Now that we’re officially in offseason mode, it’s time for us all to play armchair general manager for the Detroit Lions over the next four months.
Last month, our own Andrew Kato identified one of the Lions’ biggest needs, an offensive guard that could bring the heart of the running game back. Though T.J. Lang said this week that he’d love to come back next year, he also admitted he needs some time to contemplate his football future. And even if he does decide to play in 2019, the Lions may not want to keep him at his hefty $11.7 million cap hit, especially with his lengthy injury history.
Both Kent Lee Platte and Alex Reno have identified some potential guard replacements in the upcoming draft, but Detroit would be wise to at least scour the free agent list to see if the Lions can add some more proven talent—something general manager Bob Quinn has not shied away from in his short time with the Lions.
Here are five free agent candidates that could fill in for Lang next season.
2018 PFF Grade: 62.9 (32nd)—70.1 run blocking (5th), 47.5 pass block (75th)
Iupati is easily the most recognizable name in the 2019 free agency class of guards. But the five-time Pro Bowler comes with a lot of risks. First of all, Iupati will be 32 by the start of next year’s season, so if you’re looking for a better long-term solution, Iupati may not be any better than Lang.
Additionally, Iupati shares some of the same kind of injury concerns. He’s played in just 11 games over the past two seasons, missing almost all of 2016 with a torn tricep. He suffered an MCL injury in November, ending his season a month early this season.
Iupati is not technically a free agent yet, but the final year of his contract is completely voidable, meaning he could hit the free agent market if the Cardinals think he’s too much of an injury risk for the $3.7 million cap hit.
2018 PFF Grade: 73.5 (8th)—72.8 run blocking (3rd), 71.2 pass block (32nd)
In a lot of way, Saffold is much like Iupati. He’s a well-renowned blocker—especially in the running game—but his age is starting to catch up with him.
Safford was named second-team All Pro in 2017, and over his nine years with the Rams, he’s played both guard spots and even started out as a left tackle. That sort of versatility is obviously very valuable to any team, but is especially important for a team like the Lions that seems to hold that skillset in high order.
Safforld is coming off an very solid season, but he will be 31 next year. He’s likely the best free agent option available, which means he’ll also come with a hefty price tag. The Rams have shown they have no problem shelling out a lot of cash for free agents. We’ll see if he ends up hitting the market.
2018 PFF Grade: 50.9 (66th)—51.2 run blocking (51st), 75.1 pass block (25th)
Fluker is one of the younger options on the market, but he comes from a Seahawks team not exactly known for its offensive line acumen.
If the Lions are looking for someone a little more able to protect Matthew Stafford, Fluker may be their guy. That’s odd, considering Fluker has a reputation as a mauler in running game, but the PFF grades say it all.
Fluker is a popular character in the locker room and a potential leader, but the former 2013 first-round draft pick has not played consistently enough to earn more than a one-year deal over the past two years.
2018 PFF Grade: 61.8 (39th)—56.7 run blocking (37th), 75.6 pass block (23rd)
Another younger option (27), Spain’s career has already seen some ups and downs. As an undrafted rookie in 2015, Spain wasted no time in earning starter status with the Tennessee Titans. 11 games into his rookie year, Spain took over as a starting lineman. Since then, Spain has missed just six starts in the following three seasons.
However, this season was a struggle for Spain and it resulted in him getting benched in at halftime of his Week 13 game against the Jets.
This was his worst year as a Titan, but he entered the year heralded as one of the Titans’ best discoveries:
In the big picture, the 6-4, 330-pound Spain has already been a major success, as the undrafted free agent bucked the odds just by making the Titans roster out of training camp in 2015. He used his size and physical ability to great advantage in the team’s smashmouth-style attack over the past couple of years, starting 27 of the 28 games he played in his second and third seasons. In 2016, Spain helped the Titans produce the NFL’s third-best rushing attack, averaging 137 yards per game. In addition, Spain surrendered just two sacks in 14 contests that year, per STATS.
2018 PFF Grade: 61.0 (43rd)—57.7 run blocking (32nd), 61.4 pass block (50th)
Cann, a 2015 third-round pick for the Jaguars, has essentially been a starter for the Jaguars since entering the league. He’s only missed five starts in his four-year career, but the level of his success has been tepid.
Big Cat Country has a very good review of Cann’s play entering the 2018 season, calling his performance “inconsistent” but hopeful that some new tweaks to his technique would improve his game this season. It didn’t exactly work out that way, but most of his issues seem coachable. And his athleticism is hard to pass up:
If this list seems underwhelming, that’s because it is. If the Lions decide to go the free agency route at guard, they’re either going to have to pay heavily for an aged offensive lineman, or take a risk on an inconsistent younger player, hoping they can coach them up. It’s not an ideal situation for the Lions, but starting-level offensive linemen are coveted in this league, and the good ones rarely hit free agency.