The Detroit Lions 2016 season comes to a close and the offseason officially begins. We’re going to start digging heavily into potential free agent targets, including our own, as well as draft preparation. Before we do that, it’s probably a good idea to look at where the team sits in terms of present personnel, pending free agents, and existing need. Since there’s a lot of ground to cover, we’re going to start first with the defense and follow up with offense later. Defense is almost universally the first area addressed in mock drafts for the Lions, and I don’t think it’s controversial to say it should be their first area of focus this offseason. As they are almost always signed to their original teams, I will not be including restricted free agents for other teams and will be assuming the Lions own players return in those instances.
Under Contract 2017: Ezekiel Ansah, Kerry Hyder (ERFA), Anthony Zettel
Pending Free Agents: Armonty Bryant, Devin Taylor, Brandon Copeland
Easily one of the most disappointing units in 2016, the Detroit Lions defensive ends were by and large a liability. Ziggy Ansah was injured for most of the season, missing some time and playing injured for the rest of it. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of the season where he started to look truly healthy and his two sack playoff game against Seattle showcased just how dangerous he can be when he is. Kerry Hyder, an exclusive rights free agent, was a pleasant surprise as a pass rusher with a team-leading eight sacks. The bright spots pretty much end there, however, as Hyder and particularly Anthony Zettel were just awful setting the edge in the run game. The rest of the team’s ends, Armonty Bryant and Devin Taylor, had a few nice sacks but were otherwise forgettable either due to injury (Bryant) or just general ineptitude (Taylor).
Free Agents Available
Jason Pierre-Paul, Jabaal Sheard, Andre Branch, Charles Johnson
The defensive end free agent class looks good at first glance, but once you get past name recognition, it isn’t that superb. JPP was a great pass rusher for the New York Giants. “Was” being the operative word, as he’s eclipsed 10 sacks only twice in his seven year career, most recently back in 2014. That also marks the last point that he was healthy for a full season, and his injury history extends further back than that as well. Jabaal Sheard isn’t a much talked about free agent to be, but he has familiarity with Bob Quinn since he was picked up by New England in 2015. He had eight sacks that season, only to drop to five despite starting half of the games this year (up from only one the previous season). The drop-off after those two is significant in this free agent group and the cost of acquiring a free agent defensive end is always high. The team might go the deep veteran route and acquire someone like Charles Johnson, but I’m doubtful the cost will match the expected production at that point.
Charles Harris, Dawuane Smoot, Taco Charlton, DeMarcus Walker, Derek Barnett
At the time of this writing, I’ve covered over 180 mock drafts since May. Defensive ends are mocked to the Detroit Lions a whopping 22 percent of the time, second only to cornerback. Obviously with the playoff appearance and nine wins, the Lions won’t be able to target one of the top pass rushers in the class, but the “B Team” of this year’s draft class is still pretty good. I’ve been disappointed with DeMarcus Walker, Derek Barnett and Carl Lawson, three of the biggest names mocked to the team and in some cases mocked much higher than the twenties. It might just be that I only watched their bad games, but there’s plenty of time to watch. One name I’d keep an eye on is Dawuane Smoot. He was a player I was very down on to start the draft process, but he’s been crushing all of my early misgivings every time I turn on the tape. In a reverse case, it’s possible I’ve only seen his best games, as I may have only seen the worst from some of the others, but that’s why it’s a process. Michigan’s Taco Charlton will be a popular name due to the school he attended, but is a legitimate closed end prospect in his own right. I’m just not sure that he’s a top pick in a draft this loaded with talent, probably falling into that second tier.
Level of Need
The Detroit Lions need a pass rusher badly. Kerry Hyder was a nice addition, but he is a pass rushing specialist only and the team needs someone they can count on for every single down. The cost and available free agents likely makes this a draft target more than anything and this class is loaded with talented, if somewhat unpolished pass rushers. It’s a huge need for Detroit and one they should be looking to correct early. With Hyder and Zettel on the roster, the depth of this team is pretty good. Adding someone able to stop the run is going to be essential, but a straight pass rusher might be the bigger target if Teryl Austin has called his last game for the team’s defense.