What franchise tag designations mean for Detroit Lions’ pursuit of top free agent WRs

Detroit Free Press

One by one they’ve come flying off the shelf, like video game consoles at Christmas or anything in a grocery store these days.

Calvin Ridley, suspended. Mike Williams, signed. Davante Adams, tagged. Chris Godwin, too. Three tight ends even fell victim to the franchise tag, essentially keeping them off the market when free agency opens next week.

For the Detroit Lions and other teams in need of pass-catchers, the 24-hour news cycle that began with Ridley’s gambling-related suspension Monday and ended with the 4 p.m. passing of Tuesday’s franchise tag deadline wreaked havoc on the wide receiver market.

Oh, there still are receivers to be had, but Adams, Godwin, Williams and Ridley (via trade) were the best of the bunch, leaving mostly scraps for teams to fight over in free agency.

The Lions have made no secret of their desire to improve a passing game that ranked 24th in yards per pass play last season, and indications coming out of the NFL combine last week were that they were poised to be players in the free agent market at receiver.

The Lions need a big X receiver to pair with Amon-Ra St. Brown, or at minimum more speed and versatility to add to their pass-catching corps.

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Adams never was considered a legitimate option; the Packers needed to keep him in Green Bay to lure Aaron Rodgers back to town. But Williams was arguably the best big receiver available and Godwin has ties to Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El, a former assistant with Godwin’s current team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“You always want to have a guy, so to speak,” Randel El said earlier this offseason when asked what the Lions hoped to add to their receiving corps. “Like that guy, we’re throwing to him and we don’t care who’s covering what. We know he can go up and get it. And my guys know we haven’t had that guy yet, so it’s nothing new from them. It’s not a slap to them or a jab to them in any way, but that’s what we need to be able to complement (the receivers we have).”

In all, eight players were tagged before Tuesday’s deadline, five of them pass-catchers: Adams, Godwin (for the second straight year) and tight ends Mike Gesicki, David Njoku and Dalton Schultz. Kansas City Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown, Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Cam Robinson and Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates were the only non-offensive skill players tagged this year.

Top safeties Marcus Williams and Tyrann Mathieu will be free to negotiate with other teams starting March 14, and Williams, in particular, could fit the Lions given their positional needs in the secondary and his ties to the coaching staff.

But few difference-makers are left on offense.

Allen Robinson, an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s grad who spent the past four seasons with the Chicago Bears, is the best receiver ticketed for free agency and there is believed to be mutual interest in bringing him home to Detroit.

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Robinson missed five games last season with a hamstring injury that hampered his production, and approaching 29 years old is on the backside of his career. But he’s starred while playing in suspect offenses —– he spent his first four NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars — and would add a physical outside element to the Lions’ passing game.

Christian Kirk, coming off a career-best 77-catch season, and DJ Chark, who missed most of last season with a broken ankle, are among other free agents who could interest the Lions. Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper would join Robinson at the top of the market if he is released, as expected, in a cost-cutting move before next week.

The Lions, who re-signed Josh Reynolds to a two-year deal Tuesday, could find heavy competition for receivers as the Jaguars, Bears, Las Vegas Raiders,Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots are among others who have major needs at the position.

If they fail to fill their needs meaningfully in free agency, there’s always the draft, where Randle El said he hopes to add two contributors to his room.

“It’s a great wide receiver draft,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last month. “I feel like we could probably just cut and paste the comments on wide receivers and use it for the next 20 years, because the college game is giving us a ton of these guys every year.”

Free agent WR/TE class

On the Lions’ roster for 2022 — WR: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson, Javon McKinley. TE: T.J. Hockenson, Jared Pinkney, Matt Sokol, Shane Zylstra, Jordan Thomas.

Pending Lions free agents — WR: Kalif Raymond, KhaDarel Hodge, Tom Kennedy (ERFA). TE: Brock Wright (ERFA).

Top free agents — WR: Allen Robinson, Bears; Odell Beckham Jr., Los Angeles Rams; Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals. TE: Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers; Zach Ertz, Cardinals; Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons.

Others who may interest Lions — WR: D.J. Chark, Jaguars. TE: Maxx Williams, Cardinals.

Market watch: The market was thinned Tuesday as three receivers and three tight ends caught the franchise tag, but several good players should be available at both positions. Robinson, a Detroit native, had back-to-back 1,100-yard receiving seasons in 2019-20 before missing time with a hamstring injury last year. Kirk is an elite slot receiver who shined in an expanded role last season and earns high marks for his work ethic and locker room presence. The Lions have viable complementary pieces at receiver in Reynolds and Cephus, and an emerging star in St. Brown, but need a No. 1 receiver to bolster their offense. At tight end, the Lions have been looking for a dependable blocker to pair with Hockenson since Josh Hill retired two months after he signed last spring. This is a deep tight end class in free agency, with players like C.J. Uzomah, O.J. Howard and Mo Alie-Cox also slated to hit the market. 

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

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