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Detroit Lions free agency preview: High-risk, high reward options at left guard

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The Lions have a lot of interesting options in free agency, if they want to find a starting guard.

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Though the Lions have spent years trying to get their offensive line in order, they enter the 2018 free agency period with yet another big need to be filled. It looks like the Lions will be moving on from a few players from the 2017 season, including a starter. That means Detroit could be aggressive in the free agency market yet again.

Here’s a look at the Lions’ offensive line situation heading into free agency:

Offensive linemen

Under contract (Final year of contract in parentheses)

Tackles

  • Taylor Decker (2020)
  • Rick Wagner (2021)
  • Brian Mihalik (2018)
  • Dan Skipper (2019)
  • Emmett Cleary (2018)
  • Corey Robinson (2018)

Guards/Centers

  • T.J. Lang (2019)
  • Graham Glasgow (2019)
  • Joe Dahl (2019)
  • Leo Koloamatangi (2019)

The Lions are in good shape at tackle, though they could probably use some more long-term depth. When either Decker or Wagner went down last year, the Lions scrambled to find a decent replacement, although Brian Mihalik showed some promise.

In the inside, however, the Lions need a lot of help. Not only are the Lions currently missing a starting left guard, but the depth is weak. While it’s true that a guy like Emmett Cleary can shift inside if absolutely necessary, that didn’t work out all that well in 2017.

Lions free agents

  • Don Barclay (UFA)
  • Greg Robinson (UFA)
  • Travis Swanson (UFA)
  • Zac Kerin (RFA)

All four of these players struggled in 2017 and seem unlikely to return. The main decision is with starting center Travis Swanson, but all signs point to the Lions moving on in 2018. Greg Robinson and Don Barclay are both almost guaranteed to play elsewhere in 2018... that is, if another team is willing to give them another shot.

Free agents available

Detroit could go after some depth at offensive tackle, but for now, let’s focus on their glaring need at guard. Here are some of their options:

Andrew Norwell (age 26)

Young, talented, and a perfect fit for the Lions at left guard. Hell, he even played on the same offensive line as Taylor Decker at Ohio State for a year.

This is an absolute dream scenario for the Lions to land, as it fits with their needs so perfectly, but price will be the ultimate determination. Last offseason, the Lions broke the bank by signing both T.J. Lang (three-year, $28.5 million) and Rick Wagner (five-year, $47.5 million) in free agency. Would they be willing to do so again? Decker and Glasgow remain on rookie contract for a few more years, so they could theoretically afford it. However, this all may be moot, because there’s a report out there that the Giants have already closed the deal on Norwell.

Josh Sitton (age 31)

The three-time All-Pro guard is set to hit free agency again, just two years after jumping from the Packers to the Bears. Chicago had a third-year option with Sitton, but due to his age (turns 32 this year), his price ($8 million) and his injury history (missed six games in two season), they turned it down. Sitton will become a free agent on Wednesday.

Sitton would be a stop-gap solution for the Lions and a risky one with his injury history. However, his talent is undeniable and he has a unique familiarity with the NFC North.

Justin Pugh (age 28)

Speaking of injury risks, Pugh is an above-average veteran with a checkered injury past. Pugh has only played in all 16 games once (his rookie year), although he’s played at least 11 in four of five seasons.

The biggest concern is Pugh’s back injury in 2017, which caused him to miss eight of the final nine games of the season. The good news there is that Pugh was cleared to resume football activities last week.

If the Lions are comfortable with where Pugh is at medically, he’d be a fine addition to Detroit’s offensive line. Via Pro Football Focus:

Pugh enters free agency as a high-end, starting caliber guard, who graded above 80.0 in both 2015 and 2016, and has allowed just 39 pressures over the last three seasons on the interior, the fourth-best mark among guards with at least 750 pass-blocking snaps since 2015.

Matt Slauson (age 32)

Another stop-gap options for the Lions and with the same injury concerns as some of the players above. Slauson’s 2017 season was cut short due to a torn bicep early in the season.

But Slauson brings something a few of these other candidates don’t: Versatility. Slauson can play center or either of the guard spots, and that’s something that could be quite valuable to general manager Bob Quinn, especially considering he wouldn’t commit to Graham Glasgow playing guard or center in 2018.

Slauson struggled in 2017, but he was one of the better centers in the league in 2016, garnering an 81.2 PFF grade.

Josh Kline (age 28)

Since you’re probably asking yourself, “Are there any guards on the market that aren’t in the twilight of their career or dealing with severe injury problems?” Let me introduce you to Josh Kline.

Kline has only missed three games in his past three seasons and none in 2017. While he’s probably a tier below these other free agent options, he’s certainly no slouch. Again, from PFF:

The five-year veteran has earned 72.0 overall grades in three of his last four years in the league, most recently recording a 75.8 mark in 2017. Among guards with at least 340 pass-block snaps, Kline ranked T-No. 13 in pass-blocking efficiency at 97.4, allowing just 19 total pressures on 552 pass-block snaps.

The big negative with Kline is his run blocking. He earned just a 46.4 run-block grade from PFF, and that isn’t a good look for a Lions team that is desperately trying to fix their very broken running game.

Jack Mewhort (age 27)

Another Ohio State guy who briefly played with Taylor Decker, Mewhort is one of most talented guards this free agency class has to offer and with relative youth, too. Unfortunately, he may be the biggest injury risk of all.

Mewhort has only played in 15 games in the past two years. In 2016, he suffered two knee injuries. The one in Week 14 ended his 2016 season, and although the Colts tried to bring him along slowly in 2017, another knee injury would land him on injured reserve just five games into the season. He has now had two surgeries on each knee.

There were even rumors that Mewhort may retire due to this knee condition (known as chondral defect), but he put those rumors to be last week confirming his commitment to football in 2018.