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Detroit Lions Free Agency Primer: Offense

Image courtesy of Stew Milne, USA Today Sports

Written by: JT Bowen

Instagram: @_jtbowen

Most fans and media personnel alike would agree on the Lions wide-ranging woes last season and disappointing record were largely not because of the offense. Up until Matthew Stafford’s injury, Detroit’s offense was very efficient, with #9 turning in MVP-caliber numbers and the passing game flourishing in spite of injuries across the line and to Kerryon Johnson and rookie struggles from would-be contributors.

However, just like any offense, there’s always room to improve — bolstering depth, finding a reliable backup signal-caller, and getting younger. The bulk of Detroit’s cap space will and should be allocated to shoring up the needs on defense, but trust in Bob Quinn and Co. to make some moves to help Matthew Stafford out.

Let’s examine each offensive position, the current outlook of the position as it stands, and some potential names to look out for that Detroit could target when free agency opens.

Offensive Line- A very interesting spot for the Lions. While some positions have high-end starters locked in, like Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker, Detroit’s various investments through the draft and free agency haven’t exactly molded the mauling offensive line most have hoped for. How heavily the line is addressed will be largely dictated by Graham Glasgow’s uncertain future, as he’s set to hit free agency and wants a big payday which Detroit might not want to commit to. Additionally, starting right tackle Rick Wagner was recently released, and though Tyrell Crosby has shown flashes, the Lions need to find replacements. Look for at least one starter to be added either early in free agency or the draft, and depth pieces added to challenge guys like Crosby and Joe Dahl. Keeping Matthew Stafford upright and opening holes for running backs will be integral if the Lions want to find success next year.

Jack Conklin- Tennessee has several high-end starters that need to be resigned like Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, but with only so much money to go around, it looks like former Spartan Jack Conklin. Despite battling injuries throughout his career Conklin has solidified himself as one of the league’s elite tackles, earning First-Team All-Pro honors as a rookie and bouncing back after an ACL tear. However, with $16 million already tied up with tackle Taylor Lewan, the Titans limited cap space might see Conklin depart in free agency as a cap casualty. Conklin, just 25, doesn’t seem like he’ll accept Tennessee’s reduced offer whatever it may be and is rumored to have many suitors as arguably the premier tackle on the market. Though Detroit’s name hasn’t been circling the rumor mill of yet, if they’re looking to part ways with Rick Wagner and upgrade with a younger, better option, they could swing on the in-state product in the $15 million/yr realm, with likely a lot of guaranteed money given his injury history.

Ereck Flowers- Considered by most a colossal bust, Flowers was selected 9th overall in 2015 by the Giants as their left tackle of the future. However, Flowers immense athleticism and upside were never unlocked, and he began to spiral out of control, failing miserably in both New York and Jacksonville. Washington took a flier on him the last offseason, which worked out fairly well for both parties, as kicking Flowers inside to guard seemed to tap into some of his potential. Flowers, still far from the Pro Bowl talent New York likely had in mind when drafting him, has a season under his belt of starting experience on the interior, and at just 26, will likely command a more expensive deal as he looks to get his career back on track. Assuming Glasgow leaves, Flowers, though he won’t be an immaculate replacement, will come cheaper and younger, and could possibly continue to improve at the guard position in the NFL.

Joe Thuney- Of the upper-tier offensive linemen on the market this offseason, I would say Thuney is the most likely to become a Lion. New England’s frugality when it comes to resigning players and absence of cap space makes it extremely likely Thuney returns to Foxboro, but he could find a similar home in Detroit. Of course, the Patriots connection makes this an easy choice, but Thuney’s progression into one of the association’s most solid guards at just 27 is enticing as well. He’ll probably command a bit more than Graham Glasgow, something in the $13-14 million range, but if Detroit is willing to pay up and bring in a former Patriot, something they’re proven to be fond of, Thuney could be a big addition this offseason.

Austin Blythe- Sifting through the bargain bin leads us to another former Iowa standout, current Ram Austin Blythe. As previously documented, Los Angeles isn’t exactly rolling in cap room, so Blythe, although unlikely to command major money, may play in a new uniform next season. Blythe’s youth, versatility, and starting experience make him a natural fit in Detroit. He’s not the player Graham Glasgow is, but will come much cheaper and would slide into the guard rotation employed by the Lions. Detroit could probably bring him on a cheap, short-term deal after a mediocre 2019 season, and if he is available in the $2-4 million/yr range, I’m all for it.

Bringing back Graham Glasgow- I’m a little floored, honestly, that Detroit is letting Glasgow walk. Few interior linemen have been as consistent and durable as Glasgow over the past few years, and for him to depart for no compensation is another in a growing line of head-scratching decisions for Bob Quinn. There are solid options on the market for the Lions, but Glasgow’s scheme familiarity, team chemistry, and stated wish to return make resigning the Michigan product a no-brainer. Maybe Detroit has a master plan in place and we’ll all laugh at this dilemma as 2021 Super Bowl Champions, but letting Glasgow walk as perhaps the best guard option for them is currently baffling.

Quarterback- As already stated, don’t expect anyone new under center — Stafford is just 31, a top-10 signal-caller in the league, and has a ton of money left on his deal. He’s the guy, at least through next season. But, like any team, the Lions could definitely improve at the backup quarterback position, after the uninspired finish to the season by fill-ins Jeff Driskel and David Blough. While those two are young and lack experience, the value of a really good backup is seen almost every year in guys like Teddy Bridgewater keeping the Saints afloat last season, Case Keenum leading the Vikings a couple of years ago, and, of course, Nick Foles’ heroic Super Bowl run. Obviously, other aspects of the Lions would need improvement to harbor that kind of performance, but if the Lions had a Tyrod Taylor or Ryan Tannehill last year their season could have been salvaged. Point is, the Lions should bring in some more bodies to challenge the in-house options at backup quarterback, with the hope being whoever it is can lead the team to wins rather than noticeable regression.

Tight End- Detroit’s heavy investments into this position via free agency and the draft certainly did not pay off in the manner they were hoping for, as the complete lack of efficiency and production rivaled the laughable 2018 tight end campaign from the Lions. However, it’s not hard to envision a large step forward entering 2020. 2019 first rounder TJ Hockenson, who’s already-unrealistic expectations tripled after a stellar Game 1, had an up-and-down rookie campaign that ended on IR and displayed many of the tropes that tight ends struggle with early in their career as they adapt to the NFL. The transition from a tight end in college to the pros is widely regarded as one of the most difficult, and Hockenson surely hit that rookie wall last year. In spite of the struggles, though, he showed flashes of the seam-splitting and red zone threat that made him the 8th overall selection and should start to turn the corner next year once he’s healthy. One of Detroit’s biggest signings of last offseason, former Steeler Jesse James, albeit more experienced, also shared in the struggles at the position in 2019. At this point, it’s safe to say he’s an overpaid and average TE2 mainly utilized for blocking. Past those two, who will garner the majority of snaps for the tight ends rostered, it’s a camp battle. Personally, I’m completely fine with Logan Thomas being brought back for cheap, as he showed red-zone potential and athleticism in reserve minutes, and Isaac Nauta challenging him or playing for the fourth spot in the depth chart should the Lions go that deep. Basically, don’t expect much change here, save maybe some shuffling at the bottom of the depth chart.

Resigning Logan Thomas- As already stated, I would be perfectly content with Detroit bringing back Logan Thomas to be the TE3 and compete with some camp bodies like Isaac Nauta. Thomas, a converted quarterback, had a really solid first year in the Motor City, nearing 200 yards and adding a touchdown as well. He has shown value in a reserve role, and if he can continue to improve at just 28, he could unseat Jesse James as the second tight end in the passing game. His blocking ability isn’t stellar, but he’s a large, athletic target for Matthew Stafford if anything were to happen to Hock and James. I would love to see him back on a minimum deal for a year.

Donald Parham- A familiar name for some Lions fans, the Stetson product was brought on as an undrafted free prior to the 2019 season, ultimately not making the roster as a very raw prospect coming from a Division 2 program. However, he’s finding his footing in the XFL with the Dallas Renegades, becoming one of the most productive pass-catchers in the league. His 6’8 frame and blazing speed for his size are intangible traits, and with proven production at the next level, he should have a second shot at playing in the NFL. Once the XFL season concludes and certain players are allowed to pursue a career at the next level, Detroit could look to bring Parham back as a developmental project who could one day become a legitimate matchup nightmare.

Levine Toilolo- Another former Lion, the journeyman tight end’s last stop after his 2018 campaign with Detroit was as a reserve in San Francisco. His lack of production, the Niners’ dearth of cap space, and current stacked tight end rotation don’t bode well for him returning to the reigning NFC champions, and he could look to rejoin the Lions for another year. He’s mainly used as a blocker, but at 6’8 is capable of some big plays downfield as he made in 2018 if memory serves. Will be available for a minimum deal if Detroit wants to add a familiar name to shore up the blocking aspect of the tight end room.

Wide Receiver- Though not a pressing need currently, the three starting receivers respective contracts expire next year. Kenny Golladay is the name to watch, as he is eligible for and should receive a massive extension. Detroit would be wise to iron out a deal sooner than later, as another terrific year may skyrocket his asking price near the $20 million range. It looks unlikely he’ll be extended before free agency opens, but Detroit needs to look into an extension before the season begins. Behind him is the aging duo of Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola, who while still under contract this year have uncertain futures. Jones just turned 30, and despite being an above-average WR2 may look to cash in on one more large deal that Detroit might be hesitant to offer if Golladay is set to cash in. Amendola, who recently resigned on another 1-yr deal, can still contribute as a slot receiver despite being in his mid-30s, but Detroit should look to add a younger option out of the slot later in the draft or in free agency. Additionally, Jermaine Kearse is an interesting case, as before his unfortunate preseason injury he was locked into the WR4 role. I’m all for bringing him back, as his veteran experience and familiarity with Darrell Bevell never got to shape up, but challenging the nonexistent depth behind Amendola is necessary. Expect some camp bodies to be brought on, and maybe a flier or two on younger guys to prepare for the future.

Amari Cooper- Much like Brandon Scherff, I’d say there’s a pretty high chance Cooper stays in Dallas, as both sides have expressed mutual interest in an extension and have worked on a contract for months. If the two camps can’t come together on an extension and Dak receives the franchise tag, the latter of which looks likely at this point, Cooper will hit free agency and perhaps seek greener pastures coming off a career year. Despite injuries hindering his play, Cooper looked like one of the best receivers in all of football, finding his footing in the Cowboys offense and building a strong rapport with Prescott. Cooper is just 25 and will look to cash in on a mega-deal, whether it be from Dallas, whose priority is extending Dak, or another team willing to throw a massive deal at the Alabama star. With Kenny Golladay’s impending extension and growth into a true WR1, it would seem unlikely that Cooper would head to Motor City, but if the Lions want to swing for the fences they could look to add Cooper and immediately elevate the offense from dangerous to lethal.

Laquon Treadwell- You might remember Treadwell, a former first-rounder from Ole Miss, after his comments that the Lions were ‘easy’ last season. While not exactly an untrue comment, it was pretty disrespectful, especially towards a team that not only gave him a workout but from a player who has been one of the biggest busts of the past few years. However, if the two camps can make amends Treadwell could be a cheap, young, low-risk wideout to take a flier on. After being cut by Minnesota he had a workout in Detroit, and if the Lions liked what they saw it wouldn’t be surprising to see him signed to compete in camp. Treadwell has been a massive disappointment through four years after record-setting numbers at Mississippi, but adding him for his potential and age to see if he can become half of the player he once was would be a savvy move for the Lions.

Rashard Higgins- As the Browns look to retool with two stars already at wide receiver and a new regime taking power, Higgins might not be in the future plans for Cleveland. After a solid 2018 year, Higgins took a step back, competing with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry for looks with mediocre quarterback play in a futile, run-first offense. At just 25, though, Higgins has proven to be a capable producer and can be a decent addition for the Lions. In the $5 million/yr range, Higgins would compete for a depth spot, but his upside and youth could make him a piece for the future.

Josh Gordon- A well-known player who at one point was a budding star in the NFL, Gordon’s career has been derailed for drug use. Gordon was suspended indefinitely in December for PED use, and despite currently rostered by Seattle it seems unlikely he will be returning. It’s truly sad to see such a talented player who is still only 28 have his promising start to his career completely obliterated by numbering substance-related suspensions. The length of his current suspension is unknown and as it is his eighth, he may be out of second chances, but Detroit could see if he can finally break his habits and return to being a productive receiver. Splitting time between New England and Seattle last season, Gordon had fairly average numbers but showed he can still be a downfield threat. If the Lions, who have shown a Patriots-like reticence to taking on players with off-field issues, choose to take a no-strings-attached cheap deal on Gordon, it could pay off in spades should he finally turn the corner of his relapse struggles. This, of course, is contingent on Gordon being reinstated before the 2020 season but could be in play if he is cleared by the commissioner.

Philip Dorsett- In a fairly weak crop of free-agent wide receivers under 30, yet another player trying to shed the bust label emerges. Dorsett, who was drafted in Round 1 by Indianapolis in 2015, has spent the last two seasons in New England, where he hasn’t been able to carve out a role despite the massive target share he has gotten. It doesn’t seem like the Patriots will be bringing the former Miami wideout back, so a logical landing spot for the guy could come in the shape of Matt Patricia, a Belichick disciple with a well-documented commitment to bringing in former New England players. Dorsett will come cheap and on a team-friendly deal, as he looks to perform in what may be his last chance in the NFL. In a room with proven talents ahead of him, bringing Dorsett on to develop and compete with others, while it might not drastically alter Detroit’s offense, could be a nice addition.

Running Back- At the crux of offensive offseason decisions is the question of the Lions’ running back room. One of the most intriguing things to watch during and preceding the 2019 season was the running back roulette employed by Detroit. Once Kerryon went down on injured reserve, it was literally any man’s game, with practice-squad guys like Wes Hills, Paul Perkins, Tra Carson, JD McKissic and Ty Johnson trying their hand as starters before the Lions eventually settled on Alabama product Bo Scarbrough to ride things out. Despite his persisting injury questions, Kerryon Johnson has shown workhorse talent and should be viewed as the RB1 at this point, but at one point or another Detroit has to think about a replacement if he can’t stay healthy for a full season. Bo Scarbrough is firmly slotted as the team’s second running back, bringing a bruising presence to the position, but the team’s sudden release of CJ Anderson doesn’t spell security for him — he’ll be playing for a roster spot. Behind those two, it will fully come down to camp. Ty Johnson, a sixth-round speedster out of Maryland from last year had his fair share of rookie struggles, but the pass-catching ability he possesses and similar skill set of former Seahawk JD McKissic will be a battle to watch. If Detroit can pick up a few Day 3 selections, they may swing on one late in a deep RB class, but I expect the majority of moves to be lower-tier free agency signings to compete for depth spots — apologies to the Derrick Henry-Detroit ship.

Jordan Howard- After a year in Philly that yielded middling results and injury struggles, Howard could head back to the NFC North to seek vengeance against the team that traded him for a bag of chips. It seems unlikely he’ll be playing for the Eagles next year, with younger options like Miles Sanders available. Howard, a former 6th-rounder out of Indiana, had a great start to his career in Chicago, posting back-to-back 1000-yd campaigns in 2016 and 2017, but slowed down and was traded to the Eagles before his extension. Now, after a down year, Howard will look to revive his career, and at just 25, could be a great value signing. The former Pro Bowler will likely fetch less than $5 million/yr, and adding him to compete in a backfield full of questions might not be a bad idea.

Dion Lewis- Another logical, bargain bin name to look out for. Lewis fell victim to the ever-changing Patriots running back room, and after breathing life into his career in New England, was signed by Tennessee, a team coached by Patriot disciple Mike Vrabel. Lewis was brought in as a complementary back to Derrick Henry to be mainly utilized in the passing game, and he was in 2018, posting 59 receptions and over 900 composite yards, but his production tailed off in 2019 as Henry stepped into a greater role as a do-it-all workhorse. Lewis was recently cut in a cap-saving move, and at 29 will look to cash in on his final few years of capable play. Lewis will probably end up making a similar salary to Howard, somewhere in the $4-5 million/yr range, as his proven ability in the receiving game is coveted. Given the Patriot ties, Lewis would be a prime option to bolster the running back room as a veteran presence.

Gus Edwards- An exclusive rights free agent currently in Baltimore, Edwards went undrafted out of Rutgers in 2018 before signing as a free agent with the Ravens. Edwards made good use of extended playing time towards the end of the 2018 season, totaling over 700 yards and averaging over 5.0 yards per carry, but after the addition of Mark Ingram in free agency and Justice Hill in the draft in 2019, it seemed as though he would fall out of favor. Edwards, though, was a model of consistency, again surpassing 700 yards and averaging a little over 5.0 yards/carry despite Ingram being the lead back and Lamar Jackson a premier option on the ground as well. The former Scarlet Knight stands at 6-1 and 238 lbs and fits the mold of a bruising back, similar to current Lion Bo Scarbrough. As he is an ERFA, Baltimore has the early rights to bring him back on a minimum deal, and they should give his consistent production despite roster turnover, but if he hits the market expects him to have a slew of suitors. Detroit could be a landing spot for the young and talented Edwards, who has produced very well in limited touches and could compete in the Lions backfield.

Kenyan Drake- Probably the least likely of these names to become a Lion, but the most intriguing. Drake was traded midway through the 2019 season to Arizona from the Dolphins, but at one point it seemed as though he was destined to land in Detroit. Drake’s change of scenery to a slightly more competent team was highly beneficial for the young back, as the Alabama product posted a career year in touchdowns and yards and was able to tap into the potential that hadn’t been displayed in Miami. Though Drake is a perfect fit in the Arizona ‘Air Raid’ offense, the Cardinals currently have David Johnson under contract as well as Chase Edmonds, the latter of which will come much cheaper and the former who carries a large-cap hit if traded or released, in addition to once being among the league’s top backs. If Drake does test free agency, which seems more likely than not, he will undoubtedly have a myriad of teams interested in signing him. Drake is rumored to be pursuing a deal in the $8-10 million/yr range according to Jason La Canfora, which is a lot for a player with half a season of production. However, Detroit has been heavily linked to Drake, and if he does hit free agency it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see him as a splashy addition to the Lions backfield to immediately push for a starting job.

Obviously, Detroit’s major flaws lie in defense. However, there are varying holes on the offensive side, starting on the line but pushing into skill positions, that also need to be plugged. As the Lions continue to open up cap space, expect them to be very active whenever free agency ends up opening, which may be pushed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As always, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more content.



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