Lions mailbag, Part 2: Wasted seasons for Hand and Daniels; 2020 free agency
Allen Park — Welcome back to Part 2 of this week's Detroit Lions mailbag. Don't forget to check out Part 1.
► Question: What are you looking to get out of the last quarter of the season? - @jsermo
► Answer: Coming up with enough interesting story ideas to fill four weeks worth of sports sections in The Detroit News.
► Q: Can you help me stay positive? I've heard others talk about Patricia needs more time. Can you find an example of a first-time head coach that started similarly in his first two years and ended up making a Super Bowl with that team? - @Scosto6
► A: There aren't many. Probably the best example would be Dick Vermeil, who won nine games his first two seasons in Philadelphia before taking the team to the playoffs the next three seasons and the Super Bowl in year five.
From there, Vermeil went to the Rams, where he again won nine games his first two seasons, before leading the franchise to a Super Bowl victory in year three with some guy named Kurt Warner at quarterback.
Year three was also Vermeil's best at his third and final stop, Kansas City, as well. After underwhelming 6-10 and 8-8 seasons in 2001 and 2002, he got the Chiefs to 13-3 in 2003, although they fell a little short in the AFC championship to Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Other historical examples would be Bill Walsh and Chuck Noll. Walsh went 8-24 in his first two seasons with the 49ers, while Noll went 12-30 in his first three with the Steelers. They combined for seven Super Bowl championships with those teams.
► Q: I still can't wrap my head around the Quandre Diggs trade. Trading a Pro Bowler for a fifth-round pick is crazy. He plays every snap for Seattle. Was it money? Attitude? Something else? Are you hearing the real reason for the trade? - @SpartyNColumbus
► A: It's a layered conversation, but money wasn't a significant part of it.
The Lions viewed Diggs as schematically limited and were disappointed with his declining play this season. There's absolutely no debating the fact he was struggling to start this year, but many players go through rough patches, so it's reasonable to ask if that evaluation was short-sighted.
There was also this belief that Will Harris and Tavon Wilson were capable of replacing Diggs' snaps, freeing up Tracy Walker to move to the free safety spot Diggs had been occupying. Of course, Walker ended up getting hurt, throwing a wrench in that plan. And while Wilson has been solid this year, especially when playing downhill, Harris has looked green.
When Diggs was here, the defense was terrible. Now that he's gone, it's still terrible. But on an individual level, he's thriving in Seattle. I genuinely believe he's benefiting from the change of scenery, playing in a Cover-3 scheme he had success in last year.
And let's not kid ourselves, he's always been the type to turn a slight into motivation.
► Q: How does Kyle Sloter look as a developmental prospect? The Vikings preferred Sean Mannion to him due to his attention to backup duty detail, but Sloter looked better on the field to me. - @KarlAlden
► A: I haven't really formulated an opinion on Sloter. I generally don't watch any preseason football when I'm not forced to, so I didn't see what he did for the Vikings this year, beyond the box score.
I know the Lions have liked him for a while, but they liked David Blough more at the start of the season and have to imagine he's established a sizable lead for a 2020 role with both his schematic familiarity, as well as his confidence and execution in his debut performance.
► Q: Thoughts on Hand and Daniels status for the rest of season and next year? Neither has done anything this season. - @ba15832
► A: It's been a wasted season for both.
Mike Daniels seemed like a nice get after he was let go by the Packers, but after sitting out most of training camp, he hurt his foot early in the year and missed the stretch of the season where things began to fall apart.
He'll be a free agent at season's end and I'm not sure you can justify bringing him back at 31 years old, unless he's willing to take a significant pay cut.
As for Da'Shawn Hand, he never really got going, suffering an elbow injury in training camp that sidelined him until Week 8. Then, in his second game back, he suffered a high ankle sprain, which will likely hinder him through the end of the year.
You'd hope he could put his recent injury issues behind him in 2020, but we never really can know with these things. He's a really good player and has the makings of being a defensive building block, but you can't be that guy from the sideline.
► Q: At what point during the season do you, as a writer, start looking at draft prospects? Does it depend on the team's record or is it the college season and how it plays out? - @CallMeDjm
► A: I'm looking at draft prospects before the regular season starts, not because I have a negative outlook on the Lions' chances, but because I want to prepare myself and my audience in all things related to the team. The scouting department is looking at the next batch of college talent year-round, so why shouldn't I provide some insight on that topic?
Starting the first week of the college football season, I write up a weekly list of five college prospects with televised matchups. That way, by the end of the season, I've introduced fans to 70 or so players, giving us all a head start on the draft, regardless of where the team ends up selecting.
► Q: Now that his season is over, how would you grade the Lions' pick of Hockenson at No. 8? - @evanderjoseph
► Q: You've mentioned it’s a three-year process to evaluate a draft. Can you address playing time of the draft and expectations on year two from this past draft. - @JamesSonntag
► A: James gets me. Evander, we're going to need to spend more time together.
I've never been in a rush to grade draft picks because I know it takes time for most young NFL players to hit their stride. My annual tradition is to grade draft classes three years after the fact.
So to answer James' question, I always look for significant improvement in year two. The team's top-three picks — T.J. Hockenson, Jahlani Tavai, Will Harris — all got steady playing time this season, while Austin Bryant and Amani Oruwariye are just now getting their feet wet.
There's almost no scenario where Hockenson doesn't remain the lead guy in the tight end room. As for expectations, I think doubling his pass-game production, while performing more consistently as a run blocker and pass protector is a reasonable bar.
Tavai, meanwhile, has played around 55 percent of the team's defensive snaps this year. In his second season, I could see a scenario where he overtakes Jarrad Davis as the team's primary middle linebacker. But even if he doesn't, you're still looking for better run/pass recognition, better block avoidance/shedding and more tackles in 2020.
As for Harris, another full offseason will be good for him. He's been pedestrian in his expanded role since the Lions traded Diggs, but the physical gifts are there. You hope this experience helps improve his mental processing, to the point where he's able to develop into a reliable piece of Detroit's secondary going forward.
► Q: Do you expect the Lions to be major players in free agency in 2020? - @BigBitingPig
► A: I don't update my cap chart until closer to free agency, but looking at the calculations of some others that are out there, the Lions are expected to be working with north of $40 million. That's a good chunk of change, but it's also below league-average.
Still, that's about what the team had to spend last year, and it was enough to allow them to land multiple targets when the market opened, including Trey Flowers.
I don't yet have a great sense for this year's crop of free agents, but if the Lions were to spend big on a top name, Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones would be a player I'd put at the top of the wish list.
► Q: From a fan perspective there seems to be times when communication is a problem on the defense. When you watch the film can you pinpoint if and when this is happening? - @lamos_mary
► A: You're either extremely observant or Matt Patricia's press conferences have seeped into your subconscious. The coach would tell you that communication is one of the biggest reasons for many of the defense's breakdowns.
On film, there are some plays where you can get a good sense of what went wrong and others where it's not so clear. There is quite a bit of freedom within the scheme for players to deviate and make a play, but without having an intricate knowledge of all the checks and rules at each position, we aren't able to make those assessments definitively.
► Q: Taking away everyone's obvious pick of taking Aaron Donald or OBJ over Eric Ebron, what would be your No. 1 do-over pick in your time covering Detroit? - @Kfletch300
► A: Outside of my time covering the Lions, it would have been Andre Johnson over Charles Rogers. Not only did Johnson go on to have a far more productive career, but getting out of Michigan and away from his negative influences might have helped get Rogers on a better path.
During my time on the beat, which stretches back to the 2011 season, it's a struggle because you take away the obvious answer. You add Donald to that 2014 defense and the Lions would have been a legitimate Super Bowl contender. You cannot convince me otherwise.
Without spending too much time thinking about it, the next best option would have been drafting someone other than Teez Tabor in 2017, particularly a running back, given the false confidence in Ameer Abdullah to be the lead backfield option that season. The first running back drafted after Tabor was Alvin Kamara.
► Q: If there is a coaching change, is bringing Robert Saleh back home the obvious choice? - @TonyTuccini
► A: Let's be clear here, Saleh's defense in San Francisco is killing it this year. That's one of the best units in the league and good enough to carry the 49ers to the Super Bowl. But that doesn't mean Saleh is ready to be a head coach.
Before this season, was anyone even mentioning him as a possibility? No, and for good reason. A year ago, that same 49ers defense was giving up more than 27 points per game. But you add a fourth first-round pick in Nick Bosa to the defensive front, and sign Dee Ford for good measure, and suddenly the unit comes together.
So is Saleh a great leader and/or Xs and Os guy, or is this a case of being unable to screw up an overwhelming amount of talent? I don't think we can say for sure, at this point. The resume is a little light and we would benefit from seeing him perform at a high level in his current role for a couple more years before making that jump.
► Q: Been seeing a lot of stories about the Lions' fourth-quarter collapses. Could this be a conditioning issue? - Billy Gribble
► A: Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants for a coach who has said he wants to be the best-conditioned team in the league?
From a time of possession perspective, the Lions are controlling the ball exactly half of the game through three-quarters of the season, but they've been playing in some fast-paced contests. The Lions rank 10th in seconds between snaps on offense, while opponents have been playing even faster, with the fifth-fastest time between snaps. The conditions are certainly there to test the team's conditioning.
But defensively, Detroit does a nice job rotating its players. Only a handful have been on the field more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps this year, and of that group, the only one where I would suspect conditioning might be a factor is A'Shawn Robinson. After all, he ran the slowest lap around the practice field in human history during training camp.
That's a lot of words to say, I'm not sure. That's a tough thing to accurately measure beyond feel, but it's certainly an interesting question.