Detroit Lions mailbag, Part 2: How important is drafting a pass-rusher in Round 1?

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

After cranking out a Detroit Lions mailbag Wednesday morning, I realized I had a bunch of worthwhile questions remaining. So here's another round for your reading pleasure: 

► Question: Do you think our pass rush is good enough to go without a first-round pass rusher pick this year? — @jklinger410

► Answer: This is a pretty easy no. The Lions have ranked in the bottom-five in pressure rate each of the past three seasons and where can we say they're better? Arguably, they're worse having parted ways with Trey Flowers, but that's admittedly difficult to say since it's been two years since we've seen him healthy. 

The Lions have ranked in the bottom-five in pressure rate each of the past three seasons and where can we say they're better? Arguably, they're worse.

Look, I like retaining Charles Harris. That was a smart move. And I have reasonably high expectations for Julian Okwara's continued development. But I don't know how Romeo Okwara will look coming off a torn Achilles and I'm less keen on Austin Bryant's ceiling, so bolstering that room should remain a priority. 

Obviously, you can find production at all levels of the draft, but it's easier to find top-flight pass-rushing talent in the first round. I'm still not seeing a better use of the No. 2 pick. 

► Q: Do the Lions view Riley Patterson as the long-term answer at kicker? Are they looking to upgrade kick returner? — @ValetVespa

► A: Look at you, squeezing in two questions with your 280 characters. 

From what I've been able to gather, the Lions like both Patterson and Austin Seibert, who they claimed off waivers before the start of last season. My impression from watching both kick is Seibert has the bigger leg, so if you're looking at a 58-yarder with a chance to win, he's the guy I'd want. 

Obviously, we'll want to see how Seibert looks after requiring leg surgery last year. It has the makings of being one of the more hotly contested camp battles. 

As for kick returner, it feels somewhat open. Godwin Igwebuike, the incumbent, had some nice moments learning on the job last year, and his 24.9 yards per return ranked fourth in the league, behind three guys buoyed by long touchdown returns. Upgrading that kind of production will be difficult, but I'd be interested in seeing some fresh competition. 

► Q: Does Brock Wright have a future with the team or is he easily replaced this year? — @Erc148

► A: Wright's athleticism and ability to contribute in the pass game caught me by surprise, given how little he contributed in that area at Notre Dame. The other side of that is his blocking ability didn't port overly smoothly. Like many rookies, he struggled with the speed and strength of the NFL's edge defenders and linebackers. 

FILE - Like many rookies, Brock Wright struggled with the speed and strength of the NFL's edge defenders and linebackers.

Overall, I don't love the idea of banking on Wright as the No. 2 tight end in 2022. I'd rather see the Lions upgrade that spot with a proven blocker and further work on developing Wright as either the No. 3 option on the active roster or as a member of the practice squad. 

► Q: Are there any day two safeties you like? — @Silverlion23

► A: Safeties have a tendency to be undervalued in the draft, so outside Kyle Hamilton, I'm not sure we can definitively say any others will be selected in the first round. Obviously guys like Jaquan Brisker, Dax Hill and Lewis Cine are in the mix for the back half of the first, but not guarantees. 

Cine is an interesting one because he is often projected as a box safety, but I think he's more versatile than that and his testing speed at the combine brings some reassurance regarding that opinion. 

I'm also a fan of Jalen Pitre, a player the Lions got a close look at during the Senior Bowl. He's got the necessary speed, agility and toughness to overshadow concerns about his size, plus he was a proven playmaker at Baylor, recording six sacks, four interceptions and three forced fumbles across 25 games the past two seasons. 

Going a little deeper, I've long been intrigued by 6-foot-2, 212-pounder Markquese Bell, out of Florida A&M. He's an early Day 3 guy you can spend some time developing while getting immediate contributions on special teams. 

More: Analysis: Establishing the Detroit Lions' roadmap for an ideal offseason

► Q: Who are some wide receivers we should keep an eye on that the Lions could grab in the 3rd and 4th round? — @TeachingZeus

► A: As I noted multiple times in this space and on Twitter, I'd like to see the Lions utilize a premium pick on a receiver. But if the board doesn't fall that way and they're forced to go the same route they did with Amon-Ra St. Brown a year earlier, here are a few names I like. 

South Alabama wide receiver Jalen Tolbert racked up 146 catches and 16 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama: He offers good size (6-foot-1, 194 pounds) to go with plus-athleticism and quality production, albeit against mostly small-school competition. I like his physicality against aggressive coverage, his ability to make contested catches and his deep-ball tracking. 

David Bell, Purdue: Based on production and size, Bell was on his way to being a mid-second-round pick, but he bombed badly enough at the combine that I could easily see him sliding to the end of Day 2, possibly into Day 3. His profile is similar to Quintez Cephus, in the sense Bell wins more with savvy than athleticism. 

Alec Pierce, Cincinnati: Tall, fast deep threat who averaged 17.5 yards per catch during his college career. There's room to utilize that 6-foot-3, 211-pound frame as a chain-mover on third downs and in the red zone, plus there's reason to believe he can be a good blocker if asked. 

Calvin Austin, Memphis: At 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, he's wildly undersized, but he's an exceptional athlete with elite speed (4.32 40-yard dash) and change-of-direction quickness. Get him in space, either out of the slot or with gadget plays, and he can add another dimension to an offense. 

► Q: If they're not sold on Kayvon Thibodeaux or Travon Walker, can or should they take Sauce Gardner or Kyle Hamilton or what about Jordan Davis at 2? — @Heyyou4101

► A: I'm really high on Gardner and think he'll be an excellent cornerback in this league for a long time, but I'm not sure the Lions can afford the optics of taking another defensive back inside the top-three, even if this regime had nothing to do with the Jeff Okudah pick. 

More: Sifting through various scenarios for Detroit Lions' first three picks in NFL Draft

On Davis, whatever concerns you might have about Thibodeaux or Walker, they're just as — if not more — true with the behemoth defensive tackle out of Georgia. Yes, he put on a show for the ages at the combine, but what do we know about his tape and production?

We know stamina was and will likely continue to be an issue, he's had problems managing his weight and there's almost nothing on film to show he can be consistently productive rushing the passer.

Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) pursues Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) and tackles him for a loss.

Listen, I'm absolutely intrigued by what the ceiling could be if he stays motivated, but I'm not comfortable using the No. 2 pick on a player who has film that reminds me of Snacks Harrison. 

► Q: How many day one starters you think we can grab out the draft? — @ItsJustShad

► A: Maybe none, as strange as that might sound. The Lions have done a nice job stacking up experienced depth across the roster so that they don't need to force anyone into a starting role immediately.

More: Still shopping: Five lingering free agents who could help the Detroit Lions

The one exception might be at safety, but I also acknowledge my opinion of Will Harris doesn't necessarily line up with the coaching staff's views. 

More than Week 1 starters, you want early contributors who can be developed to handle big snap counts in 2023, when the rebuild should be ready to round the corner. 

► Q: Are you gonna apply for @detnewsRodBeard’s old job? — @migreva

► A: For those who have loosely followed my career in this market, I actually got my start as a writer covering the Pistons for MLive. I really enjoyed that experience, even though the teams were bad following the dismantling of the "Go to Work" era squads. 

That said, I wouldn't want to go back down that road. I have a family now and the travel demands that come with being out of town for more than 40 games is a bit much. 

As a colleague, I have thoroughly enjoyed Rod's coverage, and I'm thrilled to work with him as an editor. I'm confident they will find an excellent fit to be his replacement on that beat. 

► Q: How far are the Lions from the Broncos, team quality-wise, before we could go for our own Russell Wilson? — @dansmarmite

► A: Offensively, probably not a whole lot. The team could use another top-tier talent at receiver, but could easily fill that void in the draft. It's defensively where the Lions need a lot of work before they'd truly be ready to go for it with a Wilson-esque deal. 

In 2021, the Broncos allowed just 18.9 points per game. That's good enough to win most weeks and even more impressive when you consider their divisional opponents. The Lions, on the other hand, coughed up 27.5 points per week, which ranked 31st. 

Detroit needs talent and depth at all three levels of the defense before they'd ever be in position to cough up that kind of draft equity. 

► Q: Who is your pick for a real break out season? Any dark horse predictions? — @import1983

► A: It's tough to see one on offense. We've already got a pretty good idea what most of the starters and key backups have to offer. If there's one to watch, and if might take an injury to clear the path to playing time, it's running back Jermar Jefferson. Watching his college tape, I was really impressed with his vision and think it could translate into quality production at this level. 

A full, healthy offseason could do Levi Onwuzurike wonders.

Defensively, there are more opportunities. The easiest answer for major improvement would be Levi Onwuzurike. His rookie season was a flop, offering some hard lessons about what it takes to succeed at this level. A full, healthy offseason could do him wonders. 

► Q: If Lions were to go Nakobe Dean at 32 or 34, he would have to be a day 1 starter right? How would you see that shaking out with play/snaps? — @SethVanengen

► A: There's less pressure than you might think to immediately insert him into a starting role, but it would be troubling if things weren't trending that direction by the end of his first season. 

Here are the factors to consider when I make the above assessment. First of all, the Lions will really only have two starting linebackers. Sure, they're shifting to more of a 4-3 defensive look this year, but most teams are in a nickel personnel package around 70% of snaps, meaning you're not playing with three linebackers on the field all that often. 

More: Justin Rogers' 2022 NFL mock draft 2.0, post-free agency edition

Alex Anzalone is going to be your starting middle linebacker and play nearly ever down, handling communication with the sidelines. Derrick Barnes, having a year in the system, has the leg up on that other full-time job. But as mentioned in the first segment of this week's mailbag, my initial expectation is Chris Board will see snaps in obvious passing situations because of his proven coverage ability. 

Dean would obviously have a higher ceiling than anyone else in the room, but he'd need to earn his playing time. He could also stand to add some weight and strength, a glaring deficiency coming into the league. 

If the Lions were to draft Dean, he could be eased into playing time and should be viewed as a 2023 replacement for Anzalone. Whether it's Barnes or Dean shifting into the middle linebacker role would remain to be seen.

► Q: If the entire organization, including staff and players, all fought in a huge cage inside ford field, who do you think would be the last man standing? — @jared64209

► A: Assuming there's no strategic teaming up to eliminate the biggest threats, I'd put my money on Penei Sewell. He's big, physical, athletic and thrives on physicality. 

Lions rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell saw reps against a variety of Rams defenders on Sunday, including All-Pro Aaron Donald (99).

If fully healthy, Romeo Okwara would be a dark horse. He has proven stamina, handling big workloads in the past, and his reach is a killer asset. 

► Q: Where would Willis rank amongst last year’s QBs drafted? — @inverseowl

► A: Even with removing the hindsight of rookie performances out of the equation, I imagine Malik Willis would have slotted sixth, behind Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones. 

If I'm being honest, I probably would have slotted Willis ahead of Jones, strictly because I prefer a dual-threat skill set. Jones obviously exceeded expectations as a rookie, starting immediately and helping lead the Patriots to a 10-7 record, but I can't help but believe Willis has a higher ceiling.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers