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Detroit Lions 2021 free agency preview

Get prepped for free agency here!

Jeff Nguyen (Detroit Lions)

With the NFL tampering period set to kick off today and the 2021 free agency period beginning Wednesday, March 17 at 4 p.m. EST, we at Pride of Detroit wanted to give readers a handy resource for the upcoming extravaganza.

Below is a position-by-position review of who is on the Detroit Lions roster (presumed starters are bolded), which Lions players are free agents (with links to our profiles of the player), the top free agents with connections to the coaching staff/front office, the team’s need level, an ideal target for the position, realistic targets for the position, as well as thoughts from our Jeremy Reisman (editor in chief) and Erik Schlitt (managing editor).

Quarterback

Jeremy:

It does feel like Daniel is more-than-likely on his way out after trade rumors emerged, so Detroit may look to add a veteran with experience under Anthony Lynn (Taylor) or someone with a built-in rapport with Goff (Mannion). However, this team isn’t in a position to be spending big on a backup quarterback, so it may be best to roll with Blough and use new QB coach Mark Brunell as your “veteran” in the room.

Erik:

Unless the Lions move on from Daniel, there is no need to add another quarterback in free agency and even if they do, Blough is still capable of managing a game in a pinch. It’d be a wiser investment to spend quarterback resources in the draft.

Running back

Jeremy:

As I wrote last week, I’m okay giving Johnson a chance at the RB2 job, but the Lions absolutely need to have an insurance plan with his injury history. I’d be shocked if the Lions don’t add a running back in free agency, and Malcolm Brown makes the most sense from both a cost and fit standpoint.

Erik:

I too expect the Lions to add a running back in free agency—and likely the NFL draft as well—and if it’s not Brown it could very well be Williams. Williams is a solid RB2 who can spot start and is a terrific pass blocker. I added McCoy in the “realistic targets” not necessarily because of his on-field skills at this stage of his career but because he is an experienced veteran who knows the coaching staff and could serve as a mentor. In 2013, McCoy led the NFL in rushing with Duce Staley as his position coach, and three years later in 2016, he was the lead back on a Bills offense that led the NFL in rushing, with Anthony Lynn as his position coach (and eventually head coach).

Wide receiver

Jeremy:

While swinging for the fences doesn’t make sense for Detroit after passing on re-signing Kenny Golladay, this team needs to add two potential starters this offseason. Look for them to sign at least two in free agency: one to contend for a starting job on the outside and a capable slot receiver.

Erik:

I’m expecting the Lions to fill the roster with multiple wide receivers and I’m expecting them to target young receivers looking for a chance at a bigger role. Adding receivers who can separate should also be a priority if they want to maximize Goff’s potential. Expect at least two in free agency and another in the draft.

Tight end

Jeremy:

The Josh Hill signing pretty much wrapped this one up quickly. Nice to go into the new year with a somewhat respectable-looking tight end corps. Finally.

Erik:

Most are all aboard the Hunter Bryant hype train—myself included—but if the coaching staff isn’t sure what they have in him because of limited tape, it’s possible they look to add another big skill pass-catching weapon as competition.

Offensive line

  • On the roster: Taylor Decker (LT), Jonah Jackson (LG), Frank Ragnow (C), Hal Vaitai (RG), Tyrell Crosby (RT), Joe Dahl, Dan Skipper, Matt Nelson, Logan Stenberg, Evan Brown
  • Lions free agents: Oday Aboushi (profile)
  • Released: Russell Bodine (story)
  • 5 OL free agents connected to the Lions coaching staff/front office
  • Need level: Medium-low
  • Ideal target: James Hurst (Saints)
  • Realistic targets: Hurst, Aboushi

Jeremy:

Not knowing what the Lions are planning with Vaitai makes this a difficult projection. Is the starting right tackle job vacant? If so, Hurst makes a lot of sense. Otherwise, the offensive line is more about depth filling, and Aboushi is good enough depth for me.

Erik:

It’s all about depth here and the draft offers more value than free agency if the Lions are willing to risk waiting. With most of last year's offensive line returning—as well as position coach Hank Fraley—I think that risk is manageable. Adding Aboushi makes sense, especially since he outplayed Dahl last year, and swapping them out would be a cost-saving move.

Interior defensive line

Jeremy:

At this point, we’re just waiting for the Lions to cut ties with Williams and/or Shelton. Even if the Lions decide to keep them, though, only Jashon Cornell and John Penisini—two late Day 3 picks—are signed beyond 2021. The Lions need a lot of help here, but the free agent market is disappointingly thin. Detroit will have to shell out money if they want someone, and that’s probably not wise at this point in the rebuilding process.

Erik:

This may be the toughest spot to improve this offseason, as most of the depth players in free agency are run stuffers and the Lions need to locate pass rushers. Even if the Lions do locate an interior disruptor, they’re likely going to come with a big price tag. Further complicating matters is that this is one of the weakest drafts at defensive tackle as well. Because of this non-ideal situation, I’m anticipating moves—or lack of moves—that disappoint.

EDGE rusher

Jeremy:

I’d feel much better about this unit if the Lions just re-signed Romeo Okwara, but it’s starting to look like that’s not in the cards. The Lions won’t find a better game-changer in free agency, but Ebukam is nice depth. If Detroit’s looking to find a premier pass rusher, the draft may be the best route, but even there, there’s no Chase Young waiting for them.

Erik:

How comfortable the Lions feel on the EDGE likely comes down to how much they believe in Bryant and Julian Okwara. Ebukam is the perfect addition to the group but just adding him is not enough. From there they’ll likely need to add a rotational depth player who can backup Flowers both on the EDGE and on the interior—Smoot or even Deatrich Wise (Patriots) could be options.

Linebacker

Jeremy:

At this point, I’m just mentally preparing for Jarrad Davis to be back. Even if Dan Campbell gets his primary knee-cap biter candidate back, Detroit only has one player with starting-level talent. I’m almost willing to shell out the $11M/year Jayon Brown is expected to get, but that’s due to my impatience of seeing poor linebacker play. Lions probably go the frugal route here and look to the draft.

Erik:

If we are reading the tea leaves correctly, athleticism is a priority here, which is why Davis and Anzalone find themselves in the conversation. If the Lions sign Ebukam, he can help soften the need here on the outside, but the Lions will still need to add a part-time off-the-ball speed linebacker at a minimum.

Cornerback

Jeremy:

The Lions don’t have a viable starting nickel and I’m not ready to hand Amani Oruwariye a starting job. I expect at least two new faces via free agency here with Robey-Coleman making the most sense at nickel despite a poor year in 2020. Perhaps a reunion with Aubrey Pleasant will help right the ship.

Erik:

I’m more bullish on Oruwariye than Jeremy and have him listed as one of my 2021 starters. But, with no nickel on the roster, landing Hill and/or Robey-Coleman seems like a must. The Lions need a competent player with scheme experience and both have had a high level of success manning the slot with Pleasant as their coach. Heck, I’d sign all three of the “realistic targets” and not think twice about it.

Safety

Jeremy:

We’re in Year 4 of “This is the season Tracy Walker will break out.” Time to start thinking about contingency plans, especially since Detroit doesn’t have a viable second starting safety. This is why everyone says John Johnson makes too much sense to the Lions. He just does.

Erik:

Johnson should be the Lions’ top priority regardless of position this free agency period. Not only do the Lions desperately need a starting safety in 2021, but Harris is also the only safety signed to the roster in 2022. I believe safety is just as big a need on this roster as wide receiver and the Lions need to attack free agency with this mentality.

Special teams

  • On the roster: Jack Fox (Punter), Matthew Wright (kicker)
  • Lions free agents: Matt Prater (kicker, profile), Don Muhlbach (long snapper, profile)
  • Need level: Medium (Just get it done)
  • Ideal targets: Prater, Muhlbach
  • Realistic targets: Prater, Muhlbach, Cody Parkey (K, Browns)

Jeremy:

If Muhlbach isn’t back, we riot. As for kicker, the Lions’ new front office may decide spending $4+ million on a 36-year-old specialist isn’t smart spending for a rebuilding team. However, they didn’t experience Nate Freese or Alex Henery. Don’t overthink this.

Erik:

Prater has established roots in Detroit and does not want to leave. That feeling is reciprocated by the Lions. Could that mean a one-year team-friendly deal or maybe a backloaded contract that allows him to retire a Lion? Either way, I think this gets done. Unless coach Dan Campbell feels awkward coaching a long snapper he played with during his last stint in Detroit, I see no reason Muhlbach doesn't return to the Lions for another season.