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Mailbag: How can Amon-Ra St. Brown become an ‘elite’ WR?

The written mailbag returns with a new twist that features Detroit Lions fans questions more prominently.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Yes, our Detroit Lions written mailbag has finally returned, and with it, we’re bringing a new feature to the site: embeddable comments! Yes, now your replies in the comment section can be seamlessly added to our written content, which is just another reason why you should create a free account here and be part of our Lions community.

We have some fun plans ahead with this new feature, but let’s get to this edition of the mailbag first.

What are realistic expectations for Romeo Okwara this year? I feel like as a fan base we forget about him, but before his injury he was really coming up, and now he has a full offseason to heal. Is it possible he returns to similar levels of production?

Obviously, this is a really tough question to answer. Romeo Okwara hasn’t played football to his best ability in about two years. When he had his 10-sack breakout season in 2020, he was playing in a completely different scheme with a different supporting cast. He’s also now 28 years old.

While I do think he is being overlooked, as you said, I do think it would be wise to temper expectations for Okwara. Another 10-sack season seems unlikely simply due to opportunity.

Aidan Hutchinson and John Cominsky are likely your starters, and I think this team values Charles Harris more than Okwara. That said, Detroit could have just cut him this offseason, but opted to keep him around on a pay cut because they value what he brings. His opportunities will likely be limited as EDGE 4/5/6 (don’t forget Josh Paschal and James Houston, too).

That said, Okwara is a well-rounded player who can play the run and pass equally well. That means he’s a threat to be on the field on literally any down and in any scenario. From an efficiency standpoint, the bar is still high, but I wouldn’t expect his full-on production numbers to return.

critical perspective
The Lions still have a reasonably healthy amount of cap space, almost $23 million which is apparently the 6th most in the NFL.
How would you prioritize the following:
1) saving it for in-season injury replacements; if not needed rolling it over for next season
2) extending players up for contracts at the end of the season (e.g. Jonah)
3) using it to sign current free agents who can help the team win now

My priorities are as follows:

  1. Extending players up for contracts at the end of the season (e.g. Jonah Jackson)
  2. Saving it for in-season injury replacements; if not needed rolling it over for next season
  3. Using it to sign current free agents who can help the team win now

I understand Lions fans’ eagerness to go for it all now that the Lions’ Super Bowl window is open, but it’s important to preach patience here. Going all-in in Year 1 feels a little reckless to me right now. Very few teams win titles in their first competitive year, and we still don’t know a lot of things about this team yet. We have no idea how good this defense really is, and with so many new pieces at offensive skill positions, there is some mystery there, too. Personally, I would like a better feel for who this team is before selling off future resources for players still on the market or on the trade block. This is why I’d feel a little better about saving this money for the trade deadline.

Regardless, the future should still remain a high priority in Detroit. They’re still an incredibly young team who should only be getting better, and their salary cap health is great for the next few years. There is no reason to rush (other than maybe losing Ben Johnson). If this team wants to remain competitive and give themselves the most opportunities to come away with a title, they can’t get too far ahead of themselves. And this team is about to get more and more expensive with extensions for Amon-Ra St. Brown and Penei Sewell not too far ahead.

critical perspective
How safe is Cabinda's job? He seems to often get penciled in as a sure thing without much debate but I wonder if you think the Lions are more likely to keep, say, an extra TE or OL.

I don’t think his spot is a gimme by any means, but this team absolutely loves everything Cabinda is about. He’s a versatile piece, an essential special teamer, and someone who exemplifies grit in every way. It’s easy to forget that not long ago, Cabinda was a linebacker. Those are the kind of qualities that win you over a roster spot against guys like Shane Zylstra, Anthony Pittman, Julian Okwara, and other roster bubble players.

As for the fullback position, Brock Wright is capable in that role, but when Cabinda was healthy toward the end of last year, he was playing over 13 snaps a game. That’s a more significant role than I think people give him credit for.

Ben Johnson said something to the effect earlier this year that our RB's last season left a lot of yards on the table. With the revamped, more dynamic backfield and *fingers crossed* healthy & deep O-Line, what do you think the over/under SHOULD be for total rushing yards and YPC?

Here’s the quote from Ben Johnson—in an interview with Dan Miller—about the Lions’ rushing game last year (via The Athletic)

“I feel like we can take a big jump,” Johnson told Fox 2 Detroit’s Dan Miller recently. “When you watch all of our plays from last year, it’s (about) doing it time and time again. … These 4- and 5-yard runs, they really should be 8, 9 or even more if we can break a tackle.”

The Lions went out and got one of the most prolific tackle-breakers in David Montgomery and paired him with home-run threat Jahmyr Gibbs.

Last year, the Lions rushed for a total of 2,179 yards (11th) and 4.6 yards per carry (15th), but they were far more successful early in the season than they were late. Through the first five weeks of the 2022 season, the Lions ranked sixth in rushing yards (757) and second in yards per attempt (5.4). Some of that was bolstered by an unsustainable amount of long runs, but I think those numbers fall closer in line with expectations going forward.

As you said, the offensive line will be (knock on wood) healthier, the entire team will be in Year 2 of this offensive scheme, and the backs have been upgraded. Last year, only three teams rushed for over 5.0 per carry, and all of them had rushing quarterbacks. However, I think 2,400 yards and 4.8 per carry is entirely reasonable this year. If we’re talking over/under, though, 2,300 and 4.7 YPC is probably the more conservative mark.

Jeremy! Erik! Appreciate you guys churning out the content. Here is my question:

What is your overall perception of Aman Ra St. Brown in terms of being an "elite" WR and what would it take for him to reach that status? More touchdowns? Iconic moment in a potential playoff game?

I have a close friend (Vikings fan..) and he has always said he thinks St Brown is good but never will be considered an elite WR because of the type of WR he is. I tend to think that he is becoming like a Anquan Boldin/Hines Ward type who might not be elite, but could be a cornerstone piece and future HOF.

Last part if you have time: Would it be crazy to think that he could have better numbers than Calvin Johnson when it is all said and done? This is implying he will stay on the Lions his entire career.

I think he could, but those touchdown numbers will be really hard to reach.

Thanks guys!

I do think St. Brown’s ceiling is as high as you say with guys like Anquan Boldin and Hines Ward. I’ve compared him to Ward since the first time I saw him in training camp.

So what does he need to do to get there? Longevity. That’s really it. Because I doubt he’ll have the gaudy stats that will earn him All-Pro honors or be listed as an “elite” player. However, consistency over a long period of time will get you consideration for things like the Hall of Fame. Hines Ward only topped 1,000 yards receiving six times and 10 touchdowns three times, but he played for 14 seasons and missed less than 10 games over that entire stretch. Boldin had better stats, but his true excellence comes from the fact that he played for 14 seasons and was extremely valuable to four different teams over that span.

If St. Brown can continue to be a 70-110 catch player for the next decade, he’ll be remembered as one of the best receivers of this era.

The date is February 4th, 2018 and your the assistant general manager of the Detroit Lions. Because you've time traveled from 2023 you know that the Lions want to hire Matt Patricia and a couple years later, he will be fired and replaced with Dan Campbell. Do you hire Patricia for 3 miserable years knowing that you can hire Campbell after he's fired, or do you risk hiring a different coach altogether. (You can't hire Campbell right now, because the public would be so taken aback by your decision that you would be fired)

I love Dan Campbell and have extremely high hopes for this franchise’s future, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I forced Lions fans to go through the Matt Patricia era when I had a chance to stop it. We don’t even know yet if it was “worth it” to live through Patricia to get Campbell, so I’ll take my chances with another path that doesn’t involve an abusive coach who sent away some of my favorite players.

Will this be Tracey Walker's last season as a Lion?
By all accounts, Kerby seems like he will be assuming a starting role moving forward. We also have Branch who can fill the other Safety role as well. Reading the tea leaves, Walker will be commanding 12M+ in 2024 and with some younger guy gaining some experience in 2023, what would Walker have to do to secure his spot with us in 2024? Unless he has a career year, I just don't see him as being a Lion past this year. Even having CJGJ who is 3 years younger, we could allocate Walker's cap savings to re-signing CJGJ

It’s a huge year for Walker, there is no doubt, and the answer to this question will be highly reliant on his play in 2023. That’s a tough ask for Walker because the first year out of a major injury is very tough for a player.

But I don’t think the Lions have someone capable of replacing Walker on the roster right now. I think Brian Branch and/or C.J. Gardner-Johnson are better left to playing more of a nickel/safety hybrid role than being a full-time safety, and we haven’t seen anything to suggest a guy like Ifeatu Melifonwu could unseat Walker.

That $12 million is a good sticking point, but remember that Romeo Okwara’s and Charles Harris’ contracts looked like sure cuts this offseason, too. They could very well ask Walker to take a pay cut from his $8 million salary next offseason, and considering how much Walker loves it here, I wouldn’t be surprised if he agreed.

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