Lions mailbag, Part 1: Free-agent fits, draft candidates, run game puzzles
Allen Park — There's apparently some big game going on in Miami, but Detroit Lions fans are busy thinking about the 2020 season. Welcome to an offseason edition of the mailbag, where I do my best to answer your questions. This is Part 1 of the Q&A.
► Q: Who are some players the Lions are going to be relying on to take a step up next year? - @TerbergAlert
► A: In reality, just about everyone. How many guys were maxing out their abilities in 2019? No more than a handful, that's for sure.
To be more specific, significant improvement in a team's record usually comes on the backs of significant improvement with a roster's young core. If you're looking for certain players who could elevate the team's overall performance, you're looking at second- and third-year talent to make developmental leaps. That group includes T.J. Hockenson, Will Harris, Da'Shawn Hand, Tyrell Crosby and Jahlani Tavai. Even running back Kerryon Johnson, who needs to bounce back after falling short of expectations last season.
From the department of more-established veterans, I'm looking at Jarrad Davis and Joe Dahl. It's now or never for the fourth-year linebacker, who failed to build on his sophomore season progression last season, potentially in part to a serious ankle injury he suffered in the preseason. Regardless, the middle linebacker is the heart of the defense, and for all the boxes Davis checks with his work ethic and character, he needs to deliver more impact between the white lines.
Dahl might seem boring, because guards usually are, but the middle of the offensive line is the engine of the ground game. With Graham Glasgow's seemingly likely departure, there's an even greater expectation for Dahl, a full-time starter for the first time in his fourth season, to be a more consistent performer.
► Q: What’s the farthest you see Detroit moving back from No. 3? - @MichaelFickII
► A: Probably No. 7, where you could easily see the Carolina Panthers in the market to make a bold move up the board after a wild offseason that saw the franchise swing for the fences with its head coach and offensive coordinator hires.
While there are several teams in lower slots that could be in the market for a quarterback, including Indianapolis, New England and New Orleans — depending on the future of Drew Brees — that's too steep of a drop down the board for the Lions to seriously consider an offer, regardless of the package of draft picks, present and future, dangled in an exchange.
► Q: Do you think the Lions will be aggressive in free agency and try and make a big splash or two? - @Jables22s
► A: With something around $40 million to work with entering free agency, it's setting up for the Lions to be similarly aggressive to last offseason, when the franchise inked Trey Flowers, Justin Coleman and Jesse James to lucrative multi-year deals.
Of course, an extension for wide receiver Kenny Golladay has to be in the back of the organization's mind, so that could be a factor in the spending plan.
In terms of where the Lions look to use their funds, that remains to be seen, but defensive line remains a logical bet. Among the big-ticket options, I'll continue to cast my vote for Kansas City's Chris Jones, a dynamic interior lineman who won't turn 26 until July.
► Q: Do you think Bob Quinn has a decent draft or falls in love with players other teams don’t want and takes them too high? - @pierce_bw
► A: Decent is probably the best way to describe Quinn's drafts. He hasn't hit many home runs, with Golladay the only star-caliber performer in line for a second contract with the franchise. Quinn's early-round choices have been conservative and brought back modest returns. Frank Ragnow has been the best, and while there's little doubting the importance of a center, it's a tough sell to a fan base when the numbers for the ground game and the team's sack totals continue to be average to below-average.
As for the second part of your question, about falling in love with players other teams don't want, I don't really have much to add. It sounds like residual frustration with the Teez Tabor selection, which was an unquestionable mistake, but similar draft whiffs exist on every decision-maker's resume.
► Q: With the depth at wide receiver in the draft this year, do the Lions go ahead and extend Kenny Golladay or spend a high pick on a WR or both? - @gigasmith67
► A: I have every reason to believe the Lions would like to keep Golladay in Detroit long-term. And there are clear benefits to getting an extension done sooner than later, since player price tags don't really go down in the NFL, given the ever-expanding salary cap resulting in steady contract inflation.
But extending Golladay shouldn't preclude the team from drafting a wide receiver in the early rounds. Even if we believe the Lions can bring back Danny Amendola, there's a clear long-term need at the position, both in the slot and on the outside. Amendola will turn 35 next season, and Marvin Jones is entering the final year of his contract. That's a different extension conversation than Golladay, considering Jones turns 30 in a March.
You've correctly noted this is a deep receiver draft, which means teams should be able to find value in the middle rounds.
► Q: I'm hoping the Lions draft Jerry Jeudy. Please paint the scenario in which this happens. - @BigBitingPig
► A: If Matt Millen were still the general manager, it would be a lock.
But he's not, and Detroit's biggest concerns are on defense. So as good of a prospect as Jeudy looks to be, the idea he lands in Detroit strikes me as highly unlikely.
The best bet for something like to this to happen is if the Lions trade back a few spots, say to six or seven, and both Jeffrey Okudah and Derrick Brown are off the draft board. At that point, the gap between Jeudy and the next best player available could be too significant to ignore.
► Q: What’s your gut feeling on if Snacks is back next year? - @AustinDanieI
► A: The longer Damon Harrison takes to make a decision on his future, the more I can be convinced he'll return for the 2020 season. He's a prideful individual, and you could sense how much his performance was bothering him throughout the year, even before his emotional interview after the season finale. That said, it's a difficult decision for any player to call it a career, especially when there's more than $11 million sitting on the table to return.
► Q: Outside of Jeffrey Okudah, who seems to be the next possible option for Detroit at No. 3 with Joe Burrow and Chase Young gone? - @N_Larisch
► A: As much as I like the dynamic playmaking potential of linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the clear answer is Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown. He's powerful enough to control multiple gaps in the ground game and athletic enough to penetrate and disrupt the backfield in passing situations. He's big, long and fundamentally sound, not missing a single tackle in 2019.
The Lions sorely lacked production from its defensive interior last season, which impacted the production in both the ground game and the pass rush. Pairing Brown with a healthy Hand, and either Harrison or a free-agent addition, could revitalize an anemic front.
► Q: Every team that’s having success runs the ball and does it very well. Is another running back that has a history of durability a need for the Lions in this draft in your opinion? - @AndrewBuris
► A: The conversation with running the ball always boils down to how much credit goes to the back and how much to his blocking? As a rookie Kerryon Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry, but that plummeted to 3.6 yards last season. Was he a worse player?
According to Pro Football Focus, he made 21 tacklers miss on 118 carries in 2018 and 19 miss on 113 carries last year. So elusiveness wasn't an issue. No, the bigger difference was he averaged 3.2 yards before contact in year one and 1.6 last year. That screams blocking, or at the very least, blocking scheme.
We also know Johnson has durability concerns, which you noted. That brings Bo Scarbrough into focus. The former Alabama product had a nice little run filling in while Johnson was out with his knee injury. Scarbrough averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry without much more help from the blocking (2.2 yards per carry before contact).
So do we believe in Scarbrough? It's admittedly a leap of faith, given the relatively small sample size. And like we noted with receivers above, you can't shy away from the possibility of adding a clear upgrade if one is staring you in the face in the draft.
If I was general manager, my bigger focus would be building up my offensive line. While there might be ways to improve the running back position in the draft, almost any of the prospects would struggle behind last year's blocking. Fix that first and then you can truly evaluate your backfield talent and depth.
► Q: How gone is Glasgow? Any chances we get him back - @Spudrock91
► A: I'd put the likelihood of a departure around 80 percent. A return hinges on the price tag coming in unexpectedly low. The Lions place more value on the center and tackle positions up front and believe you can get by with bargains at the guard spots.
You could see Graham Glasgow get contract offers in the $8 million per year range, which would rank just inside the top-20 at the position. Dahl, on the other hand, makes about 20 percent as much. That's unquestionable superior value.
The Lions could use their second-round pick on a guard, potentially getting one of the top two or three best talents in this draft class with a lower cap hit than Dahl and four years of team control. Removing all emotion, you can see the appeal of going this direction.
► Q: Best food at Senior Bowl? - @bigjp77
► A: I love southern cuisine. It's just hard to find good grits, jambalaya, red beans and rice and po' boys in the northern states. I'm embarrassed to admit I'm not a seafood fan, which significantly limits how much I can enjoy the fine options in Mobile, Ala., given its location on the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of my favorite spots I've found over the years have been Dumbwaiter, The Noble South and a new find this year, Squid Ink Eats & Drinks. But if you're unlike me, and enjoy seafood, Wintzell's Oyster House and Felix's Fish Camp are local gems.