The Detroit Lions are likely going to make full-scale changes on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. The team finished last in points allowed, yards allowed and defensive DVOA, an efficiency metric from Football Outsiders.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage the season—and keep their jobs—the Lions opted for a midseason trade to bolster their pass rush. The Lions sent a conditional sixth-round pick (could turn into a fifth-round pick) for defensive end Everson Griffen, who had gotten off to a slow start in his first season with the Dallas Cowboys.
Obviously, Griffen alone was not enough to turn the defense, nor the team, around in time to save anyone’s jobs. But let’s look back on his 2020 season to see if the trade was still potentially worth it, and if Griffen could even be back next year.
Expectations heading into 2020
After 10 years in Minnesota, Griffen hit the free agent market, but he didn’t find a new team right away. Instead, teams took their time with Griffen, who had seen a clear decline in his game with the Vikings, even though he managed 8.0 sacks in 2019.
Eventually, the Cowboys were the team to give Griffen a shot, inking him to a one-year, $6 million contract in August.
By the time the Cowboys traded him to Detroit, it appeared expectations should be limited, but that didn’t stop Lions fans from getting hyped about the trade. At the time, the Lions were 3-3, and in desperate need of a pass rush. Griffen for a Day 3 draft picked seemed like a more-than-reasonable price, and as such, 92 percent of fans gave the move an A or B grade.
Actual role in 2020
2020 stats: 7 games: 13 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 passes defended
PFF grade: 69.5
Griffen’s play was about on par with where he’s at as a 33-year-old defender. He was able to bring a little extra pass rush to the team, finishing the season with an 80.1 pass grade, second only to Romeo Okwara on the team, and his 15 pressures was third on the team, despite only seven games played. He also brought an unmistakable intensity to practice, games, and even press conferences.
However, it was always too much of an ask to expect Griffen come in and solve all of Detroit’s pass rushing woes. At his age, he wasn’t garnering the snaps of a starter, and Detroit wasn’t getting into many third-and-long opportunities to allow him do pin his ears back and pass rush.
In the end, was it worth sending a Day 3 pick hoping that an aging defender would help turn around the season defensively? Probably not. Through no fault of his own, Griffen alone was never going to prevent that ship from sinking. Though I suppose you can’t fault general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia for trying.
Outlook for 2021
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
If there’s such a thing as a “bridge edge rusher,” I suppose Griffen could be that as the Lions look for a more long-term option to pressure opposing quarterbacks. There’s far more talk about bringing back Romeo Okwara, who had a breakout season in 2020, but he’ll come at a much higher price.
Of course, for a second season in Detroit to even be possible, Griffen has to be interested in coming back. But as soon as the season was over, Griffen made it pretty clear in a series of social media posts that he’s interested in going back to play with the Vikings. It’s unclear if that feeling is mutual, but it’s never a good sign for your chances of a re-signing when the player is already looking for greener pastures.
A re-signing seems unlikely, but don’t expect the Lions to receive any compensatory picks for Griffen. His contract isn’t likely to be big enough, and last year he signed so late in the offseason it didn’t count towards the Vikings compensatory pick equation.