This is a pivotal off season for Brad Holmes and the Lions.
The window is open, we can feel the breeze coming from the Super Bowl but can Holmes open that window enough for the Lions to crawl through. Those windows can shut in a hurry, remember how open that window looked in 2014, only to have it slam shut without even a playoff victory in the years ahead. I'm not saying this window will shut, just saying you have to take advantage of your opportunities because you never know when you will get another one.
There are three main ways for a team to get better, player development, Free Agency and the draft.
Every year has different opportunities in all three categories, and this is a year where the Lions can hit home runs in 2 of those 3 .
Player Development is going to be huge for this team, all those young players playing key roles and all the signs pointing upward from a coaching staff to players that are committed to improving.
Free Agency. Lions have two thing going for them here, they have a little cap space they can play with and they are a franchise that players want to play for, no more agents avoiding the Lions GM calls or holding them up for too much money.
The Draft is the one where the Lions are going to be the most challenged, the days of a top 7 draft pick and the extra picks from the Stafford trade are over. Holmes killed it last year with 4 quality starters as rookies, But this year the Lions don't have the draft capital. It's a new world we have to get used to.
This article will look at how the Lions can improve through Free Agency, which will be a little more fun than the draft. The estimates are the Lions have 40 million or more available cap space so even after bringing back their own, they should have 25 mil or more to play with. I'm not going to sit here and play the spend 25 mil game by subtracting some average salary from a free agent signing, that's not how this works. There will be money deferred and not all averages are the same, some never happen.
The other thing we hear is they have all of these players coming up for extensions and that is so true. But it's important to consider that is in the future and much of that money will be deferred also. Right now, it looks like the Lions could add one premium player, another cornerstone for the defense, and then a couple of short-term players, players they can pay for the next two years and then go away when we need more cap space for contract extensions.
Okay, we can go shopping, but how do we want to spend that cap, what players are available and how do they match our needs of a Shutdown CB, DL and IOL. But this is one of those times where the football gods are smiling on us. Lot of high-end players that could help.
On the DL it's likely that Josh Allen, Brian Burns and Chris Jones will be franchised but not so sure about Danielle Hunter, Leonard Wilkins and half a dozen other that would be immediate upgrades on the DL. Come to think of it, with this DL, make that about 3 dozen that would be an upgrade.
But my eyes are drawn to Shutdown CB, it's not often a team can find one on Free Agency, just look at the Lions last year where Sutton was about as good as they could get. If you want to pay for decent CBs, you can find some, but true #1 CBs don't hit the market very often, however this looks like a year where that does happen. Jaylen Johnson is expected to be Franchised by Chicago, but KC CB Sneed is probably not going to be because they have Chris Jones among other to worry about already, and this is where I am going with my money.
L'Jarius Sneed CB KC 27 years old From the Combine 6-0 192 4.37 40
Drafted in the 4th round, he worked his way into the starting rotation as the Nickel and stayed there through his first 3 years and excelled. They moved him to the Outside this year and he got even better, his passer rating given up was always good, but it was 52.1 this year.
PFF has this to say about him,
Sneed was a fixture out wide in 2023 after lining up primarily in the slot over his first three seasons, and he held up quite well in several tough matchups. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo asks a lot of his cornerbacks, and Sneed is sticky in coverage, getting into receivers' hip pockets and becoming very hard to shake with lateral movement or in the air at the catch point. Sneed could stand to cut down on penalties, but his aggressive nature would be welcome on many teams, and his inside-outside versatility is a nice benefit, as well.
It goes beyond that with Sneed, he is all about Grit and a well-grounded person. If I'm giving 18-20 million to someone, it's Sneed and I have to believe he would love to come here. Fantastic culture fit, I expect him to be a cornerstone player for the defense. I'm calling his agent the moment Free Agency opens and putting my best offer on the table, I want him signed on day one of Free Agency.
Okay, what about the DL, we know no DB holds up well if we can't get to the QB. It's here where I'm looking at a short term deal or two. There are different kinds of Free Agents available every year and the Lions are in position to take advantage of a type they never could before, they can sign that veteran looking to win a ring and is wiling to take a little less. Patriots made a living from this in their heyday and we see it every year, veterans with a little something left going to top teams. Lions can take advantage of this now, plus they have the advantage of players want to be a part of this locker room. The DL is a great position for this because a top end player can lose a little and still be highly effective as a part-time player, that doesn't work so well with a DB, maybe a CB goes to safety, but they still need to be more than a one trick pony. You can take an aging DL and use them just in the pass rush or run defense and he can be very effective.
So, keeping that in mind.
Denico Autry DL Tenn 34 years old. 6-5 285, though that 285 was a while ago.
I realize your attention was drawn to that age, but in the last 3 years in Tennessee he has 28.5 sacks in 46 games, including 11.5 last year. He has been playing 67% of the snaps and maybe we turn that down a little, he would replace Romeo Okwara and cut into Cominsky and Paschal's snaps as he moves inside on some pass rushing downs with a pass rushing specialist playing at DE.
Autry is still one of the strongest five-technique defensive ends in the game, splitting double teams by lowering his shoulder and barreling through blocks with sheer power or sometimes utilizing a jump chop across the tackle's face to the inside. The wily veteran also does a good job of using a blocker's momentum in a backpedal to slingshot himself forward, always finding a way to end up around the quarterback, even if only to deliver a shot just after the ball gets thrown. Autry will be 34 years old in 2023 but still has good football in his future.
Astute readers will notice that he played the last 3 years for new Lions DL coach Williams, and they apparently had a connection there, let's keep that connection going. It looks like a 2-year contract in the 7 mil a year range would work, and it works for me.
Here is where I am starting to get less picky if I'm looking to upgrade at NT. Last year that was Benito Jones and by the playoffs, fresh off the couch Tyson Alualu. The plan going into the season was Buggs with hopefully a developing Brodrick Martin, but Buggs bugged out (pun intended) and Martin never really developed like they hoped. I don't think you can go into the season hoping Martin develops and Benito have this, I want a veteran in the mix, someone I can count on to do NT type things.
When it comes to who should they sign, I'm open to a handful of players from bringing back A 'Shawn Robinson to Reawaken Davis to Shelby Harris to a couple more possibilities, but that's not the point here. Holmes needs to spend 3-4 million on a short-term NT, they can't go through what they did last year.
From here I think I'm holding my money a moment. You ever notice how the good teams seem to sign some veteran well into Free Agency for next to nothing, that's the Lions now. If the Lions would like to add a pass rusher, don't get in a hurry. Maybe you get Carl Lawson or Leonard Floyd, maybe it's someone that gets cut, DEs are notoriously overpaid and that means they are prime candidates to be salary cap cuts. But we don't care what a player was paid, we are looking for someone that will work kind of cheap and provide something in limited snaps. Let's don't forget they have Houston back and still the draft to go.
The other top need we have for the Lions is OL, however other than cheap depth, we are not dipping into Free Agency to fill this need. That's what the next article is about. Stay tuned.