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Explaining the Detroit Lions’ free agent strategy of focusing on re-signings

Taking a closer look at the Lions offseason so far.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions have been busy through the opening days of the free agency tampering period, but not exactly in the way many expected.

Since the tampering period began, less than 48 hours ago, the Lions made the following roster moves (in chronological order):

These moves raised some concerns amongst the fan base.

That's a lot of re-signings from a 3-13-1 team. That’s a lot of one-year contracts. There has only been one player has been signed from outside the organization. The Lions have 76 players on their 90-man roster; with 8-10 draft picks in hand, that leaves only 4-6 spots open.

Why have the Lions taken this approach?

The short answer: Insurance. The long answer...

In any given offseason, NFL teams turn over about a third of their roster (roughly 17 players). At this stage, the Lions have only swapped out one. The draft will add in another 8-10 names, bringing the total up but still short of average for turnover.

Then, of course, there are the undrafted free agents that will be added as well. Last year, the Lions ended the season with 10 UDFAs on their active roster or practice squad. Adding another 10 UDFA contributors seems optimistic. If it was even half of that number, the team would bring its roster turnover count up to 14-16 players, much closer to the anticipated average. Five UDFAs would also fill out the remaining 90-man roster spots after accounting for draft picks.

But what if the Lions wanted to add more than 5 UDFAs and weren’t done in free agency?

The short answer: They remove some of their insurance options. The long answer...

One of the advantages of re-signing players is that you know their capabilities, potential, and limitations. If a UDFA or free agent comes along that the Lions believe has a higher ceiling/floor, then they can remove the lower-skilled player on the roster. In fact, the Lions have designed most of their contracts so that they can do this without penalty.

When you look beyond the top-38 contracts on the Lions roster, only six contracts have any guaranteed money attached and all are less than $85,000 in potential cap penalties. Some quick math tells you that nearly half the Lions’ contracts have zero guarantees.

Okay, so we will likely have the average amount of roster turnover and can release a bunch of players without incurring cap hits. But how does this make us better?

Short answer: They keep their options open in the draft. Long answer...

Make no mistake, this Lions organization plans to build its foundation through the draft. They laid the groundwork last season and put together a nice platform to build on with a few budding superstars and a few hidden gems emerging.

In this draft, they have the potential to add even more foundational players with five picks in the top-100. Considering the roster is currently stacked three players deep at each position, the Lions won’t get stuck reaching for need and can simply select the best player available to them.

For example, are they satisfied with Tracy Walker and Will Harris as their starting safety duo? They were last season. If the Lions have a chance to upgrade the spot next to Walker and shift Harris into a hybrid safety/corner role, they could easily jump at that option but don't need to force it.

Are they satisfied with a wide receiver core of Chark, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Josh Reynolds starting with Raymond, Quintez Cephus, and Trinity Benson rounding out the depth? Maybe, but probably not. That is why most observers expect the Lions will look to add an impact receiver in the draft. But again, Detroit won't need to force the issue. Honestly, this is already an improved group from last season with the development of St. Brown and the addition of Chark.

Do the Lions have glaring holes? Absolutely. They could certainly add players capable of challenging for a starting role at safety, wide receiver, linebacker, and at EDGE. But by having insurance options in place, the front office won’t need to reach for a player or position and can simply take the best player available to upgrade the roster.

The Lions could certainly stand to add more players in free agency, and there are still plenty of talented players on the market. However, it appears the goal of free agency in year two of the rebuild is designed to give them flexibility to improve through the draft in the most efficient way possible.