Each offseason presents an opportunity for teams to hit refresh and reinvent their team for the season ahead. For some teams, it’s about making wholesale changes in an attempt to get themselves headed in the right direction. For others, the changes are more subtle and concentrated—a tweak here and a tweak there in hopes of getting the formula just right for championship contention.
It’s been quite some time since the Detroit Lions found themselves this close to contending for a division title and playoff success, and general manager Brad Holmes deserves a great deal of credit for putting this team in this position. As he heads into his third offseason, Holmes has made hay in the draft with top picks like Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson, and he’s stringed together an impressive collection of Day 3 finds in Amon-Ra St. Brown, Malcolm Rodriguez, and James Houston. In free agency, Holmes has stuck to short-term contracts for players looking to earn a pay day on their next deal. While the results on the field have been mixed in terms of player performance, Holmes’ shrewd decisions have at the very least allowed him to maintain flexibility and maneuverability.
After trading Matthew Stafford in 2021 and T.J. Hockenson at the trade deadline last year, the Lions have five picks in the top 81 selections of this year’s NFL Draft, including picks No. 6 and 18 overall. Michael Brockers was recently cut by the team, providing them with $10 million in cap relief this offseason and bringing their total cap space to roughly $26 million. There will likely be other moves made internally to see that number increase, whether it’s the case of more cap casualties like Brockers or the restructuring of deals to provide cap space in the here and now, paving the way for the Lions to make some moves once free agency begins in a couple of weeks.
This brings us to today’s Question of the Day...
What’s the Detroit Lions biggest position of need this offseason?
The offense is clearly the strength of the Detroit Lions as they head into this offseason. In 2022, the Lions offense ranked fifth in Football Outsiders DVOA metric, and posted the fifth-best points for average (26.6) despite being shutout in Week 5 against New England.
Despite the offense trending in the right direction, especially with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson staying put in Detroit, the Lions still have some spots to shore up offensively, namely the right guard spot. Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed the entirety of the 2022 season with an injury to his back that required surgery, and for a player that turns 30 before the start of the 2023 season, Vaitai could very well end up being cut in an effort to free up over $6 million in cap space. Evan Brown provided replacement-level play at best in Vaitai’s absence, but he seems best suited to be a reliable depth piece at center.
But for a team that ranked 28th in team defense DVOA and gave up the fifth-most points per game (25.1) a season ago, the Lions biggest needs are definitely on the defensive side of the ball.
Erik Schlitt reminded me last Saturday that the Lions have the following interior defensive linemen signed to their roster: Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, and Demetrius Taylor. Isaiah Buggs figures to be a priority free agent for the Lions considering only McNeill has any meaningful track record in the NFL for any of the currently signed defensive linemen. To add to that, Buggs emerged not only as a leader for this defense, but his steady play coincided with the Lions defensive improvement in the second half. But even if the team does re-sign Buggs, the Lions shouldn’t shy away from upgrading the spot next to McNeill. Buggs playing in a rotational role as the first lineman off the bench would be one way to elevate the level of talent on the field for more plays each game.
The linebacker position was jumpstarted by the surprising play from Malcolm Rodriguez which plateaued a bit—partly due to injury—in the middle of the season, but the high points of his rookie season seem indicative of where his ceiling lies. Alex Anzalone made marked improvements in his second year with Detroit, and the veteran linebacker confirmed there have already been talks with the team about a reunion in 2023. Again, much like the situation with Buggs, Anzalone would be a useful depth/situational piece for this defense, but an improvement at that spot would be huge for a defense that struggled mightily against the run (t-second worst, 5.2 YPC), and was porous against even slightly mobile quarterbacks.
The spot where the Lions absolutely need to upgrade this offseason is at cornerback, and it’s easy to understand why. Detroit has a tough decision to make with Jeff Okudah and his player option for the 2024 season. Last season, Okudah looked like one of the best cornerbacks at defending the run in the NFL, and sound in coverage at times, but the lapses down the stretch, including a benching in the second half against the Carolina Panthers, could leave the team with Chase Lucas as their only cornerback signed beyond 2023.
Cornerback is a premium position in the NFL, and the quality of play out on the perimeter is what can truly set a defense apart in today’s league. Detroit’s current starters—Okudah and Jerry Jacobs—on the outside aren’t signed beyond this year, and both could be seriously upgraded, so it’s no surprise to hear people linking Jalen Ramsey to the Lions, or seeing so many mock drafts using either pick 6 or 18 to draft Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez, or Joey Porter Jr.