ALLEN PARK — With their playoff odds already down to 1.7 percent, the Detroit Lions almost certainly aren’t going anywhere no matter what happens on Thanksgiving against the Bears.
The players haven’t given up, and they are still fighting for Matt Patricia. But if the Golden Tate trade has taught us anything, it is that even this team’s leadership is already on to 2019.
With that in mind, this week’s mailbag takes a look at where this roster stands, and where it needs to go. As always, thanks to all who participated. Future questions can be tweeted here or emailed here. (Including “mailbag” some place in the subject line is helpful.)
All right, all right, all right. Let’s rock.
Q: After watching the Rams v Chiefs game it shows you how far the Lions are away from winning consistently. What positions and coaches do you expect to be upgraded? — @gsmitty_1
A: Wouldn’t it be easier to list which positions don’t need to be upgraded? Quarterback? Defensive tackle? Kicker? Um, long snapper?
Seriously, the Lions need help everywhere if they are to make that music we saw on Monday night. Goodness, that was fun. I feel like I got a contact buzz just from watching that thing.
The future of this league is certainly offensive, given the way the rules are changing the game. But not every team has to be built the same way, and often, it is those who blaze their own path who beat the pack. And given the Lions have hired a defensive coach to run their show, they must prioritize defense over all else next offseason.
We can see flashes of those guys getting better. Look at the run defense. They allowed 56 yards on the ground last week to a Carolina team that featured Christian McCaffrey (who is ninth in yards from scrimmage) and Cam Newton (who leads all quarterbacks in rushing). Carolina’s previous rushing low all season: 81 yards.
The week before that, the Lions held the Bears to 54 rushing yards. Also a season low.
Since acquiring Snacks Harrison before the Vikings game, the Lions are allowing 3.9 yards per carry. If extrapolated for the full season, they’d be leading the league. Hey, that’s pretty good!
And that includes a 70-yarder in there from Dalvin Cook. Take that away, and Detroit is allowing 2.8 yards per carry the last three weeks — despite facing two teams that rank in the top 10 in rushing. Hey, pretty good again!
Harrison has made that much of a difference. Of course, Da’Shawn Hand playing out of his mind and A’Shawn Robinson finally coming around helps too. Just like that, one of the club’s biggest needs — defensive tackle — seems to have been addressed for the immediate future.
But there are so many needs that remain across that defense. Detroit definitely needs another edge rusher, no matter what happens with Ezekiel Ansah. They probably need at least one linebacker. They definitely need at least one more cornerback. Man, that Teez Tabor whiff really hurts, doesn’t it?
Offensively, the Lions’ biggest need is at guard, and the way Bob Quinn has assembled this roster suggests he believes the same. Expect to see one targeted early in the draft or at the top end of free agency.
With Golden Tate now wearing wings, receiver is a need too. Just ask Matthew Stafford, whose second-leading receiver last week was — [checks notes] — Bruce Ellington? And Ellington was sitting on his couch the week before that.
Tight end is a major need too. Michael Roberts has flashed ability as both a blocker and pass catcher, but has done neither consistently and already missed four games this year because of injury. And both Luke Willson and Levine Toiolo are on one-year deals.
But, hey, look on the bright side: At least they still got Don Muhlbach.
Q: If u assume TJ and Ziggy are gone how much cap room do the Lions have for 2019 — @RealJC
A: The Lions currently have more than $40 million in projected cap space for next season, but there are plenty of contracts they could clear from the books to boost that number. T.J. Lang is the biggest one to watch, based on his declining production and inflating cap number. He’s currently set to count $11.5 million against the cap, while Detroit would save a whopping $8.8 million by cutting him.
Other potential cuts, based on the numbers and production: Glover Quin ($7.9 million cap hit/$6.3 million savings), Nevin Lawson ($5.3 million/$4.2 million), Theo Riddick ($4.4 million/$3.4 million), Christian Jones ($3.9 million/$3 million), Tavon Wilson ($3.9 million/$3 million), Kenny Wiggins ($3.1 million/$2.8 million) and Sam Martin ($3 million/$2 million).
That’s $33.5 million in potential cap savings, in addition to the more than $40 million in cap space already on the books. And just a friendly disclaimer: These are human beings with careers and families we’re talking about. I’m certainly not advocating for them all to be gone. But the NFL is a bottom-line business, and the bottom line is Detroit has several contracts that will be worth reviewing after the season.
Ezekiel Ansah doesn’t factor into that equation because he’s playing on the franchise tag and isn’t on the books for next year. He could be back next year, but I’m guessing not.
Q: Since father time seems to have caught up to glover quin when do you expect tracy walker to start having a bigger role on defense? — @garyberry95
A: Now? He’s certainly earned it, and the Lions are starting to give it to him. He’s gone from one snap against Seattle, to five against Minnesota, to 11 against Chicago, to 15 on Sunday against Carolina. That was 25.9 percent of the defensive workload.
I think the Lions ride out Quin and Quandre Diggs the rest of the way, but neither has been especially good this year — fine, but not good — while Walker has been making plays with the few snaps he has played. Remember, he also got Jimmy Garoppolo for a pick in Week 2 that was nullified because of a Quandre Diggs penalty. So unofficially, that’s two picks on 113 snaps. The rest of the defense combines for three all year. And there have been none from the safeties since Diggs’ pick-six on the first play of the season.
Walker is probably the future at the position. And we might be seeing more of the future soon enough.
Q: What did Tabor’s performance on Sunday tell us and the Lions organization? — @MichaelPopiel
A: It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. He’s not good, and Detroit would be misguided to count on him as part of the future at cornerback.
Tabor’s playing time dwindled to just nine snaps last week, a low since the first month of the season. Yet he still managed to allow two more completions on as many targets, and yet another touchdown. He’s allowed this season, a team high, even though he’s played just 37.1 percent of the defensive snaps.
In his last five games, Tabor has allowed 16 completions on 17 targets and three touchdowns. For the season, he’s allowed a QB rating of 158.3 on balls thrown his way. That’s a perfect score. That’s not good.
No other cornerback who has played at least 20 percent of his defense’s snaps is above 150.
None of this is to say Tabor can’t figure it out. You see it all the time at cornerback, because the position is so difficult for young players. They make mistakes, they learn, then they get good. See: Slay, Darius Demetrius. But we just haven’t seen any indications whatsoever that Tabor is figuring this out.
It would be wise for Detroit to begin planning for a future without him. If he makes significant gains next offseason, hey, Detroit will be that much deeper in the secondary. And if he doesn’t, well, he just might be looking for a new position, or new work.
Q: Who is the most underrated player on the team thus far? — @Tom_walters81
A: It has to be Da’Shawn Hand, right? And I say that knowing people are starting to come around on him. But seriously, he’s been so good, and I don’t think people fully realize it.
He has 22 total pressures this season, which ranks 25th among all interior defensive lineman. He’s averaging a pressure once every 6.4 snaps, which ranks 14th among interior defenders who have played at least 20 percent of their defense’s snaps. All told, he’s been the best defensive rookie in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.
Hard to ask for much more out of a fourth-round pick, eh?
My runner-up: Romeo Okwara. The dude was signed off the scrap heap heading into Week 1, and now has 5.0 sacks before Thanksgiving. That’s just one off the team lead. Hell, that’s four more sacks than he had in his first two NFL seasons combined. And it’s a big reason why Detroit’s defense hasn’t totally fallen apart without Ezekiel Ansah.
And in the interest of fairness, the most overrated player: I hate to say it, because I like his game, but Quandre Diggs. He definitely hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t exactly been good at safety either. He hasn’t touched a football since the first play of the season and ranks 47th at the position according to PFF.
Q: What RB gets the most carries Thursday? — ChrisPerk6
A: Zach Zenner. I expect LeGarrette Blount to get a shot early, but he’s just been so damn ineffective this year. If I have to watch him bounce one more run outside, I’m going to gouge my eyeballs out with a spoon. It’s ugly.
Theo Riddick will probably play the most, as the third-down back out of the backfield and as part of a committee replacing Golden Tate at receiver. He might even get a few carries. But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the years, it’s that running the football just isn’t his bag.
That leaves Zenner, and, yes, I do think he gets a shot. How much of a shot he gets will hinge on how effective he is, and he’s done it before. I was there in Dallas two years ago when he was inserted into the lineup as an injury replacement, then ran roughshod over the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. He rushed for 63 yards on 10 carries in the first half alone, and two years later, I’m still trying to figure out why Jim Bob Cooter gave him only two carries in the second half.
Anyway, I digress. Zenner isn’t special. He’s not going to hit a home run. But he’s got to get you more than Blount. He rushed seven times for 1 yard against Carolina. He’s rushed 24 times for 16 yards in the last month. Yeah, give the rock to Zenner. I don’t want to have to find a spoon.
Q: How will we beat Chicago? — @benjaminpritcha
A: If Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t play, the Lions have a shot. Short of that, I hate their chances. Like I said the last time around, Chicago is perfectly built to attack Detroit’s weaknesses, especially in the post-Golden Tate era. Tate was this team’s blitz buster. Without him, Detroit is susceptible to teams that can get after the quarterback because Kenny Golladay’s routes take time to develop, and there’s no sure thing underneath anymore.
And I don’t know if you’ve seen Khalil Mack play lately, but this is a team that can get after the quarterback. Hard.
Q: Favorite Dessert on Thanksgiving sir? — @TripleOGJamie
A: TripleOGJamie, please. Only the IRS calls me sir.
As for your question, well, I’m a pecan pie man myself.