The Needs List
At the end of 2017, the top three needs picked out by our Jeremy Reisman were defensive tackle, defensive end, and interior offensive line (either center or guard, depending on what the team does with Graham Glasgow). A month and a half later, we asked the POD readership what positions should be pursued in free agency, and our take was running back and interior offensive line, given the shallowness of the free agency pool at edge rushing options. Heading into the free agency period, Jeremy’s top five needs for the front office were:
- Veteran Running Back
- Starting Defensive Tackle
- Blocking Tight End
- Special Teams Gunner
- Edge Rusher
This list would probably have looked a bit different had we known Eric Ebron would be off the roster less than a week after the article was posted. Regardless, let us look at Jeremy’s original list and see how the team has done.
Veteran Running Back: LeGarrette Blount
During the legal tampering period, Bob Quinn’s staff arranged meetings with Jonathan Stewart but missed on him, and DeMarco Murray right at the start. In the second wave of visits, the team brought in two older backs on Jeremy’s list of potential targets: Frank Gore came for a visit, and LeGarrette Blount arrived a few days later. While Mike Davis from Seattle also flew to town on Saturday, it was ultimately Blount who would sign with the team on a one-year deal:
Blount's deal is $2M with ability to earn $2.5M more in incentives.— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) March 17, 2018
Starting Defensive Tackle: Sylvester Williams
After losing out on Dontari Poe to the Carolina Panthers (apparently without any interest expressed), Haloti Ngata to the Philadelphia Eagles (with substantial interest expressed) because he preferred their system and one of the guys they signed Ngata to replace in Beau Allen, the Lions continued to bring in candidates. Sheldon Richardson came off the table, but several big names were brought in (no, not that one):
- Quinton Dial from the Green Bay Packers visited Detroit
- Shamar Stephen from the Minnesota Vikings, who signed Richardson met with the Lions
- Ricky Jean Francois from the New England Patriots visited Allen Park and may sign soon
- Sylvester Williams from the Tennessee Titans came and went without a deal at first
- Johnathan Hankins from the Indianapolis Colts, a local product, will meet with the team
- Alan Branch from the New England Patriots is also reportedly visiting Detroit
Announced by the team in the late afternoon on Wednesday, Sylvester Williams is now slated to be a major part of the defense on a one-year deal. Based on the players brought in—particularly Williams, Hankins, and Branch—the Lions sought a prototypical nose tackle to eat space in the middle and key a multiple front defense similar to what head coach Matt Patricia ran in New England. Additional rumors of a potential deal with Jean-Francois are encouraging; having a guy with his prior experience in the system would make the transition a lot easier.
Blocking Tight End: Luke Willson
No blocking tight end signed for a modest salary will replace Eric Ebron’s pass catching ability. Instead, the tight end spot on the 53-man roster we are concerned about is the one vacated by Darren Fells’ departure for the Cleveland Browns on a three-year deal. Detroit made an early play for Trey Burton of the Philadelphia Eagles, but lost out on that signing to the Chicago Bears. Since then, the team made inquiries with veterans Brent Celek also of the Eagles, “pure blocker” Logan Paulsen from the San Francisco 49ers,and the surprisingly young Levine Toilolo from the Atlanta Falcons.
In the end, it was athletic H-back blocker Luke Willson from the Seattle Seahawks who would join his former teammates Golden Tate and DeShawn Shead in Detroit on a one-year contract. The Lions are probably not done with this position, as neither Willson nor 2017 fourth-round draft choice Michael Roberts are clear favorites to be a starting tight end in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Depending on how the scheme adjusts to life after Ebron, there may be another signing or draft choice on the way at this spot, but for the moment the team has a veteran blocking tight end on the roster.
Special Teams Gunner: DeShawn Shead
Losing Don Carey in free agency means the Lions will enter the 2018 season without either of the stud punt cover men they had at the start of Bob Quinn’s tenure as general manager: Johnson Bademosi was traded to the Patriots before last season and now Carey is with the Jaguars. The Lions brought back special teams contributors Zach Zenner and Nick Bellore, but neither of them has the right body type to be an outside cover man on punt coverage.
Enter former Seahawks cornerback/safety DeShawn Shead. Ostensibly signed by the Lions to compete with Nevin Lawson for the second starting outside cornerback spot in place of DJ Hayden (who left for the Jaguars), what has not been mentioned too often is how good Shead is on special teams:
Prior to being a starter last season, Shead was one of Seattle’s top special teamers, both in terms of playing time and productivity, and last year he was voted a special teams co-captain, along with Jon Ryan, by his teammates
“He’s a fantastic special teams player,” Carroll said. “He’s one of the best that we have ever had.”
If Shead can put in good work in pass coverage on defense and serve as the kind of special teams ace the Lions had in Don Juan Carey, he will be the player Bob Quinn always wanted Johnson Bademosi to be. Although he is not a pure gunner, Shead has the potential to add value in multiple phases of the kicking game.
Edge Rusher: Unfilled
Neither Christian Jones nor Devon Kennard can be considered edge rush specialists, but at least one of the two linebackers can add to the outside rush. Jones is probably going to serve as veteran depth behind Jarrad Davis and provide special teams value, while Kennard has actually played defensive end with his hand in the ground. Obviously, this is not an answer at defensive end, but more likely an upgrade on the package that Brandon Copeland used to bring to the roster before he left for the New York Jets.
As such, Detroit still needs to do something at defensive end to boost its miserable pass rush (or do they?), but no meaningful news on this front has materialized.
Bonus - Interior Offensive Line: Unfilled
[Note: I realize interior offensive linemen is a big need too, but at this point in free agency, I advocate addressing the need in the NFL Draft.]
Mentioned frequently as an area of need, the Lions did in fact make overtures to a number of guards and centers, but have so far only signed what appears to be a depth veteran. The team put an offer out to starting guard Joe Berger from the Minnesota Vikings, but nobody knows yet if he will retire, re-sign with the Vikings, or look elsewhere. Matt Slauson from the San Diego Chargers met with the team, but did not sign and ended up choosing the Colts. Similarly with Marcus Martin, formerly of the 49ers and Browns, who also has not signed anywhere yet.
The one interior lineman to put his name to a Detroit contract is Kenny Wiggins from the Chargers. Valuable—especially in the world of Bob Quinn—because he can play all five positions on the offensive line, Wiggins signed a two-year deal at modest terms, which suggests the team does not view him as a plug-and-play starter like the big offensive line signings did last year:
Kenny Wiggins 2-year contract with the Lions included a $750k signing bonus, total $5M. $1.25M base salary this fall.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) March 15, 2018
He will provide good competition for the left guard position, but by no means locks down the starting lineup the way adding Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang did. We expect the team to continue to add more competition at either the guard or center position (or both).