The Divisional Round of the 2023 NFL Playoffs kicks off on Saturday with two games, one from each conference. First up is an AFC matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs on NBC and it will be followed by an NFC battle between the New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles on FOX.
In this article series, we will sort through the pending free agents of the playoff teams on the schedule today and pick out one from each team that the Detroit Lions should be watching.
Here’s who to keep an eye on during Saturday’s games:
Arden Key, EDGE, Jaguars
Key was highlighted during our last playoff free agent series, and the Lions brought in Key for a visit during free agency. He ended up signing with the Jaguars on a one-year $4 million contract with incentives, while the Lions went on to re-sign Charles Harris and draft three edge rushers a month later in the 2022 NFL draft.
So why is Key on this list again this year? Simply put, he’s gotten even better.
While Key remains a strong pass rusher, his game continued to evolve in Jacksonville, most notably his run defense. He also added some more positional versatility to his game. He is still primarily an edge rusher, but he saw about 100 snaps (roughly 20% of his total defensive snaps) inside at defensive tackle—something the Lions like to also do with their defensive ends.
While the Lions have six edge rushers under contract for next season, the futures of Harris and Romeo Okwara seem uncertain given their contracts and roles. John Cominsky, a starter most of last season, is also an unrestricted free agent, so it doesn’t hurt to keep their options open and keep an eye on Key.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Chiefs
I originally had Mecole Hardman in this slot, but a pelvic injury will keep him out of this game, so I called an audible and switched to his wide receiver teammate, Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster had historically spent about 80% of his time in Pittsburgh’s slot, but this season in Kansas City, he expanded his role and only spent about 40% of his time there and the other 60% on the outside—similar to when his career began in the NFL.
While the Lions typically deploy Amon-Ra St. Brown out of the slot, adding another former USC trojan in Smith-Schuster would give the Lions the opportunity to move the Sun God around, while also adding a pair of reliable hands for Jared Goff.
JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. TEN — 10/12 targets, 88 yards receiving.
Saw the physical play — plus the ability (and willingness) to work the dirty areas of the field.
Sit routes (below), unders, crossers. Lot of defenders inside the numbers. pic.twitter.com/HwVPUcamqv
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 9, 2022
If the Lions don’t re-sign DJ Chark and are looking for another veteran option at receiver, they may look Smith-Schuster’s way.
Smith-Schuster signed a one-year contract, which was touted as being worth $10.75 million. But when you take a closer look, it was actually just a single-year contract worth $3.25 million, with another $7.5 million in incentives, of which $5.5 million has already been earned via playing time percentages and receiving yardage. Given Smith-Shuster’s history, another similar contract could be in order.
Landon Collins, S/LB, Giants
It’s been a couple of years since Collins resembled the player he was at Alabama, and at this stage of his career, he looks more like a matchup specialist as opposed to a player capable of starting. But for the Lions, who don’t currently have a player with a safety body capable of playing at the linebacker level (DeShon Elliott is the closest and is an unrestricted free agent) and matching up with tight ends, Collins could have some appeal.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Eagles
Gardner-Johnson was drafted by the New Orleans Saints and quickly developed under the tutelage of then-secondary coach Aaron Glenn (who is currently the Lions’ defensive coordinator), earning a starting role halfway through the season.
This past season, after being traded from the Saints to the Eagles, Gardner-Johnson split his reps between free safety and a slot/box role. This varies from how Glenn used him in New Orleans, where he was their starting nickel, and more closely resembles how Glenn used pending free agent Will Harris in Detroit.
With Gardner-Johnson’s rookie contract expiring, he will likely be headed to free agency after not being able to reach a contract extension with either the Saints or the Eagles. His services are expected to come at a high cost, and Spotrac’s Market Value projections estimate he could receive a five-year deal with up to $70 million (a $14 million per year average). His injury history could drive his price down some, but he is also coming off a 12-game, six-interception season, which he will surely try and leverage during negotiations.