A few days ago, I wrote an article covering the top five positions of need for the Detroit Lions this offseason. Interior defensive line, cornerback, linebacker, tight end and guard are all positions the Lions need to either find new starting talent for or add depth behind.
The NFL Draft is the primary way Detroit will shore up the holes in its roster. The team has playoff aspirations heading into 2023, and adding high-end talent on rookie contracts is a valuable asset. Detroit holds four picks in the top 60 of this year’s draft. Two of those top 60 picks are in the first round.
However, the draft is not the only place the Lions will look to bring in new talent. The team can find established veterans on the free agent market.
Starting tomorrow, March 13, the Lions can begin negotiating with unrestricted free agents. On March 15, the new league year begins and contract signings can become official at 4 p.m. EST.
The Lions hold the 14th most cap space in the NFL with $21.4 million to work with. They can make cuts to expensive veterans like Romeo Okwara and Halapoulivaati Vaitai to open up more space as well. Restructuring some contracts would not be a surprise either.
Detroit is not likely to be a big spender in free agency. GM Brad Holmes is likely to focus on the draft to find long-term players. However, not every hole on the roster can be filled by a rookie, and Detroit will certainly entertain free agency to address some of the major needs on the roster.
In this article, I will look at the best player available, a realistic signing option and a bargain option for the Detroit Lions’ major positions of need in free agency.
Do not even look at guard in free agency, focus on the draft for that position
The Lions do not need to pay a big contract to a guard this offseason. That is how they wound up paying Vaitai significantly more than he is worth. Granted the team did sign Vaitai with the expectation he would play tackle.
Paying a Dalton Risner or retaining Evan Brown on a $10-plus million contract is not worth the price tag. The cost of a starting-caliber guard in free agency is more than the Lions should pay right now, especially with Vaitai’s money still on the books. Instead, Detroit should look toward the likes of Steve Avila or O’Cyrus Torrence in the second round of the draft for a long-term starting option at guard.
The Detroit Lions should seriously consider addressing interior defensive line in free agency
Outside of Alim McNeill, the Lions do not have much available on the interior defensive line. Michael Brockers was cut to add $10 million in cap space. He was not particularly productive for Detroit during his tenure with the team. Levi Onwuzurike has struggled to establish himself as an NFL player. Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones are fine, but they are best suited as depth pieces.
There is an abundance of interior defensive line talent in this year’s free agent class. The Lions may be able to find a long-term starter in among this bunch. With how lacking high-end interior defensive line talent is in recent drafts, free agency may be the Lions’ best bet as well.
The best available: Javon Hargrave, Spotrac Average Annual Value (AAV): $20.1 million
If the Lions signed Javon Hargrave to a contract this offseason, his AAV would almost max out the team’s cap space. Hargrave established himself as one of the league’s best interior pass rushers after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020. As a Pittsburgh Steeler, Hargrave was a reliable third defensive lineman, but he shined in Philadelphia.
Hargrave’s 92.2 pass-rush grade since 2022 from Pro Football Focus (PFF) is behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. He hangs his hat as a pass rusher, but Hargrave is no liability in run defense. For a Lions team that desperately needs playmakers along the interior, Hargrave could be a perfect fit. His cap hit is a bit rich, so it is highly unlikely he finds his way to Detroit.
A realistic option: Davlin Tomlinson, Spotrac AAV: $8.5 million
Dalvin Tomlinson is not an elite pass rusher. He asserts his dominance in the run game. The 6-3, 325-pound defensive tackle, has never missed more than five tackles in a season. He utilizes his size to dominate the trenches and stuff the run. However, Tomlinson is no slouch as a pass rusher. He does not rack up high sack totals, but Tomlinson applies pressure to the pocket and causes quarterback hurries.
At an AAV of $8.5 million, Tomlinson may be the best bang-for-your-buck interior defensive lineman available in this year’s free agency pool. The 29-year-old has a few good years left in him, and on a three-year deal, he could elevate both the Lions’ run defense and pass rush for the next few years.
A bargain option: Larry Ogunjobi, Spotrac AAV: $3.4 million
Larry Ogunjobi struggled in 2022. Some of that can be attributed to his dealing with nagging injuries. Some of it may also be due to aging. Ogunjobi, 28, played 63.2 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps this past season. He recorded a career-low 0.5 sacks.
He is a bargain option for a reason. There is evidence that suggests Ogunjobi will not be as productive as he has been in years gone by. However, he has recorded 70 pressures combined in the past two seasons, so he is not completely worn down. He makes sense as a stop-gap option as Detroit searches for a long-term answer to pair with McNeill.
The Detroit Lions do not need to zero in on the draft to find cornerback talent
Many NFL mock drafts project the Lions to select a cornerback with one of their two first-round picks. Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez and Joey Porter Jr. headline a talented group. However, this year’s free agent class boasts plenty of depth at corner. Detroit could use an established veteran to stabilize its middling cornerback room.
Even if Detroit decides to select a corner with one of its top picks in the draft, there is value in adding a veteran in free agency. You can never have too many reliable cornerbacks. As the Lions learned this past season, you can certainly have too few of them.
The best available: Jamel Dean, Spotrac AAV: $16.5 million
Jamel Dean possesses the ideal size and athletic profile of a modern NFL cornerback. He is a physical corner who can match up against almost any opposing team’s top receiver. He does have a knack for taking unwarranted risks, and opposing quarterbacks can take advantage of Dean jumping routes. However, he provides plenty of high-end production to warrant risk-taking.
At a $16.5 AAV, Dean’s projected cap hit is not cheap. The Lions have the space to afford Dean but not much else after him. It is worth the price tag to gain the services of one of the league’s better cornerbacks. At just 26, Dean is young enough to be a long-term answer at cornerback. He immediately upgrades a cornerback room in Detroit that lacked high-end production.
A realistic option: Rock Ya-Sin, Spotrac AAV: $10.8 million
Good cornerbacks do not come cheap in this league. Rock Ya-Sin has not established himself as a star cornerback in the NFL. However, his AAV of $10.8 million is a hefty price to pay. Ya-Sin is a superb man coverage corner. He has good size and at 26 he has youth on his side just like Dean.
Ya-Sin holds up in press coverage. He ranked in the top 30 among cornerbacks when lined up outside according to PFF, and he ranked 23rd in press coverage. There is not an abundance of starting-caliber cornerbacks as young as Dean and Ya-Sin entering free agency. While they do not come at an ideal cap hit, that is the price you pay for young talented cornerbacks.
A bargain option: Cameron Sutton, Spotrac AAV: $7.6 million
So long as Spotrac continues valuing Cameron Sutton at $7.6 million per year, he is the best value-cornerback on the market. Does Sutton’s contract ultimately come that cheap? Probably not. The veteran cornerback is likely to receive a handsome payday from the Steelers or another organization.
Sutton offers flexibility to play outside or in the slot. He does not have elite athletic traits, and his size is nothing special. However, he has proven to be a reliable cornerback who the Steelers comfortably utilized as a No. 1 corner. If the Lions can land a talent like Sutton for even remotely close to his projected AAV, they would receive a steal. Sutton’s best fit may not be as a team’s No. 1 corner, but he is a high-end second guy.
The answer at linebacker is Alex Anzalone, but Detroit will investigate other options
The Lions need to find a linebacker to pair with Malcolm Rodriguez in the starting lineup. The obvious answer for the 2023 season is Alex Anzalone. The veteran linebacker may not be the ultimate long-term answer for Detroit, but for the next season or two, he simply makes the most sense.
The best available: Lavonte David, Spotrac AAV: $9.7 million
The 33-year-old Lavonte David is still playing at a high level 11 years into his NFL career. How long the veteran linebacker can continue playing at that level is yet to be seen. He may lose a step of athleticism over the next couple of years, but David has proven himself as a reliable coverage linebacker and stout run defender.
At his age and Detroit’s current contender status, or lack thereof, it does not really make sense to sign David. He may provide the level of play to take a contending team to the next level for a season, but that is not where the Lions are right now. On a longer contract, the $9.7 AAV may begin to look like an overpay.
A realistic option: Alex Anzalone
Anzalone is not an elite talent. He is not going to elevate the Lions’ defense beyond what it was last season. However, Anzalone was far from the problem in Detroit this past season. He was reliable enough next to Rodriguez, and as the Lions search for a more long-term answer, Anzalone can fill the role and play well.
Spotrac does not have a projected AAV for Anzalone, but it is hard to imagine it being particularly high.
A bargain option: Bobby Okereke, Spotrac AAV: $2.3 Million
Bobby Okereke is not a great pass coverage linebacker. He has the athletic tools to move around well in coverage, but he has plenty of room to grow. Okereke is stout in run defense. He shined plugging up holes for the Indianapolis Colts’ defense in 2022. He is not a star talent, but he can provide reliable play.
Like Sutton, it is likely Okereke signs a contract a bit more lucrative than $2.3 million. However, it is still likely to be a pretty affordable one. The Lions could make good use of Okereke next to Rodriguez. If the 26-year-old linebacker can make strides in pass coverage, he could become one of the more underrated linebackers in the league.
The Detroit Lions do not have a great tight end room, there are cheap veterans available.
The Lions cannot go into the 2023 season with Brock Wright as the only option to start at tight end. That is not to say that Wright cannot ultimately be Detroit’s starting tight end next season. The team simply cannot rely on him as the only option. Wright showed flashes of promise in 2022, but he left something to be desired.
There is talent in this year’s draft. The Lions could find a decent starting option in the late second or early third round. However, with the team needing to focus on upgrading its defense, kicking the can down the road may be the best option for the tight end position.
The best available: Dalton Schultz, Spotrac AAV: $15.1 million
Well, that is not particularly inspiring for this year’s tight end free agency group. Dalton Schultz is good, but is he $15.1 million good? He is the best of the bunch, but that is not saying much. Most of the tight ends available this year are stop-gap options. Schultz is a good receiver and a reliable run blocker. Maybe I am being a bit harsh, but nothing about his play particularly stands out.
The Lions are not going to spend big on tight end this offseason. It is unlikely Schultz is even on their radar. Still, he is the best of the bunch by default.
The realistic option is the affordable option: Hayden Hurst, Spotrac AAV: $6.8 million
If the Lions are looking for a short-term starting caliber tight end, they probably cannot find much better than Hayden Hurst for the job. That is not entirely true, but if they do not want to break the bank then Hurst is the best option available. Hurst has reliable hands and has produced as a solid tight end throughout his career. He never lived up to the billing as a first-round pick, but he is still a low-end starting caliber tight end.
Hurst would allow the Lions to kick the can down the road in search of a long-term tight end. Maybe Hurst allows them to find a guy in the later rounds to develop. There is also the chance Wright makes strides in his development and beats Hurst outright for the starting job. At his price tag on a short-term deal, Hurst can be whatever the Lions need him to be.
(Featured Image Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)