This is the second in a two-part series assessing the Detroit Lions’ position-by-position situation heading into free agency. Today we’ll look at the offense, following our first part, on the defense. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 14. The signing period opens March 16 at 4 p.m.
► Under contract: Jared Goff, Steven Montez
► Lions free agents: Tim Boyle, David Blough
► Best available: Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Mitch Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton
The QB carousel is spinning once again this offseason with Russell Wilson on the move to Denver and Carson Wentz getting shipped to Washington. But while there are a couple of teams still desperate for a quality veteran starter, there’s no indication Detroit would be willing to move Goff. For the sake of formality, that essentially locks in next week, when his previously guaranteed $15.5 million roster bonus kicks in.
And without a backup plan — or a backup of any kind — Detroit isn’t going to throw the season away before it starts, no matter how long the team’s odds for playoff contention. Remember, Goff finished last season on a tear, completing nearly 70% of his passes with 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions across the final five games. With a little more support in the form of a bolstered receiving corps, the Lions proved capable of winning with their current QB.
Now back to that backup situation. Both Boyle and Blough are scheduled to be free agents. It’s certainly conceivable the Lions look to bring the former back. The numbers from his three starts weren’t necessarily pretty, but he’s a quick processer with a strong arm who can be serviceable in a pinch.
There will obviously be better options on the market, but is it worth paying the premium when the team already has $31 million in cap space committed to Goff? Pushing that closer to $40 million for an insurance policy, or the illusion of competition, would be a disservice to building up the rest of the roster.
► Under contract: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson, Craig Reynolds, Jason Cabinda
► Lions free agents: Godwin Igwebuike (ERFA)
► Best available: Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon, James Conner, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chase Edmonds
If the Lions make zero moves of consequence at running back this offseason, would anyone really be surprised? The team is coming off its most efficient rushing season in more than two decades and all the key contributors remain under team control.
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Obviously, there are some lingering concerns with Swift’s durability, and Williams didn’t do as much damage after contact as his body type and running style would suggest, but the tandem should both benefit if the offensive line can avoid the injury pitfalls that befell the group last season.
The backup situation is also above-average between Jefferson, Reynolds and Igwebuike. Jefferson, a seventh-round pick a year ago, didn’t see a ton of opportunity, but flashed his vision and speed when he did get on the field. With a year to develop his route running and pass blocking, he’ll hopefully see more work during his second season.
► Under contract: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson, Javon McKinley
► Lions free agents: Kalif Raymond, KhaDarel Hodge, Tom Kennedy (ERFA)
► Best available: Allen Robinson II, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Gallup, Christian Kirk, JuJu Smith-Schuster, D.J. Chark
Detroit botched their free-agent additions at receiver last year, committing millions to Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman. The team got just two catches for 14 yards in return for that investment.
General manager Brad Holmes made up for those missteps by landing the ultra-productive St. Brown in the fourth round of the draft and claiming Reynolds off waivers. The latter played an underrated role in getting the offense trending in the right direction down the stretch, and that was rewarded this week with a two-year contract extension, reportedly worth up to $12 million.
But there’s still work to do to round out the corps. The team has made it clear they’re on the hunt for a No. 1 option this offseason, whether that be via free agency or the draft. Unfortunately, what had looked to be a market rich with talent, got preemptively depleted after the Packers and Buccaneers used the franchise tag on Davante Adams and Chris Godwin, while the Chargers agreed to a longer-term extension with Mike Williams.
Still, there’s some high-end options expected to be available, including Amari Cooper, who is reportedly going to be a cap casualty in Dallas. He’d certainly fit the bill as a proven No. 1.
So would Robinson (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s), if you can look past his down season playing with an ineffective rookie quarterback in Chicago a year ago. Kirk and Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, seem to be lesser fits, spending much of their early career operating out of the slot.
Chark will be an interesting one to watch. He has an elite combination of size and speed on the outside, but he’s only put it together for brief stretches during his four-year career and is coming off a broken ankle that limited him to four games in 2021.
► Under contract: T.J. Hockenson, Shane Zylstra, Jordan Thomas, Matt Sokol, Hunter Bryant
► Lions free agents: Brock Wright (ERFA)
► Best available: Rob Gronkowski, C.J. Uzomah, Zach Ertz, Evan Engram, Gerald Everett
The franchise tag wiped out the top of the market as Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki and David Njoku were each tagged this week. That’s bad news for teams looking for a No. 1 tight end. The Lions, fortunately, don’t have that need.
Hockenson might not be the dual-threat the Lions expected when they drafted him out of Iowa, but he’s a willing blocker and key contributor in the passing attack, averaging 4.6 receptions per game the past two seasons.
Detroit has a pending decision about whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Hockenson’s rookie contract, but that feels like a foregone conclusion. From there, the discussion could shift to a long-term deal, similar to how the team handled center Frank Ragnow a year ago.
Finding a complement to Hockenson has proved more challenging. The team put an emphasis on a veteran blocker in 2021, first signing Josh Hill before he opted to retire, then settling on Darren Fells, who the team released midseason.
Wright, an undrafted rookie, got the call down the stretch and averaged more than 40 snaps the final five games. A blocking tight end at Notre Dame, he displayed better-than-expected athleticism as a pass catcher in 2021, putting him in the mix for a job going forward.
That said, Wright also struggled as a blocker, so the Lions could still really use some help in that department. If they’re willing to spend, Maxx Williams has long been one of the league’s better run blockers at the position and he should be ready to go from an early-season ACL tear.
A slightly cheaper option might be Mo Alie-Cox, a solid blocker who averaged 27.5 catches, 355 yards and three touchdowns the past two seasons with the Colts.
► Under contract: Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Dan Skipper, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Logan Stenberg
► Lions free agents: Evan Brown, Tyrell Crosby, Will Holden, Matt Nelson (ERFA), Tommy Kraemer (ERFA), Ryan McCollum (ERFA)
► Best available: Terron Armstead, Eric Fisher, Duane Brown, Brandon Scherff, Laken Tomlinson, Connor Williams, Ryan Jenson, Brandon Allen
In his first year as general manager, Holmes put the finishing touches on a multi-year rebuild of the team’s offensive line with the selection of offensive tackle Penei Sewell in the first round.
But for all the hype and promise centered around the unit, we never got an opportunity to see the starting five share the field last season. First, left tackle Taylor Decker suffered a badly broken finger requiring surgery days before the regular season, and by the time he was ready to return, a toe injury landed Ragnow, a Pro Bowl center, on the shelf for the remainder of the year.
In total, the team relied on seven different starting combinations.
The good new is that projected starting five is back in the fold and expected to be at full strength for the start of training camp. That means the Lions won’t be looking to spend big on a free-agent lineman like they’ve done a few times in recent years.
The backup situation is slightly more complicated, primarily because Brown is going to hit the market if the team doesn’t tender him as a restricted free agent. That’s an understandably tough call to make, committing significant cap space (between $2.4-$5.6 million) to a clear backup, but he proved to be a heck of an insurance policy filling in for Ragnow last year.
The Lions, similar to just about every team in the league, could stand to upgrade their depth at tackle. Nelson, a converted defensive lineman, struggled in 11 starts in 2021. On the flip side, he brought a lot to the table in six-linemen formations the Lions frequently utilized last season.
One name to watch is Joseph Noteboom, a former third-round pick for the Rams when Holmes was the team’s college scouting director. He’s got experience at left tackle, right tackle and guard with 17 starts under his belt.