Allen Park — At his end-of-the-season news conference earlier this month, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes spoke excitedly about the offseason to come. The Lions have more money to work with in free agency, plus better draft assets to utilize, as the team looks to build upon the early foundation established by Holmes and coach Dan Campbell.
The NFL offseason happens in waves, building toward the start of the new league year March 16, when unrestricted free agents can sign with new teams. Between now and then, Holmes and his staff will be spending much of their time preparing for the draft, scouting the college all-star circuit, combine and a bevy of pro days.
But we thought it might be fun to slip on the GM hat for the day, establishing the decisions the team faces and what an ideal offseason might look like for the Lions.
In Holmes’ initial months on the job, there was an aggressive culling of veterans who no longer fit the franchise’s direction.
In those first several weeks, the team released cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, tight end Jesse James, quarterback Chase Daniel, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Christian Jones and running back Kerryon Johnson. And while it took a bit longer, linebackers Jahlani Tavai and Jamie Collins eventually joined that list.
In total, the dead money from those contracts added up to more than $30 million. Add in the cap charge attached to quarterback Matthew Stafford, after he was dealt to the Los Angeles Rams, and more than a quarter of Detroit’s salary cap was tied to players not on the 2021 roster.
This year, the Lions have far fewer potential cap casualties. In fact, there’s only one obvious decision awaiting Holmes: releasing Trey Flowers.
Signed to a five-year, $90 million deal as a free agent in 2019, it just didn’t pan out for either side. When healthy, Flowers is exactly who he was in New England, a fundamentally sound, high-motor leader who plays the run well, generates plenty of quarterback pressure, but never quite manages to rack up big sack totals.
Unfortunately, the past two years have been marred by injury, making his salary no longer tenable. The Lions will have to eat a good chunk of his $23.2 million cap hit in 2022 — primarily the remnants of a $28 million signing bonus — but Flowers’ release will offer a little more than $10 million in cap space his offseason (and $23.6 million off the books in 2023).
Other releases that could create more than $2 million in additional space belong to guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, running back Jamaal Williams and defensive back Will Harris.
Vaitai actually restructured his deal in December to create some breathing room with the 2021 cap. Reading between the lines, it points to him being part of next season’s plan. As for Williams and Harris, it’s not enough savings to justify moving on, regardless of your feelings about either player.
► What we’d do: Part ways with Flowers, retain the others.
Tags and tenders
Before free agency opens in mid-March, the Lions have to make decisions with many of their own pending free agents.
The first tools they have at their disposal are the franchise and transition tags, which must be declared by March 8. The franchise tag is a one-year, fully guaranteed contract at the average of the top-5 cap hits the past five years for the tagged player’s position, or 120% the player’s previous year’s cap figure, whichever is greater.
There are exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tags. The latter allows the player to sign a long-term deal with another team, but at the additional cost of two first-round picks for the signing club if the agreement is not matched.
The lesser-used transition tag is an average of the top-10 cap hits the past five years. It’s also non-excusive, meaning the player can still negotiate a long-term deal with another team. The player’s original team would have the option to match any agreement, but there is no compensation if they don’t.
It is wildly unlikely the Lions utilize a franchise or transition tag this offseason. The only player even worthy of discussion is safety Tracy Walker, but with an estimated franchise cost of $13 million for a safety in 2022, the move wouldn’t make sense. That cost far exceeds what he’s likely to command on the open market.
Up next for the Lions are exclusive-rights and restricted free agents.
Exclusive-rights free agents have fewer than three seasons of service time and the team holds all the control with these players. If tendered, they receive a one-year, non-guaranteed, veteran minimum contract and are prohibited from negotiating with other teams.
Given the team’s young roster, the Lions have a wealth of exclusive-rights free agents, including punter Jack Fox, offensive tackle Matt Nelson, linebacker Anthony Pittman, running back Godwin Igwebuike and safety Jalen Elliott. Expect them to tender most of that group.
The team also has a handful of restricted free agents, players with exactly three years of service time. That group includes backup center Evan Brown, fullback Jason Cabinda, quarterback David Blough and safety C.J. Moore.
With restricted free agents, teams can tender them at four levels: First round, second round, original round or right of first refusal. Without a tender, a restricted free agent becomes unrestricted at the start of the new league year. If tendered, they can still negotiate with other teams, but the original team holds the right to match an offer sheet.
The level of the tender dictates the compensation the original team would receive if the player signs elsewhere and the offer isn’t matched. In 2022, tenders for restricted free agents are estimated to range between $5.5 million for a first-round tender to $2.4 million for right of first refusal.
► What we’d do: Skip the franchise/transition tag, tender all 15 of the team’s exclusive-rights free agents and use the right-of-first refusal restricted tender on Brown.
With Brown, the backup offensive lineman who excelled in place of Frank Ragnow this past season, it’s worth exploring a potential multi-year pact with some guarantees. We’re thinking something like two years, $4 million with half guaranteed could get it done.
There’s also value in bringing back Moore and Cabinda, two top special teams performers, but neither player merits one of the tenders.
Prioritizing in-house free agents
The Lions have more than a dozen players set to be unrestricted free agents, several who merit being brought back at the right price. That group is led by Walker, outside linebacker Charles Harris, wide receiver Josh Reynolds, linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alex Anzalone, with backup quarterback Tim Boyle, return man Kalif Raymond and safety Dean Marlowe in the next tier.
Given the team’s lack of immediate cap flexibility after watching their rainy-day fund devoured while needing to promote a slew players off the practice squad to address late-season shortages caused by COVID, the Lions aren’t in position to get deals done ahead of the new league year, when the cap resets.
That means each of those players should be able to test their value on the open market with an eye on maximizing their earning potential.
► What we’d do: Buckle up, this conversation is about to get math-heavy.
Let’s start with the most important element, cap space. Normally we maintain an in-house spreadsheet, but the aforementioned COVID situation made it too difficult to track this season. Just know, the team is starting with between $30-35 million in space, which will jump to $40-45 million with the likely release of Flowers. Of course, it will drop back down closer to $30 million once all those exclusive-rights free-agent tenders are added back into the equation.
On top of that, the Lions need to leave room to sign their draft class, which will include a nearly $8 million cap hit for the No. 2 pick and about $10-11 million for the entire class.
Assuming the team maintains a buffer of $5 million or so, that brings the spending cap down to around $15-20 million. Of course, there’s always an opportunity to create more through contract restructures. Taylor Decker and Jared Goff are prime candidates, if that becomes a conversation.
As for the players we’d prioritize re-signing, we’d aim to bring back Walker, Harris, Reynolds, either Reeves-Maybin or Anzalone and Raymond.
Here’s how we’d structure the offers:
► Walker, four years, $24 million, $10 million guaranteed.
In 2021, Walker proved once again he’s a quality starter, but also that he’s a clear tier, maybe two, behind the game’s elite at the position.
Where he truly lags behind the upper echelon is his playmaking ability. He’s recorded just three interceptions in four seasons, while breaking up an average of six throws his three years as a starter. He’s also forced only one fumble during his career.
For that skill set an average annual value of $6 million might seem steep, but part of what a team is paying for is upside, and the soon-to-be 27-year-old still offers plenty as he grows in Detroit’s defensive scheme.
That average salary is on par with what Vonn Bell received from Cincinnati ahead of the 2020 season. The two players fill different roles within a defensive scheme, with Bell primarily playing strong safety and Walker at free safety, but they had produced at a similar level at the time they respectively hit the market.
At the suggested contract parameters, the Lions could give Walker a $6 million signing bonus and keep his 2022 cap hit to a touch more than $2.5 million. The remaining guarantees could be attached to his 2023 base salary, with hypothetical cap hits of $6 million, $7.5 million and $8 million from 2023-25.
► Harris, three years, $24 million, $10 million guaranteed
After four disappointing seasons to start his career, Harris put it together as a pass-rusher in 2021, racking up a team-high 7.5 sacks and more than 50 quarterback pressures. And although there were some pandemic-related influences with the market a year ago, we can use Haason Reddick as a baseline when determining Harris’ value.
Another former first-round pick, Reddick put his skill set together in 2020, nearly doubling his sack output from the previous three seasons combined. But with the cap notably depressed last offseason, he settled for a one-year, fully guaranteed $6 million with an eye on cashing in a year later. And after recording double-digit sacks a second consecutive season, it looks like betting on himself will pay off.
Despite not having the same sack production, a long-term deal and the cap’s year-to-year recovery could merit a higher average value for Harris.
Once again going with a $6 million signing bonus, Harris could carry a cap hit of just $3 million in 2022, increasing to $9.5 million in 2023 and $11.5 million in 2024. With $3 million of the base salary guaranteed in 2023 as part of our proposed offer, plus a lingering $4 million dead cap hit from the signing bonus, it should provide the player and his agent the comfort of knowing he’ll see the second year of his deal unless his performance regresses to pre-Detroit levels.
► Reynolds, three years, $8 million, $3.5 guaranteed
A solid midseason addition, Reynolds’ seven-game production projected across a full season comes out to a respectable 743 yards and five touchdowns. Of course, that’s primed to decline in 2022, assuming the Lions bolster the position group via the draft.
Still, even as a No. 3 receiver, his skill set and chemistry with Goff provide ample reason for retention. After settling for a one-year, $1.75 million deal from the Titans last year, the Lions can justify giving him a modest pay bump based on his production and fit, combined with the the cap’s overall increase.
The way we structured the deal was a $1.5 million signing bonus, a fully guaranteed minimum base salary in 2022 and another $1 million base-salary guarantee in 2023. That creates cap hits of $1.5 million in the first year and $3 million and $3.5 million the final two seasons.
► Jalen Reeves-Maybin, two years, $8 million, $3.5 million guaranteed
The Lions used the veteran salary benefit to retain Reeves-Maybin a year ago, a one-year deal that paid him $2.4 million. He responded by maintaining his reputation as a top special teams performer, while capitalizing on an opportunity to expand his contributions on defense.
He might never be a star, but he proved he can be a capable starter in the scheme. His size still proves problematic at times, but he’s instinctual enough to often overcome those deficiencies.
The proposed contract is relatively low-risk for the Lions. A $2.5 million signing bonus gives Reeves-Maybin a cap hit of $2.3 million in 2022, where he can reaffirm his abilities as a starter. And if he’s able to rubber stamp the fit, he’ll earn a raise to a $3.5 million base salary ($4.75 million cap hit) in 2023.
On the flip side, if the Lions develop a better starting option for that season, they can move on with only a $1.25 million dead money hit.
► Raymond, one year, $1.5 million, $750,000 guaranteed
The last one to leave the practice field most days, Raymond led by example, helping elevate the day-to-day approach of others, including rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. On the field, Raymond delivered his best production of his career, including a pair of 100-yard games.
Ideally, the Lions wouldn’t need him back as anything more than a fifth option in the corps, while continuing as the team’s punt returner. It’s a reasonable price to pay for a positive cultural piece.
Shopping for new additions
Keeping those five players, at the proposed contracts, would be about $11 million in space. But it’s important to note only the top 51 contracts count toward the cap during the offseason. That would push five minimum salaries, worth about $4 million, off the bottom of the calculation.
With the aforementioned need to retain exclusive-rights free agents and setting money aside for draft picks and a buffer, we’re still left with approximately $10 million to spend in free agency, at least without any restructures.
► What we’d do: That might not seem like much to work with, but it’s still plenty to add an impact player, and I’m of the opinion the Lions should swing for the fences and target New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams.
It’s not going to be cheap. One contract tracking website, Spotrac, projected Williams will command $13.5 million per season on the open market. Let’s bump that up a little to five years, $70 million and see where it leaves us.
Here’s how the Lions can structure the deal to make it work. Start with a $20 million signing bonus, which, for cap purposes, would be spread evenly across the duration of the deal, or $4 million per season. Base salaries by year could be $1.035 million veteran minimal in 2022, followed by $8 million, $11 million, $14 million and $16 million the next four years, resulting in cap hits of $5 million, $12 million, $15 million, $18 million and $20 million.
As with most long-term NFL contracts, there’s only a small chance Williams sees the final year of the deal, but it gives you three or four seasons of a 25-year-old playmaker in his prime to plug next to Walker, hypothetically fortifying the heart of the defense through at least 2025.
With the remaining cap space, the Lions can add some modest veteran depth, perhaps a blocking tight end or outside cornerback, especially if there’s lingering long-term concern about Jeff Okudah’s recovery from his torn Achilles.
Alternative splash signing to Williams could be Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates or Green Bay linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who emerged as an All-Pro in 2021. Regardless, the target area should be the middle of the defense, where the Lions have been soft in recent years.
Fortifying the foundation
Following our addition of Williams — reuniting him with coordinator Aaron Glenn and adding some much-needed playmaking to the defense — the Lions should look to continue to build up that side of the ball via the draft.
► What we’d do: It all starts with the No. 2 pick, where the team will have the chance to add a premier edge rusher, whether it’s Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux.
While local bias figures to favor Hutchinson, fans shouldn’t be quick to dismiss Thibodeaux’s potential to be an impact player. Either addition would make for a solid rotation paired with Harris, the Okwara brothers and Austin Bryant.
With one of the team’s next two picks, a late first-rounder picked up from the Rams or the No. 34 choice in the second round, the Lions would be wise to address wide receiver.
This class has a number of intriguing options at the top. If you’re looking for size, USC’s Drake London and Arkansas’ Treylon Burks fit the bill. Alabama’s Jameson Williams offers blazing speed and might even drop into that top portion of the second round after tearing his ACL in the championship game. And if it’s route-running precision you’re after, Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are as good as any in this class.
Add in Penn State’s Jahan Dotson and Purdue’s David Bell to that mix and it’s nearly impossible to not find a starting-caliber option early in the draft.
And with the second of those two picks, the Lions should address either safety or linebacker, whichever one they didn’t handle in free agency. Since we prioritized signing Marcus Williams, Georgia’s Nakobe Dean, Utah’s Devin Lloyd or Penn State’s Brandon Smith would do the trick.
Obviously, there’s no controlling how the draft board will fall, and the Lions have enough talent deficiencies across the roster that there’s wisdom to sticking with a best-player-available strategy. This is strictly an ideal version of how things could play out.
As for the remaining selections, stick to the plan, building up depth. Cornerback, defensive tackle, offensive line all could make sense.
As for quarterback, we can’t dismiss the possibility, starting with that second first-round choice. While building a better overall roster prior to addressing the position would be our preferred course of action, we can’t rule out the Lions falling in love with a passer, particularly after getting an up-close look at several of the top prospects while coaching the Senior Bowl next month.
It’s tough to imagine Pitt’s Kenny Pickett sliding too far, but it’s realistic to think any of the other QB prospects have the potential to reach the Lions at the bottom of the first round.
One more big contract
The remaining item lingering into late spring/early summer is the long-term future of T.J. Hockenson. As a former first-round draft pick, the Lions hold a fifth-year option on his contract and you can safety expect that to be exercised by the early May deadline.
Initial projections for that fifth-year salary is a fully guaranteed $9.3 million, a higher figure than initially anticipated because Hockenson was named to a Pro Bowl in 2020.
But much like the Lions did with Ragnow a year earlier, the team should strongly consider a long-term extension to both lock up the player and lessen the early cap hits from the contract.
► What we’d do: The conversation about Hockenson’s value will be an interesting one. He doesn’t turn 25 years old until July, so his best football should be ahead of him. And he’s already one of the league’s better pass-catching options at his position. He was on pace for 87 receptions, 826 yards and six touchdowns prior a thumb injury prematurely ended his year.
As for Hockenson’s blocking, it hasn’t come close to developing as expected. He’s not even in the same conversation as the game’s premier dual-purpose tight ends such as Mark Andrews, Dallas Goedert or friend and mentor George Kittle.
That’s why Hockenson should not receive a top-of-the-market deal matching the $14-15 million average value of those aforementioned names. Instead, the Lions should be looking at something closer to the pacts signed by Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith last offseason, both averaging $12.5 million per season.
That comes out to a four-year, $54 million extension when factoring in the fifth-year option, which would keep Hockenson in Detroit through the 2027 season.
How does that look for cap purposes?
Well, we can use Ragnow’s extension as a road map, which had a smaller signing bonus ($6 million), an option bonus in the second season ($18 million) and lofty guarantees ($42 million).
If Hockenson is given a similarly small signing bonus to agree to an extension this offseason, it would only raise his 2021 cap hit by a little more than $1 million. And without getting too deep into the figures, an option bonus in 2022 can be similarly spread across the remaining years of the contract. That should allow the Lions to keep the tight end’s 2023 cap hit closer to $7 million, before the hits elevate and average approximately $14 million the final three years of the deal.
No one can reasonably expect the Lions to go from the NFL’s basement to Super Bowl contention in a year, but there’s no reason to think the team can’t come closer eight or nine wins in Holmes and Campbell’s second season.
The roster we’ve constructed above, with reasonably good health, should be able to push into that territory, all while continuing to develop its young core.
To recap, here’s what our hypothetical roster looks like:
Offense: We suggested minimal changes to an offense that finished 25th in scoring last year, but with good reason. First and foremost, the team doesn’t need to do a thing with its offensive line, outside of reinforcing the backup situation. Similarly, the team is OK at running back with the capable duo of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams leading the charge.
At quarterback, Goff might not be an elite option, but his closing stretch in 2021 shows he’s more than capable of holding down the fort. The most important thing is to continue to surround him with competent weapons and the re-signing of Reynolds and adding a receiver with one of the team’s top-three draft picks does that.
Pair those weapons with the returning Hockenson and the emergent St. Brown and you have the makings of an offense that can be at least league average (23.0 points per game vs. 19.1 in 2021).
Defense: Detroit made notable defensive improvements in the second half of the season, trimming scoring allowed by nearly six points per game after the bye week. To take the next step, Glenn needs an injection of talent.
Some of that will come from getting injured players back, namely Romeo Okwara and Okudah. The remainder will arrive through the avenues of acquisition.
With our asset-spending suggestions, the Lions would address several deficiencies. The early-round edge defender bolsters an anemic pass rush that tied for 29th in pressure rate.
And in the second level, an early-round linebacker, re-signing Walker and landing Williams strengthens the middle of the defense, while the return of Okudah and Jerry Jacobs, paired with Amani Oruwariye, gives the team a strong starting secondary. Harris, AJ Parker, Ifeatu Melifonwu and any further offseason additions would round out the depth in the back end.