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NFL free agency grades: Evaluating every Detroit Lions move

Our thoughts on each move the Lions have made in free agency thus far.

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Often, you’ll see several media outlets give “Instant Grades!” of every team’s moves as they come across the wire. Not to downplay those outlets, but they often miss out on important details and contextual information. Contracts are often boiled down to an average earnings per year, which only tells about 10 percent of the story of each deal. They also grade in a vacuum, unable to see the full picture, because future corresponding moves haven’t been made yet.

So now that we’ve had almost a full week since the Lions’ last significant moves, we should be able to judge their Week 1 free agency moves with more clarity than the knee-jerk reactions from last week.

With that in mind, here are my grades for each move Detroit made this free agency.

(Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m not including re-signings or players they let go)

Signing OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai to 5-year, $45M deal

At first, this signing looked a bit... excessive. Considering the Lions had just let go of Rick Wagner and his $11.9 million cap hit, it didn’t make much sense to pay nearly that exact same figure to a career backup.

Of course, once the contract details actually emerged, this looked a little more manageable. With only a $5.4 million cap hit in 2020 and a deal that Detroit could get out of in just a couple of seasons, this isn’t nearly as big of a commitment to Vaitai as it appears on the surface.

That being said, there’s a pretty big risk handing the reins over to a guy with four starts in the past two seasons. However, he’s a solid run blocker, can play multiple positions, and is only 26 years old.

I worry about his ability to pass block, but this is a signing that could have some big upside. Grade: C

Signing Jamie Collins Sr. to a 3-year, $30M deal

I went into free agency convinced the Lions wouldn’t make many changes at linebacker and was pleasantly surprised when the team proved me wrong. I know Collins has had an up-and-down career, but in the Patriots’ scheme he’s been a phenomenal player.

In terms of value, this is essentially a two-year deal, with cap hits of $6.3 and $11.3 million in 2020 and 2021, respectively. That’s more than fair for the 30-year-old linebacker.

What excites me about this signing is the versatility that Collins brings to this defense. He’s capable of doing literally anything the team wants from the linebacker position: dropping into coverage, blitzing up the A-gap, holding the edge. This versatility will allow Detroit to do more with the other linebackers they have, hopefully unleashing guys like Jarrad Davis to his full potential, and grooming Jahlani Tavai to become a top-tier linebacker.

The biggest risk of this signing is simply age: we may have already seen the best Collins will have to offer in his career. But, he is still Detroit’s best linebacker on arrival — by a large margin. Grade: B+.

Signing Nick Williams to a 2-year, $10M deal

Williams is an incredible story. Four years into his career, he had accomplished little in the NFL and eventually sat out the entire 2017 season unemployed. The Chicago Bears gave him a chance the following year, and he parlayed that into a second season. His 6.0-sack season in 2019 led to a nice $10 million deal with the Lions.

But now at 30 years old and with only one significant season in the NFL, Williams is far from a sure-fire addition. He’s capable of bringing some pass rush, but from a pure talent standpoint I don’t think this is an upgrade from A’Shawn Robinson.

Williams should be thought of as part of the rotation, but I’m just not confident he’ll be more than a fringe player, and $5 million a year is a bit much to pay for that. Grade: D

Signing Chase Daniel to a 3-year, $13.05M deal

I’m not going to go deep into this. Chase Daniel is a backup with a fair amount of experience and a ton of knowledge. He’s managed to do okay in spot duty, but if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think it’s worth it to spend this kind of money on a backup quarterback.

The best way to survive an injury to your franchise quarterback is to make the rest of your team capable of carrying the load, not hoping that the league’s 40th-best quarterback can throw all over the opponents.

It’s not like Daniel is cap-strapping the Lions with his $2 million and $5.3 million cap hits in the next two seasons, but I would have been perfectly fine with them giving Jeff Driskel a lesser deal. Grade: D

Trading 2020 5th-round pick for Duron Harmon and 2020 7th-round pick

This is by far my favorite move of the first week of free agency. The Lions basically spent nothing to get Harmon, who should be the perfect complement to Tracy Walker in Detroit’s defensive backfield.

Detroit hasn’t had a deep-coverage safety this reliable since Glover Quin was playing at his peak, and it will allow Detroit to weaponize Walker all over the place.

Harmon is also fairly cheap, with a $4.25 million cap hit. The only bummer about this deal is that Harmon is only signed on for one more year. However, if things work out as planned, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harmon as a priority re-signing at this point next year. Grade: A.

Signing Danny Shelton to a 2-year, $8M deal

If you followed me the past few months, you know I was banging the drum for D.J. Reader to be the Lions’ next nose tackle. Looking back on it, I’m a little glad they didn’t end up spending $13.25 million a year on a two-down player.

Detroit went the fiscally-responsible route and got themselves a solid, but not spectacular, player. Shelton won’t be anywhere near the player the Damon Harrison Sr. was—even last year—but he should provide somewhat reliable play.

This is solid money management, but the talent here isn’t something to get too excited about. Grade: C+

Signing CB Desmond Trufant to a 2-year, $21M deal

Trufant is a good No. 1 cornerback. He’s not a lockdown corner, and probably not a top-10 corner in the league, but he’s a guy who will not get consistently beat.

He’s also somewhat of a play-maker. In his first three seasons, he was third among all cornerbacks with 44 passes defended. And he had somewhat of a resurgence last year, tallying four interceptions in just nine games.

But if you compare Trufant to Darius Slay, you’re going to be disappointed. He’s not in the same league as Slay, even if he is dependable. But with reasonable cap hits, it’s a decent move to mitigate the damage. Grade: B

Trading Darius Slay for a third and fifth-round pick

Given the extension that the Eagles ended up giving Slay, I think the Lions blew this one. Obviously, the relationship between Slay and the coaching staff was a huge factor in this decision, and there is blame from both sides as to how the relationship became so soured. Personally, I think it’s ultimately on management to keep their employees happy, and the Lions clearly failed in that endeavor. And because of that failure, they sent away one of their best players instead of signing him to a reasonable deal for the next couple of seasons.

As for the deal, as I said on the PODcast, I think this was actually quite fair in terms of the compensation the Lions got. Ultimately, they got rid of a player that had no interest in playing under Matt Patricia anymore, and got a potential starter and depth piece in return.

Grade of the trade itself: B
Grade of the Slay situation: F

Signing Jayron Kearse to a 1-year, $2.75M deal

Special teams signings are never anything to get too excited or disappointed about. Kearse has been one of the Vikings’ best special teamers over the past couple of seasons, and that should be a nice addition to Detroit’s squad, which had their ups and downs last year.

However, Kearse could be facing a suspension in 2020 after failing a sobriety test and being in possession of a pistol without a warrant. Grade: C-

Signing Tony McRae to a 1-year, $1.5M deal

Another special teams signing, McRae should come in and immediately compete for a roster spot. Having experience under Detroit’s new special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs gives him a leg up, and there’s not much risk given McRae’s contract terms.

Don’t expect too much from McRae as a defender. Primarily a nickel corner, McRae has just two passes defended in three starts. Grade: C+

Overall grade

The Lions made some drastic, needed changes on defense, and I like that the team attacked all three levels of that side of the ball. I think the signing of Jamie Collins Sr. and the trade for Duron Harmon have potential of being major moves that can transform the look of this defense and make the players around them even better.

However, the offensive and defensive lines remain very much a work in progress. I think the defensive line may even be a little worse than last year, while the offensive line is undoubtedly worse.

I think the moves thus far have been a net positive, but still not enough for me to believe this team is suddenly a major contender for anything. Overall Grade: B-

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