Detroit Lions mailbag: Coaching hot seats, Ford’s leadership, draft targets

December 8, 2017 GMT

Allen Park -- A little late this week, but here’s your Detroit Lions mailbag.

Who will be the sacrificial lamb at the end of the season after the Lions go 1-3 down the stretch?

— JC (@legendjc13) 

If the Lions do go 1-3 the final four weeks, I would consider that enough of a disastrous finish to justify some staffing changes, conceivably an entire overhaul.

If the bloodletting is on a smaller scale, you look at where the team struggled the most, and it’s easy to point to the trenches. Jim Caldwell is extremely loyal to offensive line coach Ron Prince, but it could be difficult to justify sticking with the status quo given the run-blocking and pass protection struggles in 2017.

On the defensive line, Kris Kocurek was an inherited staffer from Jim Schwartz. Kocurek has always done a good job maximizing the talent of lesser-known linemen – from George Johnson to Anthony Zettel to Kerry Hyder -- but the unit’s play has been dreadful this season. There’s some built-in personnel excuses, especially with Ziggy Ansah and Haloti Ngata’s injuries, but given lack of close ties to Caldwell, Kocurek fits the mold of a sacrificial lamb.


Has the locker room turned on Caldwell and the coaching staff at all from what you’ve seen? Seems like Caldwell as coach is getting worn out to these guys.

— chris wayda (@chris_w5155) 

You can make a convincing case Caldwelll should be fired at season’s end for a number of reasons, but the respect his players have for him is not one. While there is a general frustration with the losing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who would speak ill of Caldwell, as a man or a coach.

Is Teez developing as the season progresses?

— Kieran Steckley (@Kieran_Steckley) 

Absolutely, and it’s why Tabor is seeing the field more consistently down the stretch, and also why the team had the confidence to move Quandre Diggs out of the nickel spot to safety.

Not many of us, myself included, considered Tabor as a nickel heading into his debut season, but that’s the role he’s taken on as the year has progressed, due to durable depth on the outside.

Like Jarrad Davis, Tabor shows rookie inconsistencies, particularly in some of Detroit’s zone coverage concepts, as he adjusts the way he looks at the field and his positioning in relation to the speed of the NFL game. But the consistent praise for Tabor is his intelligence, so even with the limited experience he’s getting this season, he’ll be better because of it when he comes back in 2018.

And I really like what he offers as a blitzer. He hasn’t always finished, but he shows a knack for finding a lane to the quarterback and disrupting the play. It’s a nice tool to have in the bag.

Do you think the coaches are covering for the players on the 9-man play? Also, of the top three, Jim Caldwell, Jim Bob Cooter and Teryl Austin, who is most to blame or at risk of losing their job?


— Orion Morris (@OrionMorris) 

Focusing on the first part of this query, no, I don’t think coaches are covering for the players. There was obvious confusion, both on-field and on the sideline, and when that’s the case, it’s the staff’s obligation to call a timeout.

I know Teryl Austin took the blame this week, but he’s up in the booth, and his communication with the on-field headset was cut off approximately six seconds before the Ravens snapped the ball. Caldwell has to recognize the chaos from the sideline and call a timeout.

What is your ideal taco?

— Tom Brady + Joe Montana = Brandon Peters (@StamosaurusRex) 

Obviously, this is the most important question I’m going to get this week.

I like my tacos simple – meat, cilantro and onions. Traditionally, that goes on a double corn tortilla, which is fine, but I break from convention when possible and get a homemade flour tortilla, slightly crisped. My meat rankings: Asada, chorizo, carnitas, chicken.

I’m semi done for 2017. One last question. Who do you think Tate was referring to with his comment about “what’s the problem.” I think it’s Jim Bob Cooter not Jim Caldwell.

— AZDetroitLion (@azcwillams) 

I can only speculate about what Tate was hinting at, but I would venture to guess he wasn’t speaking out of turn and criticizing the defense.

His comments in the locker room following last week’s loss to Baltimore were highly critical of the protection being provided for quarterback Matthew Stafford, so there’s some smoke there. He’s also talked about how, when in Seattle, short-yardage situations, particularly goal-to-go, were a lock given the team’s successful ground game.

He won’t say it, but I will – an offense will only go as far as it’s blocking will allow it.

From my conversations with Tate, I’ve only sensed problems with the play-calling when he wasn’t getting the ball AND the team was losing. He’s been targeted plenty this year and I haven’t picked up any disappointment with the coaching, from that perspective.

How depressed are you that you have to earn your paycheck on this perennial disappointment? Scale of 1 to 10 is fine.

— Mark Madjarev (@MarkMadjarev) 

I’m at a 2, because it doesn’t really matter to me whether the team wins or loses. I’m just here to relay what I see and hear to the fans. There’s always a story to write.

I will admit, the worst part about being a beat writer is when there’s a multi-week stretch at the end of a season when a team is not going enough to be in the playoff race and not bad enough to land a top-10 draft pick. We’re trending that way now. That’s when interest from fans is the lowest and everyone is going through the motions waiting for the offseason.

Which moves better... Ansah or a tree?

— Christopher McMillan (@McMillan_Topher) 

Now you guys are just being mean.

Who are the top 3 UFAs we need to resign for 2018? Ziggy? Swanson? Wilson? None?

— Derek Maki (@dwmaki) 

I don’t believe there’s an unrestricted free agent the team has to have back, but there are a few worthy of re-signing at market rate. Tavon Wilson fits that description. So does Tahir Whitehead, Darren Fells and Don Muhlbach.

TJ Jones and Kerry Hyder, who are both restricted, are easy to justify keeping.

I can no longer be sold on bringing back Ansah. The high cost of defensive ends and the past two seasons of durability issues make it impossible to justify.

As for Swanson, his performance took a step back this season and Graham Glasgow has looked pretty good when he’s had to play center, outside of an occasional snap issue. Go find a guard in the draft or free agency and let Swanson walk.

Could predictable “scripting” by both Cooter and Austin explain the slow starts? It seems like the offense has more success when it’s ad libbing towards the ends of both halves.

— Dave Reimink (@DaveReimink) 

The defense doesn’t really have a script. They have calls in place based on situation, but there’s more of a read-and-react based on the opponent’s personnel usage.

As for the offense, I’ve recently started a film study on the topic, and while I’m only halfway through the season, I haven’t gotten a sense of predictability early in games. Yes, there are a healthy amount of runs on first down, but they’ve been varied in style, formation and direction. I’ve also been surprised to see a handful of deep shots, when I anticipated an exclusively short passing game.

What I have noted is a bunch of execution errors, particularly with the blocking. Mind you, I’m watching games where Greg Robinson is manning left tackle, and that’s a big part of it. I’m hopeful to have a more detailed story on my findings, especially if the slow starts continue in Tampa.

I promise you, they’re never ad-libbing at the end of halves. Even when Stafford is scrambling, the receivers have certain routes they’re supposed to run to get open.

What one thing (or more) that you see covering a team that would really surprise fans in terms of life behind the scenes in the NFL?

— Eric Salonen (@EricSalonen) 

Probably how little we’re actually around the team. The Lions make certain to maintain a figurative wall between the media and team. We see them practice three days per week, 15 minutes per day, doing only individual drills. And locker room access is 45 minutes per day, four times per week, plus post-game. Players are only obligated to speak once per week.

Our interactions with Jim Caldwell and the coordinators are limited to 10-minutes sessions at a podium. We haven’t talked to general manager Bob Quinn since May.

The trying part of this setup is the inability to build personal relationships, and the communication and trust that go along with that. If I have a question for Caldwell, Austin or Cooter, it’s asked in a very public setting, and because video cameras are capturing every word, it removes the opportunity for nuance, or an off-the-record explanation that may provide better understanding.

To a degree, I empathize with teams. There’s so much more media these days, and more demands for content, plus social media, that it has to be highly structured. But I do miss the opportunities to better cultivate relationships. The absence of more of them waters down the quality of reporting.

Odds that Lions will have less than 11 on the field at any time this week?

— Mike Spiro (@mspiro11) 

Almost zero. I imagine you’re being facetious, but with the spotlight as bright as it has been on the issue this week, the Lions will have substitutions working like a well-oiled machine. The better question is, what new, totally unpredictable issue will crop up against the Bucs?

Has any team, in any sport, in any era, had the highest paid player and still been so terrible? Fire Quinn, Caldwell and everyone else!

— Tom Jansen (@TomJansen5) 

The Texas Rangers with Alex Rodriguez weren’t very good. And you’ll probably find more examples in baseball than other sports. In basketball, the game where one player can make the most difference elevating a team, I’ve been stunned by how mediocre the Pelicans have been with Anthony Davis, a player clearly deserving of his max contract.

So yeah, it happens. Matthew Stafford is paid market rate, and we can safety say he’s a top-10 player at his position worthy of the “franchise quarterback” designation. And while his position impacts success more than any other, no one can do it alone, not even Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers.

Is there a point when getting young guys more PT begins? Four games of experience could be great for the guys going into the offseason.

— James Sonntag (@James_Sonntag) 

Once a team is officially eliminated from playoff contention, I think it behooves an organization to get its young players some additional playing time. That doesn’t mean you give Tion Green 25 carries per game, but you want to put them in situations where they gain experience, while not hurting your chance to compete week to week.

And I understand fans that believe the team should tank for draft status, but that’s not reality. Coaches and players are fighting for their jobs, not just in 2017, but going forward. It’s not a good look for Teryl Austin, or any of the position coaches, if the team is giving up 40 points per game down the stretch just to start Jeremiah Ledbetter, Teez Tabor and Alex Barrett (currently on the practice squad).

Who takes snaps for Lions if the two active QBs go down?

— Jason Wolverton (@jasonwolverton) 

The Lions have declined to comment on their emergency quarterback situation in the past, but if I had to put money on it, give me Golden Tate.

With Ngata’s and Ansah’s futures up in the air and Caldwell on the hot seat, could you see a new coach (if there is one) bringing in a 3-4 system?

— Greg Martin (@GMart4041) 

You might be underestimating the personnel overhaul it takes to go from one scheme to another. Sure, A’Shawn Robinson could port over, and probably Cornelius Washington, but the rest of the front would have to be entirely rebuilt. Goodbye Zettel. Goodbye Hyder. And for what reason? To change for the sake of change?

I’m not a huge fan of two-gaping up front. Sure, it’s has the potential to be more consistent against the run, but a colleague recently highlighted that the best run defenses don’t necessarily correlate with team success. I’d rather build a defense around disrupting the pocket, and unless you have a slew of great blitzers in the back seven (the Lions don’t), the best way to do that is with a great edge rusher and penetrating DTs.

In a division of Trubisky, Hundley and Keenum, how did we possibly blow this?

— Todd Greenspoon (@ToddGreenspoon) 

We all underestimated Case Keenum. I think you could have made a solid argument he was a top-five backup in the NFL coming into the year, but he’s performed like a top-10 starter in 2017. And even more impressively, the Vikings have made it work without Dalvin Cook, the rookie running back who looked so good to start the season, but tore his ACL in Week 4 against the Lions.

And not enough credit is given to the Vikings coaching staff. That’s one of the best groups in the NFL.

What is it about the ownership that allows the Lions to never get over the hump? It’s the only common factor in the last 50 years. If you figure it out, you might win a Pulitzer.

— Adam Pennell (@HIMS616) 

I’d prefer to evaluate Martha Ford separately than her husband William Clay Ford, who had a propensity for not only making bad hires, but staying loyal to them far beyond a reasonable expiration date.

Martha has made two key hires, president Rod Wood and general manager Bob Quinn. I was highly skeptical of the Wood addition, but given his role, which largely exists outside of football decisions, he’s done a great job listening to fans and making the changes fans have begged for at Ford Field.

As for Quinn, the jury is still out, but she sought council from both the league and a respected, experienced consultant prior to making the hire. The inexperienced general manager’s decisions have been a mixed bag so far. His first draft class was a home run, while his second leaves plenty to be desired, although there’s plenty of time before that evaluation will be complete.

Quinn has been aggressive in free agency and his crown jewels – Marvin Jones and Rick Wagner – have looked like good buys. The general manager has had some success with his middle-tier signings, such as Wilson, but the hit rate hasn’t been high enough to solidify the team’s depth through two years.

By all appearances, Martha has been more proactive than her late husband. Her commitment to winning is clear, based on her investment of time and resources into the team and the facilities. Let’s not blame her for his ineptitude managing the product.

If the lions fire Caldwell, who would you like see coach the Lions and why?

— Brandon B (@almightyloud3) 

Honestly, I don’t care. If I have any preference, it’s for a coach that is open, honest and colorful. I’d rather have a Rex Ryan, Mike Zimmer or Bruce Arians than a coach who treats every piece of information as a state secret.  But with former Patriots running the front office, I’m not getting my hopes up.

Season is shot, let’s talk draft. Who’s the best player for the positions we need?

— JW (@jmwhitejmwhite) 

As I noted in last week’s mailbag, I’m not fully up to date on the current batch of prospects, and I’m leaning entirely on the consensus opinion of analysts who make a living following the topic. Here are some names worth researching:

Defensive end: Bradley Chubb, Arden Key, Harold Landry, Sam Hubbard

Running back: Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Damien Harris, Royce Freeman, Bryce Love

Defensive tackle: Maurice Hurst, Christian Wilkins, Da’Ron Payne, Taven Bryan

Guard: Quenton Nelson, Will Hernandez, Braden Smith

Will the Lions address the RB position this offseason? Please.

— Mike Myers (@MikeMye64038659) 

I can’t imagine they don’t do anything a second straight offseason. While I’ve long maintained the backs are closer to the bottom of the list of problems with Detroit’s anemic run game, they would certainly benefit from a capable, bigger-bodied, north-south runner in the rotation.