While we pivoted to more interactive mailbags during the football season, we will be mixing things up during the 2023 offseason, combining both written and audio/video/podcast versions.
Let’s get started with our first Detroit Lions written mailbag of the offseason.
How much do you put into the PFF grades on Goff? They have an explain the grade segment on him again today, explaining the season grade, and it does make sense to me, and gives me some concern. — Evilsmurf
Why do you think the conversation among Lions fans regarding Jared Goff gets so heated? — Mr. Zebra
Jeremy: I’m going to package these two questions together to knock out all of the Jared Goff talk at once. Here’s the clip Evilsmurf is referencing:
(The Goff conversation starts at 1:05:30)
Jared Goff is so polarizing of a figure because his performance is so polarizing. When he doesn’t have the help he needs around him, he’s a bad quarterback. When he does have that supporting cast, he’s a top-10 guy in this league. Of course, this is true on some levels for every quarterback, but I don’t think I’ve seen a player’s performance so drastically swing on each end of the spectrum like it happens with Goff.
PFF grade is a great way to illustrate that. In the first half of the season, when the Lions were going through injuries at the WR position, Goff was bad. His PFF passing grade from Weeks 1 to 11 was 59.2, which ranked 26 out of 30 qualifying QBs.
But when the entire group was back together, Goff was amazing to finish the year. The PFF conversations allude to him “playing well down the stretch,” but they undersell it. From Week 12 on, he had an 83.5 PFF passing grade, which was third-best in the NFL.
So when people say Goff needs everything to be right to be a great quarterback, I get it. And when people say that is true of every other quarterback, they’re right, too. There is some nuance that needs to be addressed here.
What worries me is that this is the NFL. You’re very rarely going to have an entire season in which no key parts are injured. At the same time, Goff’s play to end the season was some of the best Lions quarterbacking we’ve ever seen. So it’s a tough position to be in both as a fan and a franchise.
Erik: The thing that irks me the most about conversations that I have surrounding PFF and/or Jared Goff, is that they seem to center around the same dynamic: people are unwilling to change their minds.
People have inherent biases, it’s human nature. I know I have them and I work toward recognizing them, then making corrections when I analyze players/games. But when debating sports, those biases seem to rear their ugly head, and people’s unwillingness to be open to change limits their ability to grow as an evaluator/fan. You saw it as much in that explanation of Goff’s grade from the PFF video and see it on social media all the time.
Sure he had a good season, but that was because of X, Y, and Z, not because he improved. Here are some cherry-picked stats to illustrate my point. See, he graded close to how he has historically because he is who we thought he was all along.
PFF grades can be a great reference point, but let's also recognize them for what they are. PFF employees (typically multiple) are offering their opinion on a given play and then that play is assigned a grade. That grade is still based on opinions and those opinions are subject to inherent biases. Yes, PFF has several experienced evaluators that can shed biases when evaluating, but there are several others (that I am familiar with) who have/or are working at PFF that are not able to do that.
Now, to be clear, that situation is not unique to PFF and occurs throughout sports. And the reality is, they provide a unique service, that can be very useful, especially for those of us who can’t watch every NFL game. But like any reference tool, it needs to be utilized properly. Grades are opinions, not statistical facts, and that’s just fine, as long as they’re treated for what they are.
So to circle back and answer the original questions. No, I am not concerned with Goff’s PFF grades, and while I’ll use them as a tool, I have my own evaluation that I am confident in. And as to why things get so heated surrounding Goff, to me, it’s about people being unwilling to change. They figured out who they believe Goff is and have dug in on their beliefs, not wanting to be wrong.
Training Camp 2022, Dan Campbell said that there were players who made meaningful contributions in 2021, that would not make the team in 2022 (thinking AJ Parker). Who is a player that made meaningful contributions in 2022, that will not make the team in 2023 due to Talent Upgrade (not because we lose them to FA) — kwsweger
Erik: This is a very hard question to answer for the simple fact that there are only 47 players on the current roster and we don’t know who the other 43 players will be by the time training camp arrives. Complicating things further is the fact that only about two-thirds of those 47 players actually played “meaningful” snaps in 2022.
So with that in mind, I’ll try and approach this question from a broader perspective. There are two position groups that stand out as potentially returning at least three 2022 contributors, yet could see players lost to upgrades: defensive tackle and tight end.
Am I overlooking something obvious? Is there a third?
Jeremy: I think you can maybe bring defensive end into the conversation, as well. Detroit will have some tough decisions on players like Austin Bryant, Julian and Romeo Okwara, and Charles Harris. While none of those guys were huge contributors in 2022, any or all of them could be cut or jumped on the depth chart by guys who are already on the roster. Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal, and James Houston are locks for significant roles next year, and if they decide to bring John Cominsky back, that room is suddenly very crowded.
Who are you thinking from the DT and TE groups?
Erik: I wasn’t going to name names because both the guys I think are vulnerable are technically free agents and I wanted to play by the rules. But since they are both ERFAs and therefore likely back, I think Shane Zylstra and Benito Jones should be looking over their shoulders this offseason. Both really found themselves in established roles in the second half of the season—heck, Zylstra had three touchdowns in one game—but they will probably have to earn their spots again in 2023.
How concerned are you about the lack of running game success over the second half of the season? Is it possible this indicates that we’ve overestimated this offensive line, or is it fair to chalk it up to a hobbled Ragnow and backup guard(s)? - Redux0
Jeremy: I do think it’s a legit concern, and it’s probably not fair to just point to the massive hole at right guard and Frank Ragnow’s foot injury. That said, I also don’t think the Lions should have much of a concern for their offensive line. The Lions ranked ninth in run block win rate, ninth in PFF run blocking grade, and seventh in adjusted line yards.
The uncomfortable truth may lie with the running back group. Jamaal Williams is a tough runner, a great short-yardage and red-zone back, and a phenomenal locker room presence, but he’s not an explosive runner. He’ll turn a 7-yard run into a 9-yard run.
Meanwhile, D’Andre Swift was the home-run hitter for Detroit. But, unfortunately, the Lions really only got a few weeks all season of him at his best.
As much as I like to tease that “running backs don’t matter,” they do to a degree, and that’s why I think some have that positioned circled as one of need, even if the Lions bring back Williams.
Erik: *shocked face emoji*
In all seriousness, I’m one of the people who have running back circled as a need—I mean, I profiled 10 running backs this season in my draft watchlist series, for goodness sake. You can make a lot of noise in the running game with an above-average offensive line but you still need healthy, talented, explosive running backs in order to make things cook.
Is 6 too high for Witherspoon or any of the other top corner prospects? #AskPOD— Norm Hull (@NormHullGuy19) January 25, 2023
Erik: We’re a far way away from establishing where prospects will be ranked, but I do think it’s important to keep an open mind for all positions at the top of the draft. At this time, there seems like there could be as many as four quarterbacks in the mix at the top of the draft, as well as stud defenders Jalen Carter (DT, Georgia) and Will Anderson (EDGE, Alabama). After that, a lot of who the next best talent is will be determined on a team-by-team basis.
Odds are, with the value placed on cornerbacks, one or more will see their stock “rise” as we get close to April. The three names that seem like the best fit with the Lions, and are likely to climb boards, are Devon Witherspoon (Illinois), Christian Gonzalez (Oregon), and Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State).
Jeremy: I can’t speak to this year’s prospects quite yet, but I have absolutely no problem with the team spending that much draft capital on a cornerback. It has very clearly become a premier position in today’s NFL, and it is undeniably this team’s biggest current need.
I’ve been drinking the Lions Kool-aid since the ’70s. While I was indeed impressed by the 2022 finish to the season, I am cautious about being optimistic about this “momentum” carrying over to 2023. I find at least 6 examples where the team took a nosedive the year following a “hopeful” season. I know there are a ton of reasons for this to happen, but how can we have faith in this group of Lions/Owners/Management that the team can actually build on something good? As Fox Mulder says “I want to Believe”.
Jeremy: Skepticism is warranted. I don’t believe in year-to-year momentum, and you don’t even need to go back far into the team’s past. Detroit finished 2021 with a 3-3 record (3-1 with Goff as the starter) and looked to hit the ground running in Year 2 of the Dan Campbell. They proceeded to start the year 1-6. \
So many things can happen to derail the season (injuries, bad luck, tough schedule, etc.), which is why this quote from Campbell (ironically just before the Panthers game) resonated with me in the middle of the team’s late playoff run this past season.
“We’ve got an opportunity and you just don’t know when these opportunities are always going to be there, and so we can’t let this slip through our fingers.”
That being said, there are two main reasons I think optimism is warranted for 2023: youth and stability. While not every young player is guaranteed to improve, we have seen enough out of players like Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Aidan Hutchinson, Kerby Joseph, and Alim McNeill to believe they’ll—at the very least—return with a high level of play, if not an even better performance in 2023. Combine that with (hopefully) improved and/or increased play from Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, James Houston, and James Mitchell and we’re already talking about nearly half of a starting lineup.
Throw in a coaching staff that looks to be returning almost everyone and the same offensive and defensive schemes, and everyone should return to work in a comfortable, familiar environment.
Erik: The most glaring example to me that this team is built for sustainable success happened not too long ago. Let me set the stage.
It was a cold, blistery Sunday night when the Lions were forced to travel to the bitter confines of Lambeau Field. Detroit’s playoff chances were dashed. And to make matters worse, they would be forced to contend with the mighty Packers in front of a national TV audience. Everything was teed up for Green Bay in this game. If the Packers could just dispatch a lowly Lions team with nothing to play for, they would have an opportunity to complete a historic “team of destiny” run toward the Super Bowl.
The Packers, with the reigning MVP at the helm, threw everything they had at the Lions because nothing mattered to them more than this win...
... and the Lions punched them in the mouth. Snatching the victory away from the hands of a desperate team and vanquishing the petulant child to an offseason with nothing to look forward to beyond holding the media hostage with his arrogant games of ignorance.
This was a changing-of-the-guard moment in the NFC North. The Packers gave the Lions their best, at home, with everything on the line, and the Lions never blinked. Never budged. They took the Packers’ best shot and then the Lions landed an even bigger blow. Detroit walked into Lambeau field with a purpose and they left with the confidence of knowing they were for real.