This is the first in a two-part series assessing the Detroit Lions’ position-by-position situation heading into free agency. Today we’ll look at the offense. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 13. The signing period opens March 15 at 4 p.m.
▶ Under contract: Jared Goff
▶ Lions free agents: Nate Sudfeld
▶ Best available: Lamar Jackson (franchised), Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield
The Lions are fully committed to Goff and there’s zero chance they bring in a veteran with the intention of having that player compete for starting snaps. But general manager Brad Holmes has made it clear he’s on a mission to correct his failure to provide stability at the backup spot.
There are a couple of different ways to approach the situation, including drafting and developing a high-ceiling prospect with starting traits. An ideal version of this scenario would see Detroit score someone like Lamar Jackson (selected 32nd in 2018) or Jalen Hurts (No. 53 in 2020).
The risk is more quarterbacks bust than succeed via that avenue, and if Goff were to go down with an injury, the Lions want to have someone who can step in and keep the season afloat. But reliability, in the form of a veteran, doesn’t typically come cheap.
Someone like Brissett, for example, likely will be able to command in the ballpark of $4 million per season because he’s shown a capable skill set in his 48 career starts. Taylor Heinicke, who has gone .500 in 25 career starts with Washington, is in that same class.
Andy Dalton, who will turn 36 during the season, might come a little cheaper. And his wealth of experience could be a valuable asset to Goff during the week of preparation for upcoming opponents.
Another appealing option could be Michigan native, and former Central Michigan standout, Cooper Rush. He’s spent the past five seasons in Dallas, where he didn’t rack up a ton of playing time, but led the Cowboys to wins in five of six starts the past two seasons.
▶ Under contract: Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Frank Ragnow, Logan Stenberg, Obinna Eze, Darrin Paulo
▶ Lions free agents: Evan Brown, Dan Skipper, Matt Nelson (RFA), Ross Pierschbacher (RFA), Tommy Kraemer (ERFA)
▶ Best available: Orlando Brown, Mike McGlinchey, Jawaan Taylor, Kaleb McGary, Isaac Seumalo, Ben Powers
The Lions are in a good spot with the offensive line, all but assured to bring back four of five starters. The current presumption is they’ll be parting ways with Vaitai, who missed the entire 2022 season with a back injury, but nothing has been made official yet.
There’s been at least some expressed interest in bringing back Brown, the team’s top reserve the past two seasons. He filled in admirably for Ragnow in 2021 and Vaitai much of last season. Brown is a better center than guard, but regardless of where he lines up, he’s proven he’s worthy of a starting job and should see offers in free agency that reflect that.
The Lions could always look to replace Vaitai (and Brown) with another veteran. But spending big money might be tough with Ragnow and Decker on lucrative second contracts, and with Jackson and Sewell in line for new deals in the not-so-distant future.
A better bet would see the Lions looking to bring in veteran depth, at either guard or tackle, who could keep the train on the tracks if any of the starters suffered an injury.
▶ Under contract: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Tom Kennedy, Maurice Alexander, Stanley Berryhill
▶ Lions free agents: DJ Chark, Trinity Benson (ERFA)
▶ Best available: Jakobi Meyers, Odell Beckham Jr., JuJu Smith-Schuster, Michael Thomas, Allen Lazard, Chark
When healthy, Chark provided exactly what the Lions had been looking for the past two offseasons, a big-bodied outside receiver capable of stretching the field vertically. But his surgically repaired ankle gave him some trouble, shelving him for two months, and there has to be at least some concern the issue could persist.
Even with Williams expected to play a far larger role in his second year, the Lions still could use someone with Chark’s skill set, which is why there’s mutual interest in continuing the partnership, but a thin market at the position could jack up his price tag beyond what the team is comfortable paying.
In terms of alternatives there’s Darius Slayton. He re-emerged as a productive part of the Giants offense the second half of last season after spending a year buried on the team’s depth chart. Marquez Callaway, who struggled to build off his 2021 breakout campaign, also fits the bill. The downside is neither bring Chark’s size to the table.
▶ Under contract: D’Andre Swift, Jermar Jefferson
▶ Lions free agents: Jamaal Williams, Justin Jackson, Craig Reynolds (ERFA)
▶ Best available: Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, Kareem Hunt, Rashad Penny, D’Onta Foreman
At this point, it feels like a safe bet Williams will be back in Detroit. The team hasn’t hidden its interest, while the veteran back, whenever he’s been interviewed during the offseason, has sounded like he plans on sticking around in 2023.
It’s easy to make the case for re-upping with Williams. He’s coming off a career year, the first where he topped 1,000 yards, and he led the league in rushing touchdowns. On top of the production, he’s also a passionate locker room leader who sets the tone with his energy and emotion.
Assuming the Lions re-sign Williams, there’s no need to pursue another veteran of consequence, given the presence of Swift on the roster. In regards to Jackson and Reynolds, each is a steady third-down options with kick-return ability, but it’s unnecessary to bring back both. Reynolds is under team control for veteran minimum, which could easily be considered a deciding factor.
Whether the Lions re-sign Williams or not, adding another piece via the draft carries merit, particularly given Swift’s durability concerns and the fact he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal.
▶ Under contract: James Mitchell, Derrick Deese Jr.
▶ Lions free agents: Brock Wright (ERFA), Shane Zylstra (ERFA)
▶ Best available: Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki, Austin Hooper, Hayden Hurst
The Lions will be bringing back the trio of Wright, Zylstra and Mitchell, who carried the load after the team traded T.J. Hockenson. Collectively, the group set a franchise record for the position group with 12 touchdowns, but weren’t otherwise a big part of the passing attack, nor particularly great blockers.
Holmes has said he likes the group, but will be on the lookout for a veteran who could help stabilize the room. That’s not to suggest the GM will swing for the fences and pursue someone like Schultz or Gesicki, but more likely a player in the mold of Josh Hill or Darren Fells, even though neither worked out after signing with Detroit.
A name we’re keeping an eye on is Maxx Williams, who is a year removed from a torn ACL. He’s an exceptional blocker and he spent the past few years in Arizona playing under Steve Heiden, who the Lions hired to coach the position this offseason.
A younger option with some upside is Josh Oliver, who logged more than 500 snaps with the Ravens last season and performed well as both a run blocker and pass protector.
▶ Under contract: None
▶ Lions free agents: Michael Badgley
▶ Best available: Matt Gay, Matt Prater, Robbie Gould, Eddy Pineiro, Chase McLaughlin
The Lions had a revolving door at kicker after letting Prater walk following the 2020 season, but found some stability with the midseason addition of Badgley. The longtime Charger might not offer the biggest leg, but he brings solid accuracy inside 45 yards.
During his 12 games in Detroit, he made 20-of-24 attempts with a long of 53. That stat line is reflective of his career numbers and makes him a candidate to be retained.
Alternatively, the Lions could aggressively pursue the top name on the market, Gay, who briefly overlapped with Holmes in Los Angeles. In his three seasons with the Rams, Gay has been one of the NFL’s most accurate kickers, making 92.5% of his attempts with a long of 58, while missing just two of his 97 extra points.
That kind of talent and consistency is going to command somewhere around $5 million per season. That could put him out of the range of the cap-strapped Rams, who are on the cusp of shedding multiple key veterans from their books.