Now that the NFL Combine is essentially over, it’s time to focus on free agency. In just one week, the NFL negotiation period will open up on Monday, March 13 at Noon ET. At that point, the Detroit Lions will look to find calculated and affordable ways to improve their roster.
But before they do that, they have likely done a thorough assessment of their own roster. They’ve assessed the strongest and weakest parts, and they have likely circled specific impending free agents of their own they’d like to see back in 2023. Between now and Monday, they are likely to re-sign several players. Before they do, however, let’s do our own assessment of the roster by rating the team’s needs at each position.
Under contract: Jared Goff
UFA: Nate Sudfeld, Steven Montez
Coach Dan Campbell talked out of both sides of his mouth during NFL Combine week, admitting that the Lions should start considering the future at quarterback beyond Jared Goff while also admitting that Goff’s recent high level of play has earned their trust that he could win a title now. Your opinion on whether the Lions should consider drafting a quarterback in the first round is likely correlated with your level of comfort in giving Goff a $40+ million contract, which he could be in line to sign as early as 2024.
Starting job aside, the Lions have made it abundantly clear they will prioritize finding a capable backup this offseason. Lions general manager Brad Holmes admitted he made a mistake last year when it came to filling the backup quarterback job, and now that the Lions are ready to compete, finding a capable emergency plan for Goff is pretty important.
Under contract: D’Andre Swift, Jermar Jefferson, Greg Bell, Jason Cabinda (FB)
UFA: Jamaal Williams, Justin Jackson
ERFA: Craig Reynolds
The Lions could very well just re-sign everyone and run it back, and that would be a perfectly fine solution. Jamaal Williams and the Lions have already started negotiations for him to re-sign, and Craig Reynolds, as an ERFA, will almost certainly be back. Justin Jackson, however, could be a trickier guy to replace—he was one of the most efficient kick returners in the NFL last year.
D’Andre Swift’s proclivity for injuries has made him an unreliable piece of Detroit’s backfield, and considering he is on the last year of his contract, there is a long-term need here, but the immediate plug-and-play nature of the position means the Lions can kick the can to 2024 if they want to.
Under contract: Jameson Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Tom Kennedy, Maurice Alexander, Stanley Berryhill
UFA: DJ Chark, Brandon Zylstra
ERFA: Trinity Benson
DJ Chark’s future with the team is a relative unknown, but even if the Lions don’t retain him, they’re in a pretty decent spot with both their starting trio (Jameson Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Josh Reynolds) and their depth (Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond, Tom Kennedy) all under contract.
Reynolds may or may not be a long-term piece, though, so a mid-round receiver would not be out of the question in this draft.
Under contract: James Mitchell, Derrick Deese Jr.
UFA: Garrett Griffin
ERFA: Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra
With Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra easy ERFA re-signings, the Lions are set up to have the same crew of tight ends they finished the season with last season. They fared decently down the stretch, catching eight touchdown passes in the second half of the season after the departure of T.J. Hockenson at the trade deadline.
But the truth of the matter is the Lions could really stand to upgrade this room. Yes, James Mitchell is expected to take on a bigger role and make strides from his rookie season, but neither Brock Wright nor Shane Zylstra have shown they can be consistent blockers in the NFL. Detroit needs a road-grader among this group.
Under contract: Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Obinna Eze.
UFA: Dan Skipper
RFA: Matt Nelson
The Lions’ starters are set for the next few years, at least, but the need for a swing tackle is strong. Perhaps 2022 undrafted Obinna Eze is the answer there, but he looked extremely raw in training camp. If the Lions bring back both Dan Skipper and Matt Nelson, they’ll be fine, but Detroit could stand to upgrade from both.
Interior offensive line
Under contract: Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Logan Stenberg, Kayode Awosika, Darrin Paulo
UFA: Evan Brown
RFA: Ross Pierschbacher
ERFA: Tommy Kraemer
You can bump the need up another point or two if the Lions opt to cut Halapoulivaati Vaitai in order to save over $6.5 million in cap space. But even if Vaitai stays or takes a pay cut, the Lions should feel comfortable with any of the reserves currently signed to the roster. Re-signing Evan Brown will likely be trickier than ever, and while Tommy Kraemer may be a capable backup, his status is uncertain after missing the entire 2022 season with a back injury. Look for the Lions to add depth—and potentially a long-term starter—in both the draft and free agency.
Interior defensive line
Under contract: Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Demetrius Taylor
UFA: Isaiah Buggs
ERFA: Benito Jones
When asked, Campbell gave no indication if Levi Onwuzurike is going to play next year or not, but it seems like the Lions shouldn’t depend on him playing a big role. While the Lions seem likely to bring both Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones back, that barely covers two starting, capable players at defensive tackle.
Considering their consistent lack of push from the interior—and significant run defense struggles—the Lions should view defensive tackles as one of the highest priorities to not only upgrade the room, but build significant depth, too.
Under contract: Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal, James Houston, Romeo Okwara, Charles Harris, Julian Okwara
UFA: John Cominsky, Austin Bryant
Before free agency hits, the Lions are likely to make a move or two here, which could significantly impact their need. It seems almost certain John Cominsky is back, but it’s almost as certain that either Romeo Okwara (saves $7.5 million) or Charles Harris ($4 million) is cut for cap room.
But even if they cut both of those players and sign Cominsky, they’re in a pretty solid spot with a young foundation in Aidan Hutchinson, James Houston, Josh Paschal, and Julian Okwara. You can never have too many pass rushers, so I would never rule out grabbing a talented option out there, but they’re in a good spot here.
Under contract: Malcolm Rodriguez, Derrick Barnes
UFA: Alex Anzalone, Chris Board, Josh Woods, Julian Stanford
ERFA: Anthony Pittman
Are Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes capable of being the Lions’ two starting linebackers? We discussed that topic on an earlier podcast, but chances are the Lions would like to add some competition there. Again, they could very well run it back with last year’s crew, but that would require a lot of re-signing.
The Lions only have two players signed to contracts right now, and there’s no guarantee any of their free agents (short of ERFA Anthony Pittman) will be back. Detroit will be making moves at linebacker over the next two months.
Under contract: Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jacobs, Chase Lucas, Jarren Williams, Khalil Dorsey
UFA: Will Harris, Mike Hughes, Amani Oruwariye
RFA: Bobby Price
The Lions cornerback room currently consists of a former third overall pick who was benched towards the end of last season, an undrafted player entering his third year as a good depth piece/borderline starter, and three players who have barely amounted to any playing time in the NFL. You could make the argument that the Lions don’t have a true starting cornerback on their roster. In other words, there’s a lot of work to do.
Last year, the Lions finished 31st in yards per attempt allowed, 25th in passes defended, 23rd in pass defense DVOA and 30th in dropback EPA.
At the very least, the Lions need to add a starting outside cornerback this offseason, and they need competition at the nickel position, even if they choose to bring back last year’s starter Will Harris.
Expect the Lions to use primary resources in the draft and/or free agency on this position.
Under contract: Tracy Walker, Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Brady Breeze
UFA: DeShon Elliott, C.J. Moore, Saivion Smith
The Lions have their two starters in Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph, although Detroit would be wise to have a Plan B in place in case Walker’s rehabilitation from a torn Achilles hits a snag. Ifeatu Melifonwu showed some late-season potential at his new safety position, but I’m not sure they’d be comfortable starting him.
If the Lions can re-sign DeShon Elliott and bring C.J. Moore back for his special teams value, they’d be in a pretty good spot. However, both of those players could just as easily sign somewhere else.
Under contract: P Jack Fox
UFA: K Michael Badgley, K Sam Ficken
ERFA: LS Scott Daly
The Lions will run it back with Scott Daly as the long-snapper, but Detroit could stand to bring in some competition after an uneven year for Daly.
Kicker is a little less clear. Michael Badgley was just okay for Detroit last year, but the Lions would certainly benefit from someone a little more reliable from long range. They may take a similar approach here and re-sign Badgley with the intent on bringing in some competition.
Jack Fox is still a stud.