With college football’s regular season completed and the NFL entering the stretch run before the playoffs, it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate and rank the Detroit Lions’ roster needs.
Here’s how we see things stacking up as we close in on the 2022 offseason.
1. Wide receiver
Under contract in 2022: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson
►Thoughts: The future outlook for both St. Brown and Cephus is a bit brighter than it was a few months ago, but the Lions remain desperate for a talent injection at the receiver position. Finding a way to re-sign Josh Reynolds would be a low-cost start. The veteran clearly has some chemistry with quarterback Jared Goff, stretching the field vertically more effectively than anyone else has on the roster this season.
But whether the team retains Reynolds or not, there’s still a clear need for a No. 1- caliber option. Free agency looks to offer some prime choices, including Davante Adams, Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson, or second-tier pass-catchers such as Michael Gallup, D.J. Chark and Mike Williams.
If the Lions aren’t interested in spending big cap space on the position, the draft also figures to offer solutions in the early rounds. With Detroit’s second first-round pick, picked up from the Rams as part of the Matthew Stafford trade, they could look to add someone like USC Drake’s London or Arkansas’ Treylon Burks.
Not signing or drafting a top receiver this offseason borders on unthinkable.
2. Edge defender
Under contract in 2022: Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, Trey Flowers, Austin Bryant
►Thoughts: Optimistically, Romeo Okwara will return from the Achilles injury he suffered with minimal drop off in his performance. But even that’s the case, the Lions need far more pass-rushing juice off the edge. Through 13 games, the team ranks 31st in sacks and 27th in pressure rate.
Detroit should certainly consider re-signing Charles Harris, who initially joined the team on a one-year, prove-it deal. He has proven it and is currently pacing the team with 6.0 sacks and 42 total pressures. Assuming the price tag remains reasonable, he can remain a valuable rotational piece.
Both Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant are still works in progress, although the ceiling for the younger Okwara looks to be higher. As for Flowers, all signs point to this being the end of his time in Detroit. He has a massive, unjustifiable cap number in 2022. His release will create more than $10 million in cap space next season.
Since free agency rarely offers bargains at the position, the obvious solution for the Lions is using their top draft pick on either Kayvon Thibodeaux or Adrian Hutchinson. Both have outstanding college resumes and portable skill sets that would immediately bolster the anemic pass rush.
Under contract in 2022: Will Harris, Brady Breeze
►Thoughts: One of the top decisions the Lions must make this offseason is whether or not to retain Tracy Walker. As hoped, he’s rebounded after returning to free safety, and signing him to a long-term deal would bring some stability to the back end of Detroit’s defense.
An alternative option, and one that would likely cost significantly more money, would be pursuing Marcus Williams in free agency. Lions coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have spoken highly of the player after spending years with him in New Orleans. It’s easy to see the coaches making a case to GM Brad Holmes that the 25-year-old safety could be one of Detroit’s building blocks.
But even if the Lions re-sign Walker or pursue Williams, it’s only half of the equation for the team’s split safety scheme. And as much as the coaching staff has tried to push the narrative that Harris has been vastly improved in 2021, the eye test doesn’t agree. He’s continued to struggle, particularly in coverage, and despite playing a more versatile role this season, shopping for a long-term upgrade would be wise.
The early rounds of the draft should offer some possibilities. Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker, Alabama’s Jordan Battle, Arkansas’ Jalen Catalon or Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph all carry intrigue on the draft’s second day.
4. Inside linebacker
Under contract in 2022: Derrick Barnes
►Thoughts: In terms of playing time, Detroit moved on from the top five linebackers in the team’s 2020 rotation, but the rebuilding of the position group is still in its early stages.
Veteran Alex Anzalone was brought in to stabilize the shift in defensive scheme, but only on a one-year deal. The coaching staff loves him, and he’s been a workhorse prior to his recent ankle injury, but his on-field performance has often been underwhelming, particularly his tackling. No one has missed more than his 21 this season.
No one should be surprised if the Lions re-up, because of familiarity and cost, but it’s one of the clearer areas where the defense could stand an upgrade, especially since Derrick Barnes has yet to show he’s ready to be thrust into a three-down role.
Beyond Anzalone and Barnes, the Lions have had better linebacking depth this year, but Josh Woods, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Anthony Pittman are all on expiring deals. Detroit does retain the first rights of refusal with the latter, as an exclusive rights free agent. Bringing back either Woods or Reeves-Maybin also has merit, particularly given their special teams acumen.
But with four picks in the top 70 of the upcoming draft, Detroit should strongly consider using one on a top, off-the-ball linebacker. Utah’s Devin Lloyd, Alabama’s Christian Harris, Georgia’s Nakobe Dean and Penn State’s Brandon Smith are among the early-round options.
Under contract in 2022: Jared Goff
►Thoughts: Is Goff the long-term solution at quarterback? Probably not, but he’s essentially a lock to be back of the roster in 2022 due to the way his contract was restructured shortly after being traded to Detroit.
And while it would be nice to get the franchise’s future solution in the fold this upcoming offseason, there’s no guarantee that happens. As has been discussed many times, there isn’t a compelling option at the top of this draft class.
That doesn’t mean the Lions couldn’t flirt with taking a QB in the back half of the first round or the top of the second, but unless they’re truly in love with someone like North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Liberty’s Malik Willis or Nevada’s Carson Strong, there’s no reason to make that investment. It’s better to continue building up the rest of the roster and take their swing in 2023.
Regardless, the Lions will need a backup. Maybe that’s as simple as re-signing Tim Boyle. But if the team wants someone to push Goff, it would cost quite a bit more to lure in someone such Teddy Bridgewater. That, too, is a debatable use of resources.
Under contract in 2022: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jacobs, Ifeatu Melifonwu, AJ Parker
►Thoughts: Leaning on respected defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, the Lions went young and focused on development at cornerback this season. That’s netted some positive results, particularly with the performances of Parker and Jacobs.
On paper, it’s a good group to have moving forward, but some injuries add a layer of uncertainty. Will Okudah (Achilles) or Jacobs (ACL) be able to bounce back and pick up where they left off prior to going down? We just don’t know, particularly with Okudah, who faces the more challenging recovery.
This might be a better spot to seek a veteran reinforcement. The Lions tried last offseason, but the Quinton Dunbar signing didn’t work out due more to off-field factors than physical ability.
Still, that’s the right level of talent to seek on the market, an experienced player who can backstop Okudah if the recovery doesn’t go smoothly. Reconnecting Darious Williams with Pleasant is probably too rich for Detroit’s blood, but maybe someone like Casey Hayward or Steven Nelson.
7. Defensive interior
Under contract in 2022: Michael Brockers, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, John Penisini, Jashon Cornell
►Thoughts: The Lions put a lot into reinventing the interior of the team’s defensive line last offseason, but the results have been slow to come.
Brockers has been the locker room leader the team envisioned after picking him up in a trade with the Rams. But the on-field results have been disappointing. He’s gone from averaging 33 quarterback pressures the past two seasons to affecting the pocket just five times through 13 games.
As for the rookies, Onwuzurike’s career is off to a slow start, in part because injuries kept him sidelined much of his first offseason. McNeill has been the better of the two, but he still needs to continue to refine his technique and add strength to achieve more consistent levels of dominance.
The lack of an interior pass rush remains troubling, but rather than spending more resources on the room this offseason, the Lions are more likely going to bank on the development of their younger options, particularly Onwuzurike.
8. Offensive line
Under contract in 2022: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell, Logan Stenberg
►Thoughts: Even with injuries to Decker and Ragnow, Detroit’s offensive line has delivered on lofty expectations this season. And the good news is all five starters remain under contract for next season.
The only question mark is Vaitai, who has an $8.4 million cap hit in 2022, but given his release only offers the team $4.2 million in savings, it’s reasonable to expect him to stick.
As for the depth, Detroit looks like they’ll need to restock the cupboards a little bit. It would be great to get Evan Brown back. He’s played exceptionally well in place of Ragnow, but the young veteran has likely earned himself some money in free agency with the performance. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a team target him for a starting role.
As for offensive tackle, Matt Nelson is an exclusive rights free agent, making it likely he’ll be back, while the later rounds of the draft could offer an opportunity to bring on a developmental option for position coach Hank Fraley.
9. Tight end
Under contract in 2022: T.J. Hockenson, Hunter Bryant
►Thoughts: Hockenson is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract, but as a former first-round pick, the Lions hold a fifth-year option on his contract. They’ll likely pick that up this offseason while they weigh a longer-term deal, similar to the one they got done with Ragnow this year.
As for the second and potentially third tight end spots, those are up for grabs. All signs point to the team being high on Brock Wright’s potential, and he’ll be in the mix as an exclusive rights free agent. Shane Zylstra, another undrafted rookie, is also likely to continue to get an extended look next offseason.
If there’s a place to upgrade, it’s with the group’s blocking. Hockenson hasn’t delivered in that department as many thought he would coming out of college, and while Wright is willing, he’s been highly inconsistent.
A block-first veteran probably wouldn’t cost much. The Lions tried to add that element with Josh Hill and Darren Fells this past year, but neither worked out. It would be worth trying again this offseason.
10. Running back
Under contract in 2022: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson
►Thoughts: There’s no need for the Lions to spend any offseason resources on its backfield with Swift, Williams and Jefferson all under contract and Godwin Igwebuike an exclusive rights free agent.
That collective has averaged 4.6 yards per carry this season, the best for the Lions since Barry Sanders’ retirement.