In the middle of Detroit Lions training camp last year, there was growing concern among observers that the team’s offensive line depth was perilously thin. Whenever the first-team offensive line would leave the field, Detroit’s offense would get thoroughly dominated by the defensive line. Didn’t matter if it was one-on-ones or seven-on-sevens, the Lions offensive line depth was clearly a problem.
And as Lions luck would have it, during the 2021 season, two of Detroit’s best starting offensive linemen—at arguably the two most important positions—got injured.
Yet the offensive line, without left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow, manage to hold its own for the entire season. In fact, it was a relative strength for most of the year.
One of the reasons for that was the play of backup center Evan Brown. Last week, the Lions re-signed Brown to a one-year deal, ensuring they’ll have that contingency plan again in 2022.
Let’s take a closer look at the re-signing and hand out a grade for the move.
Previous free agency grades: Josh Reynolds, DJ Chark, Tim Boyle
When the Lions added Evan Brown at the end of the 2020 season, I didn’t think much of it. He got some paying time toward the end of the season, and didn’t really move the needle much. So when the Lions signed him to a futures deal in 2021, I shrugged it off as a training camp body signing.
But Brown’s 2021 season was quite possibly the most pleasant surprise of the year for Detroit. After All-Pro center Frank Ragnow was lost for the season early in the year, Brown took over and mitigated the damage with above average play.
While that may not seem like the biggest compliments, it is. Mind you, Brown had never started an NFL game going into 2021, and center is one of the most important positions along the offensive line. You need to read and call out protections pre-snap and almost act as a second quarterback. For Brown to be able to do that immediately—with no real NFL experience—is nothing short of fantastic.
Several metrics point to how well Brown played in 12 starts last season. He ranked ninth in ESPN’s pass block win rate among centers, and seventh in PFF pass blocking grade. That being said, he has plenty of room to improve when it comes to run blocking. His 62.9 PFF grade there ranked just 25th out of 40 qualifying centers.
Brown won’t be challenging Ragnow for a starting job anytime soon, but he does bring peace of mind.
He’ll obviously back up Ragnow, which is no small feat. However, he also does have some experience at guard, playing 16 snaps at left guard in 2020, plus 18 at left guard and 19 at right guard in 2019.
The Lions do not have a lot of proven, trustworthy depth on the interior offensive line, so Brown could potentially go into 2022 as the primary depth at multiple positions.
When writing Brown’s free agent profile earlier this month, I was concerned the only way to retain Brown would be to hand him a restricted free agent second-round tender worth about $4 million. My reasoning is that Brown’s play was good enough that he could test free agency and potentially get a shot at a starting job elsewhere.
Instead, the Lions managed to re-sign Brown to a contract worth just $2.025 million with $600,000 guaranteed, and they got the deal done before Brown even had a chance to explore his other options in free agency.
It’s an extremely team-friendly deal, but it also contains some extra motivation for Brown. There is reportedly $1 million worth of playtime incentives attached to the contract. It’s unlikely Brown wins a starting job out of the gate, but if injury strikes anyone on the interior, Brown could cash in more than what a restricted free agent tender would’ve paid. Plus, he gets that $600,000 signing bonus in his pocket immediately.
While re-signing Brown wasn’t the most impactful move, I don’t see a single downside to it. The Lions brought back some much-needed insurance at both center and the guard positions, and were able to do it at an extremely affordable price. No one should bat a single eye at spending just over $2 million on a backup offensive lineman, especially one who outplayed that contract last season. Lions get an easy A here.
What grade do you give the Evan Brown re-signing?
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