Justin Rogers | The Detroit News
NFL free agency opens next week, with the negotiation window beginning on Monday and players officially permitted to sign with new clubs at 4 p.m on March 17, coinciding with the start of a new league year.
The next two days, we’ll preview free agency for the Lions, focusing first on the offensive side of the ball.
► Lions under contract: Jared Goff, Chase Daniel, David Blough
► Lions free agents: None
► Top of the market: Cam Newton, Mitchell Trubisky, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton
► Players to watch: None
► Thoughts: With three quarterbacks in the fold, and a boatload of cap space committed to the position when you factor in the dead money from Matthew Stafford’s contract, the Lions aren’t really in the market for additional veteran help.
Goff, once the trade with the Rams is finalized in a few days, will immediately be slotted in as the starter for the 2021 season. From there, he’ll then have the year to prove he deserves to stick in the role beyond that.
According to an ESPN report, the Lions would like to move Daniel in a trade, but finding a taker for his $4.5 million salary and roster bonus likely will prove difficult. Because a portion of that salary is guaranteed, there’s less cap savings to be had if the team simply cuts him, but it would still clear $2.3 million off the books.
Detroit also returns Blough, who only saw a handful of snaps last season after making five starts as a rookie in 2019. He was a developmental project for the previous regime, so it’s entirely possible the team’s new brass has a different candidate in mind at that spot, whether it’s a selection in the upcoming draft or a young free agent that GM Brad Holmes scouted while running the Rams college scouting department.
► Lions under contract: D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Nick Bawden, Jason Cabinda
► Lions free agents: Adrian Peterson
► Top of the market: Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Kenyan Drake, Todd Gurley, James Conner
► Players to watch: Gurley, Malcolm Brown, Jamaal Williams, Marlon Mack, Devontae Booker
► Thoughts: A year ago, the Lions leaned on Peterson as a veteran bridge while Swift battled through some early injuries and got acclimated to the pro game without the benefit of a traditional offseason. By midseason, the rookie had emphatically staked his claim to the job and the future Hall of Famer was largely phased out.
Swift is a star in the making, but at 5-foot-8, 210 pounds, he’s not built like a traditional workhorse. In an ideal world, he’s Detroit’s version of Alvin Kamara, but it’s worth noting the New Orleans superstar only plays about 60% of his team’s offensive snaps. The Lions need to similarly find a complement.
It’s possible they give it another go with Johnson, but the former second-round pick looked as if he’d lost a step last year, embracing a transition into a third-down back with an emphasis on blocking. Meanwhile, the market has some interesting names, including a pair of former Rams.
Los Angeles cut ties with Gurley when the production no longer matched his huge contract. And he didn’t exactly rebound in Atlanta last season, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Brown is more intriguing. Remember, the Lions made a run at signing him two years ago, but the Rams matched the offer. Working in a change-of-pace role, he posted career-high production in 2020, racking up 581 yards from scrimmage along with five touchdowns.
Other experienced, complementary backs set to hit the market include Williams, Mack and Booker. Mack, who is coming off an Achilles tear, likely would be looking for a short-term deal to prove he can be the same player he was prior to the injury, when he tallied better than 1,000 yards from scrimmage the previous two seasons.
Booker, meanwhile, experienced a small breakout with the Raiders in 2020, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 93 attempts, his most since his 2016 rookie season.
► Lions under contract: Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus, Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden, Tom Kennedy
► Lions free agents: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Mohamed Sanu
► Top of the market: Golladay, Allen Robinson (franchised), Chris Godwin (franchised), JuJu Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis, Will Fuller
► Players to watch: Josh Reynolds, Rashard Higgins, Keelan Cole, David Moore
► Thoughts: The Lions essentially bid farewell to Golladay earlier this week when they opted not to place the franchise tag on the star receiver. It’s difficult to envision a scenario where he returns on a long-term deal.
Given Detroit’s cap situation, making a play at a top-tier option outside of Golladay also seems unlikely, but there are some No. 2 and No. 3 options on the market who merit consideration. Even with the recent addition of Tyrell Williams, the corps lacks productive talent.
Looking once again to the Rams, because of Holmes’ connection, Reynolds could be in play. With the versatility to play inside and outside, injuries to the team’s other receivers opened the door for him to see a career-high 802 snaps in 2020. With the extra playing time, he hauled in 52 passes for 618 yards and two scores.
Moore, playing fewer than 500 snaps, managed 35 grabs for 417 yards and six scores. Two additional factors that add to his appeal are his reliable hands and the ability to get consistent separation, which would play well with Goff, who isn’t keen on forcing throws into tight windows.
► Lions under contract: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Hunter Bryant, Hunter Thedford
► Lions free agents: None
► Top of the market: Hunter Henry, Rob Gronkowski, Jonnu Smith, Gerald Everett
► Players to watch: Everett, Virgil Green
► Thoughts: Hey, look, a Rams player. But as we noted with Moore above, the athletic Everett gets consistent separation, which allows him to do steady damage after the catch.
It is fair to note, the only way the Lions likely pursue Everett is if they bite the bullet and part ways with James, who still carries $4.3 million in dead money on his contract.
Green, who will turn 33 ahead of next season, is the opposite of Everett. He’s not going to contribute much in the passing game (12 catches in 21 games the past two seasons), but he’s an exceptional run blocker, which will carry appeal with what the Lions hope to do offensively. The downside with Green, beyond his age, is he’s coming off a bad ankle injury.
► Lions under contract: Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Tyrell Crosby, Joe Dahl, Logan Stenberg, Dan Skipper, Evan Brown, Matt Nelson
► Lions free agent: Oday Aboushi
► Top of the market: Trent Williams, Taylor Moton (franchised), Alejandro Villanueva, Brandon Scherff (franchised), Joe Thuney, Corey Linsley
► Players to watch: Austin Blythe, Ryan Groy, Ted Karras
► Thoughts: If there’s a group Holmes inherited that’s in pretty good shape, it’s the offensive line. The Lions are set at center and left tackle, the two most important positions, and have a pair of workable options at right tackle in Crosby and Vaitai.
The team will be counting on Jackson to start at one of the guard spots, but the other job could be open. Blythe and Karras, who each have extensive starting experience at multiple spots, are reasonable mid-tier options if the Lions target a veteran starter.
The more likely scenario is depth. Aboushi is a free agent, while Dahl has battled back injuries the past two years making him unreliable going forward. Additionally, Stenberg is an unknown after failing to earn any playing time as a rookie. Groy, who was with offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn in Los Angeles, offers a low-priced, versatile veteran to add to the mix.
► Lions under contract: Matthew Wright, Jack Fox
► Lions free agents: Matt Prater, Don Muhlbach, Jamal Agnew
► Top of the market: Prater, Agnew, Cairo Santos, Ryan Succop, Cordarrelle Patterson, Andre Roberts
► Players to watch: Veteran minimum options
► Thoughts: Fox will back after the Lions formally tagged the exclusive rights free agent. As for the other specialists, it’s up in the air. At this point, we can probably assume Muhlbach will be back for an 18th season, especially after the team let promising, potential replacement Steven Wirtel get away earlier this offseason.
Kicker is the bigger concern. The team added Wright on a futures deal, but you’re talking about a guy who has attempted just four field goals in the NFL. Then again, lack of experience was a concern with Fox last year and that turned out OK.
There’s always a chance the team brings back Prater, hoping last year’s struggles were an anomaly and not the sign of a larger decline. But given the Lions are embarking on a rebuild, committing significant resources to a kicker could be viewed as a poor use of funds.
Speaking of resources, the Lions should strongly consider retaining Agnew. Sure, he might never develop into more than a gimmick player on offense, but he’s young and remains one of the game’s more explosive return men, capable of handling both kickoffs and punts.