| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions offseason: How will they handle franchise tag, free agency?
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez preview the big decisions the Detroit Lions need to make this offseason.
Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
Before the Los Angeles Rams turned their offense over to a young quarterback named Jared Goff at the start of the 2017 season, they set out to overhaul a receiving corps among the NFL’s worst one year earlier.
The Rams bid farewell to leading receiver Kenny Britt in free agency and banished out-of-favor former first-round pick Tavon Austin to an unfamiliar supporting role.
To replace Britt and Austin, they spent two mid-round picks on receivers (and another Day 2 pick on a tight end), signed a young but modestly-priced veteran in free agency and took a chance with a summer trade for an underachieving star that gave Goff a host of exciting, new weapons.
Buoyed by one of the best running backs in the NFL and with a creative offensive mind calling plays, Goff and the Rams had one of the deadliest passing attacks in the league the next two seasons — and their makeover at the receiver position is something the Detroit Lions, with Goff now at quarterback and ex-Rams executive Brad Holmes running the front office, are looking to replicate this spring.
“I know that you probably look at the roster now and say, ‘Well, who are you going to add? It looks thin at that position,’ ” Holmes said last week. “But I will say through my experience, even back with the Rams, I want to say it was probably 2017, that our receiver room flipped pretty quickly within a year, that the Rams were able to add some quality pieces pretty quickly. To be able to follow a similar kind of blueprint or path or having the experience of seeing how that works and being involved in that process is something that I feel confident — Dan (Campbell) and I feel confident — about us being able to take a similar process.”
Holmes and Campbell, the Lions new head coach, already have added one piece to their receiver room, agreeing to a one-year contract with ex-Las Vegas Raiders receiver Tyrell Williams.
Williams’ signing will not become official until he passes his physical this week, and even then, he is considered a stopgap solution at a position where the Lions need something more.
Five of the Lions’ top six receivers — Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Jamal Agnew and Mohamed Sanu — are set to become unrestricted free agents March 17, and their lone returnee, Quintez Cephus, caught 20 passes in sporadic playing time as a rookie.
League observers expect the Lions to use the franchise tag on Golladay, but it remains unclear whether his long-term future is in Detroit. Golladay wants and is deserving of a top-of-the-market contract, but talks on an extension went poorly last season and the franchise might have other ideas.
Ultimately, what the Lions have planned for Golladay will steer where they go at receiver, but if they are serious about following the Rams’ 2017 blueprint, they have plenty of options.
The Rams’ plan
Four players on that 2016 Rams team — Britt, Austin, tight end Lance Kendricks and No. 3 receiver Brian Quick — set career-highs in receptions. None of them ever reached that level of production again.
To the Rams’ credit, they looked past the numbers and made sweeping changes to the unit as soon as the offseason began.
First up was signing free agent Robert Woods, a talented 24-year-old receiver — he turned 25 a month after he signed — whose production had been somewhat muted by the offense he was playing in with the Buffalo Bills.
Woods was one of the Rams’ top targets in free agency and played well enough in his first four seasons in L.A. — he has three straight 86-plus-catch seasons — that he earned a contract extension last fall.
A month later, the Rams attacked the position with even more vigor in the draft. They did not have a first-round pick from the previous year’s trade up to draft Goff, but took pass catchers with three of their first four picks: Tight end Gerald Everett in Round 2, slot receiver Cooper Kupp in Round 3 and receiver Josh Reynolds in Round 4.
Everett and Reynolds are free agents this offseason; Kupp has led the Rams in receiving the past two years.
The Rams made one more major move at receiver that summer, trading a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines to the Bills for Sammy Watkins and a sixth-round choice. Watkins, 24 at the time, was considered one of the top talents in the 2014 draft, but was slowed by injuries early in his career.
He spent one season in L.A., signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent in 2018, but the Rams’ aggressive pursuit of solutions at the position could hint at what lies ahead in Detroit.
So where will the Lions go the next couple months at receiver? Everett and Reynolds would make sense in free agency because of their ties to Goff, but the most common denominator in the Rams’ blueprint was adding young, complementary talent to the position.
Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and Carolina’s Curtis Samuel are similar to Woods in that they are 25-year-old former second-round picks whose production has been somewhat limited by the offenses they’ve played in. Smith-Schuster is the more polished receiver, and his low drop rate mirrors Woods’ — Samuel is a different type weapon; he had 41 carries last season along with a career-high 77 catches — but cost could be an issue with both players, as the Lions have little room to work under the salary cap.
If the Lions are looking for cheaper options in free agency, John Ross is a former high-first-round pick, like Watkins, whose career has been slow to take off, and Breshad Perriman is another ex-first-rounder whose only real taste of NFL success came while playing for new Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In the draft, the Lions should be in a prime position to add a premium talent with the No. 7 pick. LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and the Alabama duo of DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle have been popular mock draft choices to the Lions, and taking any of the three would fit with adviser Chris Spielman’s belief that successful teams “build from the outside in,” in today’s NFL.
The Rams had six total first-round picks in four different drafts during Holmes’ tenure as college scouting director. They used their first pick in each of those drafts on an offensive player, and took skill players Goff, Gurley and Austin with three of those selections.
If Holmes prefers to add receivers in the middle rounds, like the Rams did in 2017, he could target a player like USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown or Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge to fill Kupp’s slot role — St. Brown has similar size to Kupp — or pursue a bigger target like Michigan’s Nico Collins to play outside.
The Rams tapped into all avenues of roster building to finish off their 2017 receiving corps, and while Golladay could be the Lions’ version of Watkins if he plays on a one-year deal, there are potential short- and long-term receiving options rumored to be available on the trade market.
Michael Gallup has been prominently mentioned as a trade candidate, with the Dallas Cowboys’ own website even speculating about his availability in a deal. DaeSean Hamilton of the Denver Broncos is another receiver currently available via trade, and if the Buccaneers keep free agents Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, perhaps they could be convinced to trade one of their other pass catchers.
However they do it, the Lions seem poised to revamp their receiving corps this offseason — and that job may take months to finish.