Written by: JT Bowen
Coming off of a massively disappointing 3-13-1 season in which the Lions noticeably regressed from the previous year and received a win-now mandate from owner Martha Ford, Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia will look to fill several roster holes and field the best possible roster in order to keep their jobs, which are very much at stake pending this upcoming season.
After the seemingly unceremonious release of DT Damon Harrison Sr., the Lions sit right around $54 million of cap space, a solid amount of spending money following some of the back-loaded contracts the Lions signed players to last offseason. Though Detroit isn’t viewed as a highly desirable destination for many free agents, money speaks, and the Lions should be able to reel in 1 or 2 ‘big name’ signings by paying a little extra, along with several lower-caliber players to shore up roster holes.
Despite preceding it, free agency is largely dictated by the Draft. For example, the Lions can have just about any player they want at #3, so if they’re targeting Jeff Okudah I don’t see them going after Byron Jones. True, the Lions took TJ Hockenson at #8 last year after signing Jesse James to a big contract, but I really don’t see the Lions throwing huge deals at anyone, much less players that have better options through the draft.
Right now, I would say the most likely position for the Lions to pay big money for is the defensive end. The 2020 Draft is viewed as weak for the position after Chase Young, who, barring a massive surprise, won’t make it to Detroit, and I anticipate the Lions to look to add another edge rusher opposite Trey Flowers early in free agency.
Free agency will also be based on the Lions’ decisions regarding pending agents. The Lions will likely need to replace Graham Glasgow with another interior lineman, need help on the interior defensive line with Snacks gone and A’Shawn Robinson and Mike Daniels pending free agents, and may have a huge hole at corner if Slay is traded.
Additionally, the Lions would be wise to extend Kenny Golladay, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and almost certainly pay less than they would next offseason.
There are many tough decisions the Lions have made and will have to continue to make entering this make-or-break season. Resigning Danny Amendola was a good start, but Detroit simply has to see more consistent production from additions if they want to win and compete this year, and here are some free agents on the defensive side that I expect the Lions to target or at least show interest in this offseason.
Defensive Line- Probably the biggest need on the team despite large investments. Team lacks pass-rushing, struggles with injuries, and is set to lose key players across the line. Patricia and Co. will undoubtedly add some players here. Apart from Trey Flowers and Da’Shawn Hand, the defensive line room could look completely different next year.
Jadeveon Clowney- Arguably the prize of the defensive class in free agency with Chris Jones set to receive the franchise tag from Kansas City, Clowney is an interesting case. The former #1 overall selection has yet to really emerge as the perennial All-Pro, but is still a freakishly athletic talent with upside. Clowney has struggled with injuries across his career, but is still young at just 27 and has intriguing potential. Investing $20 million/year in a guy with 3 sacks last year might not be ideal, especially with Trey Flowers making nearly that, but Clowney’s name value and scheme-transcendent edge rushing capability may be the big move Bob Quinn could make.
Dante Fowler Jr.- After a slow, injury-marred start to his career in Jacksonville, where he was the 3rd overall selection in 2015, the Rams bet on Fowler’s upside last season, and did again in 2019, signing him to one year extension. Since then, the Florida product has seen a career revival, as he hit career highs in Los Angeles last year, tallying 11.5 sacks. The Rams’ financial bind will make it very likely that Fowler hits the market as an unrestricted free agent, where he will seek to cash in following a breakout year. His rumored destination of choice is Atlanta, but Detroit could be a suitor for his pass-rushing talent. Though he played alongside Aaron Donald, Fowler’s age (25) and fit in Patricia’s scheme could make him a Lion if they’re willing to take a risk and pay him the $16 million he’s looking for.
Vic Beasley- Essentially the opposite of Dante Fowler’s career, Beasley saw a strong start to his career, pacing the league with 16.5 sacks in his sophomore season, but saw his production and impact drop off towards the end of his rookie deal. He had a bit of a bounce-back year last season, garnering more sacks and forced fumbles then the past two years, but he simply hasn’t been the same player since 2016. Still just 28, Beasley will look for a team to take a flier on him, as Atlanta has publicly stated they will not try to resign him. It’s unclear how much Beasley will look for, but if the Lions can sign the former Clemson star to an incentive-laden deal that tops out around $10 million, he could be an intriguing low-risk, high-reward (think Shaquil Barrett) addition to the Lions defensive line.
DJ Reader- Moving towards the interior of the defensive line, we see pending free agent and current Texan DJ Reader. Reader has been criminally underrated at the nose tackle position for the past few years, and had a career season in 2019, scoring an 85.5 grade according to Pro Football Focus. Reader would seamlessly fit into the role of the recently-cut Damon Harrison as the team’s primary run-stuffer, and add dept with the uncertain futures of Mike Daniels and A’Shawn Robinson. Reader is 25 and a model of reliability and consistency at the position. Though he will likely earn something in the realm of $13 million/yr, seeing the massive impact Snacks had in 2018 could push the Lions to re-up on a premier lane clogger.
Shelby Harris- Perhaps the most likely of these players to become a Lion is Shelby Harris of Denver. The former seventh-rounder has been a bit of a reserve player in the Mile High City, playing alongside Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and Bradley Chubb during his tenure, but has exceeded in that role. It’s unclear if Denver will try to return Harris, after a bit of a down year in comparison to 2018, but his production and knack for making big plays when it counts, as well as his versatility, should make him coveted around the league. In Detroit, Harris could immediately step into a Da’Shawn Hand-like role, rotating all across the defensive line and bolstering depth. Time will tell what type of money Harris is set to make, but if the Lions can bring him in for something in the $8-10 million range, it would be a nice addition.
Linebackers- Not quite the need the defensive line is, but problems here nonetheless. Jarrad Davis has been average through three years, and while Jahlani Tavai showed flashes in his rookie year, he doesn’t look like a Pro Bowl talent the Lions would like here. Not sure how much Detroit will want to spend here given other needs, but expect some new guys.
Cory Littleton- In short, one of the league’s top coverage linebackers. Littleton can struggle against the run, but his ball skills and overall ability to stop the pass is invaluable, especially with Jarrad Davis’ renewed struggles in coverage. It seems unlikely at this point that he will return to the Rams given their lack of cap space and other pending extensions for guys like Jalen Ramsey and Andrew Whitworth. He’s reportedly being targeted by Green Bay, and will likely command a large deal upwards of $12 million/yr, but Littleton would be an outstanding addition for Detroit.
Kyle Van Noy- Given the connection to Patricia, seeing Kyle Van Noy back in Lions uniform wouldn’t be the biggest shock. Van Noy overcame a slow start to his career in Detroit after ending up in New England, and has blossomed into a versatile piece on the Patriots defense. His calling card is his pass-rushing, and he has grown into more of an edge rusher than a linebacker as his career has progressed, but adds hybrid potential to move across the defense. Van Noy has the positional flexibility that Matt Patricia salivates for and the pass-rushing ability the defense needs, so a reunion in Detroit may be possible this offseason, given New England’s tendency to let players walk rather than resign them.
Joe Schobert- A former fourth-rounder, Schobert has become an underrated and consistent producer on the Cleveland defense. Despite racking up 133 tackles, two forced fumbles, and four interceptions, Schobert and the Browns have reportedly decided to part ways this offseason. Schobert is similar to Littleton, excelling primarily in coverage, but he should come a bit cheaper, projecting to receive roughly $10 million/yr. Also heavily linked to Green Bay, especially with his ties to Wisconsin, but would add a much-needed piece to the front seven.
Jamie Collins- The Patriots connection makes this an easy pick, and would likely draw the ire of some cynical fans, but Collins would be a great addition. Collins was one of the game’s premier linebackers before being surprisingly traded to Cleveland in 2016, where he saw the quick start to his career begin to slow with injury. However, after being cut by Cleveland following the 2018 season, Collins returned to New England in 2019 and revived his career, displaying the freakish athleticism and playmaking ability that had once made him an All-Pro. Collins is set to hit the open market, and although he’ll turn 31 during the 2020 season, will likely have many suitors. Collins’ age won’t see many teams throwing long term deals, but his outstanding production in a familiar scheme could parlay into reuniting with Matt Patricia in Detroit.
Defensive Backs- It’s almost like Detroit has several holes to fill — but the needs at defensive back rival the needs of the defensive line. Everything depends on two main factors here: Darius Slay’s future as a Lion, and whether or not Tavon Wilson is brought back. Regardless of this, the need is still large, as the lack of depth and starting-caliber talent was exposed by opposing offenses all season. Expect a positional rehaul, both through the draft and free agency.
Logan Ryan- Yet another former Patriot, Logan Ryan is what the Lions wanted when they signed Rashaan Melvin last offseason. Ryan is an experienced veteran at the cornerback position since being drafted by New England in 2013. No matter how the corner room looks next season (Slay+Okudah, just Okudah, just Slay, or neither), Ryan is a solid addition. He’s a plug-and-play CB2 who brings consistency, a mentor presence for younger guys if Slay leaves, and a shown affinity for New England disciples, as he played under Mike Vrabel for two years. Ryan would be a perfect addition for the Lions defense in any scenario, and will come cheaper than some household names due to his age.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix- Clinton-Dix continues his NFC North tour, as Detroit would mark the third team in the division the Alabama product would have played on in his short career. Clinton-Dix signed a one year prove-it deal with Chicago in 2019 to position himself for a multi-year deal in 2020, and though he didn’t have a spectacular season, proved his worth as a solid ball-hawking and coverage safety. Chicago’s generally restricted cap space and recent lucrative extension of safety Eddie Jackson makes it unlikely that we will see Clinton-Dix in a Bears jersey next season. Chicago was an integral piece of Chicago’s dominant secondary, and at just 27, could catch the eye of the Lions. He’s not the veteran presence that Tavon Wilson is nor the scheme fit, but his status as a former Pro Bowler is enticing, and if he can be had at around $10 million/yr, I would be fine with the Lions signing him to a two or three-year deal.
Trae Waynes- A player who has never been able to put it all together in Minnesota, Waynes will likely seek greener pastures and welcome a change of scenery entering this offseason, and he could find a home in Detroit. The Michigan State product has been a decent starter on the Vikings loaded defense, but has never really reached the sky-high potential that made him the 11th overall selection almost five years ago. Waynes brings top-tier speed to the cornerback position and is a decent starter, but his issues with consistency and giving up big plays too often have prevented him from stepping into the CB1 role Minnesota hoped for when they drafted him. Still only 27, Waynes’ combination of upside and starting experience bill him as a player Bob Quinn could take a flier on to bolster the cornerback position.
Chris Harris Jr.- Not too much speculation here. According to some sources, the Lions made offers to Denver at the deadline in efforts to acquire the cornerback, but clearly came up short-handed. However, pending Darius Slay’s future, Harris Jr. could slide into the void at CB1, and the Lions will likely continue their pursuit. Harris will be a coveted, proven veteran corner on the market for many teams, and though I’m personally not comfortable paying him top-tier corner money as he enters his 30s, though it would not shock me to see him sign in Detroit, especially if Slay departs. His time in Denver seems to be coming to a close, and his long standing as one of the game’s elite bodes well for him to capture one last big contract. Detroit will likely be a suitor for his services.
Vonn Bell- Not exactly a household name, but coming off a career year in New Orleans. Bell’s lack of ball-hawking ability and elite versatility will likely relegate him to the $8 million/yr range, a payday I’m completely onboard with for the young strong safety. Bell almost certainly won’t be Saint next year given their cap-strapped nature and an obvious replacement in Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, but could find a home in the Motor City. Bell makes up for his lack of interceptions with fundamental tackling, solid coverage, and a knack for forcing fumbles, and is just 25. If Detroit elects to move on from Tavon Wilson, Bell would be a similar player from an ability standpoint, and would form a capable and young safety trio for the Lions.
Clearly, Detroit has some large holes on defense that they desperately need to fill if they want to improve in 2020. They have a fair amount of cap space to work with as it stands, but will need to still be mindful and seek out bargains. Of course, there are a number of smaller-name role players that the average NFL fan doesn’t know exist (the Oday Aboushis of the world) that Detroit will sign, but these account for a less impactful part of the free agency period.
Stay tuned for more post-Combine draft content, and a dive into the offensive side of free agency.