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POD Week 15 Mailbag: Which Lions’ free agents should the team prioritize re-signing?

Also discussed: the Lions RB situation, draft value of the RB position, as well as projections for Jonah Jackson, Levi Onwuzurike, and Alim McNeill.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

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!

Jeremy: The Lions aren’t exactly set in the long-term at running back with Jamaal Williams only signed through 2022 and D’Andre Swift through 2023. The draft is more about preparing for the future than addressing immediate needs. That being said, everyone is probably well aware of my feeling about drafting a running back in Day 1 or 2. I think what we’re witnessing with the likes of Godwin Igwebuike, Jermar Jefferson and Craig Reynolds is further proof that improving the run game is more about the offensive line than who is in the backfield.

That’s all to say, I’m perfectly fine punting on a running back for the next year or two. But if Detroit takes a shot on Day 3, I won’t completely hate it.

Erik: Currently, the Lions have five capable backs and all five should easily return next season—assuming they promote Craig Reynolds to the active roster at some point, which would make him an exclusive right free agent in 2022, basically guaranteeing he stays in Detroit. Godwin Igwebuike is also an exclusive rights free agent, and Jermar Jefferson is signed through 2024.

But even if they retain all of them, I’m actually okay taking a Day 3 RB, because, with the way the position has been devalued in the draft, you can get a high-quality player in the later rounds—as they did with Jefferson.

Do you need six backs? No. But there is no guarantee that all five replicate their success next season, injuries happen, and as Jeremy said, you draft for the future. So while not a priority, I’ll be scouting the backs in this class.

Erik: Ok, I selected this question for two reasons. First, Jeremy will hate it. Second, it’ll give us an opportunity to discuss the evolution of the running back position and how that impacts their value in the draft. Now, obviously, neither is on play for the first overall, but if you had your choice, which back would you prefer Jeremy?

Jeremy: This question was asked clearly to trigger me, and mission accomplished. I hope Rob is a Michigan State fan because I’m going to use this opportunity to shoot back. I’m GLAD he wasn’t a Heisman finalist. He SHOULDN’T have been. Running backs don’t matter. That being said, go blue, Hassan Haskins by a mile.

I’m sorry, were you expecting a serious answer out of me about running backs in the draft... in December, Erik?

Erik: Um... maybe I’ll just field the draft questions myself from now on.

From a talent perspective, Walker is the better back, but as such, he will draw a higher compensation. As we discussed in Zac “don’t call me Zack” Snyder’s question above, there is value in taking running backs later in the draft, and the way the roster is set, the Lions would benefit from spending less draft capital at the position—if they spend any at all.

So, who is the better back? Walker. Who is the better value? Haskins.

Jeremy: Let’s just say if the Lions take Walker at pick 33, I won’t be happy. Too many other needs, both in the short and long terms.

Erik: You won't be alone in your disdain.

Is Jonah Jackson a locked starter at guard for the next two years of his contract? How has Jackson looked this season? — Looney Tim Toone

Jeremy: Yeah, I think he’s their guy. While he hasn’t taken a leap into elite territory yet, he’s clearly offered very solid, very reliable play at left guard. And he’s only going to continue to get better playing in between Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow. Once again, I’ll point to Football Outsiders’ directional statistics to point out just how effective Jackson has been, specifically in the run game. Here are the Lions’ “Adjusted Line Yards” by rushing direction:

Left end: 2.46 (30th)
Left tackle: 5.37 (2nd)
Middle/guard: 4.1 (19th)
Right tackle: 4.41 (14th)
Right end: 3.95 (20th)

So they’ve run the best on the left side and up the middle.

Jackson still has some improving to do in pass protection, but I think he’s exactly the kind of player they want right now.

Erik: 5.37, whew. Zero doubt in my mind he is their left guard for at least the next two seasons (his contract expires after the 2023 season) and he is trending towards being a player who is extended.

Erik: Technically, Alim McNeill is already starting at nose tackle, and with Nick Williams in a contract year, I do think Levi Onwuzurike has a legitimate chance to claim his starting role next season. As far as will they be “quality starters”, I think they have some more improving to do, but their developmental trajectory is pointing up. With four more games and another offseason to improve themselves, I expect them to be in much better spots come next September.

The biggest thing that both players need to improve is their run defense. McNeill is further along in that aspect, but Onwuzurike is improving. One of the reasons he is behind is his delayed start during training camp, as the team held I'm out due to concerns over his back. Is that back healed? Will it cause him long-term problems? The Lions said they knew about the injury ahead of the draft, then took him in the second round anyway, suggesting they believe it won’t be a problem. If they’re right, we should see his stock continue to rise.

Jeremy: Yeah, I’ve been a little critical of Onwuzurike as of late, and I think it’s fair to call his rookie season a bit of a disappointment. But Erik brought some important context to what he’s dealt with this year. I’m hoping Detroit gives him an increased role in these final four games, and the rookie shows week-to-week improvement.

I’m far less worried about McNeill, who has been just fine. I know some were expecting more pass rush from him in Year 1, but the Lions have done a poor job getting into pass rushing downs, so I think that’s just a result of limited opportunities for him.

Which of the following UFA’s are a priority to try and re-sign? Nick Williams, Tim Boyle, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Charles Harris, Alex Anzalone, Josh Reynolds, Khalif Raymond, Khadarel Hodge, Dean Marlowe, Joel Heath, Evan Brown, Jason Cabinda, Will Holden, and Tracy Walker. —KDog060

Erik: Ok, Jeremy, let’s make this final question fun. Let’s alternate selections by who we would prioritize. I’ll go first—Tracy Walker.

Jeremy: Josh Reynolds.

Erik: Charles Harris.

Jeremy: ... I feel like there’s a significant step down here, but I’ll go with Alex Anzalone. Talent is meh, but leadership is important in a young room.

Erik: Evan Brown as IOL4, my top backup at all three interior spots.

Jeremy: Jason Cabinda, another leader-type the Lions love and continue to give more responsibilities to.

Erik: Kalif Raymond, returner and hopefully WR5 with upside.

Jeremy: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, special teamer and fits what they want in linebacker depth.

Erik: Ok. I think I may be done. A lot of the remaining players would depend on contracts for me.

Jeremy: Yeah, we can probably stop there, unless you think Packers’ preseason all-star Tim Boyle is the backup again next year.

Erik: Honestly, I am hoping to see QB2 (QB1?) upgraded, so if they bring Boyle back, I’d prefer it at a discount. Same goes for the rest of the list.