Written by: JT Bowen
As expected, the Lions have been among the most active teams early in free agency. With roughly $50 million to work with following the releases of Damon Harrison and Rick Wagner, Bob Quinn has made several moves to overhaul the defense in particular, but retool a team that went 3-12-1 last year and is entering a pivotal year.
Thus far, the biggest move of the offseason is the recent trade of 3x Pro Bowler and star corner Darius Slay to Philadelphia. After the Lions added Desmond Trufant late Wednesday, the writing already on the wall was further highlighted, as Slay blatantly expressed his desire to be traded on Twitter. And early Thursday morning, his wish was granted, as he was shipped off to the Eagles, an obvious destination from the start of the trade rumors given their lack of cornerback talent. Slay reunites with former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz on a loaded defense, and received a 3 year, $50 million extension to become the highest-paid corner in league history. In return, the Lions received a 3rd and 5th round selection, which is about what was expected for compensation.
Losing Slay stings, both from a talent and sentimental standpoint. Slay was a leader both on and off the field, acting as a mentor for a young secondary and an active citizen who embraced the Motor City and Michigan as a whole. It hurts to see him leave so unceremoniously, joining the growing line of players that have been seemingly wronged by a ruthless front office in Detroit. The vast majority of Detroit fans and media, including myself, wish Slay nothing but the best in Philadelphia and congratulate him on getting the money he deserved. Slay’s absence will undoubtedly be felt with no obvious replacement who can step in and mirror #23’s level of play, but at the very least the front office got something for him before he walked or potentially held out. Slay, in spite of his Twitter activity, paid his respects to the organization that drafted him and the town he played in, with a sincere Instagram post thanking fans and coaches alike.
The greater storyline of this development is an absolute, unfettered vote of self-confidence by the front office. As Quinn and Patricia enter a year with explicit playoff expectations, trading arguably your best defensive player is a bold decision and one that could spell their demise if it doesn’t pan out. Regardless of how highly they regarded Slay, especially given his sometimes vocal and outspoken nature, his consistency and lockdown ability that garnered league-wide respect had a profound impact on a Lions defense that otherwise floundered during the majority of his tenure. The front office duo’s fervent commitment to the Patriot Way continues to stomp out players who don’t exactly fit that mold, and parting ways with the best defensive player since Ndamukong Suh is a massive gamble.
What comes next is yet to be seen. Slay’s departure frees up about $10 million, but you could easily slide Desmond Trufant’s $23 million, 2 yr contract into that newly-allocated slot. After all, that, as Justin Rogers of the Detroit News claims, the Lions have a bit under $30 million to spend. I expect the Lions to lay low for the next few days after a very active start, closely monitoring the fluctuating value of unsigned players like Jadeveon Clowney or LeSean McCoy before potentially, if they see fit, trying to add someone for cheap due to a lack of market. However, I think that the majority of the action is behind us, save a few cheap depth signings and maybe one splashy add later on, as money will need to be saved for the incoming draft class, extensions down the line, and a bit to keep in the back pocket.
With that being said, let’s review all of Detroit’s movement since the opening of the tampering period on Monday — trades, departures, and signings — and I’ll share some thoughts.
Devon Kennard- Was announced to be released, then reports surfaced that Detroit was trying to trade him, and was officially cut a few hours later with no trade. The productive yet inefficient OLB quickly inked a deal with his hometown Arizona Cardinals to play opposite Chandler Jones on a 3yr/$20 million deal, more than he would’ve made in Detroit. It was surprising, as Kennard was a leader, but freed up almost $6 million and with an earlier addition, made him expendable.
Graham Glasgow- Fully expected to leave for a while now, but it still hurts. Glasgow, a rock-solid starter and versatile interior lineman, was signed to a four year, $44 million contract by Denver. Disappointing to see a well-respected and affable locker room guy leave, opens a hole at guard that still hasn’t been filled, and likely will remain open until the draft at this point. Thumbs down from me.
A’Shawn Robinson- After signing two interior defensive linemen, Robinson looked unlikely to return. Pounced on the ability to play alongside Aaron Donald on Thursday night, signing a 2yr/$17 million contract for the Rams. Another early 2016 draft choice that never quite panned out, wishing him the best of luck in LA. Don’t think I would’ve paid him almost 9 million dollars a year, though.
Jeff Driskel- The Denver Lions (just kidding) added Driskel to back up Drew Lock. Driskel never wowed during his few starts as Stafford’s backup before also ending up on IR, but showed an ability to scramble and good athleticism for a quarterback. Still young, and much cheaper than Joe Flacco. I hope he does well for the Broncos.
Logan Thomas- Kind of bummed to lose Thomas. The former QB at Virginia Tech had a career season last year in Detroit and was a really solid 3rd tight end. Joins the Redskins, where he could honestly compete for quality snaps in a wide-open tight end room. Details of the contract are unclear currently, but if it’s anywhere less than $2.5 million/yr I’d be mad if the Lions didn’t offer a similar amount.
JD McKissic- Another cheap offensive player lost to Washington, Detroit’s decision not to tender McKissic made it clear he most likely wasn’t coming back despite a pretty solid year. Versatile pass-catching back who will replace Chris Thompson, the Lions could use another RB that excels in the receiving game after McKissic’s departure. Also bummed he’s not coming back, was a sneaky-good and durable back that I would’ve liked to see compete for touches with Ty Johnson and a rookie if the Lions take one this year.
Of course, these are just the players that have already found new teams. There are still quite a few notable names that are free agents, such as Mike Daniels and Tavon Wilson, that Detroit hasn’t resigned yet and look like they’ll be moving on. However, other than Wilson and maybe Sam Martin, most are replacement-level talents that haven’t played well or often enough to warrant an extension. Wishing them all the best in free agency.
Darius Slay- I already shared my thoughts on Slay above, but I’ll sum it up quickly: losing Slay was inevitable after the Diggs trade and Slay’s recent comments about butting heads with the Patricia regime. He will be missed as an elite talent on the back end, but at least the Lions were able to get something for him before he left next season. It sucks, but we all knew it was coming. Picking up a 3rd and a 5th from Philadelphia will be highly valuable to continue to plug holes and bolster depth, but unless Jeff Okudah is selected and immediately turns into a Pro Bowl corner (which is very possible), Slay’s absence will be felt for a few years.
Duron Harmon- Maybe my favorite move of this offseason so far. Harmon is a veteran safety from (you guessed it) New England who was a cap casualty, an odd man out in the Patriots’ secondary. In exchange for a 5th-rounder, the Lions got the 29-year old Harmon and a 7th — a solid deal for Detroit. Harmon formerly played under Patricia, excels in coverage, and is known for his ‘clutch’ nature. Set to make about $4 million and a natural ballhawk, Harmon will immediately become a major contributor and veteran presence for the Detroit secondary. Great, cheap pickup for Bob Quinn.
Thus far, this is the only movement on the trade front for the Lions. Trades are hard to predict given the vastly differing views front offices have in regards to the value of players and draft picks, and how willing or not teams are to move on from certain players. However, Detroit’s Patriotesque lack of attachment to just about any player always makes them a team to look out for to swing a trade.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai- After a slow opening to free agency that was amplified by some insane moves around the league, Detroit broke the seal on the offseason by inking former Eagle and Super Bowl Champion Hal Vaitai to a 5yr, $45 million contract. After losing Rick Wagner to Green Bay, the Lions had a hole open at right tackle, and ‘Big V’, as he’s often called, will fill that role. Vaitai is a prototypical mauler who excels in run blocking. The signing has drawn the ire of fans and media alike, as Vaitai was a rotational player on Philadelphia’s stacked offensive line who never wowed in his starts. He’s an upside signing, a young player (26) with room to grow and a lack of experience, and if all else fails he can move inside to guard. Like any contract, we will only know over time if it’s a worthwhile addition, but Vaitai’s youth, playoff experience, and ability to grow make him an intriguing player to watch for Detroit.
Jamie Collins- The first Patriot to be added this offseason, Collins is one of the bigger names the Lions have signed so far. I briefly detailed Collins in my previous article as a potential target for the Lions, and the linebacker unsurprisingly is headed to Detroit, reuniting with his former defensive coordinator. Collins has had a storied career since being drafted in 2013, growing into an All-Pro player in New England before seeing his career trail off after he was traded to Cleveland. However, the 30-year old breathed life into his career in a prove-it year in New England, displaying the athleticism that once made him among the game’s best. Though he’s getting older, Collins has shown capability in coverage, playmaking, pass-rushing, and run defense. His familiarity in the Lions’ scheme and the release of Kennard pave the way for Collins to start at OLB for Detroit. $30 million over three years is a lot of money for an aging player, but he should be a meaningful contributor to the Lions’ defense.
Nicholas Williams- Certainly not the household name that some of Detroit’s other signings are, the Lions added the journeyman interior lineman late Monday night. Williams, who had been in and out of the league before turning in a career year last season in Chicago, is 30. After Akiem Hicks went down with an injury, Williams stepped up as an anchor in the middle of the Bears’ d-line, tallying 6.0 sacks which he turned into a sizable contract. The hope is that he can continue to grow after a breakout campaign, and will likely slide into a rotational role on the front end. He’s not a run-stuffer, but is versatile and can generate pressure from the inside. Expect him to compete for snaps with Da’Shawn Hand as a 3-technique iDL.
Chase Daniel- By no means a sexy signing, but a sensible one. Daniel, a former standout at Mizzou, stays in the NFC North, stepping into the QB2 role for Detroit. Many fans will remember Daniel from his 2018 Thanksgiving victory over the Lions, and he is a fairly reliable player as far as backup quarterbacks go. His contract is a bit hefty in my opinion, as he’s slated to make over $13 million across the 3-year deal, but has a voidable clause which makes it marginally easier to get out of. The addition of Daniel spelled the end of Jeff Driskel in Detroit and ended the backup quarterback carousel. Settling on a proven backup option is the smarter route for the Lions to go, and barring a stellar camp performance by David Blough, Daniel should have the QB2 position pretty locked up.
Danny Shelton- Unlike Williams, Shelton fills the nose tackle-run-stuffer mold that was opened up by Snacks’ release. An early 2015 first-rounder by the Browns,, Shelton was acquired by New England via trade and has since become the consistent defensive centerpiece he was drafted to be. He’s coming off of his best NFL season and comes affordably on a two-year, $8 million contract. Though he’s not Damon Harrison, he’s still young and has shown room to grow, especially as an interior disruptor. Really solid, inexpensive add. Lacks familiarity with Patricia, but should seamlessly slide into the nose tackle role as the team’s premier run-stuffer.
Desmond Trufant- Essentially the nail in the coffin for Darius Slay. A former Pro Bowler and 1st-round selection for Atlanta who has struggled with injuries and consistency over his career, but has shown an ability to be a solid starting corner. A low-end CB1, or high-end CB2, Trufant will more than likely begin the season as the team’s starting corner, and figures to trail the opposing team’s best wideouts until another corner (very possibly Jeff Okudah) usurps him. At 29 and only on a two-year deal, he’s not the team’s corner of the future, but he’s an above-average stopgap for the next couple years. A well-priced, experienced veteran that is a downgrade from Darius Slay, but will bring a quality cornerback presence in the post-Slay era.
Jayron Kearse- Another player who stays in the NFC North. The former Viking is predominantly a special teams ace. Kearse has struggled recently with off-field issues, recently receiving legal trouble for a DWI and unlawful possession of a firearm. He hasn’t gotten any form of discipline from the league yet, but still could. Expect him to be on a short leash with the current front office, and if he again finds himself in trouble with the law again could see his time in a Lions uniform end quickly. Still relatively young, he figures to compete for valuable special teams snaps and depth in the secondary if he can stay out of trouble. Perhaps a bit overpriced, on a one-year, $2.75 million contract, but will contribute nonetheless.
Tony McRae- The most recent of Detroit’s additions, McRae reunites with Brayden Coombs, the Lions’ new special teams coordinator, both of whom were formerly in Cincinnati. McRae is similar to Kearse in that they both are primarily used on special teams, but McRae comes at almost half the price, familiarity with the coach, and a lack of off-field questions. It should be a major boost to the Lions’ special teams unit.
Undoubtedly, the Lions have been major players so far in free agency. They’ve plugged holes at tackle, safety, and backup quarterback. They’ve upgraded at outside linebacker, refreshed depth on the inside of the defensive line, and done their best to mitigate the loss of their star cornerback. However, the roster, given some of the departures, isn’t markedly improved. Bob Quinn, in what could very well be his final offseason, has to stretch his remaining money as well as possible to position his team for success in 2020, as well as nail the draft. There should be a few minor moves to come, but the majority of the free agency action in the Motor City is in the rearview.
Overall, right now, I’m pretty neutral about this free agency. While I don’t particularly hate any moves, I don’t love any either. We’ll just have to wait and see how these additions and departures impact the team next season before we can definitively decide if they were good or bad.
As always, thanks for reading, and look out for more content as the draft draws closer.