Predicting Lions offseason: How tough will it be to field a viable 2021 team?

Pride of Detroit

As the start of the official tampering period on March 15 approaches, Detroit Lions fans will finally get a better look at the team we will be watching in the fall. Free agent signings in March will give us an idea of team needs heading into the draft in April, and the types of players signed should provide hints about the offensive and defensive systems the team ends up using in 2021.

The main issue with free agency for the Lions this year, is that they have very little cap flexibility to work with. To understand how wild this offseason is going to be, we tried to see just how tough a job Brad Holmes and the front office is facing. Under these constraints, they really have their work cut out for them.

Setting Parameters: Over The Cap values

In order to simplify how much cap value is released by cutting a contract, the pre-June 1 values for both dead cap and cap savings from Over The Cap will be used. There are in rare instances some slight variation in contract terms from Spotrac, but neither site is “better” or “worse.” Our interest here is simply keeping it to a consistent treatment from one site to make things easier to count. Consequently, we will use the OTC Lions cap values for dead money and other contracts, as well as the expected draft class costs to be internally consistent in the estimates.

According to those pages, the Lions are at $181,788,491 in “top 51” offseason cap-eligible payroll with an additional $20,262,349 in dead money from the Stafford trade, Okwara self-voiding year, and Huntley contract. The Lions’ current rookie pool is estimated by OTC to be $7,349,144 if they do not make any trades changing their draft choices. That puts the OTC total for 2021 before free agency begins at ($181,788,491 + $20,262,349 + $7,349,144) = $209,399,984 assuming the team wants to sign its entire draft class.

Clearing Salary Cap Room: Veteran Cuts

Before proceeding to think about free agent acquisitions or drafted players, we need to open some cap room to sign those players. That means we unfortunately must part ways with some veteran players. The following table is filtered down to only players with contracts that:

  • Count at least $1 million against the 2021 cap – That eliminates things like extremely low veteran salary benefit contracts. It would be nearly impossible to replace those players with comparable or better players at lower cost, so it makes no sense to cut those contracts.
  • Actually save the team money – If cutting a contract would accelerate so much future cap obligations that it would end up increasing the player’s cost against the 2021 cap, again it makes no sense to cut that contract for this exercise. For example, cutting Halapoulivaati Vaitai before June 1 would put the team $4.2 million further into deficit.
  • Are not for players the Lions obviously will not cut – There is almost no way the Lions will cut, for example, Jonah Jackson. Other examples of players whose contracts are relatively cheap for their projected roles would be Tracy Walker, Julian Okwara, and Tyrell Crosby.

With those restrictions in mind, we end up with a list of 11 possible contracts to consider:

Veteran Salary Cap Cuts

Player Position 2021 Cap Hit pre-June 1 Dead Money pre-June 1 Cap Savings Decision
Player Position 2021 Cap Hit pre-June 1 Dead Money pre-June 1 Cap Savings Decision
Jahlani Tavai ILB $1,880,173 $1,516,898 $363,275 Retain
Will Harris SS $1,118,061 $476,122 $641,939 Retain
Austin Bryant DE $1,033,158 $366,316 $666,842 Retain
Jesse James TE $6,429,000 $4,287,000 $2,142,000 Cut
Chase Daniel QB $5,300,000 $3,000,000 $2,300,000 Cut
Christian Jones OLB $4,742,720 $2,185,442 $2,557,278 Cut
Joe Dahl G $3,093,750 $250,000 $2,843,750 Retain
Danny Shelton DT $5,250,000 $1,250,000 $4,000,000 Cut
Justin Coleman CB $11,029,000 $6,087,000 $4,942,000 Cut
Desmond Trufant CB $12,187,500 $6,000,000 $6,187,500 Cut
Nick Williams DT $5,650,000 $1,000,000 $4,650,000 Cut
Total Cap Savings $26,778,778
  • The savings from cutting Bryant, Harris, and Tavai are so little that they are probably worth keeping as depth players on their cheap rookie deals. It might be worth moving on from Bryant if the team believes medical evaluations warrant it, but defensive end is an extremely expensive position to sign veteran free agents as depth.
  • Jesse James, Christian Jones, Desmond Trufant, and Nick Williams are all experienced veterans, but probably will not produce enough to warrant the contracts they have.
  • It would have been nice to keep Coleman on to help provide at least some veteran presence in the unit since there are few other veteran corners or safeties left. The cap savings are just too much, though.
  • Cutting Chase Daniel’s contract is a commitment to starting Jared Goff and not looking back. It also means seriously contemplating keeping David Blough on as the backup and going with two quarterbacks. Otherwise, this is forcing the team to select a quarterback in the draft.
  • Danny Shelton is an unfortunate cut. He is probably the best defensive tackle on the roster, but who knows if the style of the defense is even going to need a true nose? The plan will be to go extremely cheap by drafting multiple defensive tackles in the deep middle part of the draft class. (Spoiler: the plan failed)
  • Joe Dahl does a good job at that price. How can we cut him?

End result is that the Lions shave $26,778,778 off their 2021 cap figure (with seven cuts) to land at ($209,399,984 – $26,778,778) = $182,621,206. This already accounts for signing the rookie class, so we will assume we have perhaps $22 million total to play with in free agency if we allow ourselves to burn $4 million of the 2020 carryover. This is not good, but it is the best we can do.

Re-signing Lions

Some of the players who need to be signed are former Lions, notably all-universe punter Jack Fox. As an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, the Lions will probably re-sign Fox on a $850,000 one-year offer that 2021 ERFA players will usually be offered. Another valuable veteran who could be brought back on a relatively low contract would be Oday Aboushi. Coming off an expired $1.2 million contract, the Lions should be able to bring him back for something similar in 2021.

Of course, bringing back Don Muhlbach, should he so desire to continue long snapping, is a good buy at anything near his recently expired $1.14 million contract. Cornerback depth is very expensive, so bringing back Darryl Roberts and Tony McRae are probably good moves to make. Roberts made about $2 million in 2020, and McRae could be brought back for something similar to his 2020 veteran minimum contract with a small bonus. The comparable deal in 2021 for McRae would be $1.09 million. Mike Ford is eligible for an RFA tender, but it seems more likely the team would try to bring him back on a deal similar to McRae’s veteran minimum deal.

If we assume small raises in the case of both Aboushi and Muhlbach, we’re looking at about $3.5 million to bring back Fox, Muhlbach, and Aboushi. Add in Roberts at $2.2 million, then McRae and Ford at $1.1 million each, and that leaves us with perhaps $14.1 million to spend in free agency and stay on track.

What holes did the cuts create?

Starting with the 2020 opening day 53-man roster, we can determine what position deficits need to be filled. While this is not necessarily how the new leadership will want to balance personnel, it gives us a good baseline for what might be reasonable.

On offense, the Lions are short five wide receivers, a tackle, three running backs, and a depth tight end on offense. Cutting James puts a spot behind Hockenson in question, and it seems awfully risky to assume Hunter Bryant can be number two tight end coming off an injury-shortened season. The offensive line is actually in pretty good shape, and a severe cost saving measure will be to in fact go with Blough as the backup and pray Goff doesn’t get hurt. That leaves the team with the task of restocking pass catchers everywhere and a committee of running backs (as per usual).

On defense, the team lost one of its best pass rushers and already had to replace its most reliable safety. Assuming the team does not bring back Jarrad Davis, there is basically nothing settled after Jamie Collins. Cutting Christian Jones means the team needs multiple linebackers (considering Reggie Ragland and Jalen Reeves-Maybin are also gone), and cutting both veteran defensive tackles opens huge needs in the middle of the line. We can assume the team needs two defensive ends, one defensive tackle (if you believe Kevin Strong can be a rotational piece), three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties.

When it comes to the kicking game, we’ve brought back Jack Fox and Don Muhlbach, but one specialist is notably missing. The team will have to replace Matt Prater with a cheaper option because the money is just not there to pay him what he deserves.

Hitting the Open Market in Free Agency

The most expensive piece that makes sense to sign in free agency is a stabilizing presence in the secondary. This is, as our own Erik Schlitt points out, the year to do it since excellent options are available that would appeal to the current Detroit leadership. In particular, strong safety John Johnson of the Los Angeles Rams seems like the type of player general manager Brad Holmes would be interested in. Let’s suppose he costs $8.3 million as both Spotrac and OTC estimate his value at. This is a huge investment and a statement by the team that Johnson would be expected to lead the back end of the defense. It would allow the team to move Walker back to taking most of his snaps from a high safety position and work Harris back in slowly through packages and spot duty.

That unfortunately leaves just $5.8 million in the free agency arsenal. For a depth running back who can share some of the load, we’ll go to the Rams connection again and grab Malcolm Brown for a deal similar to what he got for the past two years. Suppose something like a two-year deal for $1.4 million per season. That leaves $3 million with which we might sign three players for one-year deals at the veteran minimum of $990,000 each.

One possibility is defensive end Noah Spence, who played the late part of 2019 for the New Orleans Saints but missed the 2020 season with an ACL injury. Both head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn may have some familiarity with Spence, perhaps drawing the young pass rusher to Detroit for a comeback year.

A second lower-cost edge player the Lions might sign is a veteran who would find familiar faces in Jamie Collins and Trey Flowers on the roster: Jabaal Sheard. Plucked from the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad last season by the New York Giants, Sheard’s name doesn’t carry as much headlining heft as it used to, but he’s a quality veteran presence to have nonetheless. Used as a rotational piece by the Giants last season, there is a chance he could be convinced to come to Detroit on a veteran minimum contract.

Finally, a veteran wide receiver to lessen the ridiculous number of players the Lions need to restock on. There are not too many lower priced veterans out there who have a big body, so why not give former Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Laquon Treadwell a look? Last season, Treadwell signed a veteran minimum deal with the Atlanta Falcons, was released and signed to their practice squad, and finally promoted near the end of the season to the active roster for five games in December and January. An alternative identified by our fearless leader was Taywan Taylor of the Browns, who would be a good low cost slot receiver option. Again, not the marquee free agency names that will excite anybody, but the Detroit Lions need to find veteran contributors on a thin budget.

Remaining Draft Needs

For the offense, the Lions would need a few WRs, a TE, right or swing OT, and two RBs. At least one WR must be a potential contributor immediately. It would also be nice if either a WR or RB had experience in the return game. On defense, Detroit would need three LBs, two CBs, a backup safety of some sort (the Killebrew spot, essentially), and a DT.

Using Pro Football Network’s draft simulation tool because 1) it’s free and 2) their big board that feeds the selection logic and draft needs of teams is updated regularly. Let’s start drafting! To demonstrate the level of desperation the Lions are going to be in to fill their roster, here is a graphic to show the four trades I accepted:

PFN Mock Draft Simulator trade results

What’s going on here? There are two parts of the strategy at work: first, accumulating as many picks as possible, these trades were favored over offers that had fewer picks and insisted on bundling future picks. The other thing is pushing future picks into the present. We need those players right now. The Lions will end up only keeping two first-round, a second-round, a fourth-round, and a sixth-round pick in 2022 after all of this.

Side note: Zach Wilson and Trey Lance were both still on the board at the seventh pick.

If you are looking at this and saying “hold on, that’s an absurd number of rookies to select and add to the roster,” you are absolutely correct. This not only makes the roster incredibly young and inexperienced, but pursuing this route of stocking the roster ends up inflating the rookie pool cost for the team to sign everyone substantially. However, there is simply no other way short of signing a ton of UDFAs (just as inexperienced) to fill out the roster. At least this way, the team gets to choose the talent it is loading up on.

Mock Draft Simulation Results

Draft Position Player Position OTC Projected 2021 Cap Hit Notes
Draft Position Player Position OTC Projected 2021 Cap Hit Notes
32 Samuel Cosmi RT $1,533,395 Should compete right away at RT
38 Kadarius Toney WR $1,226,602 Starting slot receiver
41 Terrace Marshall Jr. WR $1,183,359 Starting outside receiver
45 Greg Newsome II CB $1,122,302 Number 3 outside corner after Okudah and Oruwariye
64 Dylan Moses ILB $880,668 What we wanted Jarrad Davis to be
69 Jabril Cox OLB $840,976 Coverage linebacker
72 Patrick Jones DE $833,629 Options on the edge if we can’t get a veteran
88 Tommy Togiai DT $803,951 Big body inside
112 Ar’Darius Washington S $785,050 Depth safety
154 Kylin Hill HB $712,512 Rotational inside carry back who can catch
177 Kary Vincent Jr. CB $702,407 Future slot corner
193 Jose Borregales K $690,218 Long range Groza Award winner
235 Ta’Quon Graham DT $676,468 Potential depth 3-tech
237 Tony Poljan TE $676,032 Curious former Central Michigan QB
Total $12,667,569
Original Draft Requirements $7,349,144
Difference $5,318,425 Either find more cuts or spend some carryover

The overarching strategy here was to trade down and parlay the valuable seventh overall selection into as many quality Day 1 and 2 selections as possible:

  • WR is a completely overhauled unit: Post-draft, the team would be looking to use superweapon Kadarius Toney all over the field with Quintez Cephus, Laquon Treadwell, and Terrace Marshall, Jr. as towering figures outside. Note the team still lacks a fifth receiver unless Geronimo Allison is the answer, so they could stand to try out some late free agents and continue looking for kick returners in the UDFA pool. Toney is exactly the kind of weapon Jared Goff needs, and big bodies everywhere else will let the Lions play matchup games with T.J. Hockenson.
  • LB is another completely overhauled unit: After this draft, the starters would likely be Jamie Collins and Dylan Moses, with Jabril Cox worked in substitution packages for his coverage skills. Jahlani Tavai and Shaun Dion-Hamilton would be the depth players with Noah Spence and Julian Okwara sometimes playing in stand-up outside rush positions.
  • Hunter Bryant is your new No. 2 tight end: Tony Poljan is a great hometown story, but is new to the position and an extremely raw developmental project. This is taking a huge roster risk, given the problems Detroit has seen with keeping tight ends healthy (including Bryant), but we’re running out of options. Alize Mack to the main roster, maybe?
  • CB will rely heavily on Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye in 2021: This is a major reason to bring back guys like Ford, Roberts, and McRae (or comparable). Hopefully the veterans can fill in as the drafted corners can be brought along slowly and possibly contribute in spot duty but not be leaned on until 2022. Newsome would be future outside corner depth, while hopefully coach Glenn can turn Vincent (and Washington) into Honey Badgers.
  • Borregales is the new Prater: While I would be sad to see Matt Prater go, there’s just nothing left to pay him. Jose Borregales won the Groza Award for the best kicker in college football last year, and has the confidence in long range kicking situations you want to see.

Even after this trade down extravaganza, though, the team still needs another running back and another wide receiver! After seeing all of this, it would probably make sense to get both Treadwell and Taylor as cheap free agent wide receivers if possible. Drafting Patrick Jones adds another lineman (or allows us to act like Spence is occupying a linebacker spot), so the defense is relatively set. Even after going to fairly extreme lengths to stock cheaper contracts, we are still dipping into the carryover reserves and spending about three-quarters of it.

Of course, the team could restructure Jared Goff’s contract and free up a bunch of cap room, but we’re not going to go there since it’s a whole article to cover that by itself.

The only expensive move made here was the Johnson signing, so that’s where we pushed the cap spending. It seems like a logical move to sign a young player who will fit the profile of what the new regime wants to build the secondary around. After all, the right players are not going to always be available so this is a good opportunity. If the Lions did not sign Johnson or a comparable safety, a lot of the cap pressure could be relieved but we may be kicking ourselves in a few years for missing out.

Overall, this clearing of the decks and overstocking of rookies sets up the Lions with a ton of young talent in a rebuilding year and ensures flexibility once the Stafford dead money comes off the books in 2022. Across four trades, we have sacrificed future value to assemble something that at least looks (?) like a complete roster. Obviously, the repeated trade down to multiple picks smacks of unrealistic Madden-style draft dealing that does not really happen in reality, which is why it is a mystery how the real front office is going to actually get this done. If the Lions don’t restructure Goff’s contract or do something else equally distasteful, this is what it is going to take. Whatever the team decides to do, it is going to be incredibly difficult and an offseason worth watching closely.

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