As the Detroit Lions begin their off-season, one of the first things the team does is determine what its needs are. For Detroit, this questions is a bit more complex then just naming positions due to having key free agents to be unsigned and not much in terms of back ups for those free agents should they choose to leave. For this reason alone, I will start with outlining what they need to do in regards to their own free agents before I mention team needs.
The Detroit Lions need to upgrade their offensive line. The major question though is, do they really want to attempt to do that this off-season? They have two starters set to be free agents. On the right side of the line, both Riley Reiff and Larry Warford are free agents. Having your starting right guard and right tackle both leave in free agency is not a desired outcome unless the draft or free agent class are stronger in talent than what you are losing. In the Lions case, the draft is very weak at both tackle and guard. In free agency, the right guard market is expected to be very pricey, with Warford expected to command 11-12 million per year. Given that the only other guards on the market that are as good or better than Warford will command similar, Detroit’s only option is to re-sign Warford or let him leave and replace him with someone else who is already on the roster. The best fit currently is Laken Tomlinson who has so far been a disappointment at left guard. With the Lions unlikely to re-sign both linemen, Reiff has becomer the most likely to be re-signed. Reiff though has experience as a left tackle and could possibly garner left tackle money. That would push Detroit out of the running for Reiff. Earlier this week, several tackles with experience as a left tackle were released, which could give Detroit hope that Reiff will not get an offer for left tackle money making him re-signing more of a likely possibility.
So, assuming the Lions re-sign Reiff and plug Tomlinson in at right guard, the offensive line in theory would not be a need this offseason. That leaves their needs at defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, tight end, corner, safety, wide receiver, and running back. Ideally, they could also add depth in the offensive line should they find someone young and inexpensive that they feel could develop. The positions mentioned above are not in order of precedence but they are close. Below, I have outlined why each is a need, and where the best value for that position could be targeted.
Linebacker – This is arguably one of the Lions biggest needs. They have defensive line needs as well that are just as important, but considering the play of their linebackers, this one is up there. The wild card here is that DeAndre Levy has not played much in the past two years due to injury. While he finished the season healthy and looks to be slowly getting back to full speed, there has to be concern about whether or not he can regain form as well as whether or not he can be healthy all season. Tahir Whitehead racked up plenty of tackles at middle linebacker, but without a supporting cast around him, he looked poor compared to 2014 when Tulloch went down. If the Lions choose to keep Whitehead at the middle linebacker spot, they could target an outside linebacker and re-sign Josh Bynes for depth. Ideally they could snag one on rounds 1 or 2. They could also target a top free agent inside linebacker and move Whitehead back to outside linebacker. Beyond round 2 in the draft, do not expect that the Lions are going to get a starting caliber linebacker.
Defensive End – This is a big need. The Lions had virtually no pass rush outside of rotational defensive end Kerry Hyder. Ezekiel Ansah was hurt most of the year and was a non-factor as a result. Signing a top tier defensive end could get expensive so I expect this to be a draft target. The draft is deep with quality pass rushers this season so drafting an end to play opposite Ansah is a very likely possibility. I would expect this to be a round 1 or 2 pickup, depending on who is available.
Defensive Tackle – This is not a big need for some fans, but it is for the few that have noticed the absence of Ndamukong Suh. Suh was a 3 technique defensive tackle who excelled as a pass rusher. The Lions desperately need the interior pass rusher back on defense to be competitive. Inside pass rush limits the quarterback’s ability to step up in the pocket as he makes the throw. There are some quality free agent defensive tackles available, but whether or not the cost fits the value will determine what the Lions do here. In the draft, there are very few options here.
Tight End – According to Jeff Risdon, the Lions have identified blocking tight end as their biggest offensive need. Watching the team play since the injury to Brandon Pettigrew, it has become obvious that they have not filled that void. They attempted rolling out a 3rd offensive tackle, they have tried signing blocking tight ends, and nothing has worked. I would expect the Lions to sign a quality blocking tight end in free agency, but I also will not rule out a late round draft choice. I have heard from many draft analysts that this is a very deep tight end class and with the needs the Lions have at the position, drafting one in the late rounds may prove to be in their plans.
Corner – The Lions need a corner. Nevin Lawson is an adequate second corner, but not one I would build a Super Bowl contender around. Lawson though would be an excellent nickel corner. The Lions should target a corner at some point this offseason, but where is the big question. There are many corners in this deep corner draft with skills. The concern is that with the talent level being so high for the position, teams may make a run at the position early in the draft leaving the talent level dry starting in round 3. The free agent class for corners is pretty good as well, with some top name talent as well as a few mid-cost talent available. This offseason may be one where the Lions draft a corner and sign a corner, especially with how long corners take to develop. This is one of the key positions to watch as I expect a new addition to the team at this position before the offseason ends.
The final needs I want to address are safety, wide receiver, and running back. These positions are minimum level needs. The Lions need a strong and free safety. I dont expect that the Lions will ever move Miles Killebrew into a starter role because he was great in a “box safety” role for them. Tavon Wilson was adequate, but could be upgraded. Free safety is set at starter for now with Glover Quin, but the team needs to draft a young safety to groom behind him. Quin is a very intelligent player and the team will need to replace him eventually. The best time to get his replacement is while he is still there to teach the young guy how the position is played. Wide receiver is a wild card position. The Lions need a deep threat, and they need a slot guy. Anquan Boldin played well as a slot receiver and would be a nice player to re-sign. The question though is whether the Lions want to sink any money into the receiver position given how much is committed to Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. I would expect some low level free agent signings at this position and no activity at the position in the draft given how few quality receivers are available in the draft. Running back is a deep position and Bob Quinn admitted he would upgrade the position if he can. While the Lions do have Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick under contract, I would not be surprised to see them draft a running back. I do not think it would happen in the first or second rounds, but in the third or fourth it could be a possibility, depending on who is on the board. The free agent running back class is average, but the cost may be too much for what they could get, especially with running backs having a low average career.
In closing, the Lions have quite a few needs to be addressed. Not all of these will be addressed this offseason. I expect that Quinn will target the defensive line and linebackers first, tight end second, and all other positions depending on availability, cost, and value. Do not be surprised to see the Lions target multiple defensive linemen early in the draft just like he did on the offensive line last offseason. He appears to like to build in the trenches and the Lions have some holes on the defensive line that could be plugged early in the draft. If he can add a starter at linebacker, blocking tight end, defensive end and defensive tackle, I think he will be satisfied with his work this offseason.