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Detroit Lions mailbag: How does this rookie class stack up with previous years?

Part 2 of our Mailbag looks at the rookie class, practice squad priorities, and injuries

Buffalo Bills vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We got such a strong response to our call for Detroit Lions mailbag questions, that we couldn’t fit them all in our Mailbag post Part 1, so myself (Erik Schlitt) and Jeremy Reisman added a Part 2 in order to keep the good times rolling.

Let’s jump right back in.

Erik: GM Brad Holmes sure looks like he got his money’s worth on this draft class and six of the seven drafted rookies could be starting in the next two years. Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill, and Amon-Ra St. Brown have already locked up starting roles, Levi Onwuzurike appears to be on his way as well, while Ifeatu Melifonwu and Derrick Barnes have the potential to start in the next two seasons—if not next season.

So yeah, on paper this draft class looks better than the previous classes under Bob Quinn, but at the same time, those opportunities to start are there because the team is in a rebuild. That being said, it’s not just that these rookies are starting but it’s how they’re contributing that has really impressed. Not only are several starting but they look like foundational pieces for the new regime.

Will this class be better than Quinn’s? Only time will tell but the early signs are very promising.

Jeremy: I’ll admit I was a little lukewarm on the Lions draft class shortly after the picks. It felt like a lot of singles or doubles and not a lot of home runs. But I am absolutely drinking the Kool-Aid after a few weeks of training camp. It’s probably too early to start crowning Derrick Barnes the long-term starter after just eight preseason snaps, and Penei Sewell will likely go through some rookie lumps. But players like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Levi Onwuzurike, and Alim McNeill walked onto the football field like they owned it. They have both the swagger, talent, and drive to be long-term players in this league.

Okay, this is the part where I bring you back to reality because this draft class gives me real 2018 vibes. Frank Ragnow, Kerryon Johnson, Tracy Walker, Da’Shawn Hand, and Tyrell Crosby all made immediate impressions and even looked solid in their rookie seasons. But sometimes those potentials aren’t fully met. It’s still a decent draft class but beware of bloated expectations.

Erik: I will refer you to my latest 53-man projection 2.0 to see who I had making the roster, and for the most part, Jeremy agreed with me. Tell me the changes you would’ve made again?

Jeremy: It’s mostly small changes that I know you were considering yourself. I had Shaun Dion Hamilton over Jahlani Tavai, which obviously isn’t going to happen with Hamilton on IR now. I also had Austin Bryant over Charles Harris and instead of keeping an extra nickel corner in Corn Elder, I took the liberty of keeping a third quarterback in David Blough. And while I haven’t made the move yet, I think Kevin Strong has a really good chance of slipping in past John Penisini given his strong preseason and Penisini’s lingering injury.

Erik: I’m starting to come around on adding Blough and honestly for me, swapping out Elder—or Victor Bolden—is a real possibility. The Strong over Penisini debate is a real dilemma for me because I am an avid Strong advocate but I am also a supporter of having a reserve nose in this scheme because if McNeill goes down, they’ll be in trouble.

But back to the original question.

Whichever of those two don’t make the team, they’ll be the top priority for the practice squad. Here are another 10 guys I think are worth keeping around (not in order of priority):

  • RB Dedrick Mills and Craig Reynolds
  • WR Victor Bolden
  • G Tommy Kraemer
  • DT Bruce Hector
  • EDGE Austin Bryant (though he may be in if Harris can’t get right quick)
  • LB Anthony Pittman (he is breathing down Jahlani Tavai’s neck)
  • CB Jerry Jacobs and AJ Parker
  • S Jalen Elliott

Sorry Jer, I didn’t leave you much to choose from. Anyone I missed?

Jeremy: I think you pretty much got them all, but the names that stand out to me that could really develop into something are Jerry Jacobs—who has been on Jeff Okudah’s hip, trying to learn everything possible all training camp—and [insert any offensive lineman here]. The Lions need developmental talent on the offensive line outside of Logan Stenberg.

You could probably throw one of the UDFA wide receivers on the list, too, but I haven’t exactly been blown away by Sage Surratt or Javon McKinley yet. Remember, the practice squads are remaining 16 players deep this year, so you can afford to take on a few projects that didn’t bloom in camp.

Erik: As I alluded to in the previous question, defensive tackle is deeper than most positions on the roster and there will be a tough cut coming. If Strong and Penisini prove their worth, and Hand can’t get healthy, it’s possible he becomes vulnerable—but I would be surprised.

Hand is a chess piece on the defensive line, and while he’s not a starter, his ability to play all along the line makes him the top backup at pretty much every spot, and there will even be specific packages where he will be featured, like their NASCAR formation.

Bottom line for me is, he still has a few more chances left... but they’re running out.

Jeremy: It’s disheartening that Hand came out in camp with a renewed sense of energy. It showed up immediately on the field and it showed up in front of the podium, where we saw a Da’Shawn Hand we hadn’t seen since his rookie season. It really seemed like he was in a perfect spot to recapture some of that magic we’ve seen.

But if he’s not healthy by Week 1, I don’t know how you can trust the guy with a roster spot. Dan Campbell insists the injury was minor, so maybe we get to see him in Preseason Game 3. However, there is just too much talent on the defensive line to use a roster spot on someone who can’t stay healthy. It doesn’t matter how much promise you show if you aren’t available on gamedays.

Erik: I actually researched this topic back in April when the front office hired Jill Costanza as their Director of Sports Science. I found two studies that focused on injuries in the NFL that lined up time-wise with when the Los Angeles Rams hired their Director of Sports Science, to see if that hire influenced Holmes’ decision to bring in Costanza.

There’s more detail in the story, but basically, I found that since the Rams’ incorporated a Sports Science program, they had the third-fewest amount of players land on injured reserve and the second-fewest players that were unable to play in a given week due to injury. Now, it takes time and the Rams didn’t see immediate results—they said it took a couple of years to build a baseline data—but the results did come, and they are one of the more consistently healthy teams in the NFL.

Jeremy:

Football Outsiders has a statistic called Adjusted Games Lost, which measures the total amount of games lost due to injury in a season for every team. The stat is based on projected starters, so that injuries to second and third-string players don’t count as strongly as regular contributors. Here’s how the Lions have ranked in the past five years in adjusted games lost (1st = fewest injuries, 32nd = most injuries)

2020: 15th (not including games missed due to COVID)
2019: 24th
2018: 15th
2017: 17th
2016: 14th

So when it comes to your question about the Lions, their amount of injuries has been right in line with the league average.

It is worth noting the Rams have measured out extremely well in this stat over the same time period.

2020: 5th
2019: 10th
2018: 4th
2017: 1st
2016: 1st

So if the Lions could bring even a small amount of the Rams health management success to Detroit, it could pay off in dividends.