Things are moving quickly before the onset of free agency, with Detroit Lions’ new GM Bob Quinn recently resigning Tyrunn Walker to a one year, $1.6 million deal as well as tendering exclusive rights free agents Brandon Copeland, Corey Fuller, Braxston Cave, Isaiah Johnson, Khyri Thornton and George Winn. What could the rest of the offseason look like now that the Lions have filled one of many spots currently open on the roster?
Let me preface the below ideal offseason as a combination of players I would like to target and of what I think the Lions will look to do under Bob Quinn, which is build depth with good talent without breaking the bank on “elite” free agents. Let’s also assume that they have around $32 million in space after resigning Tyrunn Walker.
I think only a few of the Lions’ free agents are priority re-signings, and they are the few you have likely been hearing as options: Haloti Ngata, Tahir Whitehead, and Isa Abdul-Quddus.
If Tahir Whitehead is not resigned, we could see the Lions target someone similarly well-rounded in free agency or the draft. Whitehead had an early season fallout with coaching last year, which is the primary driver of worry that he will not be back. I am not alone in recognizing his talent, but I am skeptical of the rift that may have been created. He can play three downs well, which GM Bob Quinn admitted was rare in today’s league, so the Lions would be remiss in letting him go without a fight.
We have heard that Ngata is somewhat likely to be back and he will bring a veteran presence to the defensive front. While his effectiveness is diminishing, he is still a powerful player who will directly contribute to getting the Lions into long passing situations by playing the stout run stuffer role.
We have not heard too much about Isa Abdul-Quddus, who may be looking for a bigger guaranteed role. However, he is an outstanding option as a third safety to have on the roster, a great special teamer and what seems like an average starter. On a team looking to build depth, he is a great fit for the price at which he should come.
Here is what I would do, and what the Lions may look to do regarding their own free agents:
- Re-sign Haloti Ngata and Tahir Whitehead to similar deals, 2 years, $8M total, $3M signing bonus each. This puts their yearly average at about $4M which should not be too far off the mark.
- Re-sign Isa Abdul-Quddus to a 2 year, $3.5M deal with $1M signing bonus.
- And how could I forget? Re-sign long snapper Don Muhlbach to the veteran’s minimum, which will be around $1M for him.
The first year cap hit for the above four signings would be about $10M, leaving the Lions with $22M in space to pursue free agents and sign rookies.
Flash forward to the first week of free agency where the Lions should be looking to fill as many holes on the roster as possible with quality players prior to the draft. There are rumors of them being interested in George Iloka, and the Lions should attempt to make one or preferably two signings of that caliber while leaving the rest of the money to build depth in the middle class of the roster.
In mentioning that, George Iloka is my highest paid target for free agency, raking in four years and $32M with the Lions, with an $11M signing bonus as part of $18.5M in guarantees. The Lions’ defense is a perfect fit for his strengths and the money lines up with need in this situation. With Iloka, Quin and Abdul-Quddus, the Lions have a nice trio of safeties who can match up well against both the pass and the run with some depth. Isaiah Johnson backs up those three as he develops behind Iloka. This signing reinforces the Lions’ strength against the run to get into long passing situations where they can keep Iloka on the field and expect him to succeed unlike his predecessor James Ihedigbo.
After resigning Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, some expect to walk into next year with those two being the starters, but I’m not one of those people. In building the middle class of the roster, I am not totally comfortable if Walker or Ngata go down as it means they would be relying on the unproven Caraun Reid or Gabe Wright again. Rather than rely on Walker and Ngata, one of whom is coming off a fairly severe injury, I think the Lions should look to free agency to add a starting caliber player.
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That player in this scenario is Jaye Howard of the Kansas City Chiefs, who I sign to a four year, $24M deal with a $10M signing bonus as part of $15M guaranteed. Howard began to come on as a pass rusher last year with 5.5 sacks and has experience stuffing the run as part of the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme last year playing multiple techniques along the line, so he fits the depth and versatility combination being sought by Bob Quinn. Howard would start alongside Ngata with the still-healing Tyrunn Walker being the primary backup.
After the two primary signings and re-signings, the Lions would be left with about $15M with which they can continue to add depth, with about $6M of that number being needed for rookie signings. The Lions should continue to spend the remainder of that money on competitive depth.
Firstly, they address the right tackle position by signing Bobby Massie to a three year, $10M deal with a $3M signing bonus. Massie’s best strength so far has been in the run department and although he graded poorly in the pass department per ProFootballFocus, he possesses more than enough athleticism for the position and should continue to improve there. Massie takes over for Michael Ola, who was solid for the Lions down the stretch last year and would make a great swing tackle backup option for Detroit.
Next, I have the Lions signing Patrick Robinson to a three year, $9M deal with a $2M signing bonus and $5.5M guaranteed. I’m not sure what the market for Robinson would be but I do not necessarily see the Lions relying on Nevin Lawson as their first string starter going into next year. While I like Lawson, I think he’s better as a situational player than an everyday starter, and the signing of Robinson along with Iloka would complete the Lions’ secondary so that it is not even really a need going into the draft. Though, of course they should not ignore the secondary if a can’t-miss opportunity comes up.
The last two signings I have are linebacker Zach Brown and the token “Patriot connection” signing in Brandon LaFell. These guys should both be available for around $2-3M per year and signing the above four players leaves the Lions with about $6M for 2016 which they will allocate to all their rookies.
Zach Brown can be an okay starter on the outside in the Lions’ scheme and provide depth in the nickel in the case that Levy or Whitehead cannot play. The theme here has been three deep for every situation, and Brown provides coverage insurance and good enough play against the run. For run situations, the Lions have Josh Bynes backing up Whitehead, and Whitehead can swing to the outside in case of obvious runs. The Lions’ linebacking corps would then be “complete” as well going into the draft.
With LaFell, the Lions get a veteran complement to Golden Tate in the case that CJ does indeed retire. For the purposes of this specific situation, I am not pretending. The Lions don’t know what he is doing yet and need to be preparing for both situations the more his decision is delayed. LaFell had a poor 2015 to follow up a fairly strong campaign in 2014, so this is a buy-low opportunity for a big receiver who can get down the field.
To summarize, here is the outcome of free agency:
Re-sign: Tahir Whitehead, Tyrunn Walker, Haloti Ngata, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Don Muhlbach, ERFAs
Free agency signings: George Iloka, Jaye Howard, Bobby Massie, Patrick Robinson, Zach Brown, Brandon LaFell
That brings us to the pinnacle of the offseason, the 2016 NFL Draft. In this scenario, the Lions are pretty well set on defense going into the draft with a few gaps yet to fill on offense. On defense, they have a few questionable spots including defensive end Devin Taylor and additional depth. On offense, they have a few below average starters, especially if Calvin Johnson departs for retirement. Center ravis Swanson is the worst incumbent starter on that side of the ball and the Lions direly need depth at receiver as well. They could also use some help at tight end with a more all-around type player with Pettigrew declining and coming off injury and they also need a quarterback to back up Stafford.
Let’s see how the Lions can use a combination of value and need to field a winning team next year.
Let me say that I usually do not like trade-down mock drafts, but I think this year is a scenario it could finally happen. If Bob Quinn is indeed a Patriot protege and Sheldon Rankins and Shaq Lawson are off the board as I think they will be, the Lions may look to trade down. In this mock I have the Texans trading up for Paxton Lynch from 22 to get their quarterback of the future. The Lions receive the Texans’ first and 2nd round picks.
At pick 22, I have the Lions selecting Jonathan Bullard from the University of Florida. Bullard competes with Devin Taylor at LDE and likely wins the job as starter there from the start. Bullard can slide in on passing downs replacing the slower Haloti Ngata to penetrate the pocket, one of his greatest strengths. Bullard is immensely explosive and is stout against the run. On my initial watches of Bullard, I had flashes of my first experience with Aaron Donald, and that was the desire to have him on my team. With Bullard, the Lions have their bookends on defense for years to come assuming they resign Ansah.
In the second round, I have the Lions addressing the other side of the ball with a couple of the aforementioned needs aligning with possible value there. With the Lions’ own second round pick I have them selecting Alabama center Ryan Kelly. Kelly’s pedigree is strong and should start right away over Travis Swanson, shoring up the player which I think was the main issue of the Lions’ offensive line last year in the back half of the year. Kelly will help Warford and Tomlinson which will have a ripple effect out to Reiff and Massie. His pass protection skills will shine from the start and he will get stronger in the run department as he fills out his frame.
With the Texans’ second round pick I have the Lions selecting Ohio State tight end Nick Vannett. Vannett turned heads with his excellent all-around play at the senior bowl, possessing smooth receiving ability paired with a technically sound blocking game. It seems Vannett understands the need to have both abilities as an NFL tight end, and he should make a truly fruitful pairing with the more receiving-oriented Eric Ebron and should help out Reiff and Massie as well.
That brings us to the third round, where I have the Lions… what?! I have the Lions trading up! With all of the ammunition the Lions have this year I think it’s likely they might move around in either direction a small number of times. Since they traded their own pick last year for Gabe Wright, they are without a pick in the mid-third round. In this scenario, I have the Lions packaging their own fourth and fifth as well as the Broncos’ fifth round pick to move up and select defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.
While it may seem like overkill, to me, Gabe Wright was a practice squad caliber player last year needing a lot of development in the run game. That being said, I am not sure he makes the team this year unless he shows the improvement needed, and either way the Lions do not have anyone on the roster to groom as Ngata’s replacement. Hargrave dominated his lower level competition in college, but will need development time and could get it in the Lions’ situation of great depth along the d-line. Hargrave would be expected to step in and start in 2017 while providing breathers for Ngata and Howard in 2016 as he learns the NFL game.
That brings us to the Lions’ projected 3rd round compensatory pick, where I have them taking wide receiver Devon Cajuste from Stanford. Cajuste opened some eyes at the combine, where he displayed good attitude and hustle to go along with adequate hands, quick feet and decent speed at his size. The 6-4, 230+ pounder could step in to run many of the routes that Calvin Johnson has been the past couple of years, and of course while he will not be as effective right away, he gives Matthew Stafford another big bodied, athletic target with whom to develop. Cajuste would see some time in year one if Calvin keeps playing and even moreso if he retires.
The Lions’ next pick after the trade-up for Hargrave would not be until the 5th round compensatory pick they are projected to receive for Nick Fairley. With that pick I have them selecting Matt Judon, defensive end from Grand Valley State University. Like Larry Webster a few years ago, Judon possesses a combination of size and speed that would be ideal backing up Ezekiel Ansah. Unlike Webster, Judon appears to have a passion for the game, and with the three-deep rotation of Ansah, Bullard and Taylor, Judon should not be forced into action right away and be given time to develop on the 53-man roster.
With the Lions’ pick in the 6th round, I have them taking Vernon Adams, quarterback from Oregon. At backup quarterback, the Lions have missed someone who can actually come in and play the past few years. Adams also would be able to help provide diverse looks to the defense during game preparation. This is somewhat of a wild card as Adams could go much earlier, but he looked quite capable in postseason work this offseason despite his smaller stature and can both pass and scramble. Adams would allow the Lions to win if Stafford goes down and is a heady player which is another plus. Some team could bite on him as early as the second or third round if they fall in love, however. In that case, there should still be some QB options for the Lions to take with this pick as a developmental type behind Stafford.
With the second 6th round pick the Lions received in the trade with the Seahawks in which they sent away Mohammed Seisay, the Lions pick receiver Charone Peake from Clemson. Peake’s production in college was not otherworldly but he has stood out as a viable NFL prospect in the offseason process to date. Peake should be able to contribute some on offense right away in year 1 but could see the practice squad if he cannot provide help on special teams. Speaking of which, a WR cannot be much worse than Corey Fuller was on special teams last year so it should not be too difficult to earn the roster spot from that regard.
With the 7th and final pick for the Lions in this draft, I have them taking running back Dan Vitale from Northwestern. Vitale would round out the Lions’ running back stable with a power option to complement the shifty Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick and the more all-around Zach Zenner. Vitale put up great metrics at the combine and could be a value pick for the Lions this late as he displayed a lot of power on his college tape but was not as flashy or shifty as some other backs who may go before him such as Paul Perkins.
That rounds out the entire roster for 2016, and the depth chart for that roster is below. In the below situation I think it’s plausible Gabe Wright could be swapped to the practice squad for more secondary depth. Also, in the below depth chart, Corey Fuller is cut along with a few of the ERFAs we mentioned earlier. I think with the schedule the Lions will have next year, the below squad could compete for the division. New or resigned players are in bold.
Give me some criticism and call me the next Millen on twitter, @ericranes
Offense: 25 players
QB Matthew Stafford / Vernon Adams Jr.
RB Ameer Abdullah / Zach Zenner / Theo Riddick / Dan Vitale
FB Michael Burton
WR1 Calvin Johnson / Brandon LaFell / Devon Cajuste
LT: Riley Reiff / Corey Robinson
LG: Laken Tomlinson
C: Ryan Kelly / Swanson
RG: Larry Warford / Braxston Cave
RT: Bobby Massie / Michael Ola
TE Eric Ebron / Nick Vannett / Brandon Pettigrew
WR2: Golden Tate / Charone Peake / TJ Jones
Defense: 25 players
RDE: Ziggy Ansah / Matt Judon
DT: Jaye Howard / Tyrunn Walker / Gabe Wright
DT: Haloti Ngata / Javon Hargrave / Caraun Reid
LDE: Jonathan Bullard / Devin Taylor
OLB: DeAndre Levy / Brandon Copeland
MLB: Tahir Whitehead / Josh Bynes
OLB: Zach Brown / Kyle Van Noy
CB: Patrick Robinson / Alex Carter
Nickel: Quandre Diggs
S: Glover Quin / Isa Abdul-Quddus
S: George Iloka / Isaiah Johnson
CB: Darius Slay / Nevin Lawson
Special Teams: 3 Additional Players
K: Matt Prater
P: Sam Martin
LS: Don Muhlbach
KR: Ameer Abdullah
PR: Golden Tate / TJ Jones