Ranking Detroit Lions’ biggest needs entering free agency: Predicting how they fill holes

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press

When the NFL’s free agent negotiating period opens at noon Monday, players will be met by a different market.

There is not as much money to go around as in years past, thanks to a pandemic-induced shrinking salary cap, and the money that is available should be gobbled up quickly by the top free agents.

The Detroit Lions are one of 13 teams projected to have less than $10 million of cap space when the 2021 league year opens. They are not expected to be major players in free agency, but do have several holes to fill, including at wide receiver and linebacker, specifically.

Given their salary cap situation, and the state of the franchise, the Lions may have to be creative in adding players to their roster. They could favor recently released players at some positions in order to play the compensatory pick game, and they could wait till the second wave of free agency (where serviceable talent can often be found at a discount) at some spots.

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As always, many deals will be agreed upon in the period before players can officially sign with new teams Wednesday.

Here, ranked in order of biggest positional need, is my educated guess on what the Lions’ attempt to do the next few days.

1. Wide Receiver

On the roster for 2021: Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus, Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden, Tom Kennedy.

Pending Lions free agents: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Jamal Agnew, Mohamed Sanu.

Top free agents: Golladay; Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers; Will Fuller, Houston Texans.

More: How GM Brad Holmes can reshape entire Detroit Lions WR corps this offseason

What they do: The Lions have a big enough hole at receiver that they should be in on some of the top options: guys like Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis and Curtis Samuel. I don’t think they end up spending big on the position, though. To me, it makes more sense to preserve the comp pick from losing Golladay and pursue John Brown or Emmanuel Sanders, released last week by the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints, respectively. I’ll give them Brown for now, as his speed would be a good addition on the outside and I do expect the Lions to hit the position again early in the draft. Agnew could return, too, though at this point I think he gets more money somewhere else.

2. Linebacker

On the roster for 2021: Jamie Collins, Jahlani Tavai, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman.

Pending free agents: Jarrad Davis, Reggie Ragland, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew.

Top free agents: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans; De’Vondre Campbell, Arizona Cardinals.

More: Lions may have to wait till NFL draft for difference maker

What they do: The Lions are basically imploding two position groups this offseason — receiver and linebacker — and I don’t think they can cut corners at both. Going cheap at receiver makes sense because serviceable options are available via more avenues. The Lions had one of the worst linebacker groups in the NFL last season and need to add players with speed and coverage ability for Aaron Glenn’s defense. Campbell is one option; he and Collins would give the Lions a solid 1-2 punch at linebacker. Kwon Alexander might be, too, once he’s released by the New Orleans Saints. But he’s coming off a torn Achilles, so that would be a big roll of the dice for a defense that needs something more certain. Ultimately, I think Reeves-Maybin re-signs. He’s an excellent special teams player and might finally have a role in a new defense. And I’ll give the Lions Samson Ebukam as an inexpensive outside pass rusher.

3. Defensive back

On the Lions’ roster for 2021: CB-Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Desmond Trufant, Mike Ford. S-Tracy Walker, Will Harris, C.J. Moore, Bobby Price, Jalen Elliott, Godwin Igwebuike.

Pending Lions free agents: CB-Darryl Roberts, Tony McRae. S-Duron Harmon.

Top free agents: CB — William Jackson, Cincinnati Bengals; Shaquill Griffin, Seattle Seahawks; Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers. S — John Johnson, Los Angeles Rams; Anthony Harris, Minnesota Vikings; Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons.

More: This DB should be one of Detroit Lions’ top targets

What they do: Along with receiver and linebacker, the Lions need to make sure they come out of free agency with a starting slot cornerback; that they released Justin Coleman last week tells me they have one lined up, or at least like their chances of landing a competent replacement. There will be cheaper options, but Troy Hill played well for the Los Angeles Rams last season and seems like as good a fit as any. I’m guessing he signs with the Lions on the first day of free agency. I’m giving Johnson to the Lions, though landing him won’t be easy or cheap. Regardless, I expect the Lions to double back at both positions in the draft.

4. Defensive line

On the Lions’ roster for 2021: DE-Trey Flowers, Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara, Joel Heath, Robert McCray. IOL-Danny Shelton, John Penisini, Da’Shawn Hand, Nick Williams, John Atkins, Kevin Strong, Jashon Cornell.

Pending Lions free agents: DE-Romeo Okwara, Everson Griffen.

Top free agents: EDGE — Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jadeveon Clowney, Tennessee Titans; Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals. IDL — Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants; Jurrell Casey, Denver Broncos; Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

More: Where does Romeo Okwara fit after 10-sack season?

What they do: If Lions land Johnson, who I think is their single best fit in free agency, that probably takes them out of the market for defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who could be this regime’s Kyle Vanden Bosch but seems like less of a scheme fit than Johnson. The Lions have made a number of roster cuts in the last week, but they have held onto Nick Williams and Danny Shelton so far. That’s purposeful, and makes me think they wait till the second wave of free agency to land another lineman. If Shelton goes, maybe Abry Jones, a favorite of defensive line coach Todd Wash, comes to town.

5. Specialists

On the Lions’ roster for 2021: P-Jack Fox; K-Matthew Wright.

Pending Lions free agents: K-Matt Prater; LS-Don Muhlbach.

Top free agents: K — Prater; Ryan Succop, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Stephen Gostkowski, Tennessee Titans. P — Thomas Morstead, New Orleans Saints; Kevin Huber, Cincinnati Bengals; Jordan Berry, Pittsburgh Steelers. LS — Muhlbach; Morgan Cox, Baltimore Ravens; Jake McQuaide, Los Angeles Rams.

More: Lions’ next kicker might already be on their roster

What they do: Muhlbach signs his typical one-year minimum salary benefit deal and goes through another training camp battle with a rookie, and Prater returns for an eighth season in Detroit to have his own kicking competition with Wright.

6. Running back

On the Lions’ roster for 2021: D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Jason Cabinda, Nick Bawden.

Pending Lions free agents: Adrian Peterson.

Top free agents: Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals; James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers; Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks.

More: Lions would be wise to pass on big-name RBs

What they do: The Lions have a competent 1-2 punch in the backfield in Swift and Johnson, so it does not make sense to spend much here in free agency. The offense will be run-oriented this fall, and it’s certainly possible they kick the tires on someone like the Los Angeles Rams’ Malcolm Brown or the Green Bay Packers’ Jamaal Williams. But I think they let this market settle, sign Josh Adams if he is non-tendered as a restricted free agent by the New York Jets and add another rookie around the draft.

7. Quarterback

On the Lions roster: Jared Goff*, Chase Daniel, David Blough

Pending Lions free agents: None.

Top free agents: Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints; Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears; Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins.

More: Stafford trade set stage for big QB moves

What they do: The Lions floated a balloon last week that they were receiving trade interest in Daniel, when the reality is they’d be silly not to take whatever offer they received for the veteran backup. Maybe a trade still happens, but teams have better backup options available in free agency like Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor and Andy Dalton. With Goff coming aboard in a trade for Matthew Stafford this week, and given the state of the franchise and the possibility they take a quarterback in the draft, there’s no reason for the Lions to add anyone at this position now.

8. Offensive line

On the Lions roster: OT-Taylor Decker, Tyrell Crosby, Matt Nelson, Dan Skipper. IOL-Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Joe Dahl, Logan Stenberg, Evan Brown.

Pending Lions free agents: Oday Aboushi.

Top free agents: OT — Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers; Mitchell Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs; Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers. IOL — Joe Thuney, New England Patriots; Corey Linsley, Green Bay Packers; David Andrews, New England Patriots; Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons.

More: 3 top OL set to hit market, but Lions won’t be bidding

What they do: The Lions return six of their top seven offensive linemen, but could add a depth signee or two in free agency. Sam Tevi makes sense as he started games at both left and right tackle for Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers. If he’s too pricey, perhaps the Lions lure someone like the Cleveland Browns’ Kendall Lamm to town.

9. Tight end

On the Lions roster: T.J. Hockenson, Josh Hill, Hunter Bryant, Alize Mack, Hunter Thedford.

Pending Lions free agents: None.

Top free agents: Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers; Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans; Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams.

What they do: Nothing. The Lions made their move at tight end Saturday when they signed Hill, the longtime former New Orleans Saints tight end who played for Campbell. With Hockenson and Hill in place, and a couple developmental guys on the roster, this is a position the Lions can sit tight at until the draft.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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