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Week 10 Mailbag: How will Dan Campbell’s increased involvement impact Jared Goff?

Plus questions about aggressiveness, returning players impact, and how the Lions will handle big contracts in the offseason.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s time for another edition of the AskPOD Mailbag, where Jeremy Reisman and Erik Schlitt answer a handful of your questions about the Detroit Lions.

Let’s get started!

Erik: It’s a fair question that I don't think we know the answer to for certain, but I believe they will need to stay aggressive to give them a chance to stay in games, and I hope this is also just part of who Dan Campbell is as a coach. This new regime has consistently preached setting a culture and I, for one, am hoping that coaches continue to operate with a level of aggressiveness because I think that strategy produces in the long run.

Jeremy: I think we will see it for the rest of 2021. Sure, this team needs points, but let’s not forget this defense is pretty bad, too. They aren’t going to win a lot of games by kicking field goals, as we saw against the Rams. I do think Campbell is very context-specific, though. If the defense is playing well, he may just take the points. If he sees a shootout on the horizon, he’s going for it.

My question—as Erik alluded to—is whether Campbell stays this aggressive when the team is more competitive and doesn’t need the extra boost. I’m hoping he stays aggressive, but I have my doubts.

Jeremy: Well, I think if you take Campbell at his word, it means Jared Goff is going to be more aggressive. In his media appearances since the Eagles game, Campbell has really hammered home—without directly saying it—that Goff needs to give these receivers opportunities to make plays. Here’s just a smattering of some of these quotes:

“We’ve got to find a way to get a couple of shots, man. We have to. We’ve got to get some shots down the field.”

“I do feel like we need to make more of a point of emphasis to get these guys the ball a little bit. It’s one thing to say, ‘Well, we’re not quite separating up there.’ Then pretty soon, they don’t get any balls. They’re not separating, we don’t throw it, and before long, guys lose a bit of confidence. So I think it’s important that we try to get everybody involved a little bit.”

“We’re going need to find a way to pull the trigger on a couple of these 1-on-1s, whether we just design them that way and it’s like, ‘Hey man, you’ve got to go win,’ and we’re pushing down the field or we’re throwing a couple of these things outside or to outside receivers. I think we’ve got to push the issue.”

To me, it really sounds like Campbell wants to be right there to tell Goff: You have to take some chances. These guys aren’t going to create 5 yards of separation every play, but you have to give them a chance to make a play. Goff has the arm talent to make some of those throws, the question is whether he can get over the mental hurdle there.

Erik: To take it a step further, I think Campbell recognizes a weakness right now and wants to put his hands on it to amp up the intensity. His presence alone should put people on notice that they’re being put under the microscope and it’s time to step up or they may not be long for the roster.

Will Goff step up his game and answer the bell? Will the pressure get to him or help him thrive? These last nine games are his chance to prove he can be the leader this franchise is looking for. But it could also expose him and show Campbell they need to find a new signal-caller for 2022.

Erik: I still think Jefferson’s playing time is going to be predicated on two things: the health of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, and his ability/inability to contribute on special teams. At this time he doesn’t play on special teams and if you’re a backup that doesn’t play on special teams then you are typically inactive on game day.

This week Williams has been ruled out, so expect Jefferson to find the field against the Steelers. But if Williams returns next week and Jefferson still doesn't have a role on special teams then he’ll be back to being inactive.

Jeremy: I think you nailed it. Until Jefferson exudes confidence on special teams, I think he’s essentially RB4 and will be inactive on days in which everyone is healthy. Jefferson did play special teams against the Bengals, but he was inactive the next week. It’s unclear if that was a sign he wasn’t ready or simply a numbers game with the roster, but I think it’s fair to say they don’t quite trust him with that full-time role yet. That being said, special teams has been a clear focus for him, and I would say it’s certainly possible we see him consistently active before the season is through.

Jeremy: It seems pretty clear that Jalen Elliott is going to be part of the safety rotation going forward. Without any dealings with injury to the safety group, he has played in the past two weeks and done an admirable job. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was very supportive of Elliott this week, and appeared to indicate he’ll continue to see the field.

“You watch him in practice, you watch him on scout team, he’s making plays, he’s energetic. You want that on game day. The thing we don’t want to do, we don’t want to hold this player back anymore. It’s time for them to go out there to play.”

Will he eventually take a starting role? Hard to say. But he’s a guy I think we’ll continue to see get meaningful snaps on defense.

Erik: The obvious one that jumps out to me is rookie tight end Brock Wright and that is mainly because Darren Fells is now in Tampa Bay. Now, mind you, it won’t be a significant jump from what we have seen because, over the last two games, Wright saw around 25 percent of snaps, while Fells saw close to 28 percent on average. The difference will be, Wright went from being an expected non-contributor for the second half of the season to now being TE2—and that’s a big jump.

I also expect to see jumps from players who have either earned more time—like EDGE Julian Okwara— or players they have invested in and want to test out further—like LB Derrick Barnes and WR Trinity Benson.

How do we get out of the mess that is Trey Flowers contract the next two years? — KDog060

Jeremy: While I don’t think Flowers has been as bad as some people make him out to be, his contract is indeed a problem. His cap hit jumps to over $23 million for each of the next two seasons, and if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, Flowers just isn’t the kind of player that fits what this team is looking for both in the short and long term.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the right one. I think the Lions will cut Flowers after the 2021 season. They’ll take on the $12.8 million dead cap hit, but it will also free up $10.4 million. It should be this team’s goal to get rid of as many bad contracts as possible as early as possible. It wasn’t possible in 2021, but it certainly makes sense this upcoming offseason. With the emergence of some young players, I don’t think it’ll hurt the team too much on the field, either.

Erik: Plus they’ll be staring at a couple phenomenal EDGE rushers at the top of the draft that could significantly impact this defense.

But I agree with Jeremy here, Flowers isn’t a bad player by any means, but this organization will be evaluating players and their contracts this offseason and if a player isn't living up to their market value then they will be vulnerable. $23 million is too steep a cost for what he is producing on the field, so he’s going to be a cut candidate.

Jeremy: Speaking of bad contracts...

Erik: Yup.

First, let’s acknowledge that Vaitai has been better than last season. And yes, several people have suggested that will be enough for him to stick around in 2022. But again, while improved, it comes down to one simple question: is he living up to his contract?

Next season Vaitai is slotted to make $8.4 million, then $10.4 in each of the two following that. That contract puts him as the 15th highest-paid guard in the NFL, both in 2022 and in average salary over the life of the contract. Per PFF, his grade ranks 48th among guards who have played on at least 20 percent of team snaps and 37th among guards who have played 50 percent.

Maybe the Lions see enough development that they believe his game will continue to ascend and the $8.4 is worth the gamble of keeping him around for added stability. But he’ll have to make some significant leaps in his development to see the last two years of his contract.

Jeremy: For what it’s worth, I think they keep him around for one more year. Unlike Flowers, I think Vaitai is a pretty good fit for what they’re trying to do, and with offensive line coach Hank Fraley a carryover from the previous regime, I think they’re comfortable with what he does, especially in the run game.

If they cut him in 2022, the Lions take on $4.2M in dead cap—essentially half of what it would cost to keep him anyways. I say get one more year out of him, have one less hole to fill this upcoming offseason, and then save $7.6M on that contract in 2023 by releasing him with only $2.8M in dead cap.

Jeremy: Potentially a lot. Football Outsiders has a really cool stat that breaks down rushing efficiency by direction. Here’s a look at how it breaks down with the Lions and their rankings in each direction:

Left end: 2.74 YPC (28th)
Left tackle: 4.87 YPC (7th)
Mid/guard: 3.95 YPC (22nd)
Right tackle: 4.21 YPC (16th)
Right end: 3.81 YPC (19th)

As you can see, the Lions haven’t been very effective running on the edges, which makes little sense given how athletic they are both in the backfield and on the offensive line. However, Taylor Decker gives the Lions more athleticism on the edges and more unpredictability.

That being said, the Steelers are going to be one hell of a challenge, and you may not see the fruits of Decker’s addition this week. However, long-term I expect the Lions to be more effective in getting Swift in space.

Erik: The addition of Decker upgrades both tackle spots and that alone should make them more versatile. And yes, as Jeremy pointed out, it may take a few weeks to see the results, it could also be a direct catalyst in helping the Lions improve enough on offense to help them get their first win on the season.

Erik: Good question. Jerry Jacobs has most definitely earned his playing time at corner, but that being said, this team has high hopes for Ifeatu Melifonwu and will want to get him back on the field if only for developmental purposes.

Does that mean splitting time? It very well could, especially as Melifonwu works back up to speed. But this staff has been all about putting players in competitions for roles and rewarding the players stepping up their game, even if it’s only on a week-to-week basis.

Jeremy: I love this question because I honestly have no idea. I think they absolutely want to get Melifonwu back in there both for developmental purposes and to see what they’ve got in him. The future at cornerback is very much up in the air for this organization—especially with Jeff Okudah’s tough rehab—so the sooner they have an idea of what they’ve got in Melifonwu, the better.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised if Melifonwu completely takes over for Jacobs, simply because the team has a pretty good idea of the player and person they have in Jacobs. That being said, it sounds like we’re still a few weeks away from crossing this bridge. Here’s what defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant said on Friday when I asked him how close Melifonwu was to coming back.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete, he’s a great kid, but anytime you come back from an injury like that, we always try to make sure it’s progressive, and we don’t just push you into it, but (I’m) excited to see him whenever he does come back.”

At first, they may ease him in with specific packages in mind, but if they get to a point where they’re 100 percent confident in his health, my guess is he’ll take back a full-time starting role.