job getting his hands on passes with seven pass breakups in seven games. 

Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling makes an over-the-shoulder reception in front of Lions cornerback Rashaan Melvin.

Q: We hear so much about how the Patriots game-plan for each individual opponent on defense, yet it seems that this something that Coach Patricia hasn’t brought with him from Foxboro. Is this just my imagination? — @_Smails_

A: I understand what you're saying. The week-to-week changes in Detroit's scheme aren't nearly as drastic as we might have anticipated, based on the way the coaching emphasized multiplicity upon arrival.

The Lions are definitely locked into some core principles, both with its rush and coverage. These concepts show up weekly on film, including the three-man rushes, limited use of blitzes, a heavy reliance on man-to-man coverage on the outside and safety Tracy Walker covering tight ends. 

But there's nuance we can easily miss. For example, the Lions have used 205 different defensive combinations this season, the sixth-most in the NFL and not far behind the Patriots. That includes seven different starting combinations. 

There are also weekly, subtle changes to the coverages and rush concepts, often focused on stopping what the opponent does best. 

Q: How realistic do you feel it is for the Lions to rally to a wildcard spot? — @ld5215

A: It's going to be tough. At the very least, it appears the team is going to need to win seven of its final nine games. And with the way the NFC is shaping up this year, even 10-5-1 might not be enough. 

The two wild card spots are currently held by Seattle and Minnesota, both sitting at 6-2. That means the Lions essentially trail by three games in the standings, with a few more teams between them and a wild card spot. 

Two projection models I like to look at, FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders, have the Lions' odds of making the playoffs at 11 percent and 12.4 percent. That sounds about right. 

More: Sick Lions QB Matthew Stafford convinced voice will be back by Sunday

Q: Do you believe the lions will start blitzing Jarrad Davis more after last game? — @Carter3Chalk

A: Someone skipped my film review this week. 

First, it's important to clear up a misconception. While Davis rushed the passer quite a bit against the Giants, the team wasn't technically blitzing. In nearly every instance the linebacker was sent after the quarterback, it was as a fourth rusher. 

Where your observation is correct is the effectiveness of this strategy. Davis generated pressure on five of his 15 pass rush attempts. That's an impressive rate, considering the volume. 

But, as always, there's a caveat. The more you do something, the more the opponent expects it. Davis is talented enough as a pass rusher that he's going to win his share of snaps, but when an opponent does a better job scheming an interior lineman to pick him up, instead of leaving the responsibility to the running back, Davis' efficiency is going to go down significantly. 

The Lions saw an opportunity to dial it up against the Giants and it worked well. But overexposing Davis on the rush isn't the best idea if the Lions want the strategy to maintain its value.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers