NFL Offseason: Positions the Lions Need to Target and Best Available Free Agents

The Detroit Lions were a playoff squad in 2016, but didn’t beat any of the top-tier teams it faced. There are a lot of needs the Detroit Lions must address during the NFL offseason, either through free agency or through the draft. Below are the positions that I believe the team needs to improve upon heading into 2017, and some of the top free agent players expected to be available at those positions.

Running back:

The running game has been abysmal for several years. This past season was no different, as the Lions ranked 30th in the NFL with 81.9 yards per game. Ameer Abdullah played in just two games in 2016 and Theo Riddick missed six games as well.

Lions

Nov 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Riddick led the team in rushing yards with just 357 yards. While both Abdullah and Riddick are dangerous weapons catching the ball out of the backfield, neither has proven to tote the rock effectively. Zach Zenner is the best between-the-tackles runner. These options can certainly be improved upon.

Incredibly, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey are all projected to go in the first round of the draft.

There have only been three running backs taken in  the first round of the past four drafts combined. Fournette is not likely to be there at pick No. 21, but Cook or McCaffrey may be.

 

Le’Veon Bell would be the prize of free agency, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are not likely going to let him test the market. There are a few other options, but nobody stands out. Detroit may look to add another downhill runner, but don’t expect the team to break the bank on this position.

Top Available unrestricted free agents (2016 team):

Le’Veon Bell (Steelers), Eddie Lacy (Packers), Latavius Murray (Raiders), Chris Thompson (Redskins), Danny Woodhead (Chargers)

Cornerback:

Nevin Lawson is a physical player, but he has not proven to be the answer opposite Darius Slay. He has zero career interceptions in three seasons. The Lions need a playmaker on the outside. Detroit’s pass defense was in the bottom half of the league in 2016 (19th), and intercepted the ball just 10 times (23rd).

Nov 24, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay (23) celebrates after making an interception during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Lions win 16-13. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 24, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay (23) celebrates after making an interception during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Lions win 16-13. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This is an extremely deep draft class for cornerbacks. CBS Sports ranks six players as potential first round picks, with an additional eight as potential second-round choices. The Lions should certainly target a top defensive back if the opportunity presents itself, instead of paying a premium for a free agent.

With that said, it should be an interesting process to see where the top free agents on the market go. Cornerbacks are a hot commodity in the NFL, and players are looking for big paydays.

Top available unrestricted free agents:

A.J. Bouye (Texans), Stephen Gilmore (Bills), Trumaine Johnson (Rams), Logan Ryan (Patriots), Prince Amukamara (Jaguars)

Pass Rusher:

The hope is that Detroit adds a defensive end to pair with Ezekiel Ansah, but a shifty outside linebacker who can also cover in the 4-3 scheme is possible. Kerry Hyder led the team with eight sacks. Devin Taylor, who will be a free agent, was second on the team with just 4.5 sacks. While Hyder’s out-of-nowhere performance was incredible, he started only two games and hasn’t proven to be an every down player yet.

Lucky

Nov 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) and cornerback Darius Slay (23) celebrate after a play during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ford Field. Lions won 26-19. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit would be wise to draft a defensive linemen with the 21st pick in the draft, as several of the prospects are flooded with first-round talent. Players like Solomon Thomas of Stanford, Charles Harris of Missouri, Taco Charlton of Michigan or Malik McDowell of Michigan State could still be available.

There are a few standout pass rushers slated to be free agents this offseason. I see Detroit likely going after role players in free agency, instead of dropping a lot of cash on superstars. Look for Detroit to build its defense through the draft. 

Top available unrestricted free agents:

Calais Campbell (Cardinals), Melvin Ingram (Chargers), Chandler Jones (Cardinals), Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants), Kawann Short (Panthers)

Offensive Line:

Namely, the right tackle and both guard positions. The Lions need to make re-signing Riley Reiff a priority this offseason. If the two sides are unable to make a deal together, the Lions can franchise tag Reiff. That would cost the team about $13.5 million at a minimum next season. Larry Warford’s contract also expires this offseason and that might force the underperforming Laken Tomlinson to slide over to the right guard position, while Graham Glasgow continues to man the right side.

Detroit Lions offensive line . Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Lions offensive line . Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a great draft for offensive linemen, especially right tackles. I don’t think it’s worth it for the Lions to burn a first-round pick on a developmental tackle or guard. Not to mention, Detroit has drafted an offensive linemen with its first-round pick two years in a row. It’s time to focus on the defensive trenches, where there is much more talent.

If Reiff leaves Detroit, then the tackle position could be where the Lions do, in fact, make a free agency splash. This is not a standout free agent class for tackles, either. Aging tackle, Sebastian Vollmer has obvious ties to Bob Quinn from their time in New England. He will be 33-years-old in 2017, and he didn’t appear in a single game for the Patriots in 2016. If he can prove he still has something left, the Lions may be able to grab him for a bargain price.

Top available unrestricted free agents:

TJ Lang (Packers), Andrew Norwell (Panthers) Ricky Wagner (Ravens) Andrew Whitworth (Bengals), Kevin Zeitler (Bengals)

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