A week into free agency and we can comfortably confirm the Detroit Lions’ rebuild is in full swing. While it’s entirely understandable everyone in the organization is rejecting that characterization, there’s little disputing the maneuvers being made by the franchise in recent days reveal what’s truly happening.
There’s nothing wrong with the approach. The Lions were going nowhere, beholden to constantly trying to retool around quarterback Matthew Stafford as the sand slipped through the hourglass of his window to succeed here. And when that mercifully came to an end, through his request to be traded, the only possible solution was to liquidate and try to build it back up, not entirely from scratch, but at least around the limited foundational pieces left over by the previous regime.
With that in mind, let’s review and analyze the moves beyond the Stafford trade that the Lions have made to begin the Holmes/Campbell era.
► Necessitated by ramifications from that trade, as well as the significantly shrunken cap stemming from pandemic-related revenue loss, the Lions had to take a machete to their roster. While the bevy of veteran cuts have hurt the team’s depth, what did the Lions truly lose in the process?
Desmond Trufant’s durability couldn’t be trusted. Justin Coleman, for all the plays he made his first year with the Lions, struggled with missed tackles and inconsistent coverage at the nickel spot. Jesse James was an unmitigated disaster. Christian Jones barely made any plays in three seasons. And John Penisini provides the Lions a cheaper nose tackle option than Danny Shelton.
General manager Brad Holmes was given the green light to rip the band-aid off, and while the Lions might suffer through some aforementioned struggles with quality depth in the interim, the silver lining is it should give the roster’s younger options increased opportunities to see the field and develop.
Additionally, even if no one wants to state it this way, it likely will improve the team’s near-future draft position, which will correspond with the dead money cap hits from those cuts coming off the books.
► Despite all that, it can’t be said the Lions aren’t spending any money. The team made two key investments in their defensive front, re-signing Romeo Okwara and trading for Michael Brockers.
The acquisition of Brockers fills a roster hole for a penetrating interior lineman, but he will also serve as a leader for the instillation of coach Dan Campbell’s cultural vision, not too dissimilar to what Stephen Tulloch and Kyle Vanden Bosch provided the Lions under Jim Schwartz, as the franchise tried to move past the scars of 0-16 in 2008.
Brockers is on the back end of his prime, and it’s impossible to evaluate the sustainability of his recent success outside the gravitational pull of All-Pro Aaron Donald. Still, at the very least, Brockers will bring passion to everything he does on the field and accountability off of it. That kindling is necessary in the early stages of a rebuild.
As for Okwara, Holmes identified a young, ascending talent with a relatively reasonable price tag. It’s not a long-term deal, so the Lions get two years to see if Okwara’s production continues to tick upward. If it does, there’s room to keep him in the fold as a part of the foundation. And if not, the rebuild won’t suffer a setback.
► Alternatively, the Lions were wise to let Kenny Golladay go.
Now, you might remember I advocated for the Lions to re-sign the Pro Bowl wide receiver at market rate after his big performance in an early season win against Atlanta. At the time, that wasn’t the wrong decision, but circumstances have changed.
We’re not even talking about the injury issues, which sidelined him the final nine games of the season. No, unlike Okwara, Golladay’s contract demands didn’t coincide with the rebuild timeline. He’ll be closing in on 30 when things will realistically be trending in the right direction for the Lions.
The idea of re-signing Golladay was always about maximizing Stafford’s window, keeping the quarterback’s top weapon in place. Once Detroit agreed to trade Stafford, letting Golladay walk was the logical conclusion.
► From what I’ve read and heard, Lions fans have become quite obsessed with the idea of compensatory draft picks. Awarded annually, the 32 selections, starting at the end of the third round, are based on unrestricted free agents lost vs. those signed, as well as how those players perform in their first seasons with their new teams.
As it currently stands, the Lions are in line to score a few. Golladay, if he can stay relatively healthy and produce at a similar level to years past, will almost certainly bring the Lions back a third rounder, while Marvin Jones, Jamal Agnew, Matt Prater or Jarrad Davis all have potential to net future compensation for the Lions.
To date, the only player the Lions have signed who figures to offset any of the team’s losses is running back Jamaal Williams, with his two-year, $6 million deal. It’s also worth noting, the maximum number of compensatory picks a team can receive is four.
Over The Cap is currently projecting the Lions will received a third for Golladay, fifth for Jones and sixth for Agnew
► Williams, Brockers and Okwara are the only players to receive multi-year contracts from the Lions this offseason. Again, that’s by design. Holmes is trending toward having massive cap flexibility in 2023.
That should be an exciting offseason for the Lions. Barring any additional trades, the team will be drafting their fourth and fifth first-round picks in three years, while potentially having among the most cap space to fill roster holes as the franchise hypothetically re-enters playoff contention with a young core of high-ceiling talent.
► In the meantime, the receiving corps will be one of the most interesting positions to watch this season. The Lions are shifting away from two talented receivers who relied on body control to compensate for their inability to consistently get separation.
The replacements, Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman, have speed to burn. Both are superior at getting separation and have reputations for taking the top off defenses.
That ability to do damage deep doesn’t necessarily line up with Goff’s scouting report, which adds some intrigue to what Anthony Lynn is cooking up for Detroit’s scheme.
Both Williams and Perriman are on one-year deals, carrying over last year’s long-term instability at the position. Given the draft is deep at receiver, it’s feeling increasingly likely the team adds one the first two days.
► The Lions could still use a piece or two on offense, but there are more significant concerns on defense, particularly in the back seven. The conversation starts at linebacker, where there’s uncertainty beyond Jamie Collins.
Does the new staff believe they can fix Jahlani Tavai? Are there plans to expand Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s role after the special teams standout was re-signed in the early stages of free agency?
On Wednesday, the team added Alex Anzalone, who has some positional versatility, but also significant durabilty concerns. It’s a start, but it feels like there’s more work to do.
In the secondary, there are similar issues. Beyond the starting tandem of Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye, the Lions almost have no depth at cornerback, nor do they appear to have a replacement for Coleman at slot corner.
And at safety, it feels like Tracy Walker is primed for a rebound with the new coaching staff, but who is he going to be partnered with in the back end? Will Harris? He hasn’t come close to putting it together his first two seasons.
The Lions will inevitably plug some of the holes in the draft, but here are some free agents lingering on the market who should fit the team’s spending habits and help serve as bridges to the future.
► Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman
A Nickell for nickel? The Lions need a slot corner and Robey Coleman might come at a discount after a down year in Philadelphia. Prior to joining the Eagles, he was a steady option for the Rams from 2017-19, allowing a passer rating against under 85.0 all three years.
► Safety Damontae Kazee
Two years ago, Kazee tied for the league lead with seven interceptions. That dipped three in 2019, before he suffered a torn Achilles four weeks into the 2020 campaign.
Even with the injury, he’s generating interest on the open market. That competition might take him out of Detroit’s price range. If not, he’d made for a nice veteran pairing with Walker as the Lions intend to use more two-deep safety looks.
► Wide receiver Dede Westbrook
Speaking of player’s coming off injury, Westbrook missed most of last season with a torn ACL. The two previous years, he was a highly productive slot receiver, racing up 132 receptions and eight scores.
There’s no need to rush. The Lions could wait to see how the draft plays out and test the waters with Westbrook if they don’t come away with a solution, assuming the veteran is still on the market.
► Linebacker B.J. Goodson
A sub-package player his first four seasons in the league, Goodson played nearly 1,000 snaps for the Browns last season. Unquestionably better at stopping the run than in coverage, he’s a sure-tackler who has never missed more than five in a season. That alone should be a draw for the Lions, who have struggled to wrap players up in the second level in recent years.
► Safety Tre Boston
After being perennially undervalued, Boston struggled last year. Given his market has been slow to develop his past couple trips through free agency, it’s likely there’s a bargain to be had if the Lions are interested.
There’s at least some level of familiarity on the staff as Lynn coached Boston with the Chargers in 2017. A true free safety with 17 career interceptions, he’d be another strong veteran option to pair with Walker.
► Cornerback Casey Hayward
Hayward has been a really good corner for a really long time. Even last season, which was considered a down year for the two-time Pro Bowler, he allowed just 48% of throws his direction to be completed. The downside — the 36 catches he did surrender went for 610 yards and five scores.
The Lions aren’t in a position to pay top dollar, but if no one else is in a rush to hand big money to a Hayward ahead of his 31st birthday, he’d be an ideal veteran mentor for Detroit’s young cornerbacks.
► Linebacker Kwon Alexander
The leftovers on the linebacker market aren’t particularly appealing, but if Alexander looks as if he’ll be medically cleared at the start of the regular season, and is in need of a one-year, prove-it deal, Detroit might be a good place to try and re-establish his value.
Campbell’s former team, the Saints, swung a big trade for Alexander last November, only to see him tear his Achilles the following month. At his peak, he’s a versatile second-level option who has had success both as a blitzer and in coverage.