With the Super Bowl over and many NFL teams cutting their aging veterans, the 2016 offseason is already underway.
The Lions have been relatively quiet, but with the combine next week, new general manager Bob Quinn and the scouts have plenty of work to do as they prepare to make player acquisitions this offseason.
As always, free agency will play a key role in how the Lions set their draft board. Quinn said he’ll try to mesh need with the best player available in the draft. So if the Lions fill some needs when the new league year begins on March 9, they could look to other spots in the draft.
But, for now, many of the needs are apparent. During their 7-9 season, the Lions showed they have holes at many different positions, whether they need to improve their starter or add better depth. As the team started 1-7 in 2015, the need for improvement along both lines was obvious, but contract situations make other areas pressing, too.
Here are the Lions’ top six positions of need heading into the offseason:
Defensive line: If they aren’t prudent this year, the Lions could feel the pain of their defensive line exodus from last offseason for a second year in a row. Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, the Week 1 starters, are free agents, and even though Caraun Reid and C.J. Wilson can be rotational players, the Lions need more punch on the interior. Defensive end Jason Jones is a free agent, too, and while Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor had breakout seasons in 2015, teams can never have too many good edge rushers.
Offensive tackle: Riley Reiff is a serviceable left tackle, but if there’s a chance to upgrade that premier position in free agency or the draft, the Lions have to do it. And even if the front office decides it’s confident in Reiff at left tackle, the Lions should add a better right tackle. Michael Ola was good in his seven starts, but the Lions saw in 2014 that relying on half a good season (LaAdrian Waddle) can have consequences. A center could be a need, too, based on Travis Swanson’s struggles in 2015.
Safety: The Lions got a considerable bargain when they signed Glover Quin in the 2014 offseason, but for now, his safety partner isn’t under contract. Isa Abdul-Quddus and James Ihedigbo are both free agents. Considering how well Abdul-Quddus played in the second half of the year, he could get some decent offers on the open market, but obviously, he was a fit in the defense. Even if the Lions sign Abdul-Quddus or Ihedigbo, they should still look for another free agent or draft pick.
Linebacker: It seemed like such a pressing need throughout 2015, but with DeAndre Levy coming back to a defense that uses two linebackers the majority of the time, linebacker isn’t the top need. Tahir Whitehead is the marquee free agent from the group, and at a $7.3 million cap hit, Stephen Tulloch might not be back in 2016. In theory, a three-down middle linebacker to play next to Levy is the need here, though the Lions might think Whitehead can handle that role. Besides Levy, Josh Bynes is under contract and can play multiple spots, and the team’s confidence in Kyle Van Noy could impact how many resources go to this position.
Wide receiver: Even before Calvin Johnson was considering retirement, the Lions needed to add a receiver. Lance Moore is a free agent, and even if the Lions re-sign him, there’s no guarantee he can be a No. 3 at age 33. TJ Jones is mostly unproven, and Corey Fuller, an exclusive-right free agent, has struggled. Lots of teams have found productive receivers late in recent drafts, which is the likely scenario, but if Johnson retires, the Lions could look in free agency or early in the draft.
Quarterback: How much the Lions spend on a quarterback likely will depend on Quinn’s evaluation of Matthew Stafford, but with Dan Orlovsky a free agent, they must add someone. The Lions haven’t really had a quarterback to threaten Stafford’s spot atop the depth chart, so if Quinn thinks that’s necessary, perhaps he’ll draft one on Day 2. More likely, the Lions will find a veteran in free agency — even if it’s Orlovsky — and consider Day 3 options.