The Lions made some serious moves in the first wave of free agency—way more than anyone could’ve realistically expected given their precedent of being relatively quiet in that time frame. The Lions plugged some major holes, particularly with the signings of EDGE Trey Flowers and TE Jesse James. There’s still work to do, however, both at those positions and at others. Here’s how they stack up:
1. Right guard
The Lions had to find the cap space for all their splash signings somewhere, and cutting T.J. Lang played a big role in that. Cutting ties with Lang opened up around $9 million in cap space for the Lions, and considering Lang’s inability to stay on the field and concussion history it was probably the right move for both sides.
At the end of the day, however, Lang was a Pro-Bowl starting right guard, and that’s no easy feat to replace. Kenny Wiggins cannot run block for the life of him, and that won’t match the identity Matt Patricia is looking to establish on offense. Free agency pickup Oday Aboushi’s skillset is much of the same, and he isn’t the long-term solution at the position.
Look for the Lions to take a long, hard look at former Patriots guard Josh Kline, who the Titans are releasing. Likewise, if the answer doesn’t lie in free agency then expect them to nab someone early in the draft.
2. Wide receiver
In driving school they teach you to look 400 feet ahead of you while driving, and in NFL GM school they teach you to look beyond the current offseason. The wide receiver position could become a hot mess very easily next offseason.
Danny Amendola, the supposed solution to the Lions’ need at slot WR, is 33 years old and on a one-year deal. If the Lions don’t grab a shifty receiver in the draft then they’re almost guaranteed to go into next offseason with the same glaring need for a slot receiver as they did this year.
Likewise, Amendola doesn’t guarantee any solutions—he was cut just one year into his contract with the Miami Dolphins after his production failed to match his cap hit. Unfortunately for the Lions, they’re pretty much trapped if that’s the case, as $4.25 million of his $4.5 million contract is guaranteed.
Marvin Jones Jr. is also someone to keep an eye on this coming season. After really coming into his own in 2017, Jones had a really rough and quiet start to 2018, then spent much of the latter half of the season on injured reserve. Should Jones not live up to his contract again this year, the Lions could move on from him next offseason with a cap hit of only $2.6 million and save over $6.5 million.
3. Outside linebacker
As someone who took way longer than they should have to understand how a 3-4 defense looks, I should clarify that this OLB position refers for the on-ball linebacker who consistently rushes the passer—essentially a stand up defensive end.
That being said, right now the position is occupied by Devon Kennard, who held his own last year and will benefit a lot from having Trey Flowers line up on the other side of the line. Of course, he thrived in run-stopping duties as Matt Patricia would hope, but was merely serviceable in the pass-rushing department. With Flowers locked up for five years and the need for pass-rushing ability still pertinent, the Lions should shift their focus to drafting an OLB.
It’s still wildly unclear how the NFL Draft will play out, but in a class stacked with pass rushers it’s very possible Josh Allen falls to the Lions at pick 8 or they draft a pass-rushing linebacker at some other point in the first few rounds.
If someone as talented as Josh Allen were to come in and have a great first year, it would very much push Kennard to be a potential cap casualty next offseason. The Lions would be left with $1.75 million in dead cap and save close to $6.5 million by cutting ties after 2020, and a talented young pass-rushing outside linebacker could be the catalyst to make that happen.
4. Tight end
I’ll certainly take some flak for leaving out tight end until now—I was very tempted to put tight end above outside linebacker, but then it hit me that impressions are relative. Jesse James is not the solution at tight end; he won’t be a Pro Bowler, won’t juke people out, and isn’t going to be creating 3 yards of separation the way a slot receiver might. He will, however, catch most of what’s thrown to him, block like an offensive lineman, and fight for yards after contact.
But that isn’t enough; today’s game necessitates fast, shifty tight end/wide receiver hybrids. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that it wasn’t a necessity for the offense. Given the standard of play from the Lions’ tight ends last year, simply plugging in James as a replacement would just about combine all the tight end depth’s talents into one tight end, and that’s a huge step up even if it leaves other traits to be desired.
With that said, it would be ideal if the Lions drafted someone to complement or supersede James as the starter, and it’s the perfect draft to have such a need. Some of the more athletic and dynamic tight ends will likely be available into Rounds 3-4, and the Lions shouldn’t feel pressed to pull the trigger early. Barring wacky trade scenarios that land one of the premier tight ends in their lap, expect the Lions to round out the positional depth in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft.
This one is much more about depth than the forefront of the positions. As has been the talk of Lions twitter since the signing of Andrew Adams, Quandre Diggs and Tracy Walker are the only other safeties who should consider their jobs safe. While Adams was used in Tampa Bay as a box safety/linebacker hybrid, his best play came from free safety and the Lions should look to use him there.
With a strong camp from Adams, the Lions could end up cutting ties with Tavon Wilson. He has shown that he has reached his ceiling as merely a depth/rotational safety and isn’t getting any younger as he turns 29 on Tuesday. Cutting him before the season could save the Lions close to $3 million.
The other candidate is Charles Washington. Despite rarely seeing game action besides special teams, Washington has managed to stick to the Lions for a few years now, but he could be pushed off the depth chart this offseason. Like Wilson, he has had his opportunities but has confirmed his ceiling as a depth player. He’s playing with no guaranteed money, too, so moving on if he doesn’t have a strong camp would be no hard decision.
The Lions could look to bolster their depth and go with younger, more high-potential players via the later rounds of the draft or other camp cuts later in the offseason.
Honorable Mention: Cornerback #2
I don’t consider this to be as pressing of a need as some may assumed. Justin Coleman, who the Lions made the highest-paid nickel corner by a wide margin, played outside corner under Matt Patricia and the Patriots prior to going to Seattle. It doesn’t take a math whiz to decipher that $9 million a year isn’t nickel money—the Lions intend on having Coleman on the field.
With that being said, I would envision Jamal Agnew, Mike Ford, a second-wave free agent, or a later-round draft pick stepping up into the nickel role. Remember, the Lions got Quandre Diggs, their starting-nickel-turned star-safety in the fifth round. I don’t consider it to be a pressing need, at least not as much as the aforementioned five.