Lions mailbag, Part 1: Detroit appears mired in NFL's middle class
Allen Park — Quarterback Matthew Stafford is hurt, the Detroit Lions have lost five of the past six and there's still seven more weeks to go. Not surprisingly, you have questions. Lots of questions. Welcome to Part 1 of this week's mailbag.
► Question. Are the Lions closer to a top-10 team or a bottom-10 team? — @adwenn
► Answer. Mathematically speaking, the Lions are closer to a bottom-10 team. If the NFL Draft were held tomorrow, they would hold the No. 11 pick in the first round. But when you're in the middle of the pack in the NFL, all that separates you from the top-10 and bottom-10 is typically a win.
And, if we're being honest about it, the majority of the NFL is in that middle class with the Lions. What really matters is the extremes, and they aren't particularly close to either one. There's no way this compares to the roster disasters in Cincinnati or Washington, nor does it feel like the Lions could consistently compete with New England, Baltimore or Seattle on a neutral field.
Purgatory it remains.
► Q. What's it gonna take to get Martha Ford to pull the trigger and sell to Jeff Bezos? 2 billion? — @TonyTuccini
► A. Every week, without fail, I get an email or two telling me that the Ford family's ownership is the reason the Lions are terrible, like the writer of the communication was struck by this great and novel idea and couldn't wait to share it.
And who am I to argue against the point? Ownership has been the consistent factor in these decades of misery.
So when there was a report last week that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has interest in becoming an NFL owner, it spurred some conversation among that crowd. That said, there's nothing suggesting the Ford family has interest in selling the franchise.
Martha Ford, who celebrated her 94th birthday in September, continues to be hands-on with the operation and attends every game, home and away. She is genuinely passionate about the franchise and the product she puts on the field. No, that has not translated to winning, but I can confidently say it's not from a lack of effort.
Who knows what will happen when the four Ford children inherit the franchise. There could be a power struggle or they could look to sell. We've only been told a succession plan exists, but details never have been publicly discussed.
► Q. Is it a bad look for the best player on defense to be on Twitter talking about how great he is after games while the team is losing and it’s the defense that is the weakest link most weeks? — @MichaelFick1
► A. You're talking about cornerback Darius Slay, who routinely hits Twitter immediately after games to answer his critics and retweet praise. It's certainly a sign of immaturity, but that's always been part of the package with the Pro Bowl cornerback.
Slay's social media presence, and his willingness to speak his mind to the media, isn't lost on Lions' brass. Currently, the talent outweighs the trouble, but there's a reason teams were sniffing around at the trade deadline. They can see that there's an opening to pry him away at the right price since there's a culture disconnect brewing between player and organization.
The Lions want more guys like Jarrad Davis, Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola, who are all business all the time. Slay doesn't fit that mold. If and when the Lions are ready to move on, there will likely be plenty of teams happy to put up with Slay's personality.
► Q. Do you see Stafford back for the Thanksgiving game, later or not at all this year? — @SFHCommish_1
► A. There's no way to say without knowing specifics of the injury. There were reports that he's dealing with a broken bone in his back, and realistically, the only one you can really play through is a fractured transverse process, which is the wing-like protrusions on either side of each vertebrae.
If that is in fact that case, you're looking at a recovery time of up to six weeks.
► Q. Who is the most dominating defensive player the Lions have had during your tenure? — @trumanfrancis
► A. I've only been covering the team since 2011, but during that time, it would be tough to argue against Ndamukong Suh. At his peak, he had elite strength and quickness for his position, making his a nightmare on the pass rush.
Early in his career, teams used his aggressiveness against him, trapping him on the backfield and running the ball to his gap, but he adjusted and became a solid run defender, as well.
It was tough for the Lions to let him go, but they were also wise not to match Miami's outlandish offer. It's tough to justify paying that kind of coin to a defensive tackle, and even though Suh continued to be a solid player after he left, he never lived up to his paycheck after departing Detroit.
► Q. Given the situation we are faced with with our starting QB injured and an underwhelming backup, why would the Lions not hire Colin Kaepernick at this point? — @rcblue3
► A. You didn't think we'd get through the entire mailbag without addressing this week's elephant in the room, did you?
Barring a change in plans, Kaepernick is expected to work out for teams in a combine-style event in Atlanta this weekend, and the Lions are apparently sending representation. Personally, this feels like a PR stunt by the league, but that's a discussion for another day.
If Kaepernick performs well, showing a similar skill level to when he last played for the 49ers in 2016, he should be on an NFL roster. But that team is probably not the Lions. At 32 years old, signing a stopgap solution on a sinking ship seems like a waste of everyone's time.
It's better for the Lions to continue to evaluate Jeff Driskel, who offers a similar skill set to Kaepernick, as a potential long-term backup.
► Q. Who's gonna be the next GM? — @davidgadaskin
► A. David, it's midseason. We just talked about this with Matt Patrica in a column yesterday. Now is not the time for these discussions.
► Q. Which part of the o-Line must Bob Quinn upgrade to get more effective run blocking? — @BigBitingPig
► A. This is a really good question, but it's important to note that a single upgrade to the personnel probably won't ensure any turnaround.
With running the ball, you want to start with a strong interior. Center Frank Ragnow is probably Detroit's most consistent run blocker, so attention turns to the guard. It's unclear what Graham Glasgow's future is in Detroit, but whether he's re-signed or not, the biggest upgrade would be drafting a premier interior run blocker like the Colts found in Quenton Nelson a couple of years back.
A couple of names I like from my early look at this draft class are Fresno State's Netane Muti and Georgia's Solomon Kindley.
► Q. With one week experience as a starter for the Lions do you think Driskel will try more downfield passing this week vs the Cowboys? — @evangecube
► A. Probably a little bit, but it's not like Driskel was only throwing quick outs, slants and screens against the Bears. According to tracking data from Pro Football Focus, he attempted 14 passes that traveled 10 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage, completing seven for 143 yards and a touchdown. Within that were also two drops by Kenny Golladay.
Driskel has arm strength, and decent downfield accuracy, but you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment if you're expected him to sling it around like Stafford.
► Q. The Lions are currently outside of the top 10 in the draft order. Will they be in the top 10 by year's end? — @BuckGenoIII
► A. A lot of that depends on when Stafford returns to the lineup. As noted above, the Lions currently hold the No. 11 pick, just behind Cleveland, Denver, Tampa Bay and Arizona.
The Bucs come to town in December, a week before the Lions fly out to play Denver a few days before Christmas. Those games figure to be quite impactful in the draft picture.
If I were to guess, I'd anticipate the Lions finishing just outside the top 10. Right now, a range of 8-14 looks about right.
► Q. Out of the following former Lions offensive linemen, who would start for the Lions this week, assuming everyone is 100 percent healthy: Warford, Tomlinson or Reiff? — @GusTryin
► A. Larry Waford would start for the Lions, without question. He was a solid player when he was here and has gone on to earn Pro Bowl honors twice in New Orleans. It's a coin flip between Laken Tomlinson and Joe Dahl. Tomlinson is the better pass protector, but Dahl is physically stronger at the point of attack, at this stage in his career.
As for Riley Reiff, I prefer Taylor Decker at left tackle. Reiff wasn't as good at right tackle, but he'd probably be an upgrade over what Rick Wagner has given the Lions this season.
► Q. Do the Lions have enough healthy bodies to do a DL rotation? Does this affect how hard/often they can rush the passer? — @IGRifffinsports
► A. Yeah, they're banged up, but most of them are still practicing. Mike Daniels, Damon Harrison and A'Shawn Robinson were all full participants to start the week, despite their on-going issues.
On the edges, Devon Kennard and Trey Flowers both have the stamina to handle heavy workloads. It does hurt not having Romeo Okwara to give them a breather, and playing any of the other linebackers on the edge has been a schematic downgrade.
► Q. Taylor Decker played well in the last game. What do you reckon the Lions want to do with him long-term? — @teddysellwood
► A. Well, they have a year to decide.
The team picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, so he'll likely be back in 2020. I say likely because I didn't see Eric Ebron getting released without a backup plan a couple of years back, so nothing is guaranteed.
Decker has played well much of the season, and is essentially back to the level of his promising rookie year. His ability to sustain and build on that the next season and a half likely will determine Detroit's interest in retaining him long-term. That, along with the depth of offensive tackle in the next two drafts.
Given the overall performance of the offensive line, particularly blocking the run, no one should be considered safely locked into the team's long-term plans.
► Q. If the press room held a taco-eating contest, who wins it? — @Michael_Stets
► A. Newcomer Ben Raven is my pick. He's a hoss who played offensive tackle in high school. He's slimmed down these days, but I'm confident he could still pack them away in the spirit of competition.