Lions mailbag, Part 1: Patricia moves team backward; 2020 defensive outlook
Allen Park — Another week another loss. It's beginning to look like the Detroit Lions won't win another game until 2020. But the question keep flooding in, so buckle up for another mailbag.
► Question: Considering it has taken three years for the 49ers have seen success and Belichick took four years in Cleveland to make the playoffs, plus you wrote a nice article last year explaining we should expect three years before a new defensive scheme will be effective (citing the Bears as an example), shouldn't we give Quinn and Patricia another year? — Dean Tobey
► Answer: Thanks for making me go back and read my own words, or, more accurately, how I put Matt Patricia's words in statistical context ahead of a matchup with Chicago last year. And yes, the examples you reference did take three-plus years.
I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and Detroit's current predicament, is the others were more obvious rebuilds, especially Cleveland and San Francisco. Bill Belichick took over a 3-13 team and slowly built them up each year. From 6-10 his first season, to 7-9 the next two after ditching the franchise quarterback, to 11-5 and the playoffs in that fourth season.
With the 49ers, Kyle Shanahan inherited a rudderless franchise that had three different head coaches the previous three years. After finding a groove at the end of the 2017 season, following the acquisition of franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a midseason trade, the team's momentum was derailed when he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 of the 2018 campaign. The blessing there was it turned into the No. 2 pick, Nick Bosa, which helped transform a defense already loaded with first-round talent.
Matt Patricia, on the other hand, was handed the keys to a 9-7 roster and has made it worse, from a record standpoint, two years in a row. And the defense, which was supposed to be the calling card, seems as far away from competitive as ever.
So while I understand those wanting to preach patience, the above examples aren't the reasoning the justify the case. In Detroit, the idea of a rebuild was only introduced as necessary in hindsight.
► Q: Is our alma mater, the fighting EMUs, the best local team to play at Ford Field in 2019? — @TonyTuccini
► A: In one of the most challenging places to succeed in the country, Chris Creighton has done a wonderful job with Eastern Michigan's program. But the best local team to play at Ford Field this year was probably River Rouge High School. They steamrolled Muskegon, 30-7, in the Division 3 state championship.
► Q: Where will Jarrad Davis rank in the history of Lions drafts picks that never panned out? — @juice219
► A: Assuming Davis' career stays the course, and the Lions don't re-up with him when his contract expires, he still wouldn't come close to the bottom-10. He's well ahead of players who flamed out due to injury, such as Jahvid Best and Ryan Broyles, or the slew of Millen-era picks that fell disastrously flat, including Mike Williams, Jordon Dizon, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Daniel Bullocks and Brian Calhoun.
What about Charles Rogers and Andre Ware? Juan Roque?
We're barely dipping our toes into the history of this franchise. Davis is an average player, and, if we're being fair, there's still time for things to click for him. When all is said and done, it might end up a bad first-round pick, but not close to the level of some of those other names I mentioned.
► Q: Could the terms of the Quandre Diggs trade to Seattle have shifted the "dead money" to them? If not, isn't that one more negative about the deal? Also, if Detroit cuts Jesse James, what will be the financial consequence associated with that move? — Charles Wolfson
► A: Good question. The average fan shouldn't be expected to have a grasp on the intricacies of the salary cap. In the case of dead money, especially when it comes to trades, it's funds that have already been paid by the organization, usually in the form of a signing bonus.
The way signing bonus money works is the team cuts that check immediately, but for cap purposes, it's spread evenly over the duration of the deal, up to five years. So an $8 million signing bonus on a four-year contract results in a $2 million cap hit each of those four seasons. But if a player is cut or traded at any point, the remaining cap hit accelerates and comes due the next year.
With Diggs, or any traded player, the signing bonus money has been paid and the original team remains on the hook for it. It can't be shifted as part of any trade.
As for James, he's due to have a $5.3 million cap hit in 2020. But if he's cut or traded, based on guarantees and a lofty signing bonus, it would actually cost the Lions $8.3 million. Yes, he costs more if he's not on the roster. Based on that, he's here to stay for at least another year.
► Q: The Lions defense seems to have few strengths. How much roster turnover will there be on that side of the ball this offseason? — @MiusFlint
► A: There's typically a hefty amount of turnover on NFL rosters from year to year — in the ballpark of 30 percent. The Lions currently have 36 players under contract for 2020, while some of those will likely be cut, and a few of the free agents will be retained.
Looking specifically at the defense, there are several pieces that aren't likely to change next season. Trey Flowers, Da'Shawn Hand, Devon Kennard, Justin Coleman, Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Tracy Walker and Will Harris should be back and have similar roles. You also have young, cheap options like Amani Oruwariye and Austin Bryant who will compete for playing time next offseason.
The biggest question marks are what the Lions will do with Darius Slay and Damon Harrison. Slay continues to be one of the NFL's best corners, but there's been a pretty clear disconnect between him and the team this year, starting with his mini holdout during the offseason program and extending to his public venting after the Diggs trade. No one should be surprised if the team deals him this offseason.
As for Harrison, he wasn't the same player this year, even after he was awarded the contract extension he sought. He has an $11.75 million cap hit in 2020, but only $5 million in dead money. That's another big name who could be on the move if a viable alternative comes available.
► Q: With the "build up the middle" philosophy Quinn and Patricia like to spout, wouldn't it be more likely they take the defensive tackle Derrick Brown rather than Chase Young? — @Tim1213
► A: Let me make this clear right off the top, Auburn's Derrick Brown would be an excellent addition for Detroit, and if they're picking anywhere from No. 3 to No. 10, you can easily make the case he's the right choice. This team needs interior help and Brown is a three-down monster, strong as the day is long with some serious pass-rushing prowess from those inside alignments.
But regardless of the desire to build from the inside out, you don't pass up an edge-rushing talent like Young. If the choice is between the two, it's not a difficult decision.
► Q: Do you think Bob Quinn has a burner account on Twitter to monitor what players say/do? — @MichaelFick1
► A: I'm not sure if Quinn is on Twitter, but the Lions definitely have eyes on anything/everything that's posted on that and other social media sites by players and media members.
► Q: Two-part question, if Patricia is gone, would you rather have Mike McCarthy or Ron Rivera? If Patricia stays and you get one of those guys for defensive coordinator, who would you want? — @MNITRKN1
► A: I'm going to excuse myself from stating a personal preference because I'm not rooting for anyone to lose their jobs. But if that were to happen, Rivera would be the better fit.
Prior to Matthew Stafford's injury, the Lions seemed to have a good thing going on offense with Darrell Bevell, and I have no reason to believe Rivera wouldn't want to keep that in place. As for McCarthy, he's an offensive coach from a similar schematic background, but I envision him wanting to take the reigns with that unit.
The second part of the question is silly. Neither one of those guys are taking a coordinator job, and in the alternate reality where they did, as mentioned, only one is a defensive coach.
► Q: List three positives from this season that make you optimistic about the future of this team. — @trumanfrancis
► A: The performance of Matthew Stafford in Bevell's scheme, the continued growth and improvement of Kenny Golladay and the steady performance of Trey Flowers.
Stafford was flourishing in this system, which including the reintroduction of a successful deep ball component. This was the most confident and productive I remember seeing the quarterback in some time and maybe ever.
As for Golladay, he keeps getting better and better. He's a tier below the league's elite at the receiver position, strictly from a consistency perspective, but he's been a big-play and scoring machine in his third season.
And I know the defense has been frustrating, but after a sluggish start while shaking off some post-surgery rust, Flowers has been as advertised. He's fundamentally sound against the run and generates a healthy amount of pass-rush pressure off the edge. At 26, he's absolutely a player to build around.
► Q: Would we even know what tanking looked like, should the Lions decide to do so? — @CallMeDjm
► A: Tanking is a layered conversation. Obviously, no player wants to lose games. The majority of the roster is playing for their careers, both in the form of playing time and contracts. The same can be said for a coaching staff. Lose too much, without previously established guarantees you'll be back the next season, and you're job is at risk.
But when you do feel secure about your job, there are some subtle hints that wins are not the top priority. For example, you'll see a more conservative approach to injuries and younger players more willingly thrown into the fire. And from a roster construction standpoint, injured veterans are replaced by young talent, not more-accomplished veterans.
In many ways, the Lions are checking these boxes. Especially focus on who is playing when a starter goes down. It's opening the door for Bo Scarbrough over someone like Jay Ajayi or Amani Oruwariye over a veteran cornerback off the street. And no disrespect to David Blough, but was there not a better veteran option?
It does make me wonder if Quinn and Patricia have assurance, behind the scenes, that they're going to be back in 2020.
► Q: The Lions had the injury bug last year as well. How much of this bad luck can be attributed to the grueling training camps under Patricia? — Mike Ledin
► A: I'd lean aggressively toward bad luck, and I don't believe the Lions' luck is any worse than most NFL teams, in this regard. It might just seem that way because of how bad things have gotten down the stretch.
When I look closer at the injuries, I see a lot of high-ankle sprains, often from the type of accidental collisions that cause them. You're not seeing many guys shut down for wear-and-tear issues.
► Q: How many new starters do you expect on the offensive line next season? — @BigBitingPig
► A: At least one, maybe two. Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow are near locks, while Joe Dahl has performed well enough at a bargain price that he probably sticks in his role next season.
At the other two spots, I'm still leaning toward my belief Graham Glasgow won't be re-signed. I don't know if it's the scheme or concerns about the cost, but they haven't shown any commitment to keeping him in the fold. And at right tackle, Rick Wagner is primed for replacement if the the team can find a better option in the draft. And it's not even outlandish to suggest they might be more confident in Tyrell Crosby going forward.
Wagner hasn't been good this season and it would be difficult to justify an $11.9 million cap hit in 2020. Moving on would free up $6.1 million in space.