Detroit Lions’ cautious approach to NFL free agency could become a problem

Detroit Free Press

Is that it?

Are those all the major upgrades the Detroit Lions are going to make with the first week of 2023 NFL free agency in the books?

Tell me it ain’t so. Tell me there’s something more to come. Tell me general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell have a surprise signing up their sleeves. How about just one big-name addition at a position of need, with some leftover money they found between the cushions?

But what am I saying? How deluded am I to think this is even possible?

Under this regime, the Lions have shown all the boldness in free agency an 11-year-old kid shows at their first middle-school dance. So yeah, of course the Lions are perfectly happy sitting in the corner by the punch bowl.

“We’re always going to be very strategic and selective with our approach,” Holmes explained about his free agency approach in January.

He cited the way the Lions previously added players like Alex Anzalone, Kalif Raymond and Charles Harris. Solid, safe guys. But hardly difference-makers and certainly not stars.

And that’s the problem. The Lions can’t afford to play it safe this year. They can’t be too cautious when the NFC North is as open for the taking as it will ever be for them. Their window to win is this year, and maybe this year alone, because offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is the guy holding that window open.

If the Lions go through that window this year and win their first division title in 30 years — it feels weird to even type that — that means two things: Johnson is definitely gone and Jared Goff might turn back into a pumpkin after his OC’s departure.

TRACKER:Lions in NFL free agency: Who signed, who’s going, who’s still on market

I don’t dislike the players the Lions added. I think they could have done better, especially on defense. Signing Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cam Sutton was a good move at a position that desperately needs an upgrade. He was the third-ranked cornerback in free agency, according to Pro Football Focus.

But Sutton isn’t Jalen Ramsey, the All-Pro corner and possible Hall of Famer the Los Angeles Rams traded to the Miami Dolphins for a third-round pick and a traffic cone tight end. Sutton, by all accounts, is a solid player. He was widely considered a top 50 free agent. But he isn’t elite like Ramsey, ranked by PFF as the third-best corner overall in 2022.

What about linebacker? That’s another huge area of need for the Lions. So what did the Honolulu Blue brain trust do? They re-signed Alex Anzalone, who struggled in his first year as a starter in 2021, then rebounded with a good season last year, but was overpaid with an average salary of $6.25 million for three years.

That’s almost the same contract the Chicago Bears gave linebacker T.J. Edwards, who’s two years younger, more versatile and coming off a career year with the Philadelphia Eagles. Edwards is No. 29 in PFF’s linebacker rankings. Anzalone is No. 196.

The Bears didn’t stop with Edwards. They rewarded Tremaine Edmunds for his beast year with the Buffalo Bills with a monster four-year, $72 million deal. The Bears had the second-worst run defense last year. By signing two of the best free-agent linebackers, they should have an elite run defense.

And it’s not like the Bears don’t have draft picks. They have 10 this year, including four of the first 64.

I think the Lions did the right thing swiping running back David Montgomery from the Bears instead of trying to keep Jamaal Williams. Montgomery is two years younger and more versatile as a pass catcher, which could cut down on the need to rely on D’Andre Swift and his unreliable health. I would bet Johnson already has a precise plan for how he’ll use his full Monty.

SHAWN WINDSOR:Lions’ Brad Holmes, Dan Campbell bet on themselves, let Jamaal Williams leave

I liked the Graham Glasgow signing for one year at $4.5 million because it shows restraint and probably shows Halapoulivaati Vaitai the door, since he has been paid tackle money to play guard and missed all of last year.

One thing Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia were definitely right about was not paying big money to interior offensive linemen. They’re the worst athletes on the field, and if you can’t find a decent one in the third round, you probably don’t belong in an NFL personnel office. So I hope Holmes and Campbell, as much as they want to win in the trenches, can keep themselves from overpaying Jonah Jackson.

Look, it’s hard to know the full scope of what goes on in free agency. I don’t want to be too hard on the Lions, because teams only have so much control over who they sign. Maybe the Lions were interested in Edwards, but maybe he was more interested in going home to Illinois to play for the team he grew up watching.

It’s also hard to have a full grasp of a team’s free agency plans without know their plan for stocking the roster through the draft. It’s clear Holmes has focused less on free agency and more on the draft. It’s the reason he has produced one good draft and one great draft already.

DAVE BIRKETT:2023 NFL mock draft 2.1: Lions double up on defense in Round 1

The draft is obviously the key to building a sustainable future. But before we get carried away with the idea of a Lions dynasty built upon uninterrupted years of winning, let’s not forget that famous phrase uttered by George Allen. Long after his playing days at St. Clair Shores Lake Shore High, the late Hall of Fame coach was fond of saying, “The future is now.”

All Allen did was win. In 12 seasons with the Rams and Washington, he never had a losing season. That was before free agency, and before people talked endlessly about “the process” and asked for endless patience.

The draft will be here in a month. The Lions need another great showing because even though they improved last year, let’s not forget they still have several areas of need. Let’s not forget: Even though they were better, they started 1-6 before they finished 8-2.

And let’s not forget Allen’s famous phrase, filled with pluck and prescience, because if the future isn’t now for the Lions, then when is it?

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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