The Detroit Lions didn’t sign any big names in free agency, but they made enough moves to outfit their defense to new head coach Matt Patricia’s liking and plug their biggest holes on offense, at least for 2018.
First and most important, the Lions used the franchise tag on Ziggy Ansah to keep their best pass rusher around for one more year. Ansah hasn’t been healthy since 2015, but he still delivered 12 sacks last season and is a menacing presence on the edge. With Ansah around, the Lions didn’t have to overpay a pass rusher, though they gave themselves some extra cap room by cutting tight end Eric Ebron.
Ebron’s release was a mild surprise, but the Lions were unable to trade their mercurial tight end and his $8.25 million salary. Ebron showed flashes of brilliance in Detroit, but never lived up to his billing as the 10th pick of the 2014 draft. In his place, the Lions signed a pair of veterans — Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo — to one-year deals.
Willson and Toilolo are nothing more than stopgaps, and many of the other free agents the Lions signed fall into that category as well. They took a one-year, incentive-laden flyer on LeGarrette Blount to help the running game, though they’ll surely address that position in the draft. They added Sylvester Williams to be the big nose tackle Patricia needs in his defense. They signed DeShawn Shead to add size to their secondary. And they added what seemed like half of the linebackers available in free agency.
Devon Kennard won’t make any Pro Bowl teams, but he was the most important addition this offseason. Kennard will play strong-side linebacker and give Patricia the pass-rushing presence he desires from the position. Both he and newcomer Christian Jones should step immediately into the starting lineup.
Here is a closer look at where the Lions are, how they got here and a shot at what they should do with their first pick in the draft.
2017 finish: 2nd NFC North (9-7)
TOTAL OFFENSE:337.8 (13th)
RUSHING: 76.3 (32nd)
PASSING: 261.4 (6th)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 355.8 (27th)
RUSHING: 112.5 (18th)
PASSING: 243.3 (27th)
- Pass rusher: The Lions have both immediate and long-term needs at defensive end, with Ansah likely to play this fall on the tag and quite possibly headed for greener pastures in 2019. For now, Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder (coming off a torn Achilles) are the Lions’ Nos. 2 and 3 defensive ends. Kennard adds a pass-rushing element to the edge from his linebacker spot, but the Lions don’t have anyone else that can fill that role should something happen. They’ll come away from this draft with at least one pass rusher.
- Running back: No team was worse running the ball than the Lions last year, and the organization went into this offseason planning to add a veteran in free agency and a rookie through the draft. Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner and Tion Green all return from last season, but none is the long-term answer to the Lions’ problems. Patricia believes in a running back-by-committee approach, so the Lions don’t necessarily have to spend a top pick on the position. But they need to add someone who can be the focal point of the running game going forward.
- Interior offensive line: The Lions had no intentions of re-signing center Travis Swanson, but they still have a big question mark on the offensive line entering the draft. Graham Glasgow has made starts at both center and left guard the last two years, and if he moves to center full-time than Joe Dahl is the favorite to start at guard. Dahl is inexperienced, though, and neither of the free agents the Lions signed, Wesley Johnson or Kenny Wiggins, inspires much confidence. With right guard T.J. Lang entering his age-31 season, it’s imperative the Lions draft an interior lineman.
KEY PERSONNEL TRACKER (As of April 6)
–LB Nick Bellore: Potential UFA; $1.005M/1 yr, $90K SB.
–CB Nevin Lawson: Potential UFA; $9.2M/2 yrs; $4.55M guaranteed/$2.25M SB.
–LS Don Muhlbach: UFA; $1.105M/1 yr, $45K guaranteed RB.
–S Tavon Wilson: Potential UFA; $7M/2 yrs, $3.25M fully guaranteed/$1.75M SB.
–RB Zach Zenner: Not tendered as RFA; $1.05M/1 yr.
–RB LeGarrette Blount: UFA Eagles; $2M guaranteed/1 yr, $1M SB. Up to $2.5M incentives for playing time/yards/TDs.
–QB Matt Cassel: FA Titans; terms unknown.
–LB Jonathan Freeny: UFA Saints; $880K/1 yr, $45K SB.
–C Wesley Johnson: UFA Jets; $880K/1 yr, $90K SB.
–LB Christian Jones: UFA Bears; $6.35M/2 yrs, $2.8M guaranteed/$1.75M SB.
–LB Devon Kennard: UFA Giants; $17.25M/3 yrs, $8.5M guaranteed ($1M injury only at signing, $5.25M SB).
–CB DeShawn Shead: FA Seahawks; $3.35M/1 yr, $1.5M fully guaranteed/$1M RB.
–TE Levine Toilolo: FA Falcons; $2M/1 yr.
–G Kenny Wiggins: UFA Chargers; $5M/2 yrs, $750K SB.
–DT Sylvester Williams: FA Titans; $3.5M/1 yr, $3.4M guaranteed/$2M SB.
–TE Luke Willson: UFA Seahawks; $2.5M/1 yr, $1.4M guaranteed/$900K SB.
–S Don Carey: UFA Jaguars; $2.495M/2 yrs, $200K SB.
–TE Eric Ebron (released).
–TE Darren Fells: UFA Browns; $12M/3 yrs, $6.15M guaranteed ($1.5M injury only at signing, $2.1M SB).
–CB DJ Hayden: UFA Jaguars; $19M/3 yrs, $9.45M fully guaranteed/$5M SB.
–DT Haloti Ngata: UFA Eagles; $2.6M guaranteed/1 yr, $250K SB.
–C Travis Swanson: UFA Jets; terms unknown.
–LB Tahir Whitehead: UFA Raiders; $19M/3 yrs, $12.55M guaranteed ($6.275M injury only at signing, $3.175M RB.
–LB Paul Worrilow: UFA Eagles; 1 yr, terms unknown.
*NFLDraftScout.com analysts suggest (No. 20 overall)
Rob Rang (April 5 mock draft):
–James Daniels, C, Iowa. With starting center Travis Swanson off to the Jets, the Lions could look to the draft for a replacement. Daniels possesses rare quickness and length for an interior offensive lineman, projecting as a Day One starter.
Dane Brugler (April 6 mock draft):
–Taven Bryan, DT, Florida. Detroit needs reinforcements on the defensive line to provide more of a pass rush and Bryan is a candidate to do that. With his athleticism and strength, the former Gator is one of the best three-technique tackles in this draft.
Agree? Disagree? Still shopping?
Based on the team’s current status, those are our suggestions for that first pick. To double check or find another candidate see full mocks and ratings at NFLDraftScout.com.