Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press
For three seasons, it seemed every move the Detroit Lions made had ties to former coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn’s old team, the New England Patriots.
Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon, Danny Amendola. The list went on and on.
Well, Patricia and Quinn are gone, and the Patriot Way now looks like a one-way street out of town, on the verge of being replaced by a new thoroughfare with direct routes to the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and a few other teams.
New Lions GM Brad Holmes already has made one whopper of a trade with his old team, the Rams, sending Matthew Stafford to L.A. for Jared Goff and three draft picks. In March, Holmes and new head coach Dan Campbell, a former Saints assistant, will begin patching together a roster in free agency, and their old teams offer plenty of potential upgrades for the everywhere-needy Lions.
It is a fact of life in the NFL that coaches and GMs tap into the people and places they know best as they try to instill a new culture and new schemes.
Campbell brought with him another former Saints assistant, Aaron Glenn as defensive coordinator, and Glenn picked an ex-Rams assistant, Aubrey Pleasant, to coach his secondary.
With the start of free agency 20 days away, here are 11 players with deep ties to the new Lions regime who will be on the market — and who could make sense as Holmes and Campbell start to build their program.
S Marcus Williams, Saints and S John Johnson, Rams
The Lions are not expected to be big spenders in free agency, but one position it might make sense to splurge on is safety, where Williams and Johnson are two of the top players on the market. Both have strong ties to the new Lions regime.
Williams has 13 interceptions in four seasons as a starter and is widely considered one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. He spent the past four years learning under Glenn and would be an immediate upgrade in a secondary where three starting spots seem spoken for (Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah and Tracy Walker).
Johnson, who played for Pleasant and whose selection was heavily influenced by Holmes, should cost a tick less than Williams and would provide the same pick-me-up to the secondary. He missed 10 games in 2019 with injury, but was a second-team All-Pro selection by Pro Football Focus last season.
CB Troy Hill, Rams
Like Johnson, Hill was a key piece of the Rams’ NFL-best secondary last season, starting every game and playing primarily as the team’s slot cornerback. At 29, he’s older than Williams or Johnson, and for that reason would be more of a stopgap addition. But if the Lions move on from current nickel cornerback Justin Coleman, Hill would make sense as a replacement. He played four seasons for Pleasant and showed some playmaking ability last year with two interception returns for touchdowns.
One other free agent cornerback worth mentioning is Darious Williams, who Holmes was instrumental in bringing to Los Angeles. Williams is a restricted free agent, which means it might take draft pick compensation to sign him, and that likely would put him out of the Lions’ reach.
CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, Eagles
Robey-Coleman had a down year in 2020 with the Eagles, but he, too, has Rams ties — remember his non-pass interference call against the Saints in the 2019 playoffs? — and would be a viable short-term solution at the slot cornerback position if the Lions part ways with Coleman. As an added bonus, Robey-Coleman played about 20% of the special teams snaps for the Eagles last season, under new Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp. Whether or not the Lions pursue him, there is familiarity on staff.
Edge Yannick Ngakoue, Baltimore Ravens
The Lions have been a poor pass rushing team for some time, and their need for an edge rusher will be amplified if they don’t re-sign Romeo Okwara. Ngakoue’s play dipped last season, but he still finished with eight sacks and has been in three different organizations in the past 12 months. The Jacksonville Jaguars, where new Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash was his defensive coordinator, franchised Ngakoue last spring, then traded him to the Minnesota Vikings, who shipped him to the Ravens midseason. Along with Wash, Ngakoue played for senior Lions defensive assistant Dom Capers in Jacksonville.
If Ngakoue is not the Lions’ flavor, either because of the way things went down in Jacksonville or how they envision their defense, there are two other edge rushers with significant ties to the new coaching staff. Trey Hendrickson played almost exclusively right defensive end in New Orleans, where Glenn and Campbell saw his growth up close. If Trey Flowers is back at right end, Melvin Ingram, who played for Lynn with the Chargers, might be a better fit.
DT Sheldon Rankins, Saints
Chris Spielman said in an interview Tuesday on WXYT-FM (97.1) the Lions needed more depth at defensive tackle. Rankins has the potential to be much more than that, though he is coming off a couple injury riddled seasons. Like some others on this list, he has a long history with Glenn and Campbell, so whether it’s a multi-year reunion or a one-year deal that sets him up for a bigger payday down the road, he and the Lions could make sense for each other.
LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, Miami Dolphins
The Lions need help at linebacker with Jarrad Davis, Reggie Ragland and Jalen Reeves-Maybin all scheduled to hit free agency, and while Grugier-Hill would help in a passing down capacity, he makes this list primarily for his special teams play. Before going to Miami, Grugier-Hill was a special teams captain for Fipp with the Eagles. The Lions could pursue other special teams stalwarts, like Saints restricted free agent safety J.T. Gray or Eagles linebacker Duke Riley. But Grugier-Hill makes sense if he doesn’t return in Miami.
LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, Washington
Pierre-Louis had 56 tackles in 11 starts last season in the most extensive playing time of his career. He’s not as dependable in pass coverage as Grugier-Hill, but he does have history with new Lions linebackers coach Mark DeLeone, who he played for both with the Chicago Bears in 2019 and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017. Pierre-Louis has been a core special teams player in most of his stops, and like Grugier-Hill, would be a depth play at a position of need.
RB Corey Clement, Eagles
Running backs coach Duce Staley would know better than anyone if Clement has something left in the tank after four middling seasons in Philadelphia. Clement played a key role in the Eagles’ Super Bowl win as a rookie, but has 89 carries the past three seasons. Still, the Lions need a No. 3 (or maybe No. 2) running back and Clement could fit the bill. He didn’t log many touches last season, but he was a core special teams player in Philadelphia, so Fipp is familiar.
WR Josh Reynolds, Rams
Reynolds picked a good time for a career year, catching 52 passes for 618 yards as a prelude to his free agency. Still, in a shrinking salary cap environment, and with a good crop of receivers at the top of the draft and in free agency, he probably will not cash in big. That could be good news for the cash-strapped Lions, who might want a familiar face to pair with Goff, especially if Kenny Golladay’s future is in flux. Reynolds, 26, was Goff’s third-favorite target last season behind Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.
WR Tyrell Williams, Las Vegas Raiders
This list was going to be 10 players long, then the Raiders released Williams on Thursday. He had two productive seasons playing for Lynn in L.A. before signing with the Raiders as a free agent in 2019. He missed last season with a torn shoulder labrum, but would be a solid deep threat to pair with Golladay or whoever else the Lions bring to town. At 29 years old and given his injury history, Williams should come at a reasonable cost, and he’s a more reliable player than another free agent with new staff ties, Breshad Perriman, who had his best season in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and new Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El.