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Mailbag, Part 1: Are the Lions really comfortable rolling with this current LB crew?

In this week’s mailbag: When does “Hard Knocks” start? How much access to spring camp does POD have? How many injured players will return? And, what’s the Lions' comfort level with their linebackers?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2022 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror and Detroit Lions spring OTAs/minicamps on the way, Jeremy Reisman and I (Erik Schlitt) decided to open up the POD mailbag this week and answer some of your questions about the organization.

This is the first of a two-part mailbag this week and there is lots of fun to be had, so let’s jump right in.

Jeremy: Like last year, the Lions will give us access to one of the three days of rookie minicamp. As you may remember from last year’s rookie minicamp observations—via Erik—we’ll get to observe a full practice, but there is a limited roster and no pads. Rookie minicamp runs three consecutive days starting this Friday, May 13.

As for OTAs and team minicamp, the expectation is that the media will get the same once-a-week access to practices. Here are the dates for OTA/minicamp sessions:

  • May 24-26
  • June 1-3
  • June 7-9 (Minicamp)
  • June 13-16

It’s worth pointing out, however, that last year, Dan Campbell canceled the last week of OTAs. That is becoming a more and more common practice in the NFL, so it’s entirely possible we only get two OTA practices again this year.

When does “Hard Knocks” filming start, and when can it be viewed? — pts29

Erik: “Hard Knocks” is an HBO network sports-based reality television show and they only release it on HBO-based services. Filming begins around the opening of training camp in the fall but the first broadcast will be Tuesday, August 9, at 10:00 p.m. EST. They will produce a total of five episodes, with a new show premiering every Tuesday in that same time slot. The series finale will be on September 6.

Jeremy: Only thing I’ll add is that sometimes they include footage of things that happen before training camp, so it’s entirely possible they’ve already procured some footage. But the majority of the filming takes place during training camp.

Erik: Good point. There are a lot of storylines HBO could invest in and they’ll need time to get background information on these players.

We had a number of folks go down with injury last year and then went ahead and drafted a number of them coming off season-ending injury in college. What is a reasonable expectation for coming back from an ACL (Williams, Mitchell, Jacobs) or Achilles (Okudah, Okwara) or Turf Toe (Ragnow) or ‘hand’ (Hock) injury? Do we get 100% of these guys next year? — ATL Lion

Jeremy: Great question. Injuries are tough to predict, but the health of the squad will be crucial to any success the Lions have in 2022. Let’s start with the good news: Frank Ragnow told us he was already 100 percent before the draft (and nearly healthy by the end of the season), so don’t expect any limitations with him.

Hockenson, too, should be 100 percent, if he isn’t already. Last time we talked to Hockenson (at the end-of-season press conferences in January), here’s what he said about his health.

“I’m good. It’s day-by-day, week-by-week. I’m almost there already and it’s only been a few weeks. Just a few more left and I’ll be 100 percent by the offseason.”

James Mitchell, too, sounds like he’s nearly ready to go. The Lions' fifth-round pick told the Detroit media the night he was drafted he expects to be fully ready by training camp.

“I’m pretty much back,” Mitchell said. I’m doing everything from running, cutting, running routes. I’m expected to be fully cleared by June at the latest. I’ll be ready to go by training camp. I’m excited.”

Obviously, there’s always a concern that a player won’t look like they did before these injuries, but all of these players are young enough, that there’s no reason to believe they all won’t recover fully.

Okay, now you break the bad news, Erik.

Erik: While we have seen some encouraging videos from Jeff Okudah and heard some optimistic proclamations from Jerry Jacobs and first-round rookie Jameson Williams, the simple fact of the matter is Achilles and ACL injuries take time to heal and we really have no idea where they stand in the process.

My article on medical research with regards to Achilles injuries and recovery time for football players, suggested Okudah and Romeo Okwara could face a year to recover and another year to get back to their previous level of play. Yet, we see players like Cam Akers (Rams) speeding up the timetable and recovering in half the projected time. But if you recall from the playoffs, he had not yet returned to his previous level of play. Still, it’s encouraging to see such a rapid response to the injury.

Williams and Jacobs ACL injuries have a 6-12 month recovery period, with nine months of recovery being typical. That would put them nearing the recovery path by the time the regular season rolls around. Factor in time to get back in game shape and they could be realistic candidates for the PUP list. But again, we have seen several cases of players recovering in half a year, and if Williams or Jacobs have that type of body that heals quickly—being young helps considerably—there’s a chance they do get time in training camp.

At the end of the day, Okudah, Okwara, Williams, and Jacobs could all end up as PUP candidates or be ready to go when “Hard Knocks” roll the cameras. We will just have to wait and see.

Are the Lions really comfortable rolling out this current LB crew? It seems like the weakest part of the D, but hasn’t gotten that much attention from Holmes. Were there just too many other holes to fill, or is there something that we fans might be missing here? — Dunnski

Jeremy: It feels weird to say, but the linebacking crew is actually one of the most overturned positions on the roster this offseason. Sure, they didn’t invest highly in free agency, but they brought in both Chris Board and Jarrad Davis, plus they drafted Malcolm Rodriguez in the sixth round.

Obviously, it’s not a high-end talent room right now, but we do have to go back and observe what options the Lions had to upgrade this offseason. The free agency class wasn’t all that impressive unless the Lions were prepared to spend $10 million a year on Bobby Wagner or $15 million a year on Foyesade Oluokun. The fact that Myles Jack got $8 million a year pretty much tells you all you need to know about the free agency linebacker market.

Obviously, many expected the Lions to invest a higher draft pick at the position, but when did they really have an option to grab someone? Pick 46 is the most likely candidate, but general manager Brad Holmes was almost hyper-focused on landing Josh Paschal. When they were up next at 97, there were options like Georgia’s Channing Tindall or Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal still on the board, but safety was as big of a need, and Kerby Joseph was the last safety available in a tier that could eventually become a starter, in my opinion.

Plus, when it comes down to it, safety is simply a much more important position than linebacker in this defense. Detroit’s base defense will likely be a 4-2-5, meaning only two off-ball linebackers will regularly see the field, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw plenty of formations with only one on the field.

So I think the opportunity just didn’t present itself in the draft early, and the Lions were happy taking a chance on a sixth-round guy.

I know you’re higher on Malcolm Rodriguez than I am, Erik. Is he potentially the answer at linebacker? Is that the kind of draft capital the Lions are willing to spend on the linebacker position?

Erik: I don’t necessarily think Rodriguez will be the answer this year, but I am encouraged by the amount of highly respected analysts—such as the Athletic’s Dane Brugler and NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein— that suggest he should be in the mix sooner than later.

“100-percent, he’s a future starter,” Zierlein excitedly interrupted Brugler on their post-draft podcast. “(coach) Dan Campbell is going to love him, (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn is going to love him. He’s got the best instincts, maybe, in the (entire) draft. He takes the best pathways to the tackle. He avoids blocks, with unbelievable talent. If he was two inches taller, with arms two inches longer, he’s a Day 2 pick. Without question.”

I also think the Lions are higher on this group than the fans are. Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes give them two pieces to develop, Alex Anzalone is more appreciated by the coaching staff than fans, Board was a player the Ravens wanted to retain, the team hoped to retain Davis in 2020, and Shaun Dion Hamilton was a player on his way to a big role last season before a season-ending injury.

Still, this position group has not been prioritized like others—you can’t build Rome in a day, to two years in this case—and the team appears comfortable loading it up with a group with serviceable players and spending money elsewhere.

With the switch to a 4-2-5 and the investment in the defensive line and in the secondary, the Lions aren’t deliberately avoiding upgrading this group, but they have prioritized the positions they deem more valuable.