A 2023 roadmap for the Detroit Lions’ offseason

Detroit News

Allen Park — The offseason arrived for the Detroit Lions at least one week earlier than the team had hoped. Despite winning eight of their final 10 games, the Lions were left on the outside of the NFC playoff picture after losing a head-to-head tie breaker to the Seattle Seahawks, who claimed the conference’s seventh and final seed.

It was a fun ride to the finish, including forcing the Green Bay Packers to share in the misery of missing the postseason, but the Lions only have themselves to blame. In addition to that Week 4 loss to Seattle, Detroit started 1-6 on the year, a hole that proved too deep to climb out from in the end.

So here we are, in a familiar place around these parts, left only to discuss free agency and the draft in January. But things aren’t so bad. The Lions look to be legitimately on the upswing after winning six more games than the first year of general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell’s regime.

So what will it take to make the next step in the progression? Glad you asked. As we did last year, we’re going to borrow the GM hat from Holmes and lay out what the next several stages of the offseason look like for the Lions, while offering some thoughts on the best courses of action.

Roster cuts

Honestly, I’ll never be comfortable offering my opinion on this topic. Sure, it’s a basic component of professional sports economics, but it’s not easy to suggest a player should lose their job, even when the production clearly doesn’t match the salary.

When Holmes arrived to town two years ago, he aggressively trimmed the roster those first few months, cutting several veterans who weren’t going to factor into the rebuild. Last year, that list dropped to one: Defensive end Trey Flowers. The veteran’s salary likely wouldn’t have been tenable even had he been able to stay healthy the previous season, but the fact he had been plagued with durability issues made the choice to part ways easier.

This offseason, Holmes is facing a handful of decisions, including moving on early from some players he acquired or re-signed.

▶ Moves to consider: The most obvious is moving on from defensive tackle Michael Brockers. He was brought in via trade to both help on the field and establish the culture. He fulfilled the second half of that equation admirably, but the anticipated production never arrived. Inactive most of the second half of the season, his release will create an additional $10 million in cap space.

It’s also probably time to let go guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai. A good player when healthy, and wildly popular with his teammates, the Lions can’t afford to keep his $12.5 million cap figure on the books after he missed all of 2022 with a back injury. Detroit still will be on the hook for a good chunk of dead money, but his release would create another $6.5 million in space.

Up next are two edge rushers, Romeo Okwara and Charles Harris. Both were limited by injury in 2022, with Okwara missing most of the season while recovering from last year’s torn Achilles injury and Harris limited to six games because of a nagging groin issue. Both have one year remaining on their deals, and their releases could save $7.5 million and $4 million, respectively.

A case could be made to cut both, given the recent injection of productive youth up front, but it makes more sense to hold on to Okwara, who has a better frame and skill set for the crush-the-pocket style the Lions prefer to play on the edges. Harris was such a great story in 2021, but his body type and skill set have considerable overlap with James Houston, who emerged in the second half of the season. At his year-end press conference, Holmes said the team wouldn’t make decisions that would hinder player development, and keeping Harris feels like a move that could limit Houston’s playing time and potentially stunt his growth.

On top of those big four, there are several smaller cuts on the table, but most would probably be worth seeing how the rest of the offseason plays out before making any hasty decisions. For example, Josh Reynolds’ release could free up $3.25 million, while fullback Jason Cabinda’s departure would give the Lions back $2 million. But both players have clear roles that would need to be replaced.

It’s somewhat easier to make the case to release wide receiver Quintez Cephus and guard Logan Stenberg, with each freeing up about $1 million in space.

Just by releasing Brockers, Vaitai, Harris, Cephus and Stenberg, the Lions would more than double their projected cap space.

Tags and tenders

Obviously, the Lions have the ability to use the franchise or transition tags, but none of their pending free agents merit that kind of big-money, one-year commitment. Ezekiel Ansah, in 2018, was the last Lions player to receive the franchise tag and it should remain that way.

In terms of restricted free agents, the Lions have three. There’s the option to tag those players with either first-, second-, or original-round tender, but there’s no way to justify that cost for offensive tackle Matt Nelson, cornerback Bobby Price or guard Ross Pierschbacher. If Holmes wants any of them back, they could likely be had at, or close to, veteran minimum.

Finally, there are seven exclusive-rights free agents. These are players with two or fewer accrued seasons, and if tendered, it’s a non-guaranteed, one-year, veteran-minimum contract. With those terms, there’s little reason not to tag most, if not all. That group includes tight ends Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra, defensive tackle Benito Jones, running back Craig Reynolds, linebacker and special-teams standout Anthony Pittman, long snapper Scott Daly and guard Tommy Kraemer.

Veteran minimum for a player with two accrued seasons is scheduled to be $940,000 in 2023, so tendering all seven exclusive-rights players will use a little more than $6.5 million in cap space.

In-house free agents

Here’s where Holmes will start to face more challenging decisions. The team has 18 players set to be unrestricted free agents, and, if the GM sticks to his typical strategy, he’ll likely be looking to bring several of them back.

In no particular order, here’s who we would target to retain, with estimated contract figures.

▶ Linebacker Alex Anzalone — Two years, $10 million, $5.5 million guaranteed

There are multiple reasons to bring back Anzalone. First and foremost, he’s coming off a career year, racking up personal bests in tackles, tackles for a loss and quarterback pressures. He also played well in coverage and sharply reduced his missed tackle rate after struggling to wrap up ball carriers in 2021.

Anzalone provides leadership on the field and in the locker room for a young unit lacking veteran voices, particularly if the offseason plan includes moving on from Brockers. Watch closely on a given defensive series and you’ll see Anzalone physically moving teammates, getting everyone in position ahead of the snap.

There also aren’t a lot of viable alternatives. This draft class isn’t loaded with plug-and-play prospects, capable of quarterbacking a defense out of the box, and one of the handful of clearly better free agents will command a significantly larger contract.

We based the projected contract off the two-year, $10 million contract Jordan Hicks received from the Vikings last year. Like Anzalone, Hicks is well-rounded and capable of putting up big tackle totals annually. He’s actually a few years older than Anzalone, but also came to Minnesota with fewer, recent durability concerns, balancing out the ceiling and risk.

▶ Defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs — One year, $2.5 million

Joining the Lions shortly ahead of training camp, Buggs ended up playing a whopping 755 defensive snaps, easily doubling his three-year workload in Pittsburgh to begin his career. With the added work, he finished with a solid stat line of 46 tackles, 10 quarterback hits and a forced fumble.

Buggs is more of a stabilizing force than a game-changer, although the fumble he caused was a key play in Detroit’s victory over Minnesota in the second half of the season. The Lions clearly need more firepower on the interior, but even if they pursue that elsewhere, Buggs can continue to be a solid hand, even in a reduced role.

There aren’t many great comparable contracts. Buggs doesn’t have nearly the track record Bilal Nichols did when he inked a two-year, $8.6 million offer from the Raiders last year. Another interior player who shoulders a big snap count and offers some pass-rush ability is Morgan Fox. He only made it through the first of a two-year, $8.1 million deal he signed with the Panthers in 2021 before joining the Chargers on a more modest one-year, $1.2 million pact.

The Lions should hold back from a long-term investment, but Buggs is worthy of a pay bump after showing what he’s capable of providing for the defense in 2023.

▶ Wide receiver DJ Chark — One year, $10 million

When healthy, Chark offered the Lions what the team had envisioned when signing him to a prove-it deal last offseason. And while Jameson Williams is going to merit a far larger role in his second season, the Lions still will have a need for a big-bodied X-receiver who can both stretch the field and move the chains, while giving quarterback Jared Goff a reliable outside option in the red zone.

Chark’s surgically repaired ankle, which sidelined him six games, remains a concern, and makes a long-term investment in the player difficult. If someone else is willing to purse that risk with a multi-year pact at a similar rate, the Lions should let them and be prepared to explore alternative options. Additionally, bringing back Chark might admittedly be an either-or conversation with Josh Reynolds, who is already more at risk of losing playing time to Williams at the Z receiver spot in the scheme.

With four picks in the first two rounds of the draft, the Lions alternatively could look for size in the draft. The case for Chark over a rookie is the budding chemistry he seemed to be forming with Goff as the year progressed.

More: Receiver DJ Chark would welcome return to Lions: ‘This place checks off all the boxes’

▶ Defensive lineman John Cominsky — Three years, $18 million, $10 million guaranteed

Cominsky, an offseason waiver claim, immediately showed he embodies the concept of grit the Lions have wholeheartedly embraced under Campbell. The husky, 285-pounder is strong, athletic, versatile and plays with pure hustle. He finished second on the team in quarterback pressures, despite missing three games and playing most of the season with a club over his hand to protect a broken thumb suffered in Week 2.

He can rush inside and outside, set a strong edge when playing the run and handle a sizeable workload. Unless you get badly outbid on the open market, bringing back Cominsky should be a no-brainer. The contract projection is similar to the one the Lions offered Harris, but a year longer, reflecting Cominsky’s schematic versatility and still-untapped upside.

More: Lions, John Cominsky look to extend successful pairing this offseason

▶  Running back Jamaal Williams — Two years, $9 million, $4.5 million guaranteed

Williams is one of the trickiest conversations Holmes will have to navigate in the coming months. There’s no denying the positive emotional energy Williams brings to the roster, but the league has proven time and time again it’s risky committing significant resources to a veteran running back.

Williams obviously did some great things in 2022, most notably rewriting the franchise record book with 17 rushing touchdowns, but you have to be careful overinflating the value of a stat that relies so heavily on situational opportunities.

A bigger-picture view of Williams’ shows you a back who averages a pedestrian 4.1 yards per carry, doesn’t offer a ton in the passing game, and doesn’t have anywhere near the playmaking ability of those players who set the standard at his position. There’s nothing wrong with being a reliable plow horse, as long as you don’t pay him like a thoroughbred.

Williams is a younger version of Latavius Murray, and probably deserves a contract similar to the two-year pact the Ravens gave Gus Edwards last year. The GM has to stay relatively firm on the price point and be prepared to restock the cupboard with a cheaper option in the draft if the ask is much higher.

▶ Safety C.J. Moore — One year, $1.23 million, including a $152,500 signing bonus

An offseason injury forced the Lions to briefly part with Moore to begin this past season, but he quickly re-established his value upon re-signing. A four-core special teams performer and capable, in-game injury replacement on defense, Moore would be a good piece to bring back via a veteran salary benefit contract, which mitigates a portion of the cap ramifications.

Running back and return man Justin Jackson and kicker Michael Badgley also merit consideration for veteran salary benefit deals.

▶ Linebacker Josh Woods — One year, $2.43 million (4-year Qualifying Player Benefit)

Woods has consistently been Detroit’s top special-teams performer, which often goes unappreciated. He might not offer much on defense, but the qualifying player benefit allows the team to give him an extra $1.35 million in pay without it costing against the cap.

▶ Other considerations

Obviously, there would be value in bringing back offensive lineman Evan Brown, but after two years as an injury fill-in, he’s likely earned a starting opportunity and the pay raise that would come with that. If the Lions’ projected lineup hole was at center and not right guard, it would make more sense to award Brown the raise he’s earned, but it’s tougher to justify a pay bump if he’s slotted for a reserve spot.

Also, it’ll be similarly difficult to retain back safety DeShon Elliott, who settled into a groove and had a really nice season for the Lions in 2022. With Tracy Walker (Achilles) expected back for the start of next season, and rookie Kerby Joseph emerging as a playmaker in the back end, the challenge is figuring out where the snaps would come from for Elliott to continue to make sense.

And finally, if the price is right, a case could be made to keep Will Harris, Mike Hughes or both veteran cornerbacks as versatile depth in the secondary.

Exploring the market

As has been the case his first two offseasons seasons, retaining his own players and focusing on building through the draft won’t leave Holmes with a wealth of resources to spend on other team’s free agents.

Positions of weakness for the Lions to explore could be guard, tight end, cornerback, defensive tackle and potentially receiver, running back and linebacker, depending on who the team is able to retain.

In terms of a swing-for-the-fences option, it could be worth checking in on Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne. He’s averaged 48 quarterback pressures the past two seasons, and could bring a much-needed interior skill to Detroit’s roster. More cost-effective options at the position include Jarran Reed, Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata.

At tight end, the Lions really could use a dual threat who is a more steady blocker than what’s being offered by their young collective. Arizona’s Maxx Williams, if you’re comfortable with his medicals, has a solid track record. Or if you want a post-hype pass catcher, former top-50 draft picks O.J. Howard and Irv Smith Jr. are both set to hit the market.

It’s probably more cost-efficient to address guard in the draft, but there are some fine veterans set to be available. That group is headlined by Chris Lindstrom, one of the best interior run blockers in the business. Again, that would be a relatively big swing for Holmes, particularly given the resources already dedicated to that position group, but it would reinforce a commitment to making the offensive line one the league’s best.

A final spot where it could be helpful to find veteran help is at the nickel corner. If Holmes wants to revisit his Rams roots, Troy Hill should be available, as well as Pittsburgh’s Cameron Sutton and Atlanta’s Isaiah Oliver.

Building though the draft

Through some aggressive trades, the Lions have four picks in the first two rounds: Six, 18, 48 and 54. That’s potential to add a lot of impact, which Holmes has proven adept at finding through his first two turns through the draft.

By falling outside the top-three, thanks to a couple late-season wins by the Rams, the Lions are likely to miss out on the top two defensive prospects in this class, Alabama’s Will Anderson and Georgia’s Jalen Carter. And while the debate figures to simmer until draft day, we continue to not expect the Lions to select a quarterback with their first choice.

That leaves the following options at No. 6: A second-tier defensive line talent such as Clemson’s Myles Murphy or Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, the best cornerback on the team’s board, solidifying the offensive line with Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, or a surprising offensive skill addition such as TCU receiver Quentin Johnston or Texas running back Bijan Robinson.

Based on Holmes’ after-season comments about needing to address the defense this offseason, and understanding positional value, the likely bet is a defensive lineman at that spot — a group that also includes Murphy’s teammate Bryan Bresee.

Trading up or down is also on the table. If not cost prohibitive, moving up to land Anderson or Carter shouldn’t be dismissed. Alternatively, the Lions could leverage potential interest in quarterbacks Will Levis or C.J. Stroud into a short slide down the board, where they could still land a top defender while picking up another valuable draft asset (or two).

With pick No. 18, that’s looking like a sweet spot to snag one of the cornerbacks, whether that’s Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez or Utah’s playmaking Clark Phillips III.

In the second round, there’s more room for flexibility to follow the board. That includes upgrading some of the spots mentioned in the free agency section, particularly guard. It’s also a good spot to consider a long-term solution at running back, regardless of whether Williams is re-signed, given the continued durability concerns with D’Andre Swift. There’s a skill-set overlap with someone like Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, assuming he lingers into the middle of the round.

Round 2 also could be a good area to look at linebackers, including Penei Sewell’s brother, Noah, a big-bodied option at a position where players seem to be slimming down by the year. Alabama’s Henry To’oTo’o and Arkansas’ Drew Sanders are also frequently mentioned in that range.

And while we continue to dismiss the possibility of a QB at No. 6, any time after isn’t a bad spot to consider a high-ceiling, developmental backup. That includes Florida’s Anthony Richardson in the back half of the first round, or someone like Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, who is coming off an ACL injury, in Day 2.

Extension consideration

The Lions have a fifth-year option decision on Jeff Okudah’s rookie contract, but given the way the cornerback finished the year, it feels increasingly likely the team won’t exercise that one-year, guaranteed salary that’s projected between $11-12 million.

A longer-term extension might make more sense if Holmes and Campbell believe Okudah is only going to get better the further he’s removed from his torn Achilles. Even an annual value of $10-12 million could end up being a bargain if he steadily improves his coverage ability to match last season’s effectiveness when defending the run.

Another player on the brink of an extension is guard Jonah Jackson. A former Pro Bowler, he’s not quite in the conversation as one of the elite players at his position, but he should still be able to command a second-tier salary of $11-14 million per season based on his age, experience and production. That might take him out of Detroit’s range, seeing the team already has committed big money to Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow, with a future extension for Sewell coming due not too far into the future.

Finally, there’s Goff. With two years left on his contract, there’s no real rush to explore an extension unless Holmes is ready to make a commitment to the veteran quarterback. The value there is salaries typically go up every year. Still, the Lions probably would benefit more from seeing whether the quarterback can build on his 2022 success.

Recap

Offense: After finishing top-five in yards and points last season, the Lions don’t have a ton of work to do with the offense. Obviously, the team should look to shore up the right guard spot, either in the draft or free agency. Additionally, the Lions must decide whether to re-up with their veteran lead back and starting X receiver or pursue cheaper alternatives in the draft.

Defense: The Lions paid the price for a lack of experience and chemistry to start the 2022 season. By seeking to bring back some of their own free agents such as Anzalone, Cominsky and Buggs, they can maintain some continuity and veteran leadership on a unit that performed far better in the second half.

But sticking to the status quo with the unit’s personnel isn’t good enough. The team’s remaining free-agency funds and the majority of its draft equity should be invested in building up the defense with an eye on matching the offense’s improvements from this past season.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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