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4 potential 2022 free agents the Lions should watch during the NFC, AFC Championships

Identifying one player from each of today’s playoff teams the Lions could be interested in.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoffs-Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 NFL Playoffs are down to the final four teams. The Conference Championship round will play out this Sunday, with the winner headed to the Super Bowl. The first game will feature the Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City at 3 p.m. ET on CBS and Paramount+, followed by the San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams at 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

Here are four potential 2022 free agents—one from each team—that the Detroit Lions should be watching during Sunday’s games.

Bengals: Mike Thomas, WR (6-foot-1, 189)

You’re going to have to look for Thomas in this game as he’s not likely to show up on offense for more than a handful of snaps—he only played on five in the Wild Card and none last week. So why am I profiling him? Because he is an elite special teams player and would be a natural replacement for KhaDarel Hodge if he leaves in free agency.

Thomas entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick (206 overall) in 2016 out of Southern Miss. You’ll never guess which team drafted him? Ok, maybe you will. That’s right, it was the Los Angeles Rams, during current Lions general manager Brad Holmes’ tenure as their Director of College Scouting.

Thomas has spent the last six seasons as a back-end wide receiver depth and four-phase special teams contributor (on both punt and kickoff coverage/blocking units). This season, Thomas has earned a 90.0 grade from PFF on special teams.

Bengals previously profiled:

Chiefs: Melvin Ingram, EDGE (6-foot-2, 247)

There’s a real chance the Lions move on from Trey Flowers, lose Charles Harris in free agency, and Romeo Okwara may not be ready to contribute, meaning the Lions' most seasoned edge rusher may be oft-injured Austin Bryant, who is just in his fourth year in the league. Even if the Lions add an EDGE rusher with the second overall pick, they will need leadership at the position.

Ingram (32 years old) isn’t in his prime anymore, but for a Lions team that could potentially be very young on the edge, coaches may be on the lookout for an inexpensive veteran who still has some juice as a situational pass rusher.

Ingram signed with the Steelers for $4 million this past offseason, but under usage and poor play led to them trading him to the Chiefs. With Kansas City, he has looked re-energized and is giving them meaningful snaps. In the past 11 games with the Chiefs, Ingram has registered 28 pressures (46 on the season) and three sacks (four on the season).

Chiefs previously profiled:

49ers: Arden Key, EDGE (6-foot-5, 238)

Key was highly touted coming out of LSU in 2018, even generating top-five buzz for some time, but his athleticism scores underwhelmed and concerns around his medical history combined to hurt his stock, eventually dropping him to pick No. 87 in the third round where the Raiders stopped the free fall.

Personally, I never thought Key’s game translated very well to the NFL and his three-year career with the Raiders proved me right, registering a total of just three sacks and ending each season with a PFF grade of 58.7 or lower. Key said he felt like he was close to turning a corner with the Raiders, but their patience wore thin and they released him this past offseason.

Then Key signed with the 49ers and suddenly his career was reborn. As a situational pass rusher, Key more than doubled his career sack totals, officially registering 6.5 sacks (8 per PFF), a pass-rushing grade of 77.0, and an overall grade of 69.1 from PFF.

Why the sudden resurgence? Well, it’s all about coaching according to Key.

“Coaching is everything,” Key told the Mercury News. “It starts from the top. They make sure we as athletes have everything we need to succeed and play fast on Sunday. It’s a players-first organization. If a player is feeling kind of tired body-wise coaches will see that and let us get our legs back under us. Coaches will listen if we see something when we come to the sideline, we can talk about it and get it corrected.”

This is basically the West Coast version of the Charles Harris story. A bad fit with his previous team(s), an edge rusher is able to double his career output in one season when his talents line up with the proper coaching staff.

If the Lions miss out on re-signing Harris, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Key could be a replacement option for the Lions.

49ers previously profiled:

Rams: Donte Deayon, CB (5-foot-9, 159)

I had Rams’ defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day slotted here, but I’m not sure he will be activated ahead of this game. He is a natural Nick Williams replacement, and at just 27 years old could be a fixture on the Lions’ defensive line for the next few years.

I also thought about featuring center Brian Allen here, but the former Michigan State Spartan plays the same spot as Lions’ All-Pro Frank Ragnow, and I’m not sure he would translate to guard seamlessly, so I’m not sure adding him is in the teams best interest.

I also don’t see the Lions going after any of the Rams’ “all-in” free agents like Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr., or Sony Michel. And after profiling four other Rams’ players this offseason, you’d think they’d be out of options, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Deayon was originally signed by the Giants after going undrafted out of Boise State in 2016. After two years, he was released and joined the Rams as a reserve corner. He has been on and off the Rams roster for the last three seasons, but this year he found some footing and had a career year. Deayon played nearly 500 defensive snaps this season, splitting time between the slot and on the outside, earning a 68.3 coverage and 68.0 overall grades from PFF.

With some uncertainty at the cornerback spot due to injuries, the Lions should be exploring inexpensive depth options this offseason.

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