For the previous two seasons, the Detroit Lions have not much of a free agent impression. Most players brought in from other teams received one-year, modest deals in Detroit. Instead, Lions general manager Brad Holmes has focused his efforts on retaining players that fit what they’re trying to build and offering external players a shot to make their case.
In many ways, that strategy has worked. Charles Harris got his shot in 2021, made an impression and returned in 2022. Kalif Raymond was rewarded for a decent 2021 season with a new deal in 2022, and he only got better. Alex Anzalone had a career year in 2022 after Detroit opted to re-sign him.
But now the Lions have a little more wiggle room in their salary cap and their roster is not only better, but deeper. So will the Lions free agency strategy now evolve to a new phase?
“No, it really doesn’t,” Holmes said on Tuesday. “We’re always going to be very strategic and selective with our approach. Regardless of how many resources you have, how much money you can spend, we’re always are very selective and strategic with how we go about free agency.”
A few times now, Holmes has pushed back on the notion that signing other team’s free agents is the only way to make a “splash” in the offseason. He notes that sometimes re-signing a player—like last year’s significant deal with safety Tracy Walker—should also be considered a “splash.”
“There was a lot made about us signing our own guys back, and we’re not aggressive because we’re signing our own guys back,” Holmes said. “But, look, that’s still being aggressive because you still have to pay for those guys.”
For 2023, there will be no shortage of in-house free agents that Holmes will likely consider. Players like running back Jamaal Williams, wide receiver DJ Chark, linebacker Alex Anzalone, defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs, cornerbacks Will Harris and Mike Hughes, and safety DeShon Elliott were all significant starters who face uncertain futures. There are also several role players (Justin Jackson, Evan Brown, John Cominsky, Chris Board, Josh Woods) that are set to be free agents.
Before the players broke for the offseason, Holmes and assistant general manager Ray Agnew met with these players individually, and they were encouraged by how many wanted to come back in Detroit.
“It was cool to hear because those guys believe in what we’re doing, and they believe it’s the right way,” Holmes said. “They like how they’re treated, they can be themselves and it was just cool to hear that they think that we’re doing it the right way. But yeah, we’ll just see how it goes, but hopefully we can get a lot of those guys back.”
That said, Holmes knows this team still has a lot of needs. He rejected the notion that they were “one player away,” and admitted he wanted to focus his offseason resources on the defensive side of the ball, where they finished in the bottom five in many statistical categories.
“There’s a lot of different areas that we can go, especially with the resources that we’ll have available to us,” Holmes said. “Obviously, our defense was ranked 32nd, so I mean it’s pretty obviously that we’re going to have to utilize some resources to try and improve that defense.”
But, again, he stressed that they have to be very selective in their process to make sure the players they get are a right fit schematically and culturally.
“We’ll be wise and smart and strategic in how we add, but again we don’t just spend big on getting a high-price guy,” Holmes said. “It’s got to be the right fit, and it’s got to be the right guy, and if it’s not the right guy then it doesn’t matter what the outside world thinks.”