Here are the Lions’ roster needs, ranked, as free agency approaches

Detroit News

Justin Rogers | The Detroit News

Matthew Stafford has been traded and free agency is less than a month away. As Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell roll through their first offseason with the franchise, it seemed like a good idea to reset the franchise’s most pressing needs, which we’ve ranked below.

1. Wide receiver

If you’ve been following our reporting since the beginning of last season, you know the Lions are facing concerning uncertainty at the receiver position. Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and Jamal Agnew are all set to be free agents. Finding a way to retain Golladay, whether via the franchise tag or a long-term deal will take some creative cap accounting, but still leaves the team in dire need of reinforcements to the corps.

The top two options currently under contract are Quintez Cephus and Geronimo Allison. Cephus had some flashes as a rookie a year ago, but only caught 20 passes and lost his biggest supporter within the organization when assistant coach Robert Prince departed. As for Allison, he opted out of the 2020 season after signing a one-year deal with the Lions. In four seasons, he’s never caught more than 34 balls. In reality, the Lions would be fortunate if either emerged as a reliable No. 3 option.

2. Edge defender

Trey Flowers will be back and should be healthy. That gives the Lions a disruptive, fundamentally sound option on one side of the line. It’s the other edge that’s currently the issue.

Romeo Okwara, who led the team with 10 sacks during a breakout campaign last season, is scheduled to be a free agent. And while there are other, more established options also set to hit the market, it’s a position that almost always nets premium money, especially for a 25-year-old who is seemingly just scratching the surface with his potential.

Veteran Everson Griffen, who provided some juice down the stretch last season, is also headed to free agency, with little to suggest he’ll be coming back. That’s potentially two significant losses for a team that finished dead last in quarterback pressures and pressure rate last season.

The fact remains it’s difficult to win games in this league if you don’t disrupt the pocket on passing downs. The Lions have some young, unproven pieces in Austin Bryant and Julian Okwara, and there’s hope they develop into capable contributors, but there’s a clear need to bolster the overall pass rush.

3. Linebacker

Did the Lions lack talent at linebacker or was the talent masked by Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme? It’s probably a little from column A and a little from column B, but it’s clear the Lions need far more production from the second level.

Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Reggie Ragland are all going to be free agents. There have been hints from coach Dan Campbell he’d like Davis back, but that’s far from a guarantee. Beyond working out the money, the former first-round pick might simply want a fresh start.

Detroit is returning Jamie Collins, Christian Jones and Jahlani Tavai. Jones could be a cap casualty, while Tavai might best be described as a reclamation project after a dismal 2020 campaign. Collins is a clear talent, but was maddeningly inconsistent in his first year with the Lions. That said, he’s the only piece under contract who can be expected to reliably produce next season.

4. Safety

Speaking of reclamation projects, one of the first orders of business for the new coaching staff needs to be getting Tracy Walker right. That probably includes a shift back to free safety, where he thrived to start his career.

Beyond Walker, the Lions don’t have much certainty at the position. Will Harris, despite all the physical gifts, hasn’t come close to putting it together his first two seasons, while C.J. Moore has largely been relegated to special teams.

John Johnson III, one of the defensive leaders from the Rams in recent years, will hit the market if he doesn’t get slapped with the franchise tag, but it’s difficult to see the Lions committing big money to a long-term piece this early in a rebuild. The better bet is a low-cost, plug-and-play veteran, while seeing if defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant can tap into Harris’ potential.

5. Kicker

The last time the Lions moved on from a veteran kicker, the replacement process was something of a nightmare. After David Akers held it down for a season following Jason Hanson’s retirement, the Lions worked through a disastrous stretch to start the 2014 season before Matt Prater fell into their laps.

Now Prater is going to be a free agent, and even though he’s expressed a desire to stay in Detroit, the team has to determine how many resources they want to allocate to the position in a year where they’re unlikely to be competitive.

6. Interior defensive lineman

The Lions are actually loaded with under-contract options, but Nick Williams and Danny Shelton each offer opportunities to clear significant cap space with their releases.

In a recent interview with The Detroit News, Campbell said the team is going to utilize the front run by the Rams under former coordinator Brandon Staley. That’s all well and good, but the thing the Rams have that the Lions don’t is game-wrecking defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Those generational disruptors don’t grow on trees, but the Lions don’t even have anything that could loosely be considered the poor man’s version. They need to find an interior penetrator in free agency or the draft to pair with their multiple run-stuffers.

7. Running back

If he can stay healthy, D’Andre Swift could be great, but the Lions need a complementary back to share the workload. It would be ideal if Kerryon Johnson could be that piece, but after serious knee injuries in back-to-back seasons, he appeared to have a lost a step in 2020.

Johnson still carries value, not just for his versatility, but for the emergence of his top-tier ability as a blocker. Still, don’t be surprised if the Lions look for a little thunder to pair with Swift’s quickness, a back who can handle a beating between the tackles and be relied upon in short-yardage situations.

8. Cornerback

Today, cornerback isn’t a huge need, but tomorrow could be a different story, pushing it a few spots up this list. That conversation is centered around a pair of cap decisions the Lions must make with Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, who offer potentially $11 million in space combined if they’re shuttled.

Detroit is going to need to add someone who can man the slot, whether it’s to take over Coleman’s job or simply provide depth at the spot. On the outside, Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye offer a young starting tandem with lofty potential, but depth is always important at the position.

9. Offensive line

This is Detroit’s deepest unit. They have a Pro Bowl center, a top-10 left tackle and the ground is rounded out with experienced, young starters in Jonah Jackson, Tyrell Crosby and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

That’s not to suggest the starting unit couldn’t be upgraded, but it’s hardly a top priority. The bigger issue is depth, particularly on the interior. Joe Dahl’s durability has been an issue the past couple of seasons, which could cost him a roster spot given the potential cap savings. Additionally, last year’s fourth-round draft pick Logan Stenberg remains an unknown. With Oday Aboushi heading toward free agency, don’t be surprised to see the team add some versatile depth with experience.

10. Tight end

T.J. Hockenson has quickly morphed into a Pro Bowler, but you need more than one tight end to properly run an offense.

It remains to be seen whether Jesse James sticks around another year. He hasn’t lived up to his contract, but at 27 years old and only offering a little more than $2 million in savings to part ways, there’s arguably value in seeing if he can return to the guy he was in Pittsburgh, especially with an incoming quarterback who likes to utilize the tight end in the passing game.

Hunter Bryant offers some intriguing upside as a third in the room, but it’s possible the new front office will look for a better blocker at that spot, given the anticipated emphasis on running the football.

11. Quarterback

There’s no question the Lions are bringing Jared Goff in to be the starter in 2021 (and probably 2022). And Chase Daniel, like Jesse James, doesn’t offer significant enough cap savings to necessitate a change at the backup spot, unless the franchise is eyeing a quarterback at the top of the draft.

Odds are higher the team sticks with what they have for the upcoming season and reassess the situation next offseason.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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