One of the biggest offseason debates for the Detroit Lions has been whether or not they should try to make a single big splash in free agency. I, admittedly, was against the idea for the past two months. The Lions have so many needs on both sides of the ball and only an average amount of cap space. To put all of their eggs in one basket could severely limit their ability to fill their many roster holes. But after the first stage of pre-free agency has played out, I think the Detroit Lions should absolutely go after one of the pricier free agent: Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
On Tuesday, reports surfaced that the Patriots will not use the franchise tag on Hightower, making it very likely the Pro Bowl linebacker will hit free agency. However, many of the best pass rushers—arguably the Lions’ biggest need—were slapped with the tag, leaving the defensive free agent market devoid of some top-tier talent.
Hightower reportedly turned down an offer for over $10 million a year before the 2016 season, so you have to imagine he’ll only be asking for more after an impressive year. That would be a ton of money for the Lions to spend, especially considering DeAndre Levy will be taking up $8.225 million of cap space on his own, but Hightower is absolutely worth it.
There was a false narrative out there that the Lions’ defensive struggles were because of poor depth. On the surface, that seems to be true. Injuries to Ezekiel Ansah, DeAndre Levy and Darius Slay left the team pretty shorthanded at times. However, the true failures of the defense came at the hands of starters. Tahir Whitehead, Haloti Ngata, Quandre Diggs and Devin Taylor all had extremely disappointing seasons in 2016. This defense isn’t in need of better replacement-level talent—Kerry Hyder, Miles Killebrew and Josh Bynes were all sufficient players last year. They’re in need of legitimate starters and big playmakers.
And no position was more devoid of high-level starters than linebacker. Detroit’s linebacking corps was responsible for zero sacks, zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles. There wasn’t a playmaker among the entire bunch.
If Detroit rests on their laurels and settles for adding a handful of mid-tier free agent targets, they’ll miss out on the rare opportunity to land a talent like Hightower. The Patriots linebacker was a star at every aspect of linebacker play in 2016. Here are his Pro Football Focus ranks among all linebackers from last year:
- 12th overall
- 19th in coverage
- 2nd in pass rush
- 30th in run defense
In addition to his high PFF rankings, Hightower was also responsible for some big plays with New England. In the past three years, Hightower has 12.0 sacks, and five forced fumbles, including a huge strip sack in Super Bowl 51.
Hightower does it all, and that’s perfect for the Lions, because they currently don’t have a linebacker they can rely upon to do anything well. Whitehead was awful in 2016 and Levy’s injury history has left him too questionable to rely upon as a solid contributor. Detroit doesn’t really even have young talent that they’re expecting to potentially grow into a long-term starting role. The Lions did draft Antwione Williams in the fifth round last year, but the Georgia Southern product has a long way to go before he even develops into a solid backup. To put mildly, the Lions don’t have a single linebacker they can depend on in 2017, let alone the two required in their base defense.
To land Hightower, the Lions will have to empty their piggy banks and likely overpay for the top-tier free agent. But Hightower will be turning just 27 in a few weeks, meaning the Lions could ink him to a long-term deal and pretty much guarantee him a starting spot for the entirety of that contract. The Lions could even be an attractive landing place for Hightower, as he is obviously familiar with general manager Bob Quinn and the Lions can sell themselves as a contender, since they made the playoffs in two of the past three years.
In the end, however, money talks. The Lions have over $34 million in cap space, which places them right in the middle of the league. I would argue that there aren’t many teams that need a linebacker more desperately than the Lions, and for that reason, Detroit should go all-in on Dont’a Hightower.