Lions mailbag, Part 2: Is the Holmes-Campbell regime on track to deliver Detroit?
With enough unanswered items from yesterday's Detroit Lions mailbag, we thought we'd follow it up with a second batch today. Enjoy.
► Question: It seems like a majority of fans were all aboard the Matt Patricia train even after the first year. Not to be pessimistic, but where might we be wrong concerning the Holmes/Campbell train? What could we be blind to as fans? — @Kenneth_Gabbert
► Answer: I don't know if it's a majority or the fact our perception of fan opinion is overly shaped by talk radio and social media, but there's definitely a portion that is unendingly optimistic regardless of reality. Let me also say, there's nothing wrong with that approach to fandom.
But you're correct, that group was super excited about Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia. I can't tell you many times I read, "In Quinn we trust," on Twitter. Now, just replace "Quinn" with "Holmes" and we're back at the same starting line.
You're seeking a counterbalance to blind optimism for the sake of practicality. That's probably a good approach to anything you're passionate about, so I'll do my best to offer some reasons to pump the brakes on the start of Detroit's rebuild.
First, Holmes had made plenty of early personnel errors.
Michael Brockers, Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman and Trinity Benson have all failed to produce at expected levels, costing the team draft assets and cap space. And while it's way, way too early to be declaring anything about the recent draft class, the fact that Holmes wanted to trade up for Levi Onwuzurike, a player who potentially had a lingering back injury from college and didn't produce in his opportunities as a rookie, somewhat offsets finding a gem like Amon-Ra St. Brown a couple rounds later.
More: Lions mailbag: Catching up on compensatory picks, fortifying run defense
Every GM is going to have hits and misses, it's about having more of the former than the latter. Holmes got off to a decent start in his first year, but there were enough misses that we can't assume the ratio will be in his favor annually.
As for Dan Campbell, his personality has been a breath of fresh air for everyone, media included, but his handling of his offensive coordinator spot wasn't ideal and could have a lingering impact if he seeks to bring in another outsider this offseason or in the future.
Additionally, Campbell's oscillation between analytics and his gut is part of his charm, but will probably end up being a point of consternation when it costs the team in a game that matters, instead of being swept under the rug as part of the collective growing process.
► Q: What do you think is the greater likelihood, trading back from two or combing our second-round pick and the Rams first to trade up? — @CarterJordanT
► A: Even without having the context of knowing who could be available for the Lions to target — given we're still a couple months outside of free agency — I can still comfortably commit to the second option as more likely.
First and foremost, the cost to trade up to No. 2 is prohibitive for most teams, and that conversation essentially shifts from most to all when it doesn't involve a quarterback. As much as you or I might like the top prospects in this class, this isn't a year where a couple guys truly stand out from the rest of the pack. While there's always the chance someone from the top group develops into a generational talent, there aren't indicators to suggest it's likely.
As for the later first-round pick, that's the beauty of accumulating assets. The Lions have the flexibility to move around the draft board, starting at this spot, if they truly love a prospect. Obviously, those hypotheticals must always consider the possibility of a quarterback, even though that seems less than likely. But even the idea of giving up an extra asset, whether it's the second-rounder or something else, to land a specific receiver or a specific defensive player isn't out of the realm of possibility.
We've already seen Holmes do that in later rounds, trading a future fourth to snag Derrick Barnes. And he came from a franchise in the Rams that never shied away from trading draft assets to get what they want, including using a future first-rounder to move up and draft Jared Goff in 2016.
► Q: If the Lions picked up an EDGE through free agency or a trade, could you see them trading back a few picks in the draft and grabbing Kyle Hamilton? — @devinpelletier9
► A: The Lions don't just need an edge rusher, they need an impact player at that spot. A healthy Romeo Okwara and re-signing Charles Harris could make for a decent tandem, but it's not enough to drag the team out of the basement, at least in terms of generating quarterback pressure.
Obviously, there's a few premier guys scheduled to hit the open market in Chandler Jones and Von Miller, and to a lesser extent Jadeveon Clowney, Randy Gregory and Hasson Reddick. But the price point for established production at that spot is often through the roof. The Lions just aren't in a position, financially or within the framework of their rebuild, to be throwing $15-20 million per season at one of those names.
That was the going rate for Bud Dupree and Trey Hendrickson last year, with a depressed cap, so there's a good chance I'm actually underselling the eventual costs.
As for trading for an edge rusher, I haven't really considered who might be available and at what cost, but you're probably talking about the necessity of giving up draft assets and a contract extension to get such a deal done. Again, that doesn't fit a rebuild.
And even if the Lions did go either of those routes ahead of the draft, I'm not convinced, for aforementioned reasons, any team is willing to pay the premium cost to move up in the draft for Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux or any other prospect. It takes two to tango and you're going to have trouble finding a dance partner in this instance.
► Q: Did Brock Wright open some eyes? What are his chances of making the roster in 2022? — @EricHerter
► A: For a guy who caught a whopping seven passes during his college career, yeah, Wright showed he could do much more in that department than his resume suggested. Averaging 30 offensive snaps in 10 games, he hauled in 12 of the 17 balls thrown his direction for 117 yards, two touchdowns. Also important to the conversation, he dropped just one of those throws.
The other side of the evaluation for a tight end is blocking and Wright clearly struggled in that area. That's fairly common for many rookies at the position, but it would have been more encouraging had signs of development been clearer down the stretch.
All added up, he's a young player who gained some valuable experience, and with that, a better understanding of where he must improve to succeed at this level, long-term. As of today, I think he has a clear chance of competing for a roster spot in 2022, but that quickly changes with the addition of an accomplished veteran in free agency, or, as unexpected as it might seem, a draft pick in the first five rounds.
The Lions already have a top-tier receiving tight end in T.J. Hockenson, and given the team's emphasis on running the ball, adding a better blocker to the mix this offseason strikes me as logical.
► Q: I do not see why most fans/media sound excited about Lions cap space. Yes, it currently sits at $35-36M, but that is with only 36 players under contract. To get to 51 and sign the rookie class, there will be $12-15M left, at most. It makes draft that more important, right? — @IgorPetrinovic
► A: While the numbers might be off a few million in either direction, your larger point stands. The projected cap space figure lacks plenty of context, which you've largely filled in here.
To clarify the point being made, during the offseason, a team can have 90 players on the roster. For cap purposes, only the 51 largest contracts count in the cap calculation. With 36 players under contract, even if the Lions add 15 players at minimum salary deals, that's $12-13 million of that space that's gone right off the top. Add in a trio of top-40 draft picks, including a particularly expensive No. 2 selection, and that's another $8 million or so.
And the Lions aren't going to use every last penny of space, simply because they can't. You have to leave a rainy day fund for injuries, or practice squad promotions to cover a whole bunch of COVID cases as last year proved.
So yeah, even with Trey Flowers' likely release, which will free up another $10 million, the Lions will probably enter free agency with something like $10-15 million to spend on free agents, beyond the players they hope to retain. Now, you can still add some quality players with that amount, since first-year cap hits are often significantly lower with multi-year deals. But for anyone expecting a spending bonanza, they're going to be disappointed.
► Q: Would you rather fight a Dan Campbell-sized duck or 100 duck-sized Dan Campbells? — @ChrisBurkeNFL
► A: I think I'm probably losing either fight, but give me the large duck, I guess. There's at least some small chance I could slap on a choke hold. Regardless, we can safely agree there's nothing "Sports Science" is doing that would top an episode on this hypothetical.
► Q: We have always been a poor destination for free agents. With all the positive vibes from players, did we get out of the basement, away from the Jets, Jags, etc. ... ? — @Doorknob1974
► A: I don't agree with the premise of the question. Trey Flowers came here, despite being a top player in free agency. The Lions also lured sought-after targets such as Glover Quin, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones.
And of all the players to sign with Detroit, running back Reggie Bush might have done the most to squash that narrative. That's a dude from California, who was used to the Hollywood lifestyle.
There are always going to be a small percentage of players who choose where to play because of the market or the weather, but the large majority of players are looking for two things above all else; money and opportunity.
Now, you indirectly mention the culture being a positive selling point, and think there's merit to that. I can absolutely see guys wanting to play for Campbell, Glenn, Staley and the team's other coaches. But money and opportunity are always going to rule the day.
► Q: Do you think Jim Caldwell lands one of the open positions? — @BrianGilbertso2
► A: As much as I'd like to see Caldwell get another opportunity, it just doesn't seem like it's going to come. At this point, I have to imagine his age (67) is one of the prime things working against him. That would make him the fourth-oldest coach in the NFL, and the other three have all won Super Bowls in their current positions.
Personally, I think Caldwell would be a great fit for Jacksonville. He's the most organized coach I've ever covered and could bring stability to an organization in need of structure and player development.
Given three years, I could see him turn the Jaguars into a playoff contender, while squeezing the potential out of quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
► Q: Campbell used a lot of trick plays as a play caller, and why not, not much to lose. But defensive coordinators didn’t have a lot of tape to study going against him. How much of his play-calling success can be attributed to that? — @MichaelFickII
► A: Tendencies are a really important part of football. Teams have staffers who prepare weekly reports on tendencies of the upcoming opponent for the coaches and players. This all trickles into game planning and that week's film study.
The counter for an offensive coordinator is to build multiple play calls out of single formations or personnel grouping. That way, defenses are less able to anticipate what you're doing. It also opens the door for trick plays. We saw that in the finale against Green Bay, on the reverse pass from Tom Kennedy to Kalif Raymond. That was all built on a previous play call, a handoff to Amon-Ra St. Brown, coming from off tackle, which Green Bay identified and was apparently calling out prior to the snap.
While it's impossible to slap any kinds of percentages on your original question, it should be viewed as a positive development that the Lions had their best offensive performance of the season in that finale. Yes, trick plays were part of the equation and they won't always be there, but it showed Campbell and his staff's commitment to steady evolution.
► Q: After seeing Cam Akers play this week, what is your take on if Jeff Okudah and Romeo Okwara can come back next year 100% — @CanMan85
► A: There was a 2017 study that looked at more than 70 NFL players who suffered a ruptured tendon between 2010-15. It showed it was a career-ending injury for a quarter of the players and another 25% failed to return to peak physical performance.
What Akers, Okudah and Okwara have in common is they're all young. Even though every individual's recovery is different, a younger athlete is far more likely to bounce back.
From that same study, it was found that the average recovery time was nine months. We'll be beyond that mark by the start of training camp, which should provide further optimism both Lions defenders will be as close to full strength as physically possible by the start of the 2022 season.