Detroit Lions: New regime must figure out how to keep good players

SideLion Report

It never gets easier, does it? Even as the Detroit Lions continue to undertake a significant top-to-bottom restructuring, the sight of yet another star player departing the team in their prime stings, and begs the question: Can the Lions’ new decision-makers stop the endless exodus of star players from Detroit?

With the news breaking that free-agent receiver Kenny Golladay reached an agreement with the New York Giants on a lucrative four-year contract this past Saturday, it continued the trend of talented, homegrown Lions draft picks leaving town at or near their peak. Golladay’s return seemed very doubtful after the Lions decided against using the franchise tag on him at last week’s deadline. Still, why does this keep happening?

In 1999, when legendary running back Barry Sanders abruptly retired after ten marvelous yet frustrating seasons in Detroit, it seemed to cast a dark cloud over the Lions. Though they somehow made the playoffs that fall, the Lions would not get back to the postseason again until 2011, as the franchise slogged through one of its most difficult stretches ever.

That low period afforded the Lions several high draft picks, which in turn produced some of the franchise’s best-ever players. A return to relevance still wasn’t enough to develop any sustained success or roster continuity, however, and none of those players remain on the roster today.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ushered in the most recent pattern of Lions’ departures, leaving an excellent defense in favor of a monster paycheck from the Miami Dolphins in 2015. Just a year later, Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson hung up his cleats, largely due to nagging injuries and the team’s constant distance from being a championship contender.

In 2019, cornerback Darius Slay’s fractured relationship with then-head coach Matt Patricia prompted his trade to the Philadelphia Eagles. Prior to that, Slay had risen to become the team’s best defensive playmaker, and his absence was felt last year as the Lions set franchise marks for most points and yards surrendered in a single season.

Oh yeah, there’s also quarterback Matthew Stafford, who asked for a trade earlier this year after 12 seasons of high-level play, yet a lot of losses and no playoff wins. While most in Detroit will be rooting for him when he suits up for the Los Angeles Rams, they may also view his time with the Lions as a serious waste of his talents.

And now, off goes Golladay to the Big Apple. It’s entirely possible that this development works out favorably for both teams. Golladay should provide the kind of deep receiving threat that the Giants have sorely lacked in recent years and in turn, the Lions could maintain some much-needed salary cap flexibility as they embark on what could be a multi-year reset.

It could also be a one-sided move particularly in the short term; teams rarely get better by losing their best players. The Lions will be eager to see if new quarterback Jared Goff can be a long-term answer at the position, but can he really be expected to succeed with a patched-together receiving corps that will be losing its top three members?

Money often speaks the loudest in the NFL, and the Lions are not alone in having to make difficult roster decisions based on monetary considerations. But winning games bears even more weight, and the Lions’ lack of any sustained success over the past decade has certainly been a factor in causing their star players to leave town.

New general manager Brad Holmes and new head coach Dan Campbell could be tagged with some of the lowest expectations in the league this season. But should they struggle to build any kind of momentum in the coming years, they could also be looking at more potential departures when it’s time for extension talks to begin with players like center Frank Ragnow and tight end T.J. Hockenson.

In addition to building a consistent winner, they must figure out who their most important contributors are moving forward, develop them and determine a way to hang onto them. Avoiding another decade in the doldrums depends on it.

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