ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Bob Quinn isn’t having a very good year.
He cut Eric Ebron, only to watch him lead the NFL in touchdown catches for Indianapolis. He franchise tagged Ezekiel Ansah, who wound up starting just two games before landing on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. And that offensive line he’s spent his entire tenure trying to rebuild has allowed Matthew Stafford to be sacked more times than any other QB the last two years.
Now Detroit’s playoff chances have dwindled to a thumbnail heading into Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills. So with that, let’s take a look at the job Quinn has done in this week’s mailbag. Once again, thanks to all who participated. Questions can be tweeted here or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
OK, let’s go.
Q: What is your overall grade of BQ? (just curious to see if it is higher than D+ i give him) — @WayneOW66L67
A: Bob Quinn fired Jim Caldwell because 9-7 wasn’t good enough, then went 4-8 to open this season and was bounced from one of the most wide-open divisions in football before the calendar flipped to December. That’s not good.
Quinn has poured more resources into the offensive line than anywhere else. Yet nobody in the league has been sacked more times the last two years than Matthew Stafford. Also not good.
And then there’s Ansah, who notched four sacks in seven games — and just two starts — before checking out for the season. And Ebron, who has more touchdowns (13) than any Lions tight end has catches (12). And Golden Tate, for whom Quinn got a third-round pick, but without whom the offense fell apart.
Obviously, this year has not gone according to plan, and Quinn is on the hook for that. Nearing the end of his third season in Detroit, this team is his. So its failures are his too.
At the same time, I still believe he’s done more good than bad. Kerryon Johnson looks like he could be a star. Kenny Golladay is really good to. You need only one hand to count the number of defensive rookies who have been better this season than Da’Shawn Hand. And Jamal Agnew became an All-Pro return man as a rookie last season.
That’s a second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round pick from the last two years. Not bad.
Quinn hasn’t whiffed on any first-round picks yet either. Jarrad Davis has been up and down, and it remains unclear just what kind of player he can become, but he’s no bust either. Taylor Decker has been solid when healthy at left tackle, and Frank Ragnow looks like a stud in the making at left guard.
Yes, Quinn misfired on Teez Tabor in the second round last year. I don’t know what the plan is for him — a position change? An outright release? — but it would be a surprise to see him lining up at cornerback for the Lions next season. That hurts. But for every misfire like that, there are great value picks like Golladay and Tracy Walker. Golladay has already become a really good player, while Walker looks like he could be a good one too. It wouldn’t surprise at all to see Walker replace Glover Quin at free safety next season.
So as far as the draft is concerned, Quinn has hit more than he’s missed, although he’s missed badly too, especially on Tabor. He’s also signed good players like T.J. Lang and Marvin Jones, though both have also had injury problems. Devon Kenanrd and Romeo Okwara both have career highs in sacks this year, which has helped power the rise of the front seven. So has the trade for Snacks Harrison, which, for just a fifth-round pick, has to be hailed as one of Quinn’s finest moves.
And hey, now the defense has played like a top-10 unit for more than a month now. Quinn gets credit for that too.
But for as good as the defense has been, the offense has been twice as bad. The decision to cut Ebron, to not sign a starting-caliber tight end, to retain Jim Bob Cooter, to deal Tate at the deadline, have stripped that unit to its bones. There isn’t a quarterback averaging fewer yards per attempt over the last month than Matthew Stafford, and while Stafford shoulders some blame for what’s gone down this year, I’m not sure there’s a quarterback in football who could lead what’s left of this offense to a title.
It has been a mixed bag for Quinn. More good than bad, although enough bad that the club is still sitting at 5-8 in Year 3. Some of that can be ascribed to the transition into the Matt Patricia era, and major gains are surely expected next season. But for now, Quinn’s grade has slid because of all the misfires this season. A C-plus seems about right.
Q: Did I just read that the Lions have $7.8M in cap space left this year? Wasn’t Ebron supposed to make $8M? Can we now safely say cutting him was a mistake? — @SZipperface
A: It’s around $7 million, yeah. Bob Quinn loves to keep some spare change in the couch cushions for a rainy day, should the Lions want to take on more salary in a trade or whatever. Like, you know, Rob Gronkowski?
Listen, this whole Ebron thing has always been kind of peculiar. Quinn hinted last offseason he intended to bring back Ebron, who had a club-held option for $8.25 million. Then Quinn dropped Ebron about an hour before the start of free agency. He said he did so to save money, but then never did make a splash to replace him.
The missing piece appears to be Gronkowski. According to ESPN, the Lions tried to trade for him the week of the draft, and there was essentially a deal in place. But Gronk balked at the idea of playing for Detroit, and threatened to retire. So the trade was nixed, and Detroit was left without a starting-caliber tight end.
They brought in Luke Willson, thinking he might thrive once he was out of Jimmy Graham’s shadow. They also brought back Michael Roberts, who showed promise as a rookie in 2017. But neither player has delivered. Willson has 13 catches for 87 yards, while Roberts has nine catches for 100 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also missed four games because of injuries and was placed on injured reserve this week.
In fact, blocking tight end Levine Toiolo has been Detroit’s top pass catcher at the position lately. He has 12 catches for 176 yards.
Ebron, by the way, has caught a league-high 12 touchdowns, plus ran for another, plus nearly passed for another.
I don’t necessarily fault the Lions for cutting Ebron. He was productive in Detroit, but also wildly inconsistent and not a great locker room fit. But I do fault them for not replacing Ebron, and I especially fault them for not figuring out a better way to use him when he was here. Coaches are responsible for fitting scheme to players, not players to scheme, and they obviously didn’t do that with Ebron.
The ability was always there. The Lions just didn’t know what to do with it. That’s on them, and it’s a mistake for which they continue to pay.
Q: Is the receivers’ lack of separation a scheme or talent/ability issue? I.e. Is this another case of being so predictable that it’s impossible to create space? — @BrandonAlisoglu
A: Lack of separation has been an issue all season. The only Lions player ranked in the top 96 right now is Bruce Ellington, who has played in parts of just five games for the club and won’t play Sunday because of a hamstring injury.
Personnel is part of the problem. After all, Eric Ebron ranks fourth in separation, but the Lions cut him. Golden Tate ranks 50th, but the Lions traded him. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are talented receivers, but neither has ever created much separation, and now Marvin Jones is hurt.
But when nobody is getting open, especially downfield, the scheme has to draw scrutiny too. There are injuries across the league, yet teams find ways to scheme guys open. It just seems like there isn’t much of that going on right now in Detroit. Injuries certainly factor into that, but it’s ultimately a coach’s responsibility to figure ways to win with what they’ve got, and that just hasn’t happened offensively this season.
Q: What are they going to do about receiver in the future? They aren’t going to find somebody as good as Tate and without him the wheels feel right off. — CJ Gelardo
A: Great question, because the Lions’ once-mighty receiver group has been thinned out beyond recognition. I don’t even know who is going to be catching passes on Sunday. Andy Jones has caught two passes for 9 yards on 96 offensive snaps this season, and he’s probably going to start. In the immortal words of Kevin McAllister:
Marvin Jones will be back from injury next season, of course, and Kenny Golladay is a nice complementary piece. That’s a decent duo to build around, but not a finished product either. Both players are at their best downfield, and neither creates much separation. So while they have the long ball in their bag, they don’t do much of the heavy lifting in the short field either — the sort of thing that used to sustain drives for this offense.
That was Golden Tate’s thing. That’s why he was so good. When Matthew Stafford needed some place to go quick — and let’s be honest, that was much of the time — he looked to Tate first. And it’s impossible to understate just how much Stafford misses him.
Before the trade, Stafford was averaging 273.1 passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns, six picks and a passer rating of 98.5. Since the trade, he’s averaging 212.5 yards per game with four touchdowns, five picks and a passer rating is 78.1.
Detroit has scored more than 20 points just once in six games since the trade — and that came courtesy of a couple garbage-time scores in a blowout loss against Chicago.
So, yeah, receiver is a considerable need as Detroit figures out how to repair this offense. The best one who is eligible to hit free agency is probably Tate. Yes, a return to Detroit is possible. No, it’s not likely. He’s the No. 1 receiver on the board for many teams, and he’s probably going to fetch more money than Bob Quinn is willing to pay. That’s why he was traded in the first place.
There are plenty of cheaper veterans who will be available, and I think Bruce Ellington has shown enough in his short stint here to warrant a longer look. He’s no Tate, but he’s been better and more productive than I would have expected for a guy thrust into this position. I’m curious to see what he could add, given a full offseason to acclimate to the offense.
At any rate, I expect the Lions to use a draft pick at the position, perhaps as early as Day 2, although more likely on Day 3. Because while this team is built around a defensive-minded coach, Matthew Stafford is still its most important asset, and he can’t do squat with Andy Jones smothered downfield all day.
Q: Kyle, latest on Kerryon? If not week 15, what would be his status for 16? Full go? — @thejohnkerr
A: Kerryon Johnson sprained his knee back on Nov. 18. I’m no doctor — surprise! — but those kinds of injuries usually take three or four weeks to heal, maybe a little longer if the sprain is more severe. Michael Roberts, for example, missed three games with a similar injury earlier in the season.
That means Johnson, who will miss a fourth straight game on Sunday, should be getting close health-wise. For all we know, he is already healthy enough to go but the Lions don’t want to put him in harm’s way. I don’t know, because they’re not talking.
If they’re resting Johnson through these meaningless games, I can’t say I blame them. But if they do win on Sunday, and other wild-card contenders continue to fall, it’ll be interesting to see if the Lions bring him back for whatever remains of their playoff push.
Q: Any chance since Agnew has been practicing that they have been working him out at WR? — @Rwinswin
A: It’s possible, sure. But I must say, I’m not convinced he plays against the Bills. He’s done little more than work on the side with a trainer during portions of practice open the reporters. Of course, practice is only open for 20 minutes a day, so it’s entirely possible Agnew is doing more once we leave. I wouldn’t put it past Matt Patricia to mess with us like that.
But based on what I’ve seen, I think we’re still at least a week away from seeing Jamal Agnew in a Lions uniform again.
Q: What do you say, as someone who covers this franchise, to a fan who honestly and earnestly believes that the 8-8 playoff scenario can happen? — @CallMeDjm
A: Well if they go 8-8, their chances are actually pretty good because two of those wins would come against fellow wild-card hopefuls Minnesota and Green Bay. At 8-8, FiveThirtyEight pegs their chances of making the postseason at 33 percent. Not bad, all things considering.
The problem, of course, is figuring out how to win three straight games after they’ve lost five of their last seven.
Q: How many playoff games will Detroit win this season? — @ActionJackson84