Allen Park — To say the Detroit Lions have been active through the first wave of free agency would be an understatement. With that period winding down, we thought it was a good time to collect our thoughts on the moves the team has made and what’s ahead for the remainder of the offseason.
▶ Acing cap management
Let’s talk about the team’s current cap situation. There are various contract aggregators who do a commendable job staying on top of the league’s signings, cuts and restructures, and each of those sources has the Lions among the league leaders in remaining cap space. To backstop that math, I maintain my own spreadsheet, where I also aim to include future expenditures.
Here’s the current situation: Acknowledging I don’t have contract figures for Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Nate Sudfeld, who both recently agreed to terms with the team, I have the Lions with $18 million in cap room. There’s a reason why my number is different — and lower — than some of the others you might see out there. That’s because I add in projected contracts for the team’s scheduled draft picks, which include two first-round and a pair of second-round selections. Assuming the Lions stick with the No. 6 pick, that player will end up having one of the 10 largest cap hits on the roster in 2023. So, it would be disingenuous to talk about money the Lions have to spend without acknowledging some of that cap space is earmarked for the draft class.
Additionally, only the top 51 contracts count toward the cap calculation in the offseason. Come the regular season, all 53 players on the roster, plus the team’s 16-man practice squad are added into the equation. Plus, there’s the necessity to maintain some kind of buffer, for those midseason additions when injuries come up. At a minimum, expect the Lions to take $5 million into training camp.
Still, that leaves room to add more to the roster this offseason, whether via free agency or trade, if there’s a good fit. Alternatively, there’s opportunity to work on contract extensions, which we’ll come back to in a minute.
As for the future health of the cap, you may have noticed the Lions have been adding void years to several deals. That pushes some cap responsibility into 2024 and gives the team more immediate spending power. Let me assure you, the strategy is not an issue. As it currently stands, the Lions have about $12 million in dead cap going toward players who have contracts voiding at the end of the season. For context, 18 teams have more dead money against their current cap. And at first glance, the Lions don’t have any obvious cap casualties for next offseason, so that amount shouldn’t change much.
▶ About those extensions
The Lions have nearly 20 players who will be unrestricted free agents next season, but only one stands out as worthy of an early contract extension: Guard Jonah Jackson.
I’ve wondered aloud in recent weeks whether the Lions can afford to pay Jackson. Obviously, with the team’s current cap situation, yes, they can. On the other hand, with Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow on long-term, big-money deals, and Penei Sewell a couple of years away from breaking the bank, is it good business to tie up that much cap into a single position group? That’s for general manager Brad Holmes and company to determine.
In recent weeks, Atlanta reset the market for the position, agreeing to an absurd five-year, $102 million extension with Chris Lindstrom. He’s a really good player, no doubt, but it’s the biggest contract for a guard ever, including a staggering $62 million in guarantees.
Jackson won’t get that, but a contract averaging more than $10 million looks likely for a young, durable starter with a Pro Bowl selection on the resume. The four-year, $51 million contract with $27 million guaranteed that Ben Powers signed in Denver this offseason is a solid benchmark for extension talks with Jackson.
Additionally, we are obligated to float the possibility of an extension for quarterback Jared Goff. It’s by no means a necessity with two years remaining on his current deal, but if the Lions don’t draft a QB capable of developing into an heir apparent, further committing to Goff as the franchise’s future, it makes more financial sense to pay him sooner than later, given the cap and contracts are steadily rising.
▶ Taking a closer look at pay cuts
Three Lions veterans took substantial pay cuts this offseason. Charles Harris is taking $3 million less to stay, Halapoulivaati Vaitai trimmed his earning potential by nearly $6 million, and Romeo Okwara accepted a massive $9 million salary decrease.
It’s been asked, why would any player agree to that? First and foremost, none of those three had any guaranteed money left on their deals, so agreeing to stay is, at least somewhat, a reflection they didn’t think they could make more on the open market. Two years ago, the Lions scooped up Harris for less than $2 million, so coming off an injury plagued-season, was anyone going to pay him more than the $3.25 million he can potentially earn in Detroit this season?
Similarly for Vaitai, after missing all of 2022 because of a back injury, was any team going to give him $3 million and a chance to earn another $500,000 in playing-time bonuses?
I think Okwara might have been able to get more than the $2.5 million he’ll be able to earn next season, but there is something to be said about re-establishing your value in a familiar setting, with familiar coaches. On top of that, there’s still the appeal of playing alongside his brother in Detroit. Injuries have robbed the siblings of that chance for most of the past two seasons.
So, while taking pay cuts coming off major injury might be framed as a selfless act by these three players, for the most part, the decisions were in their best interest.
▶ Shakeup in the secondary
We obviously won’t know until the team starts practicing, but I’ve been thinking about what the secondary setup will look like following the additions of Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
My early guess would be Sutton, despite his ability to play anywhere in the back end, will spend most of his time on the outside. Opposite him, Moseley will compete for the starting job with Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs, who I refuse to count out.
In the middle of the field, I’m counting on Tracy Walker’s rehab from last year’s torn Achilles to continue to progress and for him to be ready to start Week 1 alongside Kerby Joseph. That leaves Gardner-Johnson to handle nickel-corner responsibilities, like he did in New Orleans, when he previously played for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
Now, while I see that as the base setup, I recognize there’s positional flexibility, particularly with Sutton and Gardner-Johnson. I would anticipate the Lions utilizing that to keep opposing offenses on balance.
▶ Cornerback still in play
Just because the Lions aggressively addressed the secondary in free agency doesn’t rule out the possibility of taking a cornerback early in the draft.
Sutton is a long-term piece, on a three-year contract, but the future is unclear with the rest of that group. Moseley only signed for one season, Okudah’s rookie contract expires after this season and Jacobs will be a restricted free agent. So, the ability to get a top-flight cover corner in the first round shouldn’t be dismissed.
And yes, that means as early as the No. 6 pick, where both Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez carry appeal. Witherspoon sticks out as a clear culture and stylistic fit with his in-your-face aggressiveness, while Gonzalez is as athletically gifted as they come at the position, and is coming off a season in which he intercepted four passes.
Briefly back to Okudah — I’m not convinced he’ll be on the Week 1 roster. The team’s free-agency approach spoke volumes about how they viewed last year’s starters, and if the Lions draft a cornerback on top of that, don’t be surprised if they shop Okudah. He might not bring back much, but there are bound to be some coaches out there who loved him coming out of Ohio State and are convinced they can get more production out of him than the Lions did, especially two years removed from his Achilles injury.
▶ Backfield improvements
Jamaal Williams was awesome during his two-year stint in Detroit, both on the field and with the relationships he built with the fans and this city. That said, David Montgomery is a clear upgrade. He’s more elusive with the ball in his hands and a better weapon in the receiving game, while giving the team similar durability, short-yardage and pass-blocking abilities and locker-room leadership.
Williams has never played more than 522 snaps in a season during his six-year career, while Montgomery has never played fewer than 614. The combination of his durability and skill set put the Lions in better position to overcome D’Andre Swift’s durability issues, because the full playbook can continue to be utilized with Montgomery’s advanced route running.
▶ Work to do
Holmes has done a good job of checking items off the shopping list this offseason, but there are still areas where the roster needs attention. The Lions retained Isaiah Buggs, but have yet to upgrade a defensive interior that played a big role in the team allowing an ugly 5.2 yards per carry last season.
The tight-end room could also use some work. The young group caught a bunch of touchdowns last year, but didn’t offer much more in the pass game and there’s clearly an opportunity to get a better run-blocker in the mix.
And finally, the Lions still need help at wide receiver. Yes, Jameson Williams is in line for a much bigger role next season, but he’s not a one-to-one replacement for what DJ Chark brought to the table, as a big-bodied X receiver who can use his frame to make plays in the red zone, while also having the speed to stretch the field and clear out underneath defenders.
Chark had been lingering on the market, and it felt like running it back was a possibility, but he reached an agreement with the Panthers on Friday. In terms of the draft, some early-round options who have a similar build and skill set are Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman, TCU’s Quentin Johnston and Wake Forest’s A.T. Perry. Needing more polish, someone like West Virginia’s Bryce Ford-Wheaton could be available later in the event.
▶ The Jalen Carter dilemma
You’ll find draft analysts out there who will tell you Carter is the most talented player in this class, and he’d certainly fill that need for an impact defensive tackle in Detroit, but I remain unconvinced the Lions would take him if he’s on the board at No. 6.
This front office and coaching staff values character, which is a two-fold concept. There’s off-field stuff and football character, the willingness to give everything you have, every day, to being the best player you can be.
I’m reluctant to engage in a debate about Carter off the field. We all know he was charged with reckless driving and racing in an auto accident that resulted in two deaths, but was that an isolated incident of immaturity that unfortunately ended in tragedy? Maybe. That’s why teams invest so much into digging into these prospects as people, not just in the weeks before the draft, but for the past two or three years through the scouting process.
Then there’s showing up to his pro day overweight and out of shape. That’s in direct contradiction to everything the Lions have been about under Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. If Carter is not taking his preparation seriously now, what about when he has a conflict with an assistant coach or doesn’t like his contract? It’s all part of the consideration when investing $30 million over four years in a player.
I’m not saying the Lions won’t draft Carter — because I can’t say that with any real conviction. But, if I’m making assessments based on what I know, both from observable track record and conversations with people in the building, I’d lean toward the team passing.
▶ Special teams will need fresh blood
The Lions have lost more than they gained with their special-teams units this offseason. The team re-signed Anthony Pittman and CJ Moore, plus they’re bringing back Jalen Reeves-Maybin, but saw Josh Woods and Chris Board land elsewhere. It’s more than just having someone backfill those lost snaps, the team will need someone to step up and do it at a high level.
Maybe that’s Will Harris, the versatile veteran who doesn’t seem to have a clear path to playing time on defense following the aforementioned additions in the secondary. There’s also probably room for Derrick Barnes and/or Malcolm Rodriguez to do more with those groups. Still, don’t be surprised to see Detroit target a player or two in the later stages of the draft who have high ceilings as special-teams contributors.
▶ Kicking competition?
Right now, Michael Badgley is the only kicker on the roster. After a solid audition last season, he earned a new contract with the team and is the clear frontrunner for the job. But, with only $350,000 in guarantees attached to the deal, he’s far from a roster lock.
Expect the Lions to add a rookie, even one who goes undrafted, to compete for the role. If the calm and cool Badgley continues to perform like he did last season, when he made 20 of 24 field goals, you can confidently roll with him. But, if there’s any regression, it’s a good idea to have an alternative waiting in the wings.