To win 2021 NFL free agency, Detroit Lions should recreate their 2010 blueprint

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Eleven years ago, before the free agent negotiating period was a thing, the Detroit Lions dispatched coaches across the country to try and close deals with two of their top targets.

Jim Schwartz called Kyle Vanden Bosch from the driveway of Vanden Bosch’s Nashville, Tennessee home when free agency opened at midnight, while Scott Linehan was in Seattle for a late-night dinner with Nate Burleson.

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Schwartz and Linehan had previous relationships with Vanden Bosch and Burleson, respectively, and while their visits were largely symbolic — then, like now, players and their agents have a good idea which teams are interested and at what price when free agency begins — the reasons for their interest were not.

Neither Vanden Bosch nor Burleson was considered the top player on the market in a spring where Julius Peppers left the Carolina Panthers for the Chicago Bears and Karlos Dansby signed with the Miami Dolphins, but they were the right fits for Detroit. The Lions were in the early stages of a massive rebuild at the time, and Vanden Bosch and Burleson were good players on the field who could be trusted to instill the culture Schwartz wanted in the locker room.

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Dan Campbell and his coordinators won’t be crisscrossing the country when free agency opens in two weeks, but the first-year Lions coach will be looking for his own versions of Vanden Bosch and Burleson, familiar faces whose impact cannot be measured by the tackles they make or the balls they catch alone.

“I think anybody that we bring in right now is going to need to be able to set a tone for us here,” Campbell said Tuesday in his virtual combine video conference. “I just think that philosophy-wise those are the types of guys that we want to add.”

The Lions are not expected to be big spenders when the free agency negotiating window opens March 15.

They currently sit above this year’s projected salary cap and plan to clear room with cuts and/or contract restructures this week.

But that does not mean they will be sitting out free agency altogether.

“We’re not going to be in this mad rush or panic to get into the game with everybody else,” Campbell said. “We’ll find a way to make this work.”

The Lions have a massive need at wide receiver, where they are expected to lose two starters in free agency and might need the franchise tag to retain the third, and could use upgrades at every level of their league-worst defense.

Asked Tuesday what his top priorities are in the roster-building process NFL teams are about to embark on the next eight weeks, Campbell mentioned the Lions’ obvious need at receiver and said he wants more depth at cornerback and on the offensive line, and more competition at linebacker and on the interior defensive line. 

“There’s all kinds of holes that we have here, but no different than any other team,” he said. “I mean, it’s funny because Brad (Holmes, general manager) and I were talking about this the other day. As good as where they’ve been at the Rams and where we were in New Orleans, you’re always talking about your holes. You’ve got your own warts and it’s like, man, as good as you are you still have these blind spots that you’re trying to find a way to, ‘How do we cover this and how do we help ourselves here?’ ”

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The Lions, by any measure, needs lots of help on the field. They went 5-11 last season and finished in last place in the NFC North for the third straight year. There is a huge gulf between them and the division champion Green Bay Packers, and Campbell has acknowledged the team’s real window to contend is somewhere down the road.

That honesty is refreshing, and underscores the point the Lions won’t be trying to outspend others to land the one big free agent who could put them over the top.

It is more important, for now, they add players who will contend for starting roles or push the young talent in front of them, and who not only fit in a locker room that has been a strength in recent years but can elevate it in seasons to come.

“If you look at just what is here now when we walked in the door, it really is, it’s a good group of guys,” Campbell said. “It’s not like we have some bad guys, anything like that. It’s a good group of guys. So, as far as, ‘Well, you know we’ve got to get some bad guys out of here and you’ve got to bring some good (ones in),’ it’s nothing like that. It’s really not, I mean, everything has been real positive in that regard. That’s a plus. Most of the time you come in a place and it’s not that way.”

Campbell acknowledged familiarity will play a role in many of the free agents the Lions sign this month, much like it did in 2010 with Vanden Bosch (who played for Schwartz in Tennessee) and Burleson (who played for Linehan in Minnesota).

Campbell spent the past five seasons as assistant head coach of the New Orleans Saints, whose top free agents include Marcus Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Trey Hendrickson and Jared Cook. Holmes was the college scouting director with the Los Angeles Rams, whose free agents include John Johnson, Josh Reynolds, Samson Ebukam and Troy Hill.

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If one or more of those players can do for the Lions what Vanden Bosch and Burleson did more than a decade ago, the Lions will come out winners in this free agent period, no matter how much or how little they spend.

“Brad and I talk about this all the time,” Campbell said. “It’s not even so much what you think they can do, it’s you know what their downside is. That’s different than anything else. In free agency, you don’t always know what all the warts are. You do when you’ve been with these guys.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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