The Detroit Lions have 18 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) this offseason, and if patterns hold—last season, the Lions re-signed seven of their 13 UFAs— they will do their best to try and retain the players they want back before the free agency period opens in March.
General manager Brad Holmes further cemented this ideology at his end-of-season press conference:
“We’re always going to be very strategic and selective with our approach (to free agency). “Regardless of how many resources you have, how much money you can spend, we always are very selective and strategic with how we go about free agency. And that’s upcoming UFAs that are on our team as well as external (additions), but it’s always going to be the same approach. And I think we kind of proven that. Obviously year one didn’t have as many resources at our disposal, but we were very selective about who were the right guys [...] And we’ll continue that same plan.”
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at which players the Lions could prioritize and rank their UFAs in order of perceived importance.
1. Jamaal Williams, RB
1,000-yard rusher, check.
Break Barry Sanders’ franchise rushing touchdown record with 17 in 2022, check.
Emotional leader in the locker room and beloved teammate, check.
The Lions won’t want to break the bank on Williams, but at the same time, he embodies everything this regime is about and everything that they preach they want in a player. Williams has already implied that he wants to return—in a very Jamaal Williams kind of way—and this move seems like an easy decision.
2. DJ Chark, WR
The Lions have nine starters set to become UFAs in 2023, but Chark may be the only one who would return to a guaranteed starting role. There are several unquestioned leaders the Lions will want to return, and for good reason, but from a talent perspective, several of those players could lose their starting roles to offseason upgrades. I don’t believe Chark would be considered in that group.
The Lions will surely be making room for Jameson Williams to find his way onto the field, but there is an argument to be made that the offense would be better served if those snaps came at the expense of Josh Reynolds, not Chark.
Chark, of course, has an injury history and potentially big contract expectations that will need to be considered in his evaluation. But from a position of roster impact, retaining Chark could be a priority.
3. John Cominsky, EDGE
It’s been quite a journey for Cominsky. After not getting many opportunities with the Falcons, he asked for his release from Atlanta and Detroit claimed him off waivers. The Lions saw potential in Cominsky—as did the other seven teams who put in waiver claims—and allowed him to compete for a role.
The Lions' edge rusher group went through some shuffling early in the season, looking to land on the right combination of players. As injuries mounted, the shift of Aidan Hutchinson to the open/rush end spot created an opportunity for Cominsky at closed end. Cominsky had already established himself as a situational “big” rusher capable of lining up all over the field, but when given the chance to start, he seized it.
Like with Jameson and Chark, the Lions will surely want to get Josh Paschal more snaps in 2023, but you need pass rushing depth in the NFL, and having a roster two deep on the edge is a must. Cominsky has already
begged expressed his desire to return to Detroit in 2023, so getting a deal done could be a formality.
4. Isaiah Buggs, NT
Buggs went from being added for “a little bit more girth up front” in training camp, to earning a starting role and developing into a pivotal leader in the locker room.
Buggs’ time in Detroit mirrors Cominsky’s in several ways. Buggs took advantage of a starting opportunity created from injury and schematic shifts—like moving Alim McNeill to the 3-technique—and ran with it. His skills seemed to grow stronger every game, and at times, he made a lot of noise inside. Additionally, on multiple occasions, he has also expressed his desire to stay in Detroit.
I love Detroit Definitely Want To Be Here Long Term pic.twitter.com/YHqxN176YA— Isaiah D. Buggs (@BigPooh_91) September 20, 2022
A lot of people point to the Lions’ players-only meeting as the catalyst for defensive improvement this season, and if you listen to the words on the wind, Buggs was at the center of that happening. Even if it’s in a rotational nose tackle role, Buggs has the mentality this coaching staff desires.
5. Alex Anzalone, LB
On defense, there may not be a player the Lions coaching staff trusts more to make the right decision than Anzalone. He is a two-time captain for the Lions and has worn the green dot (play call distributor) since he arrived in Detroit.
The Lions lean on their linebacker core for contributions on defense and special teams and routinely keep six active on game days. With just two young linebackers signed for the 2023 season—Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes—returning a veteran like Anzalone could help with positional stability.
There are two potential obstacles for this re-signing to happen. First, after two seasons on one-year contracts in Detroit, Anzalone will likely be looking for more stability this offseason. And second, even though he is coming off arguably his best season as a professional, the free agent market has a lot of proven talent that could represent an upgrade.
6. DeShon Elliott, S
Another veteran leader in the defensive locker room, Elliott embraced the pulse of the city when he called out Aaron Rodgers for his lack of respect ahead of their Week 18 showdown. But his impact goes being just being bought in on the team’s culture, as he was a reliable option for the Lions in the secondary.
Tracy Walker is still recovering from his Achilles surgery, and despite his progress, the team may want to invest in keeping Elliott around as a veteran option capable of contributing as a third safety or in a starting role.
7. Evan Brown, IOL
In 2021, Brown stepped in for Frank Ragnow and started 12 games at center that year. This season, he eventually won the starting right guard job and once again, started for a dozen games. Brown’s positional versatility and ability to step into a starting role are incredibly valuable and he will surely be a player they want back in 2023.
However, the big question will be: How much will that cost?
The Lions seemed very fortunate to re-sign Brown for just over $2 million this past year, but he is surely due to get a raise this offseason. How much will that raise be, and are the Lions willing to pay it, especially considering he may not be returning to a starting role next season?
8. Josh Woods, LB
The Lions’ special teams captain played on 319 special teams snaps in 2022, the third most on the team behind Anthony Pittman (355) and Chris Board (356). But what separated Woods here is that he earned a 91.0 grade from PFF, the highest on the Lions roster and third-best in the NFL among players with at least 100 special teams snaps.
The Lions tend to re-sign their core players and Woods checks that box.
9. Will Harris, DB
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn figured some things out about Harris in 2021 when forced to move him from safety to corner. To Glenn’s credit, the Lions kept Harris in a position that best suited him in 2022, and the defensive back had the best season of his career.
Harris is a plus athlete, with positional range, was the starting nickel most of the season, and had the highest grade from PFF among the Lions' cornerback group—which at 63.7, isn’t overly impressive. There will be free agents and draft prospects that the Lions could acquire to upgrade Harris’ role, but with potentially big changes being made within the position group, re-signing him could help with roster stability.
10. Mike Hughes, CB
Hughes bounced in and out of the starting lineup all season as the Lions shuffled their corners. He is an above-average run defender and tackler, but his coverage skills were inconsistent for a lot of the season.
That being said, he shined down the stretch and was playing over Jeff Okudah during the final three weeks. While Hughes finished the season with an average overall grade from PFF, all of his below-average grades came before Week 11, and he received higher marks over the final five games.
Re-adding a veteran that the coaches trust seems like a smart decision, especially if the price tag stays at the reasonable one-year, $2.25 million deal he had this year.
11. C.J. Moore, S
Another player with high special teams value that can hold down a role on defense in emergency situations. Moore missed most of training camp with an injury and was eventually released with an injury settlement. Once that settlement timeline was satisfied, Moore urged his agent to get him back in Detroit.
In his first game back, the Lions immediately put him in his “personal protector” (PP) role and called a direct snap to him for a successful fake punt. And if that wasn’t enough to prove they trusted him, a few weeks later, they called it again, this time from their own 26-yard-line on a fourth-and-7:
Outside of the traditional specialist roles (kicker, punter, long snapper, etc.), there may not be a more important position on special teams than the PP, and Moore has proven time and time again, to be one of the best in the league at it. This is another deal that should be affordable and beneficial for both parties.
12. Chris Board, LB
Board was billed as one of the best special teams players in the NFL and in the third phase, he did not disappoint. However, he was also expected to compete for a starting linebacker role and in this area, his inconsistency dropped him down the depth chart. Eventually, Board fell into a coverage linebacker role and saw double-digit snaps on defense in less than half of the Lions' games.
Still, his special teams contributions make him a valuable enough commodity that the Lions should consider re-signing him.
13. Justin Jackson, RB/KR
Jackson entered training camp on the outside looking in but he worked his way up the depth chart, eventually settling in as the team's third running back and starting kick returner. On offense, he was reliable but lacked the explosivity of the backs ahead of him on the depth chart, while he did carve out a solid role on special teams.
The Lions could extend him an offer to return to camp with hopes he could earn the role again, but even if the two sides agree, they will be surely looking to add competition.
14. Michael Badgley, K
Badgley was acquired by the Lions after Austin Seibert landed on injured reserve and he went on to convert 20 of 24 field goal attempts while being a perfect 33 of 33 on extra points. He was also 4 for 4 earlier in the season while with the Bears.
Overall, it was a solid season from Badgley and one that will likely get him another contract with the Lions, but his limitations from distance will surely keep the competition door open in camp.
15. Nate Sudfeld, QB
Sudfeld was acquired by the Lions after cutdowns and his on-field production this season consisted of five victory formation kneel-downs, two handoffs, and a sack. This makes evaluating his value a bit tricky. Adding to the difficulties, the media is limited in how much practice they get to see during the season, so it’s fair to say, the only people that can properly evaluate Sudfeld’s contributions as a Lion are the decision makers in Allen Park.
16. Dan Skipper, OL
Skipper burst onto the scene early in the season, moving bodies at guard on his way to an active roster contract. The good times didn’t last as Skipper struggled to maintain leverage against smaller defensive tackles and his production dropped. Eventually, he did step into an extra lineman role in big sets, but it’s clear his ceiling is as a reserve only.
17. Amani Oruwariye, CB
Oruwariye had one of the most unprecedented and unexpected falls from grace we have seen in some time. After a 2021 season that saw him record six interceptions, he entered camp as a staple defender and was considered a reliable player. But when the regular season arrived, things went downhill quickly with little explanation as to why.
Oruwariye’s play declined rapidly, his penalties increased—including having six (!) called against him in Week 3—and he was benched in Week 4. A change in scheme and injuries afforded him a chance to redeem himself after the Lions’ bye week, but after just two games, he was sent back to the bench after what appeared to be a lack of following the game plan.
Maybe it’s a confidence issue, or maybe a lack of mesh with the scheme, but Oruwariye has likely played his last down for the Lions.
18. Austin Bryant, EDGE
After turning a corner in training camp, Bryant looked ready to take the next step in his development. Unfortunately, he failed to live up to the expectations and was a healthy scratch for several games this season, including the final five. Bryant’s time in Detroit is probably up.