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3 of ESPN’s top 100 free agents that could help turn the Detroit Lions into contenders

When free agency kicks off next week, a few players added to the Lions roster could help get them over the hump.

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At the NFL Scouting Combine, Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes’ time with the media produced some interesting nuggets of information about the Detroit Lions. Most of the buzz, naturally, surrounded Campbell’s comments about Jared Goff, and how the team is keeping an eye on the future at the quarterback position. And while quarterback talk is always going to grab attention, Holmes provided some insight about a more pressing item of business in the coming days: the Lions approach to free agency this offseason.

“We’ll always be selective and strategic in free agency, and you’ve gotta be really careful in free agency,” Holmes said during his NFL Combine press conference. “But when I said that, it’s all about still finding the right guys. It’s not about how much money you have to spend. Regardless of how many resources, always being selective and strategic in that process.”

As noted by Jeremy Reisman at the time, Campbell’s comments during his press conference provided little wiggle room for interpretation about the team’s feelings towards signing a high-priced, top-of-the-market free agent.

“But we don’t need to acquire these high-level, you’re paying the most for these guys because they’re rated the No. 1 guy in free agency at that position. We just need to get better. Let’s just get better at areas we need to get better at and focus on that. I think that’s always been the focus.”

With those comments in mind, here are three of ESPN’s top 100 NFL free agents that make sense for the Lions in terms of both finance and fit—and could help Detroit take the next step towards being a contender next season.

Bobby Wagner, linebacker

(PFF’s projected contract: one year, $6.5 million)

Improving on the defensive side of the ball will be a priority for the Lions this offseason after finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. Detroit has invested very little in terms of resources at the linebacker position, but this offseason presents a unique opportunity for the Lions to upgrade while also maintaining flexibility moving forward with another patented Brad Holmes signing.

Former All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner is expected to be released at the start of the league’s new year on March 15, and when that happens, he’ll definitely have some suitors. Near the top of his priorities will most definitely be playing for a contender, and for the first time in a long time, that describes the Detroit Lions.

Over the past two seasons, Alex Anzalone has played the MIKE linebacker position for Detroit to varying degrees of success. He served as a team captain for Detroit and was the lone veteran in a linebacker room that was both young and inexperienced. After the release of Michael Brockers last month, and no guarantee of Anzalone’s return, the defense could use a veteran leader who is also a talent upgrade on the field.

Despite entering next season at 33 years old, Wagner proved last year to still have plenty left in the tank. Even though his game has slowed down a bit, Wagner makes up for his age with field awareness and instincts that have made him a six-time All Pro in his career—and a second-team All Pro selection last season with the Rams. In 2022, Wagner led all linebackers with at least 660 snaps in missed tackle rate (2.9 percent!)—only four missed tackles on 1,079 total snaps. He also finished sixth in quarterback pressures (20) and average depth of tackle in run defense (2.8 yards) proving he’s still capable of being schemed to the quarterback and an anchor to shore up Detroit’s run defense. One area where Wagner would be a huge upgrade for Detroit is in zone coverage, a spot where he played 64.5 percent of coverage snaps and earned an 80.3 zone coverage grade, third-best in the NFL in 2022. By contrast, Anzalone finished 41st with a 39.5 zone coverage grade in 2022.

Rock Ya-Sin, cornerback

(PFF’s projected contract: three years, $27 million)

Keeping with the theme of bolstering the defense, Detroit’s biggest priority on this side of the ball this offseason is adding talent at cornerback.

After Jeff Okudah was benched in the second half of the Carolina Panthers game, it’s fair to wonder how the team views the former No. 3 overall pick ahead of having to make a decision about his fifth-year option in a couple of months. On the other side of Okudah, the Lions have a serviceable corner in Jerry Jacobs, and with a full offseason for the two spend training instead of rehabbing from injuries, Jacobs and Okudah could be great depth and role players for Detroit in 2023—Okudah could even make a transition to the nickel, a spot where his best attributes will be best utilized.

But the Lions need starters at the cornerback position, and they need players who have proven to be capable cover corners on the outside. The problem with finding those kind of players in free agency is that they don’t often find their way to the open market. However, keep in mind these comments from Campbell: “Let’s just find a guy that can serve a certain type of role for us. He’s somebody (who) has maybe played some ball, he can start at a certain position for us.”

Enter Rock Ya-Sin.

More than just a strong contender for Pride of Detroit’s annual name bracket tournament, Ya-Sin is a player who has played some ball and can start at outside corner for the Lions in 2023. He’s at his best in press-man coverage, and his physical play style makes him a great fit in Detroit. When lined up at outside corner, here how’s Ya-Sin ranks over the past two seasons courtesy of PFF:

  • 27th in coverage grade (74.4), 23rd when lined up in press-man (70.9)
  • 19th in forced incompletion percentage (18.2 percent)
  • 5th in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.67)

Ya-Sin turns 27 before the start of next season, but he fits the bill for exactly who the Lions are looking for in a free agent: he won’t have a price tag of other top corners like Jamel Dean or James Bradberry, his floor is high while there’s still room for improvement, and the Lions can depend on him to provide steady play at a position where that’s been anything but the case in Campbell era.

Zach Allen, defensive lineman

(PFF’s projected contract: three years, $37.5 million)

This would be the “splashiest” signing I could see the Lions making, but only if they lose out on John Cominsky when he tests the open market. Of course, in order to have some cap space to make this work, there would have to be some other cap casualties, but considering two of the most talked about ways for the Lions to shed salary is by cutting Charles Harris and/or Romeo Okwara, re-investing that money saved back into the defensive line would be a smart investment.

Allen had a breakout season for the Arizona Cardinals last season after the team decided to play him less outside the tackles. In 2021, Allen lined up on the edge for nearly 33 percent of his total snaps, but only generated 26 quarterback pressures on 415 pass rushing snaps. Compare that with his alignment and production in 2022: 17 percent of snaps at edge, but 32 percent at the three technique, and racking up 35 quarterback pressures on 427 pass rushing snaps. The move inside for Allen led to him being more disruptive as a pass rusher—his 6.0 sacks were a career high—and it’s going to lead to him getting compensated appropriately.

While he’s certainly going to find himself getting paid less than the other interior defenders on the open market like Javon Hargrave and Dre’Mont Jones, this would be a bit of an uncharacteristic and unprecedented move for Holmes to make in free agency; however, the Lions find themselves in uncharted waters as the current favorites in the NFC North. Ideally, the Lions would bring back Cominsky on a cheaper deal than it would cost to sign Allen, but if Detroit is caught trying to keep their footing, Allen’s positional versatility and ability to be moved around along the defensive front would be a fit even if it would come at a premium.

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