The Detroit Lions have five active safeties on their roster, but come 2022, we could see a complete overhaul of the position group.
While the cornerback group has suffered injury after injury, the safeties have remained fairly healthy all season, but that hasn’t resulted in many positives. As barren as the Lions roster is, safety is a position that needs to be addressed significantly this offseason. With pending free agents and poor play aplenty, it may be a difficult and costly rework.
The star of the defense this year has been Tracy Walker. He has played at a Pro Bowl-level, although he is unlikely to garner the fan vote needed to attend. Unfortunately for the Lions, Walker’s rookie contract expires after this season, and the team will need to decide if they want to bring him back—and at what price. Safety John Johnson received a three-year, $33.75 million deal with the Cleveland Browns, and Walker should be in the $8 million to $10 million yearly range.
Another pending free agent is Dean Marlowe, who has frequently filled the role of third safety. Marlowe’s usage has varied week-by-week, although he peaked with 70 snaps—every single defensive snap—against the Bears on Thanksgiving. Unremarkable has been the story of Marlowe’s first season in Detroit, and the Lions could and should upgrade that spot. Marlowe might be a decent rotational guy, but he should not be playing as often as he is.
The reason for Marlowe’s increased play has been Will Harris, who might be entering unplayable territory. Bad reads and bad angles have plagued Harris throughout his Lions tenure, and he is often the weak link in the secondary. Whether he is getting burnt or allowing a corner to get burnt, Harris is no longer a starting-caliber player, which is a shame given his third round status. He still has value as a special teamer, but so do many other players on the roster. His roster spot could be in jeopardy next year.
Speaking of special teams, that is the role that C.J. Moore and Jalen Elliott has been relegated to for most of the season. Moore is filling the role of special teams ace left vacant by Miles Killebrew, while Elliott is still growing into the role following a midseason call-up. Neither player looks primed for a starting role, however.
Nothing is set in stone for the Lions safeties next offseason, so which approach should this rebuilding team take?
Today’s Question of the Day is:
What should the Lions do at safety next offseason?
My answer: I think they should re-sign Tracy Walker and draft a safety early.
Re-signing Walker should be a no-brainer, unless Walker really wants out of Detroit. Even then, the franchise tag is an option, though it would cost around $11 million. With Walker turning 27 in February, he should still be a key part of this defense going forward. I wouldn’t shy away from signing him for four years or so.
With one spot addressed, how about the second starter? That’s where things get tough.
You could roll with Harris or re-sign Marlowe to a cheap deal, but given their performance this season, I’m not inclined to do so. That leaves free agency and the draft.
Two of the biggest free agent names in 2022 will be Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Williams. Williams in particular is a player to keep an eye on, given his connection with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. Williams would be expensive—Spotrac puts his market value at $13.35 million per year—and that is the biggest factor working against it. Despite the Lions rebuilding, their cap space is middling. With a significant need for starters and depth, the Lions might not be willing to splurge on such a player. The Lions do have some cuttable contracts to free up cap space, but it might not be a direction they go in.
Another free agent to keep an eye on is Justin Reid of the Houston Texans. Benched on Sunday for criticizing the coaching staff, his days in Houston are numbered, but he is has been regarded as a leader in the locker room and after struggling in 2021, he could be a more affordable low-risk move.
However, I think the draft might be a better option. The prize of the safety class is Kyle Hamilton, but a safety first overall may be too rich for the Lions—if Detroit picks fourth or fifth, he enters the conversation. The draft gets really interesting after that, as the Lions will be selecting later in the first with the Rams pick and early in the second round. That is when a safety comes into play in my eyes.
There are many safeties competing for the title of second safety drafted. Michigan fans will know Daxton Hill, a rangy safety that should wow at the combine. Jaquan Brisker from Penn State is a more physical safety that would pair well with Tracy Walker. Jalen Catalon is a small but pounding safety akin to Quandre Diggs. The list of good safety prospects goes on, from Jordan Battle to Brandon Joseph to Lewis Cine and more.
The Lions have a massive need at safety, and I think taking one atop the second round makes a lot of sense. Their first pick is shaping up to be a pass rusher. Their second pick could fill another strong need at wide receiver. Their next pick is a great opportunity to draft a safety, with at least two of the aforementioned prospects likely to be available.
There is no easy solution to fix the safeties, the secondary, or the defense, but I think the Lions have ample opportunities to address a major need next offseason. It will be costly, through spending of dollars or draft picks, but it should hopefully be another step towards a competitive team.