Detroit Lions 2023 NFL free agency grades and reaction: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions are through the first week of NFL free agency 2023, having made five new additions to the team: Defensive backs C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, running back David Montgomery, and guard Graham Glasgow.

They’ve also lost four free agents as of Monday morning, including three starters and a top special teams contributor: RB Jamaal Williams (New Orleans), OL Evan Brown (Seattle), S DeShon Elliott (Miami) and LB Chris Board (New England).

Their top unrestricted free agent, receiver DJ Chark, remains on the market.

Let’s look at what people are saying about the Lions’ moves thus far:

C.J. GARDNER-JOHNSON TALKS BIG:Lions roster ‘a little bit better’ than Eagles’ Super Bowl team

A late-night surprise

CBS Sports: A for C.J. Gardner-Johnson addition

The Lions late Sunday night infused the defense with one of the top free agents to hit the market this March, grabbing the languishing Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and agreeing to a one-year, $8 million contract with the former Philadelphia Eagle.

CBS’ Tyler Sullivan, like many others, was all-in on the short-term “prove it” move for a player who tied for the NFL-lead with six interceptions last season in just 12 games, and praised the value the Lions got him for at a reported $6.5 million fully guaranteed.

CGJ, 25, can play both as a free safety, in the box or as a nickel cornerback, and there is confidence he will be used correctly because of the relationship formed with the New Orleans Saints, where CGJ played with Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn on the coaching staff.

“Gardner-Johnson plays a physical brand of football and fits into the culture that Campbell has been working to foster over the past two years,” Sullivan wrote, while giving the move an A grade.

The Lions have suddenly completely overhauled arguably the NFL’s worst secondary, and now have signed three new additions with Gardner-Johnson, Sutton and Moseley.

They also brought back nickel/safety Will Harris, who now provides depth instead of being at the top of the depth chart, and also have holdovers Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs at cornerback. (Yes, this is a gigantic year fourth year for Okudah upcoming, after he struggled down the stretch last season and was benched).

At safety, Garnder-Johnson likely teams with intriguing second-year player Kerby Joseph, while Tracy Walker rehabs from a torn Achilles.

We’ll see how all the pieces begin to fit this summer, but credit general manager Brad Holmes and his staff for identifying the weakness and attacking it the past seven days, all without committing astronomical long-term salary. They will maintain flexibility here after next season too.

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

The running back decision

ESPN: C- for Lions, C for Saints

“This is going to sound harsh, but I don’t think paying Montgomery is a particularly efficient use of resources.”

That is how Seth Walder of ESPN led his analysis of the Lions signing Montgomery to a mid-tier contract (three years and $18 million, $11 million guaranteed) to be their new physical ball-carrier en route to a C- grade.

Walder extoled Montgomery’s pass blocking and acknowledged his receiving production, but outlined why Montgomery is a replacement-level runner.

Montgomery’s rush yards over expectation per carry, “an NFL Next Gen Stats metric that measures performance relative to expectation based on the positioning and movement of all 22 players at the time of handoff,” was -0.1 in 2019; +0.5 in 2020; -0.1 in both 2021 and 2022.

Essentially, he rushed for fewer yards per carry than expected in three of the past four seasons. And Walder drives home the point by illuminating that Montgomery’s teammate, Khalil Herbert, “led all running backs with 100-plus carries in rush yards over expectation per carry at 1.4 last season.”

His point: “In the NFL, you can basically find Montgomery’s level of rusher anywhere, and you don’t need to pay for it.

On the other end, Walder gave the Saints a C grade for giving Williams a three-year $12 million contract with $8 million guaranteed.

“His rush yards over expectation per carry has hovered between minus-0.3 and 0.2 in every season of his career, per NFL Next Gen Stats,” Walder wrote. “And rushers who merely meet expectation are easy to find. It’s not a skill that teams need to pay for, even considering how cheap this deal comes in.” A ‘head-scratcher’’s Cynthia Frelund, an Okemos native and Lions fan, also questions the bucks given to Montgomery by Holmes and company, naming it one of her three “head-scratchers”, and comparing the contract to Williams, after his 17 total touchdowns last season got him less money.

“The running back market was flooded in early free agency, and perhaps the Lions could have gotten more for their investment (or had to invest less) had they waited to sign one,” Frelund wrote.

Sports Illustrated: Lions among ‘Losers’

SI’s Conor Orr listed the Lions as one of the “losers” of his free agency (before the Gardner-Johnson signing), and also didn’t understand the swap at running back and mentioned the outward passion and leadership we all saw from Williams both on “Hard Knocks” and during the season.

“Am I the only one who thought losing Jamaal Williams was unnecessary? Dan Campbell understands better than anyone what individual player fire can bring to the table. And while Williams’s camera-worthy moments from 2022 could have been simply performative, he was everywhere, breaking down every huddle and serving as the bleeding heart of a plucky football team. Plus, he scored 17 rushing touchdowns. That wasn’t worth the $8 million in guarantees he fetched in New Orleans?”

ANALYSIS:Lions’ brass let a fan favorite walk. The gamble isn’t on his replacement, but themselves

Sporting News: Lions are a ‘Winner’

Hold on: Vinnie Iyer of SN disagrees with the others, and explains why.

“The Lions needed a more durable workhorse-type back behind their strong offensive line and David Montgomery, the former Bear, provides that. They also made calculated moves to improve their secondary.”

Iyer also gave the Montgomery move an A because he provides a touch more versatility than Williams in terms of power running, and as a receiver can help minimize the durability and trust issues of D’Andre Swift.

The cornerbacks

ESPN: Sutton deal gets B+

Walder graded the deal for the 28-year-old Sutton, whose 0.8 yards allowed per coverage snap ranked eighth for outside cornerbacks in 2022, as a B+.

The Lions, instead of targeting a player at the top of the market, paid a good player a hefty but not cap-strapping number ($33 million total over three years, $22.5 million guaranteed). And that’s part of the reason Walder likes the contract-player match.

Sutton struggled in 2021 with a passer rating allowed of 104.9 when targeted, per Pro Football Reference. But he limited QBs to a 65.3 passer rating last season.

“It’s always scary paying corners because of how up-and-down they can be from year to year, and Sutton’s yards per coverage snap allowed in 2021 was 1.1, which was league average. But Detroit is not paying him like a top-flight corner, so this is a good deal.”

DAVE BIRKETT:Don’t fret another ho-hum start to free agency. Detroit Lions doing things right ‘Love the fit’

Frelund named the Sutton move as one of her four “love the fit” moves, citing the Steelers and Lions played man at similar rates last season — which better projects his role and value — and his success according to two key Next Gen Stats categories.

He ranked as the third-best outside corner in “receptions over expected allowed (-9.5) and ballhawk rate (20.8%). Though he was part of a Steelers secondary that had some challenges as a unit, Sutton allowed just 411 total yards in coverage, according to PFF (Pro Football Focus), which ranked fifth-best among corners who logged at least 400 coverage snaps,” Frelund wrote.

CBS Sports: A+ for Moseley; B- for Sutton

The rare A+ was doled out by CBS’ Tyler Sullivan — it was the only such grade he gave out among the 45 signings he analyzed — and even rarer that it was given to the Lions. So, why the love for a player he labeled “an excellent find”? Well, the numbers back him up.

“He’s an excellent cover corner,” Sullivan wrote. “He allowed a 43.6 passer rating in his five starts last season, with no touchdown passes allowed. Just 26, Moseley has allowed only one touchdown over the past two seasons with a passer rating of 63.2.”

He gave the Sutton signing a B-.

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Pro Football Focus: A- for Moseley; secondary gets ‘most improved’

Pro Football Focus loved the Lions’ signing of Moseley (one-year, $6 million), grading it an A- as “a smart buy-low decision … on a player who started off the 2022 season strong, earning a career-high 73.5 coverage grade through Week 5, before tearing his ACL leading up to Week 6.”

PFF also named the Lions’ secondary among the six most improved position groups after grabbing Moseley and Sutton. It likes they can now draft the best player available at Nos. 6 and 18 overall, “rather than chase the need to fill a weak spot,” analyst Sam Monson wrote. “Moseley has allowed a passer rating of 82.8 into his coverage for his entire career and Sutton has multiple seasons with an above-average PFF coverage grade playing both outside and in the slot.”

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