| 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.
This is the second and final part of our preview for the Detroit Lions, focusing on the defensive side of the ball.
► Lions under contract: Trey Flowers, Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara, Robert McCray
► Lions free agents: Romeo Okwara, Everson Griffen
► Top of the market: Melvin Ingram, Yannick Ngakoue, Bud Dupree, Shaquil Barrett, Trey Hendrickson, Jadeveon Clowney
► Players to watch: Okwara, Samson Ebukam, Mario Edwards, Adam Gotsis
► Thoughts: The job of an edge defender is multi-faceted, but we often assign the greatest value to their ability to get after the quarterback. During Matt Patricia’s three years as coach, the Lions were horrific in this department, ranking near the bottom of the league in pressure rate each season, including finishing last in 2020.
Outside of Flowers, who missed a significant chunk of time last year with a broken forearm, the franchise doesn’t have much under contract, at least in terms of established production. Instead, the team will be banking on Bryant and/or Julian Okwara to develop into steady contributors.
If there’s one pending free agent the Lions should be making a strong push to retain, it’s the elder Okwara, Romeo. Elder is something of a misnomer, since he doesn’t celebrate his 26th birthday until June, but the rangy defensive end who is coming off a double-digit sack campaign might still be a bargain because the market is depressed by the decreased salary cap and a healthy amount of talent available.
Similarly, if the Lions want to make a single splash on an outside name, Hendrickson, also 26, is a name to watch. In his fourth season with the Saints, his production exploded during his first year as a starter, resulting in 13.5 sacks.
A cheaper rotational option with connections to this staff is Ebukam. He has seen his playing time decrease the past two seasons with the Rams and could be enticed by a fresh start in Detroit, with general manager Brad Holmes, who scouted him ahead of the 2017 draft.
► Lions under contract: Danny Shelton, Nick Williams, John Penisini, Da’Shawn Hand, Jashon Cornell, Kevin Strong, John Atkins
► Lions free agents: None
► Top of the market: Leonard Williams (franchised), Dalvin Tomlinson, Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Rankins, Shelby Harris
► Players to watch: Rankins, Harris, Adam Butler
► Thoughts: At the moment, the Lions look set at the position, but there’s reason to believe an overhaul of the interior is on the horizon given Williams and Shelton both offer $4 million or more in cap relief if they were to be released.
A big part of the problem with Detroit’s pass rush has been the team’s inability to push the pocket from the inside. The only one on the roster with the capability to do so consistently is Hand, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy.
Prior to tearing his Achilles in 2018, Rankins was one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league. His role, and production, have been down the past two years, but it might be worth rolling the dice. In Detroit, he could be offered the opportunity to reestablish himself on a short-term deal.
Harris would be a safer option, even after ending last season on injured reserve (knee). He’s a couple years older than Rankins, but has been one of the league’s underrated interior rushers the past few seasons in Denver.
Finally, a lot of Lions fans are hopeful for a reunion with Suh. It would be a nice story, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where coming back makes sense for him when he can continue to be a well-compensated hired gun for Super Bowl contenders.
► Lions under contract: Jamie Collins, Jahlani Tavai, Anthony Pittman, Shaun-Dion Hamilton
► Lions free agents: Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Reggie Ragland,
► Top of the market: Haason Reddick, Matt Milano, Jayon Brown, K.J. Wright, Denzel Perryman
► Players to watch: Davis, Denzel Perryman, Alex Anzalone
► Thoughts: Already light on bodies, the Lions thinned out the corps even more this week when they released veteran Christian Jones. Outside of receiver, there isn’t a position group more in need of a makeover this offseason.
You could easily argue not a single under-contract option will be here next season. Collins, who recently restructured his contract, is scheduled to have an inflated cap hit of $13.3 million in 2022 and Tavai, a second-round pick in 2019, has offered little reason to believe he’s a long-term solution after a dismal sophomore season.
Bringing back Davis can’t be ruled out. Coach Dan Campbell seems enamored with the former first-rounder’s potential, which he has implied was stunted in Patricia’s defensive scheme.
If that doesn’t work out, Campbell could make a pitch to pursue Davis’ former college teammate, Anzalone, whom the coach knows well from his time in New Orleans. He’s more of any outside option who could replace Jones. One downside with Anzalone is durability, but he appeared in all 16 games last season.
If the Lions loosen the purse strings a bit, Perryman would be a compelling addition. At 5-foot-11, he’s a bit undersized, but a true thumper in the run game with adequate ability in coverage. If nothing else, Detroit could offer a far bigger role than the 318 snaps he saw with the Chargers last year.
► Lions under contract: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Justin Coleman, Mike Ford
► Lions free agents: Darryl Roberts, Tony McRae
► Top of the market: William Jackson III, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Shaquill Griffin, Desmond King, Jason Verrett
► Players to watch: Troy Hill, Chidobe Awuzie, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Michael Davis
► Thoughts: The cornerback room is trending young with the pending release of Desmond Trufant. And with Justin Coleman also a potential cap casualty, there’s room for the group to skew even younger.
Early signs point to the team being comfortable with Okudah and Oruwariye as the starting tandem next season, but there’s a clear need for depth, as well as the potential for a new nickel option.
Detroit got an early start on their depth issues by re-signing Mike Ford to a one-year contract. And there are a number of veteran options with ties to the Lions coaching staff and front office. That includes a pair of former Rams slot corners, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Lamarcus Joyner, who was recently released by the Raiders.
A second-round pick by the Rams in 2014, Joyner was considered one of the best slot corners in the league when he signed a lucrative, free-agent contract with the Raiders, where he struggled to maintain that reputation.
Robey-Coleman was also a solid cover corner during his three years in LA, but slumped last year with the Eagles. Of the two looking to reestablish their value, he’d probably come cheaper.
Unlike those two, Davis is a big-bodied outside option who developed into a key part of the Chargers secondary during his four seasons with the franchise. When targeted in coverage the past two seasons, he broke up 23 passes while holding opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating under 80.0. That type of production would provide strong competition for playing time.
► Lions under contract: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, C.J. Moore, Jalen Elliott, Godwin Igwebuike
► Lions free agents: Duron Harmon, Miles Killebrew
► Top of the market: Justin Simmons (franchised), Marcus Williams (franchised), John Johnson III, Marcus Maye (franchised), Anthony Harris, Malik Hooker
► Players to watch: Tre Boston, Rayshawn Jenkins, Tashaun Gipson, Jaquiski Tartt
► Thoughts: The Lions are also pretty young at safety, with Walker, entering his fourth season, the senior member of the group. He’s also the only reliable contributor under contract, although he has a lot to prove after a disappointing 2020 season.
Throughout his career, Walker has always been paired with a veteran, from Glover Quin, to Tavon Wilson to Harmon. The team could decide to ride it out with Harris this season, but the former third-round pick hasn’t come close to putting it together through his first two seasons.
If the Lions would prefer to find another veteran to replace Harmon, a strong case could be made for the perennially undervalued Boston, who previously played for Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, when he was head coach of the Chargers.
Boston, like Walker, is at his best playing free safety, but Campbell has already said the team is going to be incorporating more split-safety or two-high looks this season.
Meanwhile, Johnson is another former connection for Holmes. A linchpin in the Rams’ secondary in recent years, his price tag has likely gone up with a trio of top safeties drawing franchise tags. Like Hendrickson, Johnson is the type of young free agent you can make an exception for early in the rebuild, to bring on-field and cultural stability.
In addition to any outside pursuits, expect the Lions to make a push to retain Killebrew, who has been one of the league’s top special teams players the past couple seasons.