Rogers: Lions bolster O-line, need playmakers on ‘D’

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — With much of the heavy lifting done in free agency, here are some thoughts following the Detroit Lions’ moves.

Building a wall

Who would have thought the Lions could lose both Riley Reiff and Larry Warford and come away with a better offensive line on paper? Not only that, the team is spending less money on its current setup. By any measureable, from annual average salary to guaranteed money to cap hits, the Lions are better off with newcomers Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang than the team would have been if it matched the offers Warford and Reiff got on the open market.

T.J. Lang (right) is part of a Lions offensive line revamped through free agency.

While there’s a sense of urgency to improve the run game, and Detroit did that to an extent, there should be a more noticeable difference is in the team’s pass protection. The unit already made strides in that area last season, ranking in the middle of the pack in pressure and sacks allowed, but Wagner and Lang are among the best at their positions in keeping rushers from hassling their quarterback. Combine that with the addition of tight end Darren Fells, one of the league’s premier pass-blocking tight ends, and Matthew Stafford should have more room and time to operate.

Linebacker Paul Worrilow (55) should help replace DeAndre Levy, who was released by the Lions.

Linebacker situation

While the upgrades along the offensive line were somewhat unexpected, the abrupt release of linebacker DeAndre Levy was the most surprising move last week. The Lions linebacking corps already lacked depth and playmaking ability, so moving on from Levy shows how little confidence the team had in his ability to return to form, despite public proclamations to the contrary in recent months.

Enter Paul Worrilow, who many thought of as a depth option when news of his signing first came down. The leading tackler in Atlanta three straight seasons before losing his starting job last year, he is best suited to man the middle, but also feels comfortable playing on the weakside, Levy’s old position.

And Worrilow’s salary, $3 million for one season, suggests the Lions expect him to log some serious defensive snaps in 2017. Still, this is a position the team really needs to bolster via the draft.

Cornerback D.J. Hayden (25) could step in right away as the Lions’ new nickel back.

A new nickel?

The Lions also gave a considerable sum to cornerback D.J. Hayden, the former first-round pick who never came close to living up to expectations in Oakland. That said, he’s coming off his best season, a campaign where he spent most of his time covering the slot.

Here’s a staggering comparison: Detroit’s nickel back, Quandre Diggs, gave up 34 receptions on 38 throws his direction last year. Hayden allowed 31 grabs on 59 targets. Obviously, there are other factors to take into consideration, including scheme, but that’s a big difference in coverage.

One area where Hayden needs to improve if he’s going to win the battle for the job is penalties. He was flagged 12 times last year.

‘D’ help still needed

General manager Bob Quinn said the Lions needed defensive playmakers, but he hasn’t scored an obvious one in free agency. Hayden has the potential to improve the back end, but he’s recorded only three interceptions in four seasons.

The two defensive linemen signed the team — Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington — have combined for 8 1/2 sacks and zero forced fumbles in 87 games. That doesn’t scream impact.

The Lions struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers last season. It’s looking like they’ll be relying on the draft to find help here.

Clayton: Lions among biggest winners in free agency

What happens with Laken

With Lang in the mix, it looks like it might be the end of the line for Laken Tomlinson, the team’s first-round pick in 2015. But don’t be surprised if he’s still with the team through next season.

That’s because his cap hit would be bigger ($3.45 million) if the cut him than if they kept him ($2.33 million). Now, if Detroit can find a trade partner and unload Tomlinson for even a late-round draft pick, it would essentially be a cap-neutral move.

If Tomlinson sticks around, he’ll get an opportunity to compete for the starting left guard job he held much of the past two years. But he’d need one heck of a training camp to unseat Graham Glasgow, at this point.

Cap situation

Lang’s contract details aren’t in yet, so we’re left to estimate how much space the Lions have remaining. By designating Levy’s release as a June 1 cut, the franchise opted to split his dead money cap hit over two seasons.

A safe estimate is the Lions have between $14-16 million remaining. Remember, the team will need to save some for its draft class. OverTheCap estimates the Lions’ seven picks will cost $6.2 million in 2017. But since only the top 51 contracts count against the cap during the offseason, the hit will be closer to $2 million.

Also, it must be noted that Quinn likes to leave a buffer. Last year, even after signing wide receiver Anquan Boldin right before training camp, and working out long-term extensions with Darius Slay, Theo Riddick and Sam Martin, the Lions carried over $4.7 million in unused cap space.

All that to say, the team is probably done with big-money signings. But there’s still some room to add a mid-tier guy or two, similar to Worrilow or Boldin.