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2023 Detroit Lions free agent profile: Will DJ Chark return to Detroit?

Should the Lions re-sign DJ Chark? Can they afford him? Would he want to come back to a crowded WR room?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

One common strategy of Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes through his first two years is to hand free agents a one-year, prove-it deal. This way, the Lions aren’t committed long-term to a newcomer, but if they end up becoming a strong contributor, Detroit has a leg up on signing them the following year.

That strategy has had its mix of failures (Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams) and successes (Charles Harris, Kalif Raymond).

Then there’s someone like DJ Chark, who falls squarely in the middle between success story and “just didn’t work out.” The Lions have a difficult decision awaiting Chark and company, so let’s take a closer look at our continuing Lions free agent profile series.

If you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Justin Jackson, RB Jamaal Williams, OT Dan Skipper, IOL Evan Brown, NT Isaiah Buggs, EDGE John Cominsky, EDGE Austin Bryant, LB Alex Anzalone, LB Josh Woods, LB Chris Board, CB Will Harris, CB Mike Hughes, CB Amari Oruwariye, S DeShon Elliott SAF C.J. Moore, and K Michael Badgley

Next up:

DJ Chark

Expectations heading into 2022

After Jared Goff finished 2021 with one of the lowest yards per attempt (6.6, 27th) in the NFL, the addition of Chark was thought of as one of the more substantial moves the Lions front office made in the offseason. In short, the Lions were hoping Chark would give the Lions a true deep-ball threat, while his speed would help open up things over the middle for guys like T.J. Hockenson and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Even with the return of Josh Reynolds and the drafting of the then-injured Jameson Williams, Chark was expected to have a huge role and maybe be the No. 1 outside receiver that the team clearly lacked last year.

When Chark and Goff seemed to really click in training camp, it looked like this signing was about to be an underrated one, even at $10 million for the year.

Actual role in 2022

11 games (10 starts): 30 catches, 502 yards, 3 TDs
PFF grade: 69.6 (44th out of 102 qualifying WRs)

For whatever reason, that training camp magic between Goff and Chark disappeared almost immediately. Despite catching four passes for 52 yards and a score in the season opener, he caught just three passes in the next two games combined. It wasn’t just that the production wasn’t coming, it’s that Goff and Chark just didn’t seem to be on the same page. Chark managed to pull in just nine of his first 24 targets. For comparison’s sake, he caught 21 of his final 28 targets of the season... but we’ll get to that in a second.

Unfortunately for Chark, he suffered an ankle injury in Week 3—to the same broken ankle he suffered in Jacksonville the previous year—and he didn’t get back to a full workload until November—missing six games along the way.

But once Chark’s ankle was fully healed—and the Lions’ receiving corps was finally back again—that’s when the young receiver’s skills really began to shine. In the final six games, he crossed 90 yards receiving three times and totaled 388 yards. Stretch that pace over a 17-game season, and Chark would have been just short of 1,100 yards.

More importantly, he helped the Lions passing game hit its most potent stretch of the season. Look at Jared Goff’s stats in the final six weeks, and how they ranked across the NFL (min 100 passing attempts):

Obviously, you can’t attribute all of Goff’s success to a healthy DJ Chark, but the overall point stands: when the entire receiving corps was healthy and Chark had a significant role, the passing offense thrived.

Outlook for 2023

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Last year, the Lions handed Chark a one-year, $10 million deal, but the way it was structured means that about $6 million of that will actually count against the 2023 cap. Even if the Lions were to re-sign Chark, that cap hit isn’t going anywhere.

That likely won’t impact Detroit’s decision on Chark, but his injury history may. Chark has now missed 22 games in the past three seasons (13 of which came in 2021). That makes a long-term investment in Chark risky.

Another reason the Lions could choose to move on from Chark is the addition of Jameson Williams. The 12th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft only caught a single ball in his rookie season, but he never played more than 18 snaps in his six games. With a full offseason to grasp the offense, build chemistry with Goff, and settle into life in the NFL, one would expect Williams to assume the WR1 role out of the gate. With St. Brown, Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, and Quintez Cephus all under contract for 2023, the need for Chark is far less than they needed him last year.

Cost will be another tricky factor in this equation. Spotrac lists Chark’s market value at $9.5 million a year, which is somewhat affordable given the 26-year-old’s ceiling is still relatively high.

The problem is the Lions likely aren’t willing to go that high, and last year was proof that there are some wide receiver-hungry teams that are willing to crack the vault for free agency talent. To be quite honest, there are probably better opportunities to see more playing time elsewhere, if that’s what Chark values.

That said, if he values being part of an ensemble with a good culture and a promising team future, the Lions would likely be open to re-signing him to a lesser value than $9.5 million a year. Would he take a pay cut in Detroit and also likely play third-fiddle behind St. Brown and Williams? It’s hard to know for sure, but he’s publicly said he loved his year in Detroit.

“Going into this year, I’m trying not to even worry about how it’s going to happen,” Chark said on the St. Brown podcast earlier this offseason. “I feel like I’m going to be where I’m supposed to be. If that’s Detroit, that’d be great, because I got some real good friendships and I like it there. It’s really good, but it’s a business. You never know.”

In the end, it’s likely Chark will find a better opportunity and better money elsewhere. And with Chark slowly edging closer to 30, this could be one of his last chances to really cash in. If that’s his goal this offseason, no one should blame him. However, he also knows the value of a team’s culture after going from Urban Meyer to Dan Campbell, so it’s possible we will see Chark return in 2023.


What should the Lions do with DJ Chark?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Sign him to a $9+M deal
    (759 votes)
  • 64%
    Only sign him if he’s willing to take $6-8M
    (2286 votes)
  • 13%
    Let him walk
    (475 votes)
3520 votes total Vote Now

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