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Detroit Lions Offseason Preview

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It took the Detroit Lions 11 games into the 2020 NFL season to finally admit their mistake regarding Matt Patricia. The former New England Patriots defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties as head coach, but the damage was already done. Detroit finished 5-11 and propping up the NFC North, a record bad enough to ensure general manager Bob Quinn also lost his job.

Now the Lions have a new head coach, Dan Campbell, along with a new general manager, Brad Holmes. It should mean an end to trying to replicate the so-called “Patriot Way.” Patricia alienated talented veterans and wasted promising youngsters on both sides of the ball. He and Quinn left a mess for their successors, but the rebuild began in earnest when Holmes traded Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023. The Lions also have an extra third-rounder this year, giving Campbell and Holmes all the tools they need to fix the number of holes in the roster. This year’s focus should be on putting a few more weapons around Goff and fortifying a leaky defense.

Pending Free Agents

There are 24 Lions players ticketed for free agency, according to OverTheCap.com. Many are holdovers from Patricia’s tribute to the Patriots, so Holmes and Campbell won’t mind waving goodbye to more than a few. There is a clutch of players, though, the new brain trust will be keen to retain. Having $8,4 million in cap space will help.

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Romeo Okwara, Defensive End

Okwara led an otherwise soporific pass rush for the Lions in 2020. He topped the team with 10 sacks and looks like somebody new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn can build an improved unit around. Bringing Okwara back should be Holmes’ priority when deciding who to re-sign and who to let walk.

Kenny Golladay, Wide Receiver

Goff’s life will be easier if he gets to connect with Golladay in 2021. Detroit’s most talented wideout is a productive combination of size and speed. Golladay was only able to showcase those qualities in five games last season thanks to injuries. He still turned 20 catches into 338 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Fortunately for Goff, the Lions are said to be keen to keep Golladay off the market. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport named the receiver as a player likely to be given the franchise tag: “Another strong franchise tag candidate. I know they had talks last year about a long-term extension. Did not happen. Going to try again this year. But expect him to be tagged if they don’t get a deal.”

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Marin Jones, Wide Receiver

If Golladay comes back, Marvin Jones will probably be allowed to test the market. Jones led the Lions with 76 catches, 978 yards, and nine touchdowns last season. All solid numbers, but Jones is 31 and has never been a true go-to receiver. If he goes, Jones won’t be the only Detroit wideout looking for a new home. Fellow free agent Danny Amendola, 35, probably joins him.

Matt Prater, Kicker

Prater was unusually erratic in 2020. He missed seven field goals and three extra points. The 36-year-old’s main concern is with distance. All seven of those missed field goals were from 40-plus yards. Replacing a kicker can be done on the cheap, but it would hardly cost the Lions a fortune to bring Prater back for a 15th season. Expect a veteran’s minimum salary for a year here.

Everson Griffen, Defensive End

Griffen flopped with the Dallas Cowboys through seven games before being traded to the Lions for a conditional sixth-round draft pick. He responded by recording 3.5 sacks and proving he still has enough left in the tank to collapse the pocket. Glenn will be able to use Griffen’s versatility. Griffen is a force off the edge, but the 33-year-old is also disruptive whenever he slides inside to rush through the B-gaps. Bringing Griffen back will give Glenn options in a rotation that looks thin beyond Okwara and Trey Flowers.

Potential Cap Casualties

Trimming the fat from this roster will be a long process. Holmes and Campbell should start by ridding themselves of some of the many Patriots retreads Patricia stockpiled. Most of them are found on defense, but that shouldn’t be a problem considering the unit was bottom of the NFL standings for both points and yards surrendered in 2020.

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Trey Flowers, DE ($6.8 Million Saved)

Speaking of Flowers, the Lions could dump the former Patriots pass-rusher and save a bundle under the cap. Flowers has posted just nine sacks during two years in Detroit while failing to start all 16 games in either season. Releasing Flowers would free up some cash to bring back Okwara. Re-signing Griffen on a cap-friendly contract as well would be a cost-effective way to ensure a solid pass rush and still be able to strengthen other positions.

Danny Shelton, DT ($4 Million Saved)

Shelton was a player who fit Patricia’s vision for the Lions’ defense. It was about having a massive space-eater anchoring the middle, the job Shelton had performed in New England. Glenn figures to run a more active unit based on a relentless four-man rush, leaving Shelton without an obvious fit. A saving of $4 million is too enticing for a rebuilding team to pass up just to keep a player who belongs to the previous regime.

Nick Williams, DT ($4.7 Million Saved)

You could list the same reasons for cutting Shelton to justify releasing Williams. The latter is another zero-technique limited to playing well against the run but offering little in terms of generating pressure. Williams is also 31 and set to count for $5.7 million against this year’s cap. That’s a hit a franchise repairing the damage from past mistakes can’t afford to absorb.

Jesse James, TE ($2.1 Million Saved)

James is another Patricia-era signing who appears surplus to requirements. The presence of T.J. Hockenson means the Lions already own one of the best young tight ends in football. Hockenson will get the majority of snaps, but 22-year-old Hunter Bryant and Isaac Nauta, 23, should be out to impress the new coaching staff. The position is loaded, so there’s no need to carry James’ $6.4 million cap hit.

Open Market Free Agent Targets

This market could be kind to the Lions because there are a number of useful veterans set to be available, particularly for defense-needy teams. Detroit belongs firmly in that bracket, so expect the Lions to actively pursue help for both the front seven and secondary. The to-do list for Campbell and Holmes should also include bolstering Goff’s receiver corps. It’s something that could wait for the 2021 NFL draft, but there are enough playmakers in free agency for the Lions to consider a few more-established pass-catchers.

Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers

The Panthers released Short earlier this month, but the defensive tackle is already drawing attention from potential suitors. Detroit should be among the interested parties because the 32-year-old could be the interior pass-rusher the Lions have needed, provided he can stay healthy. Short has missed 29 games since he last completed a full season back in 2017. His durability is a red flag, but nobody is denying Short’s talent. He’s a menace inside when healthy, a high-motor tackle who can generate plenty of push and split double teams. The Lions need somebody with Short’s skills to make Glenn’s defense work.

Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Super Bowl champions have a lot of key players headed for the market. Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett, and Leonard Fournette are among those the Buccaneers may decide to keep. If so, David could be the odd man out. He won’t be short of options for long if he and the Buccaneers decide to part ways. He’s an intelligent and active linebacker at home in any scheme. The Lions need a signal-caller who can make an impact against both the run and pass. That aptly describes the 31-year-old who notched 12 tackles for loss and broke up six passes in 2020.

Denzel Perryman, LB, Los Angeles Chargers

Perryman doesn’t have the same range as David, but he’s a true thumper who thrives between the A-gaps. The Lions need a man in the middle at linebacker level because Jarrad Davis and Reggie Ragland are free agents and neither has played well enough to guarantee a return. Signing Perryman would be a cheaper alternative to breaking the bank for David. Making a tough-as-nails 240-pounder the focal point of the front seven makes sense in an NFC North division loaded with quality running backs like Dalvin Cook and David Montgomery.

Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints

Glenn worked with the Saints’ defensive backs, so he knows all about the strides Williams has taken in recent years. The free safety has picked off seven passes and broke up 20 more over the past two seasons. He’s the natural ballhawk the Lions lack along the last line of defense. Williams wouldn’t come cheap, top-end safeties never do, but the chance to work with Glenn again might give the Lions an edge in the market.

Demarcus Robinson, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Snatching a member of the Chiefs’ ‘Legion of Zoom’ would give Goff the true burner he needs at wide receiver. Robinson fits the bill as a free agent who needs to leave Kansas City in order to earn a bigger role as a wideout. The Lions could offer an increased workload to a speedster who caught 45 passes for 466 yards in 2020. Robinson would be a useful source of big plays for Goff after averaging 10.4 yards a grab last season. Seven of his catches also went for 20 yards or more, while Robinson gained 165 yards after the catch, according to ESPN. He’s one of the better under-the-radar free agents available.

Previewing the Draft

The Lions own the seventh-overall pick in this draft, as well as an extra choice in the third round courtesy of the Stafford-for-Goff swap. That means Holmes has plenty of ammunition to fortify both sides of the ball with a much-needed infusion of youthful energy and athleticism. His focus is likely to be defense, at least early, given the problems last season.

Round 1, Pick 7: Linebacker

Davis and Ragland figure to be gone, while Christian Jones has been something of a bust. Jamie Collins is still in town, but he was another Patricia guy who has rarely played good football outside of New England. Micah Parsons is a popular pick for the Lions in mock drafts, with Mike O’Hara of the team’s official website among those sending the Penn State star to Detroit.

Round 2, Pick 41: Wide Receiver

This is a good spot for the Lions to add a receiver. Maybe a possession-type to replace what they had from Amendola. There won’t be a shortage of options for the 41st pick, with somebody like Purdue’s Rondale Moore a potential steal at this spot. Alternatively, Tylan Wallace of Oklahoma State is a born second receiver who would complement Golladay superbly.

Round 3, Pick 72: Safety

The Lions have to get better at safety and it doesn’t matter if they address the problem via free agency, in the draft, or both. Round three should offer good value for teams in need of new defensive backs, with Joshuah Bledsoe a name for Glenn to keep an eye on. Bledsoe can hit and knows how to track the ball in the air.

Round 3, Pick 88: Pass-Rusher

A team needing so much help on defense shouldn’t hesitate to take a mid-round flier on a versatile and productive pass-rusher. The Lions barely laid a glove on quarterbacks last season, and that’s the first thing Campbell’s staff will work to change. Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones II has a ‘tweener-style frame that would make him ideal for a situational role getting after Aaron Rodgers on third downs.

Early 2021 Expectations

It’s difficult to envisage the Lions escaping the basement of a tough division in year one under Campbell and Holmes. Yet that doesn’t mean this team won’t be more competitive than under Patricia. The Lions won the Goff-Stafford deal, and the former will revive his career out of the shadow of Rams’ head coach Sean McVay and his overrated schemes. Detroit’s fortunes in 2021 won’t rest on Goff. They’ll be made or broken by a new-look defense. If Glenn upgrades the talent in the pass-rush department and trusts a few zones ahead of the man coverage-heavy diet of the previous regime, the Lions will be right at the .500 mark by season’s end.


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