Lions mailbag, Part 1: Will Detroit bring back any of its top receivers, or will it pass?
The Super Bowl might have only been a few weeks ago, but the NFL offseason is already rapidly gaining steam. The Detroit Lions have reached an agreement to trade quarterback Matthew Stafford, are weighing their options with the franchise tag and Kenny Golladay and the start of free agency is weeks away.
What better time for a mailbag? There were a lot of good questions, so I'm breaking this up into two parts with the first batch below.
► Question: How do you think the Lions approach WR this off-season? — @LionPride8123
► Answer: Let me start by saying this: I don't believe any of Detroit's starting trio from a year ago — Golladay, Marvin Jones or Danny Amendola — will be on the roster Week 1. There's a reasonable chance the team uses the franchise tag on Golladay, but with a focus on moving him and getting draft assets. He's a great talent, but he might be 30 years old by the time the team is ready to compete in this post-Stafford era.
That leaves you with Quintez Cephus and a few unknown pieces. Listen, I like the second-year man out of Wisconsin. I think he has the skill set to develop into a No. 3 option, but the Lions are going to need much more. The draft will be an obvious place to replenish the talent and I strongly believe a receiver is in play with the team's first-round pick, such as Jaylen Waddle or Ja'Marr Chase, if either is there at No. 7 and a trade-down option isn't there or appealing.
There also will be opportunities to supplement the group in free agency. I wouldn't expect a top-tier option to be the target, but someone from the middle class of available names. One guy who will be frequently mentioned, because of the connections to Detroit's new front office, is Josh Reynolds. I can certainly see the fit. Another name I'll throw out there is David Moore, out of Seattle. He caught 35 balls and scored six times last season, both career-highs. Where he thrives is getting separation, a skill set that will pair well with new quarterback Jared Goff.
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► Q: If the Lions franchise tag Golladay, do you think they could actually get a second-round pick or better for him in a trade, or is better to let him walk and guarantee yourself the third round compensatory pick? — @mrussi
► A: Let's address the compensatory pick idea first. If Golladay is allowed to walk and signs a massive deal elsewhere, yes, the Lions would be in line for a compensatory selection in 2022. The pick would be presented as a third-rounder, but it comes at the end of the round, around pick No. 100, so it's essentially a fourth-round choice.
As to whether I think the Lions could get more in a tag-and-trade situation, yeah, I do. Even if the draft choice was a mid-third, it would be a better asset.
There are quite a few examples of tag-and-trades in recent years. No, the Lions aren't going to score a haul like the Seahawks got from the Chiefs for defensive end Frank Clark (a first, a second and a swap of thirds), but they should also be able to get more than the Dolphins got for Jarvis Landry (a fourth and a seventh).
A second-rounder for Golladay, which is what Dee Ford and Yannick Ngakoue netted for their teams in similar scenarios, is a completely reasonable ask.
► Q: What do you think the overall feel is amongst the front office that Sheila is more present in football-affiliated meetings? — @MitchyMitch9
► A: There's a difference between being present and meddling in the decision-making process. We're still in the early stages of Sheila Ford Hamp's ownership, but this is almost certainly the former. She's made it clear since taking over that she wants to be hands-on and have a deep understanding of everything that's going on in the organization, but she's not going to be resetting the draft board ahead of the first round like some owners.
Go back and listen to Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell's words during their first press conferences. Both raved about Ford Hamp. It's easy to dismiss it as gratitude toward a person that took a chance on them, but it sure felt like more than that.
There's a shared organizational vision, one designed to be collaborative and harmonious, with Ford Hamp setting the tone from the top. Will it work? I can't tell you and understand any fan's skepticism toward any member of the Ford family. But her presence in all facets of the organizational operation is going to be a part of her leadership style.
► Q: Do you think it could go bad in LA real quick and improve the draft picks the Lions will receive? — @jtobin920
► A: On paper, no. But the NFL isn't an on-paper league. There was little reason to believe the 49ers would fall off the map after their Super Bowl appearance a year ago, but injuries devastated their roster, reducing them to a 6-10 team in 2020.
If the Rams were to have a similar run of bad luck with their top players, they could just as quickly slide to the bottom of the standings in the highly competitive NFC West.
The franchise's biggest issue right now is cap space. They're scheduled to be well over the projected figure and will need to get creative with their roster if they hope to add any more pieces to the mix other than Stafford, or retain any of their own key free agents, such as safety Josh Johnson.
Still, even if they add no one, you're looking at a team that should win 10 or 11 games with reasonably good health.
► Q: How to (the Lions) address needs with zero cap space? — @KenLMichSports
► A: Cap space is fluid. I addressed the avenues the Lions have to create space in a recent article. The most obvious option will be restructuring Goff's contract, which could clear north of $15 million in 2021. Trey Flowers is also a candidate for a simple restructure.
The other option is roster cuts. The Lions have several players who offer more than $2 million in cap relief if released, including but not limited to Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman, Danny Shelton, Nick Williams and Jesse James.
► Q: Jesse James played a vital role in the Steelers offense prior to his arrival to the Lions. What’s been the primary reason behind his struggles the past few seasons and will he become a cap casualty under the new regime? — @mtaylor313
► A: Speak of the devil.
To be frank, it's difficult for me to offer a full assessment of why James produced the way he did in Pittsburgh. I didn't watch those teams, but historically speaking, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger always has utilized the position well within their scheme. Additionally, the Steelers didn't have a clear-cut No. 1 tight end, like the Lions do with T.J. Hockenson, making James more important to the Steelers offense.
In Detroit, Darrell Bevell had to make getting the ball to his tight ends more of a focus after disappointing usage in 2019. The former coordinator was successful in that push, but Hockenson was the primary beneficiary.
Hockenson, of course, isn't going away. In fact, with the impending overhaul at receiver, there's a reasonable chance he ends up a bigger part of the offense next season. If James is able to stick around, based on unrealized potential and relatively moderate cap relief to cut him, optimism for a rebound lies in Goff's utilization of tight ends in Los Angeles, where he targeted Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee 60 or more times each last season.
► Q: Will (Will) Harris or (Jahlani) Tavai be able to stick on this new revamped team? — @SFHCommish_1
► A: Both are under contract and cheap, so unless the new staff sees zero redeemable qualities in their film study, there should be no rush to sever ties until you get a long, up-close look in training camp.
When Campbell talks about young talent who were playing slow in the former scheme, Harris was one of the first players to come to mind. You're talking about a smart kid with immense physical gifts. I'm curious to see what first-year coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant will be able to pull out of Harris in a revamped coverage scheme that will utilize more split-safety looks.
As for Tavai, it's difficult to have optimism after last season. His speed is concerning, but if the Lions can find a way to increase how quickly he reacts by simplifying his responsibilities within the scheme, some of that can be covered up.
As it currently stands, the Lions are light on linebacking talent. Jarrad Davis, Reggie Ragland and Jalen Reeves-Maybin are all scheduled to be free agents and Christian Jones is a potential cap casualty. Tavai might get another long look based on the numbers game alone.
► Q: Do you expect the Lions to rework Goff's contract to free up some money the next couple years? — @markmcgeath
► A: It feels like a near certainty, based on the need to create cap space.
Goff currently carries a $25.3 million base salary for the 2021 season. With a simple restructure, the Lions could trim that up to $24 million, paying that amount up front, as a bonus.
The way NFL contracts work, bonus money is spread evenly across the remaining years on a player's contract. In Goff's case, he has four years left on the deal, so you take the $24 million and apply $6 million cap hits in 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024.
The Lions are still responsible for the money and it both increases his cap hits and dead money in future years, but it does give you the space you need presently.
► Q: Is Logan Stenberg going to make an impact on the OL or was that a wasted fourth rounder? — @DavidMalian
► A: OK, let's consider the circumstances. Stenberg was drafted into a situation where he wasn't needed right away, was forced into practicing a position (center) he'd never played before, all after being robbed of a traditional offseason by the pandemic. Plus, he needed some serious pass-blocking technique work coming from a run-first program at Kentucky.
All added up, it's no surprise he didn't see the field as a rookie last season.
What resonated with the scouting department and front office at the time of his selection was his playing style and on-field attitude. It's easy to envision Campbell developing a quick affinity for a player nicknamed "Mr. Nasty."
In an ideal world, Stenberg would show significant improvement this offseason and become, at worst, the first guy off the bench at either guard spot. I haven't laid eyes on him in a competitive environment since last camp, so I don't really know what to expect. But I'm putting little stock in what he did, or didn't do, last year when trying to make an assessment on his future.
It took Joe Dahl, another Day 3 O-line pick, a few years before he really found his footing as a pro. Stenberg might be the same. Be patient.