Though Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes said he likes the rookie class when it comes to the safety position, he would be wise to look at this year’s free agent class, as well.
With veteran Duron Harmon likely to play elsewhere in 2021, the Detroit Lions will be missing a captain, a veteran, and someone who played more snaps than any Lions defender in 2020. That is no small role to fill and it seems unlikely Detroit would be eager to let someone like Will Harris assume that role—it would also be risky to hand that role to a rookie.
So with safety established as yet another need on this thinning defense, here are five free agent safeties with ties to Detroit’s current coaching staff—all of whom make sense for the Lions to varying degrees.
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Connection: Drafted in the third round by Rams in 2017 (Brad Holmes, Ray Agnew, Aubrey Pleasant)
Easily the most common name linked to the Lions in free agency, this is a signing that just makes far too much sense. Though he would cost a pretty penny, Johnson is just 25 years old and would immediately be a key cog in the defense of the future. Johnson would not be a bridge to a successful era, he would be the start to a new one.
Holmes must know it, too. He helped find Johnson in the draft four years ago, and Johnson has risen to stardom since. In three of his four years in the NFL, he posted a PFF grade of 80 or higher. In the one season he did not, he suffered a shoulder injury and only played six games.
Johnson is not only fantastic in deep coverage, but he isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty, either. Over his career, he’s averaging just below seven tackles per game, and in 2020, he had the fourth-highest run defense grade per PFF.
But will the Lions be willing to splurge this offseason, or are they just looking to get by in a cap-strapped year? Spotrac projects a contract worth $8.3 million a year, and that may be an underestimate.
Connection: Drafted in the fourth round by Chargers in 2017 (Anthony Lynn)
After a slow start to his career, Jenkins finally assumed a starting role in 2019 and didn’t relinquish it over the next two seasons. Over that time, Jenkins has developed into a nice piece for that Los Angeles defense.
Jenkins’ best aspect may be his versatility. In 2020 alone, Jenkins split his time in the box as a strong safety (493 snaps), lined up as the nickel corner (181), and dropped deep as a free safety (117).
If the Lions get outbid on Johnson, Jenkins would be a nice consolation prize. Though he’s a bit older at 27 years old, he would likely come significantly cheaper, as well.
Here’s what Anthony Lynn said about Jenkins prior to his solid 2020 season:
The young man, he’s re-focused. He’s changed his body. I thought last year putting him at free safety he made it hard for our second-round draft pick to get on the football field and Rayshawn just got better and better. I mean, he finish as one of the top-5 free safeties in the game last year, in my opinion. And he’s just going to take it to another level.”
Connection: 1 year with the Jaguars in 2020 (Todd Wash)
At the end of the 2019 season, the Jaguars swiped Jones up from waivers, inheriting the last year in an extremely affordable two-year, $1.4 million contract. What they ended up getting in Jones is their starting strong safety for the 2020 season.
Jones—a former second-round pick by the Green Bay Packers—has struggled for most of his career, and 2020 was no exception. He allowed 29 completions on 33 targets for a passer rating of 136.4. He also committed six penalties.
However, if the Lions believe in their coaching staff, there’s a reason Jones was drafted so high. He’s got a phenomenal athletic profile and he was a stud at North Carolina State. Though he’s served more as a run defender, he certainly has the speed to play deep safety.
This offseason, the Lions may be wise to give short-term deals to players that have something to prove and are simply looking for an opportunity. In Detroit, Jones could be given a shot to start alongside Tracy Walker and learn under an impressive coaching staff. However, Jones has already been with three teams since being drafted in 2017, so it’s probably smart to keep expectations somewhat low.
Connection: Played with Saints for past two seasons (Dan Campbell, Aaron Glenn)
If the Lions want to go the veteran route to help out their two young safeties in Walker and Harris, Swearinger may make the most sense. He’s already eight years into his NFL career, and he’s got a close relationship with Aaron Glenn, having played directly under him for the past two years.
Swearinger is reaching the twilight of his career, and didn’t play much of a role with the Saints last season. He was on the field for just 124 defensive snaps in 2020 and was even a healthy inactive in several games.
That being said, Swearinger could bring leadership and experience to a safety group that will likely be missing that piece from last year. Capable of playing both free and strong safety, Swearinger may jump on the opportunity to rejoin Glenn and even potentially fight for a starting position again.
Connection: 3 total seasons with the Chargers (Lynn), 3 seasons with Eagles (Dave Fipp)
Watkins has had a rough career since being drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He initially lasted just a year with Philly before they decided to bring him back less than a season later.
Though he doesn’t have a ton of playing experience on defense, he was a solid special teamer for the Eagles, giving him a strong connection to Fipp—Detroit’s new special teams coordinator. His play was good enough to warrant a one-year extension with the Eagles in 2017, and it’s clear Lynn saw something in Watkins, too, bringing him back to the Chargers both in 2019 and late in 2020.
Here’s Lynn on Watkins from 2019:
“He’s a versatile athlete. He can play corner, he can play nickel, he can play safety and he does some things on special teams.”