Five questions about the Lions' offense heading into the 2021 season
Allen Park — Beyond quarterback Jared Goff, here are five questions facing the Detroit Lions' offense heading into the season.
► How long will it take Penei Sewell to live up to draft slot?
Unlike MLB or the NHL, where draft picks have years to develop before they make their professional debuts, early-round selections in the NFL are looked upon to contribute immediately, while top-10 picks such as offensive tackle Sewell face even loftier outside expectations.
The early analysis after the Lions snagged Sewell with the No. 7 pick in this year's draft envisioned a team on the verge of having one of the league's elite offensive lines, essentially ignoring the likelihood the rookie could struggle at the start.
Yet the signs were there. Sewell, still not old enough to legally order a beer, had opted out of the previous college season. More notably, he was being asked to change positions, from left to right tackle — a taller task than often assumed.
In the preseason, the magnitude of those challenges revealed themselves as Sewell was beaten by a sack on his third snap and continued to struggle in pass protection throughout the exhibition slate.
The segment of the fan base that unrealistically expected immediate impact will inevitably start whispering "bust" each time Sewell gets beat, but patience will be required. It's going to take the 6-foot-5, 330-pounder a minute to get his bearings. In fact, it might take much of his first season.
► What is T.J. Hockenson’s ceiling?
Another former top-10 draft pick, Hockenson moved beyond his own rookie struggles to earn Pro Bowl honors his second season. Sure, he benefitted from friend and mentor George Kittle being sidelined by injury much of the 2020 campaign, but Hockenson's 67 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns during his age-23 season begins to fulfill the promise the franchise saw when the selected him with the No. 8 pick in 2019.
But there's a realistic possibility Hockenson dwarfs that production in Year 3, potentially joining the upper echelon of tight end producers in Kittle, Darren Waller and the gold standard at the position, Travis Kelce.
There are two factors at play here. First and foremost, Hockenson's natural development, particularly from the mental perspective. With 28 games and nearly 1,300 snaps under his belt, he's been able to build up a mental catalogue of how defenders will try to play him. Additionally, he's a hard worker who has put in the time during the offseason — including extensive work with Kittle — to refine his abilities.
Second, Detroit's offseason personnel changes, which figure to stymie the offense's overall output, should actually provide a boost to the tight end. Hockenson and Goff have shown signs of forming quick chemistry on the practice field and the former Rams quarterback has a history of effectively utilizing his tight ends.
In 2020, Hockenson was targeted 101 times, which tied for 40th in the NFL. Kelce and Waller each saw 145 throws their direction. Given Detroit's lack of reliable weapons, and the likelihood they'll be trailing most weeks, it's reasonable to believe Hockenson could see a 25% or more increase in usage and production this year.
► Do the Lions finally have the ingredients for a competent ground game?
If you've been paying attention over the years, you've probably heard the shortcomings of Detroit's rushing attack described a multitude of ways, with copious amounts of data to hammer home the point. The key takeaway is the team hasn't ranked in the top half of the league since Barry Sanders retired and all too frequently has found itself at or near the basement in the department.
In recent years, the Lions have tried some accomplished veterans to get things trending in the right direction, but Adrian Peterson and LeGarrette Blount proved to be beyond their expiration dates. So instead of going that route again, rookie general manager Brad Holmes picked up 26-year-old Jamaal Williams in free agency.
A complementary piece in Green Bay's offense the past couple years, Williams has been productive and versatile, without the extreme mileage you see on some of the backs who make it to their second contract. Through four seasons, he's carried the ball 500 times, while chipping in 122 catches during that stretch.
Williams isn't a star, by any means, but if he can average better than 4 yards per carry and catch some passes, he'll be a clear upgrade.
He'll be paired with D'Andre Swift, who was electric as a rookie, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and catching 46 passes while finding the end zone 10 times. The biggest concern is durability. After missing two stretches as a rookie, a groin injury limited him most of training camp.
Those two should benefit playing behind a solid offensive line, and under coordinator Anthony Lynn, who has a history of constructing stellar ground games. If Goff can do enough to keep defenses from overcommitting defenders to the box, the Lions might finally have enough pieces to solve this longstanding issue.
► Which receiver will step up?
All signs point to Hockenson leading the Lions in targets, and the running backs will also probably see significant work in the passing game, but the team is going to need someone to emerge from the receiving corps as a consistently reliable option for Goff.
Tyrell Williams projects as Detroit's No. 1 receiver, but he's five years removed from his lone 1,000-yard season, hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since 2019, and ended the offseason nursing a groin injury.
Rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown has flashed some promise, enough that he'll probably open the season as the starting slot receiver, but despite some advanced traits for a first-year player, how much can he reasonably be expected to produce?
The other names in the mix — Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond and recently acquired Trinity Benson — have a combined 39 career receptions.
Obviously, there's good reason outside observers are critical of the group Detroit has assembled. If two or three don't wildly exceed expectations, the offense could be in for a long season.
► Can Jason Cabinda be a factor?
Who said the fullback position is dead? The former Penn State linebacker, who converted to offense in the middle of training camp last year, is now fully acclimated to his new role.
Lions coach Dan Campbell has been quick to praise Cabinda throughout training camp, but the way they've used him on the practice field speaks louder than those words. The team has experimented with a number of different alignments and have tested his abilities as both a ball carrier and pass-catcher.
Remember, this is a guy who caught two passes and carried the ball once in 2020, so even a 500% increase in touches wouldn't be all that much.
Is Cabinda going to morph into Kyle Juszczyk — the 49ers ultra-versatile and talented weapon — overnight? Probably not. But he's quietly become one of the more intriguing players on Detroit's roster.