ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 5-11 season in 2020 and have 18 unrestricted free agents.
The Lions could attempt to make some moves in free agency, but it doesn’t feel like the team will. That’s for a few different reasons, starting with not having that much room to maneuver under the cap considering the contract Jared Goff will bring on and the dead money hit Matthew Stafford’s deal will entail. Plus, this is not a team expected to contend immediately and general manager Brad Holmes has made it clear he’s going to build through the draft. So while Detroit has a lot of holes, don’t expect them to be big players. Figure they’ll make a move or two to help the long-term vision of the roster.
Here’s what to expect from the Lions when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:
Under contract: Matthew Stafford*, Chase Daniel, David Blough
Game plan: Stafford, under contract until the new league year, will be officially traded to the Rams later this month for draft picks and quarterback Jared Goff. The short-term plan is to have Goff be the starter. Everything else -- including whether or not the Lions draft a quarterback next month -- remains on the table. It would be surprising to see Detroit sign a quarterback in free agency, though, even if the Lions were to move on from Daniel at some point to create cap space.
Under contract: D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Nick Bawden (FB).
UFA: Adrian Peterson
Game plan: The Lions should add another running back to complement Swift and compete with Johnson for playing time. That back should not be Peterson, who has said he didn’t want to be in a rebuilding situation. This is a spot where Detroit could try to sign a veteran inexpensively or pick up a rookie for the future. With holes all over the roster, this is not a spot to spend.
Under contract: Quintez Cephus, Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden (futures), Tom Kennedy (futures)
UFA: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Mohamed Sanu, Jamal Agnew
Game plan: This room is going to look almost totally different next season -- and still has one major question with Golladay’s potential franchise tag. Jones and Amendola seem unlikely to return. Detroit could try to bring back Sanu, but that’s not a long-term fix. Agnew is intriguing because if the new staff believes he can develop as a receiver, they also would have their returner. A player like Josh Reynolds could be a nice fit here both for his familiarity with Goff and Holmes from Los Angeles. Curtis Samuel, at age 25, would be an interesting long-term play for Detroit, but he might cost more than the Lions would be willing to spend with a deep receiver class in the draft.
Under contract: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Hunter Bryant, Alize Mack (futures), Hunter Thedford (futures)
Game plan: If the Lions decide to stick with James throughout, it feels like the Lions wouldn’t add much to this group. Maybe a vet to compete for the No. 2/No. 3 role. If the Lions move on from James, a potential cap cut, then it’s a possibility to see an addition here. There’s not an exciting free agent group beyond the top handful of players -- none of whom would make sense in Detroit with Hockenson in a potentially starring role. Gerald Everett (Los Angeles Rams) has the Holmes connection but could receive more money and opportunity elsewhere.
Under contract: Taylor Decker (LT), Jonah Jackson (LG), Frank Ragnow (C), Joe Dahl (G/C), Halapoulivaati Vaitai (G/T), Tyrell Crosby (OT), Logan Stenberg (OG), Russell Bodine (C), Evan Brown (C – futures).
UFA: Oday Aboushi
Game plan: Questions remain on the right side with Vaitai and Crosby. Adding an inexpensive veteran could make sense, although this could come later once Detroit sees the progress of Stenberg from his rookie year and Bodine from his opt-out season. Depending what a player like Dan Feeney, who was with offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn in Los Angeles, would command, he could be a fit. But this position isn’t a huge need at the moment. Matt Nelson, as an exclusive rights free agent, should return.
Under contract: Austin Bryant, Trey Flowers, Julian Okwara, John Penisini, Danny Shelton, Kevin Strong, Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, Jashon Cornell, John Atkins, Joel Heath (futures), Robert McCray (futures)
UFA: Romeo Okwara, Everson Griffen
Game plan: Bringing back Griffen wouldn’t make sense. Okwara would -- if Detroit is willing to pay him what could be a good amount of money at age 26. That’s investing in him as a future building block as much as what he could give Detroit now. This is a group that could still see a big overhaul if Shelton and Williams are let go. Sheldon Rankins and Trey Hendrickson -- both of whom have New Orleans ties to Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn -- would be sensible but might cost too much. Isaac Rochell, who was with the Chargers, could be an intriguing tackle option depending what Glenn wants out of his linemen. Detroit’s first priority, though, is making a decision on Okwara.
Under contract: Jamie Collins, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman (futures).
UFA: Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Reggie Ragland
Game plan: The Lions need a lot here. There’s a chance you could see Davis or Reeves-Maybin back with the Lions. Davis would seem to be at a smaller salary if it happens and Reeves-Maybin could be role-dependent as one of Detroit’s top special teams players. It’s tough to gauge the price, but a player like Alex Anzalone (New Orleans) or Samson Ebukam (Rams) could make sense if they hit the market. Matt Milano (Buffalo) could also be an option but likely could cost too much money.
Under contract: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Justin Coleman, Desmond Trufant
UFA: Darryl Roberts, Tony McRae
Game plan: The Lions might do very little here if they choose to keep Coleman and Trufant -- both potential salary cap cuts. Mike Ford is a restricted free agent so there’s a decision there, too, due to his special teams ability. If the Rams don’t tender Darious Williams as a restricted free agent, he’s a player both Holmes and new cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant know. He flourished with Los Angeles the past two years.
Under contract: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, C.J. Moore, Bobby Price, Jalen Elliott (futures), Godwin Igwebuike (futures)
UFA: Duron Harmon, Miles Killebrew
Game plan: The Lions’ new staff has familiarity with two of the top safeties out there -- John Johnson (Rams) and Marcus Williams (Saints). Both are also 25, so signing one to a long deal to help Detroit through the transition would make some sense. If the Lions’ new staff believes in Walker as a free safety -- where he was quite good in 2019 -- maybe Johnson becomes the player to go after since he’s more of a strong safety. Of course, Johnson has to make it to free agency first.
Under contract: Matthew Wright (K – futures)
UFA: Matt Prater (Kicker); Don Muhlbach (Long snapper)
Game plan: Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox is a lock to return as an exclusive rights free agent. The Lions could opt to bring back Prater and Muhlbach -- veterans with long, consistent histories. With Stafford in Los Angeles, if either Prater or Muhlbach return they will be the last players from the Lions' Martin Mayhew era on the roster. Detroit could look to younger options at both spots, although the veteran market at kicker is not great.