For the first time in a long time, the Detroit Lions are entering the NFL offseason with legitimate playoff aspirations for next season. In 2022, the team overcame a 1-6 start to finish the season 9-8, falling just short of a playoff appearance. The Lions finished with the fifth-highest scoring offense and fourth-most total yards. However, they also finished 28th in scoring defense and dead last in yardage allowed.
The team enters the offseason looking to shore up their struggling defense and provide important depth on both sides of the ball. Detroit will have some money to work with in free agency, roughly $15 million, and plenty of draft capital, including two first-round picks.
Before the team can bring on more players, it must first decide what to do with the guys currently on the roster. The Lions have some key names entering free agency, including some of their more productive defensive starters.
Here are the Detroit Lions’ key pending free agents.
Detroit Lions offensive free agents
Quarterback- Nate Sudfeld
Nate Sudfeld appeared in just two games for the Detroit Lions. He threw zero passes and took one sack. His on-field production was nonexistent, but backup quarterback is the most important depth position in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers managed a deep playoff run in large part because of their backup quarterback depth. Poor depth behind the starting quarterback can completely derail a season.
Sudfeld is not a proven commodity in the NFL. He has thrown only 37 passes in his entire career, including one passing touchdown and an interception. It would be worth bringing him back for continuity. He knows the offense, and the team can always bring in an outside quarterback to compete for the backup job.
Runningback- Jamaal Williams
Jamaal Williams was a key part of the Lions’ offense. He led the team in rushing with 1,066 yards. His 17 rushing touchdowns led the entire NFL. Williams brought the hard-nosed style of play the Lions covet, and he proved a valuable leader to the team as well. There is no question the team would love to bring Williams back, and he has hinted at his desire to stick around as well.
Money will be the deciding factor. Williams will be 28 next season, and the shelf life of runningbacks is tricky, especially ones with high usage. Spotrac currently holds Williams’ value at $4.1 million per year. At that price, a short-term deal might make the most sense.
Wide Receiver- D.J. Chark
D.J. Chark’s cap hit might be a bit rich for the third option in Detroit’s receiver room. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams are the surefire one and two in that group. Spotrac values Chark at $9.5 Million per season, which is closer to second option money rather than third.
Chark has been productive when healthy, and will undoubtedly be re-signed for the right price. It will come down to what his actual market value is once he hits free agency.
Guard- Evan Brown
Evan Brown has been a valuable guard for the Lions for the past two seasons. With Halapoulitvaati Vaitai missing the entire season due to injury, Brown played well at the right guard spot for the Lions. He allowed just two sacks and committed six penalties in 768 total snaps. He grades out as a productive lineman on PFF with a 64.8 grade.
Brown’s valuation on Spotrac is $10.8 million. The Lions have built a sturdy offensive line, but not everyone can get paid handsomely for it. Starting left guard Jonah Jackson is entering the final year of his deal this upcoming season. Brown is a solid lineman, but at that price, Detroit might not be able to afford his services.
Detroit Lions defensive free agents
Linebacker- Alex Anzalone
Most of Detroit’s pending free agents on defense are backups at best. It is hard to imagine the Lions having a hard time re-signing Isaiah Buggs if they wanted to retain him. Alex Anzalone, on the other hand, may have a bigger market. Anzalone is a good-not-great linebacker. He is not a star, and he should not be the focal point of a linebacker room, but he plays well within his role.
Anzalone finished the season with 78 solo tackles an interception and a forced fumble. He is a solid option to pair with Malcolm Rodriguez. The Lions have more pressing needs on defense than at linebacker, so Anzalone is likely back if the contract is right.
Safety- Deshon Elliott
This might be the most obvious pending free agent who will walk this offseason. Deshon Elliott played well for Detroit, finishing the season with 76 solo tackles and an interception. However, Spotrac gives the safety a $10 million per year valuation, and the Lions will likely not have a starting role for Elliott once Tracy Walker returns.
The Lions’ safety duo moving forward appears to be Walker and Kerby Joseph, who turned in a promising rookie season. Elliott likely wants a starting role, and Detroit is unlikely to offer that to him. While it is not a guaranteed departure, it is hard to see Elliott returning in a lesser role for well below market value.
Potential cut candidates
The Lions will have some money to work with this offseason, but the team could generate more with some cuts to underperforming players. Here are some cap casualty cut candidates for the Lions.
Defensive Lineman- Michael Brockers
Michael Brockers has not been very productive in his two seasons with the Lions. In 22 games played, he has recorded just a single sack and 24 solo tackles. He is set to make $13.9 million next season, but the Lions could open up $10 million in cap space by cutting him. While the team does need to add depth at the interior defensive line, Brockers’ cap hit is more than the production he brings.
Guard- Halapoulivaati Vaitai
Vaitai missed the 2022 season, and the Lions found sustainable guard play from Brown. Vaitai is set to make $12.4 million in 2023. Cutting the veteran guard would save the Lions roughly $6.6 million in cap space. That extra savings could be used to retain Brown or bring in a cheaper starting caliber guard.
Edge Rushers- Romeo Okwara
After a 10-sack season in 2020, Romeo Okwara has missed all but nine games over the previous two seasons. Of the three cut candidates, he is the least likely to part ways with the Lions as he can be a productive pass rusher when healthy. However, if the Lions ultimately decide to move on from Okwara, they would save roughly $7.5 million in cap space.
(Featured Image Credit: Appleton Post-Crescent-USA TODAY NETWORK)