Last week, Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell noted that he doesn’t expect many more roster moves between now and the start of the draft.
“Doesn’t mean there’s not things that we’re not going to look at or want to do, but I don’t think we’re in any hurry to do anything before the draft,” Campbell said.
Detroit did add $15 million in cap space recently by restructuring Jared Goff’s contract, giving them some much-needed breathing room, but don’t expect the Lions to suddenly go on a shopping spree. Even if the Lions do sign a few players before the draft—and that’s pretty likely—they aren’t going to be franchise-altering talent.
Essentially, the roster they have now is going to be relatively similar when they enter the 2021 NFL Draft, which is now less than a month away. Now is a good time to reset the roster, evaluate what the Lions have, and look at the team’s biggest needs.
For a team in a rebuild, need isn’t as important in the draft. General manager Brad Holmes needs to truly accept the rebuild and find talent over hole-fitters. Even if he were to focus on filling needs, there aren’t many positions that couldn’t stand to use an upgrade in the long term.
Still, here are the six biggest holes on the team, taking into account both the immediate and the future.
Note: Order is random, not by ranking of need.
Wide receiver (x2)
As of now, the Lions do not have a starting-level slot receiver, unless the plan is to give that job to second-year Quintez Cephus. The Lions may have added a couple of intriguing options in Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams, but neither projects to be a No. 1 receiver and both are on one-year deals.
The truth is, after letting every starter from last year hit free agency, there is no obvious plan for the future of this position. Don’t be surprised to see the Lions double up at wide receiver in the draft, or maybe even draft three if they pick up some extra picks.
With last week’s revelation that the Lions are intrigued about moving Halapoulivaati Vaitai inside to guard, that leaves the Lions with a massive hole at right tackle. Right now, Tyrell Crosby is slated to start there, but the former fifth-round pick has proven over the last three years that he’s best served as a backup swing tackle.
Even if the Lions plan on having Crosby as the starter this year, 2021 is the final year on his rookie deal. Now is the time to plan for the future.
Defensive tackle (nose)
While the Rams defense—which the Lions are reportedly trying to emulate on the defensive front—doesn’t rely on a full-time nose tackle, it does require one in some sub-packages. After letting Danny Shelton go, the Lions only really have last year’s sixth-round pick John Penisini capable of playing. His rookie season showed some promise, but he’s got a lot of work to do before he should be considered starting quality.
But even going beyond the nose, defensive tackle is a huge need for the future. Only Penisini and Michael Brockers are signed beyond 2021. Da’Shawn Hand, Nick Williams, John Atkins, Joel Heath, and Kevin Strong are all set to become free agents next year. It’s time the Lions find someone Brockers can bring along.
The Lions could probably get by with the current linebackers they have as starters with Jamie Collins Sr., the newly-signed Alex Anzalone, and the re-signed Jalen Reeves-Maybin to go along with Jahlani Tavai and Shaun-Dion Hamilton, but, again, there are no long term plans here.
The only linebackers signed on beyond 2021 are Collins—who only has two years on his contract, and Tavai, who is such a poor scheme fit now that Campbell nearly forgot he was on the roster.
With the recent addition of Corn Elder, the Lions likely have their starting three in Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, and Elder. While I think that group of young players absolutely needs a veteran to mentor them, they also could use some contingency plans for the future. (Note: Remember the Lions will be hosting veteran corner Quinton Dunbar on a visit this week.)
Okudah likely has enough talent to be a starter in this league, but the Lions shouldn’t be so sure about Oruwariye. 2021 will serve as an audition year for both players, and if they have the talent to make it, this coaching staff should be able to draw it out of them.
But the Lions shouldn’t wait to bring in competition. The future of this unit is still very undecided, and only Okudah and Oruwariye are under contract beyond 2021.
The safety position is just as young as cornerback, but there is a starting job available for 2021. Tracy Walker is expected to start, but the beginning of Will Harris’ career has been rough, and Detroit would be wise to consider the second safety spot open for competition.
Detroit failed to add any talent at the position in free agency thus far meaning safety is likely a top-three need on this team right now. Again, there doesn’t appear to be any plan for the future as only Harris is signed beyond 2021. Because the Lions need both an immediate starter and someone for the future, don’t be surprised if they take a safety on Day 1 (pending trade down) or Day 2 of the draft at the latest.