A little over a year ago, the Detroit Lions made arguably the biggest move in franchise history. They traded away franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff, a 2021 third-round pick, a 2022 first-round pick, and a 2023 first-round pick. Once the trade became official, many believed Dan Campbell’s first year in Detroit would be rocky. However, the Lions played well in the second half of the year, winning three of their final six games to close out the season. While the Lions won only three games in 2021, they were one of the hardest-working teams in the NFL. As they head into the offseason, the future is bright in Detroit.
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Pending Free Agents
According to Over the Cap, the Lions have a projected $23.6 million in cap space. They have 34 upcoming free agents, including four wide receivers. However, the Lions don’t have a critical free agent they must re-sign. In the second year of their rebuilding project, the Lions will likely let most of the older free agents walk. Instead, they will use their cap space on younger players. While the Lions don’t have a vital free agent to re-sign, they have a few guys they should bring back.
Walker has been one of the better players for the Lions the past few years. He has only missed six games during his four-year career. Furthermore, Walker had over 100 tackles in two of the past three seasons, including a team-high 108 tackles in 2021. The former third-round pick has played a critical role for the Detroit defense and has become a leader on that side of the ball. The Lions have a few young stars in the secondary. Keeping Walker around as the leader of that unit is critical.
When the Lions signed him last offseason, many didn’t have high expectations for Harris. However, he went on to have a career year, posting a team-high 7.5 sacks. Furthermore, his 7.5 sacks were a career-high as Harris had only 6.5 career sacks entering the year. The former first-round pick has bounced around the league, playing for three teams over the past three years. With Romeo Okwara returning from injury and two excellent edge prospects in the draft, the Lions shouldn’t offer Harris a massive long-term deal.
After a short stint with the Tennessee Titans, Reynolds asked for his release and received it. He was claimed by the Lions and made an impact right away. Despite playing in only seven games with the Lions, Reynolds finished third among wide receivers on the team in receptions (19), receiving yards (306), and receiving touchdowns (two). He has chemistry with Goff from their time together with the Rams. While the rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown had a historic close to the season, the Lions need to add help at the wide receiver position. Bringing back Reynolds gives the Lions veteran depth at the wide receiver position.
Potential Cap Casualties
With a projected $23.6 million in cap space according to Over the Cap, the Lions are in a solid situation. They have only four players with a cap hit over $9.2 million for next season. Goff has a team-high $31.2 million cap hit for next season, far and away the highest on the Lions. Unfortunately, after reworking his contract last offseason to open up cap space, the Lions would take on over $30 million in dead money if they release him. However, the Lions have a few players they can cut to create cap space.
Trey Flowers ($10.4 Million Saved)
When the Lions signed Flowers in 2019, it was during the Matt Patricia era. The former New England Patriots defensive coordinator wanted the former Patriot pass rusher. Flowers was coming off a career year in 2018 with the Patriots. The Lions signed him to be a dominant force on their defensive line. After recording seven sacks in 2019, Flowers has missed 57.6 percent of the games over the past two years, totaling 3.5 sacks during that span. If they cut him with a Post June 1 designation, the Lions will open up $16 million in cap space. After three years with the Lions, Flowers’ time in Detroit is over.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai ($3.5 Million Saved)
Much like Flowers, Vaitai is a former free agent signing under the Patrica era that has backfired. He was signed to plug the hole at right tackle for the Lions. However, after a solid career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Vaitai struggled in 2020. After the Lions drafted Penei Sewell with their first-round pick last year, Vaitai spent time at guard and tackle this season. While they could keep him around at right guard, the Lions might go with a younger and cheaper option. If they do, the Lions can save $7 million in cap space by cutting Vaitai with a Post June 1 designation.
Jamaal Williams ($3 Million Saved)
D’Andre Swift is the future at running back for the Lions. While Williams got signed last offseason, the main guy who wanted him, Anthony Lynn, is no longer with the team. Furthermore, Craig Reynolds played well to close out the year, earning him a contract extension with the Lions. Reynolds has a cap hit under $1 million, while Williams has a $4.6 million cap hit. By cutting Williams, the Lions can use that money to improve a starting spot somewhere else on the team.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
With the Lions in the middle of a rebuilding project, fans shouldn’t expect them to make massive free agent moves. However, they have the cap space needed for a blockbuster addition should they decide to go that route. If the Lions get aggressive in free agency, expect it to be on defense or the offensive line. No matter which course of action they take, expect the Lions to avoid signing players over the age of 30.
Foyesade Oluokun, Atlanta Falcons
2021 fourth-round pick, Derrick Barnes, had a solid rookie year, starting six games and totaling 67 tackles. However, Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a free agent, and the Lions should look to upgrade at that spot. Oluokun is coming off a career year, leading the NFL in tackles with 192. It was the second year in a row that Oluokun finished with over 115 tackles. Pairing him with Barnes in the middle of the defense could take the unit to the next level.
James Daniels, Chicago Bears
Over the past few years, the Lions have spent several high-end draft picks and salary cap space on the offensive line. Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Sewell were first-round picks, while they overpaid for Vaitai. They also recently gave Ragnow a four-year extension worth $54 million. Campbell has emphasized being physical. If the Lions want to take their running game to the next level, adding Daniels to their already impressive offensive line is a smart move to make.
Sammy Watkins, Baltimore Ravens
While fans are hopeful the Lions pay up for a top-tier free agent wide receiver like Chris Godwin or Mike Williams, they are unlikely to go that route. Instead, they will use one of their early draft picks on a wide receiver and sign a veteran in free agency. Watkins has bounced around the league in his career, but he is still only 28 years old. He has been a solid veteran and locker room presence. When healthy, Watkins has been productive. Adding Watkins will provide a veteran presence to the offense without impacting the development of St. Brown and any potential rookie wide receiver.
Previewing the 2022 NFL Draft
Thanks to the Stafford trade, the Lions will have an extra pick at the end of the first round. They will also have the Rams’ first-round pick in 2023 to use in a trade if needed. However, that is very unlikely. Furthermore, the Lions should try to move back in the draft and add more picks. In the middle of a rebuilding process, the Lions want as many picks as possible. With several holes to fill, the Lions can go in several different directions in this draft.
Round 1, Pick 2: Edge Rusher
With Decker and Sewell locking down the offensive tackle spots, the Lions will not consider drafting Evan Neal or Ikem Ekwonu with this pick. Instead, everyone believes they will take one of the elite edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux. Assuming the Jacksonville Jaguars select one with the first overall pick, the Lions will happily take the other. However, if the Jaguars take Neal, the Lions will have to make a tough decision.
Round 1, Pick 32: Quarterback
After coaching Malik Willis, Sam Howell, and Bailey Zappe down at the Senior Bowl, the Lions have a leg up on the rest of the league with the quarterback class. Willis will likely be gone before the Lions are on the clock with this pick, while Zappe is a day three prospect. However, Howell could be available for the Lions with this pick. Other possible options include Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder, and Carson Strong. If the Lions fell in love with one of these quarterbacks, expect them to pull the trigger with this pick.
Round 2, Pick 34: Wide Receiver
The 2021 NFL Draft is full of talented wide receivers. There will be several guys with late first-round/early second-round grades. A couple of names to keep an eye on are Jahan Dotson from Penny State and Jameson Williams from Alabama. Dotson had a terrific senior season with 12 touchdowns in 12 games and took part in the Senior Bowl. Meanwhile, Williams was potentially a top-10 pick before suffering a torn ACL in the National Title Game against Georgia. If he slides to the second round, the Lions would be foolish to pass on him. Pairing St. Brown with Williams and T.J. Hockenson would give a rookie quarterback a great trio of weapons.
Round 3, Pick 66: Cornerback
In hindsight, the Lions should have passed on Jeff Okudah with the third pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and instead take Justin Herbert. However, that’s in the past. Okudah has struggled so far in his NFL career, in part because of injuries. He has played in only 30.3 percent of the games so far in his career because of injuries, including a torn Achilles he suffered in Week 1. Last season, Amani Oruwariye was the best cornerback for the Lions, but he is entering a contract year. Spending a middle-round pick on the cornerback position would give the Lions some needed depth at cornerback.
Early 2022 Expectations
While the Lions finished the 2021 season off strong, winning three of their final six games, the team is still knee-deep in rebuilding. Owning three of the first 34 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft will help. However, the Lions are at least another year or two away from making the playoffs. That said, the goal for 2022 is progress. After winning three games last season, the Lions’ goal should be six or more wins in 2022. The development of several young players, including Swift, Hockenson, St. Brown, Sewell, Okudah, Levi Onwuzurike, and Alim McNeill, is the most important thing. Depending on what happens in the NFC North, the fans should consider a seven win 2022 season a success.
Follow Mike Fanelli on Twitter @Mike_NFL2
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