Detroit Lions: Free agent targets to bolster defense
The Detroit Lions enter the 2023 NFL offseason with expectations to make noise in the upcoming season. Detroit finished 2022 with a 9-8 record, just missing out on a playoff appearance. Led by head coach Dan Campbell, the Lions bounced back after a 1-6 start to the year. The offense under quarterback Jared Goff and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson ranked fifth in points scored and fourth in total yardage.
However, the Lions’ defense was a detriment to their success in 2022. Detroit ranked 28th in points allowed and 32nd in total yards allowed. Defense is where Detroit needs to make the most significant improvement heading into the 2023 season. The continued development of Aiden Hutchinson, James Houston, Malcolm Rodriguez and Kerby Joseph will be crucial to that improvement, but adding more talent and depth is just as important.
The Lions need to upgrade their interior pass rush. Hutchinson and Houston performed well rushing off the edge, but an interior presence would open up more opportunities to get after opposing quarterbacks. Cornerback is a major area of concern for Detroit as well. The Lions lack a shutdown corner, and the team’s current group struggled in coverage throughout the season. The team is also likely to pursue some options at linebacker as well.
While the team is certain to attack the draft to address many of their needs on the defensive end, free agency is where they could add experienced depth players and find potential starters for the right price. The salary cap is set to go up this offseason. Detroit has money to spend, and the front office could generate more with cap casualty cuts like Michael Brockers or Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Key Detroit Lions defensive players heading into free agency
The Lions could lose some starters from this past season during free agency. Lineback Alex Anzalone, safety Deshon Elliot and defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs are all set to hit the open market. Defensive backs Will Harris, Mike Hughes and Amani Oruwariye are all free agents, as well as defensive lineman John Cominsky.
The Lions likely want to bring a few of these guys back on the right deal. Anzalone enjoyed a decent season in 2022 and would be a valuable player to bring back. Buggs played well down the stretch and would make for a good depth player. Elliot may be one of the players the team lets walk. Tracy Walker and Joseph appear to be the safety duo the Lions will move forward with for the foreseeable future, and Elliot is likely searching for a starting role.
The team will certainly re-sign some of their expiring contracts, but many are likely to walk as well. That leaves plenty of options for outside free agents to be brought in. Here are a few players the Detroit Lions could target in free agency.
Detroit Lions need to upgrade their interior defensive line
If the Lions are going to spend big on a free agent, Daron Payne is exactly the type of player they should do it on. Payne, 25, is just entering the prime of his career. He has proven to be a stout run defender for the Washington Commanders, and his pass rush skills have improved throughout his career. He recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks this season and boasts the 10th most quarterback pressures of any defensive lineman since 2021 with 95.
Spotrac currently holds Payne’s value at $19.4 million per year, a hefty price tag that the Lions would likely need to make some cuts to afford. Payne can be that difference maker to take Detroit’s pass rush to the next level.
Ford averages 12 quarterback pressures over the past three seasons, and he finished 2022 with a career-high three sacks. He is the perfect early-down lineman to disrupt the opposing rushing attack. On obvious passing situations, Ford is a guy the Lions could rotate out for more of a pass rush specialist. At his current valuation, the Detroit Lions could not ask for much more.
Linebacker options to pair with Malcolm Rodriguez
Spotrac’s valuation of Okereke is $2.3 million per year. For a player who stepped up in the absence of Shaquille Leonard for the Indianapolis Colts, that could be a steal if the Lions were to sign Okereke. The 26-year-old linebacker finished the season with 99 solo tackles (151 total) and two forced fumbles.
Okereke is a reliable run defender, and while he struggles at times in pass coverage, his mobility prevents him from becoming a liability. He graded 23rd among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus and has room to continue growing. If the Lions do not bring back Anzalone, Okereke could be a prime candidate to replace the veteran linebacker.
Taking a chance on an athletic linebacker in Devin Bush is a risk the Lions could look to take this offseason. In four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bush has struggled. How much of those struggles are due to a torn ACL is not clear. The former University of Michigan star’s value is as low as it has ever been. In the final two games of the 2022 season, Bush played only 10 total defensive snaps.
The Lions could be enticed to take a chance on the former tenth-overall pick because of the freakish athletic traits he possesses. Bush struggles with playing downhill and tackling. A change of scenery and a new coaching staff could bring some life back into Bush’s career.
Cornerback is a priority for the Detroit Lions to address in free agency and the draft
Cameron Sutton may just be the best value cornerback in this year’s free-agent class. The 27-year-old offers slot and outside corner versatility. He was one of the most important players on the Steelers’ roster, consistently making big plays. Sutton finished 2022 with three interceptions and 15 passes defended. He can play like a team’s number-one corner, but his valuation is that of a second corner. Sportrac values Sutton at $7.6 million per year.
Sutton is a guy who could play a multifaceted role with the Lions. He can play outside in base defense, then slide into the slot in nickel packages. The Steelers are known for shorting players on guaranteed money, so the Lions could steal Sutton away with a fair contract offer that will not break the bank.
Rock Ya-Sin has proven he can provide reliable cornerback play during his time with both the Colts and Las Vegas Raiders. The 26-year-old was by no means perfect in 2022 for the Raiders, but his play was enough to warrant a decent payday in free agency. Sportrac values Ya-Sin at $10.8 million per year.
Ya-Sin is better suited as a second corner on a good team. For a Detroit Lions team that is likely to target one of the top corner prospects in this year’s draft, Ya-Sin would be a solid second corner to pair them with.
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