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2023 Lions free agent profile: Has Isaiah Buggs’ play, leadership earned him a second contact in Detroit?

From training camp addition, to starter, to leader of the defense, Isaiah Buggs 2022 season was quite a journey.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions have 28 players from their 2022 roster set to become free agents in 2023 (18 unrestricted, 10 restricted), and we are covering them all throughout the month of February.

If you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: RB Jamaal Williams, EDGE John Cominsky, LB Josh Woods, and CB Will Harris.

Next up:

Isaiah Buggs

Expectations heading into 2022

When the Lions opened training camp, their offensive line was pushing around the interior defensive line at virtually every practice. Alim McNeill was holding his own, but beyond him, the group struggled. Levi Onwuzurike was dealing with an injury, starter Michael Brockers' play declined rapidly, and both Jashon Cornell and Bruce Hector didn’t take the next step in their development as many had hoped.

It wasn’t long before the Lions' front office was on the hunt for “a little bit more girth up front” for coach Dan Campbell.

Enter Isaiah Buggs.

With McNeill and Brockers looking like locks to start, Buggs was originally expected to compete for the Lions' fourth defensive tackle spot. But Onwuzurike’s inability to recover from injury, along with the rest of the group struggling, opened the door for Buggs to take over the DT3 role and slide into the reserve nose tackle spot behind McNeill.

Actual role in 2022

17 games (13 starts): 755 snaps on defense (66.5%)
Stats: 46 tackles, 20 pressures, a sack, a forced fumble, and two pass deflections
PFF overall grade: 53.9 overall (86th of 127 DTs with at least 250 snaps)
Notable accomplishments: Largely credited with being one of the main players who called for the Lions’ players-only meeting that was the turning point for defensive improvement this season.

After just two weeks in a starting role, Buggs stepped into a leadership role on the team. He was one of the catalysts in the Week 9 players-only meeting (mentioned above), he broke down team huddles—something we saw firsthand in Week 15 when he was mic’d up—and he was at the literal center of a defensive line that showed marked improvement—despite a few hiccups late in the season.

Playing in the middle of the line, it’s easy to overlook Buggs’ impact, but he showed improvement throughout the season. His performance against the Vikings in Week 14 might have gone under the radar if you’re only looking at the box score—he had just one tackle—but it was one of the best performances we have seen from an interior defensive lineman in some time. Ryan Mathews highlighted Buggs’ terrific game against Minnesota in his weekly PFF article:

“Buggs recorded five pressures (one sack, two hits, two hurries), a 16.7 pass rush productivity mark (PFF’s formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer), and a 27.8 percent pass rush win rate. All three of those illustrative statistics show just how effective Buggs was at disrupting the middle of Minnesota’s offense, and Buggs ranked first among all interior defensive linemen with at least 19 pass rushing snaps.”

Here’s a look at a couple of plays from that game, including his tackle at the goal line where he forced a fumble:

Buggs doesn’t play a flashy role in the Lions’ defensive scheme, but he flashed in the second half of the season and was a pivotal leader for a young team.

Outlook for 2023

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

When I ranked the Lions unrestricted free agents at the beginning of the offseason, Buggs landed fourth on my list. He is still just 26 years old and has shown the ability to make an impact on the field, as well as in the locker room.

While re-adding Buggs alone won’t solve all the concerns about the Lions’ interior defensive line, he proved in 2022 that he can be a valuable rotational piece that can hold down a starting role if needed.

Buggs has also repeatedly expressed his desire to remain in Detroit on social media, which should help facilitate a potential new contract:

After playing out his rookie contract in Pittsburgh, Buggs signed in Detroit for a veteran minimum contract that paid him less than $1 million for the season.

In OvertheCap’s Player Valuation algorithm, Buggs played well enough in 2022 to have a value of $3.8 million, but would he be worth paying that amount in 2023 and/or beyond?

To answer that, it really depends on the role you think he will be projected to play. If he is the Lions’ starting nose tackle, that number might be close to league expectations. But if he is a rotational player that likely won’t start, you may be able to reduce that number down to between $2 and $3 million per year.

So how do you think the Lions should approach Isaiah Buggs this offseason?

Poll

How do you think the Lions should approach Isaiah Buggs this offseason?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Let him test free agency
    (78 votes)
  • 81%
    Re-sign between $2 and $3 million
    (1979 votes)
  • 14%
    Pay over $3 million per year to keep him
    (355 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (explain in the comments)
    (12 votes)
2424 votes total Vote Now

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