Lions don’t have to reach in draft after free-agent success

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Vita Vea

Orlando, Fla. – Slowly but surely, throughout free agency, the Detroit Lions have addressed the team’s roster holes.

The biggest move actually came before free agency opened, when the Lions slapped the franchise tag on defensive end Ziggy Ansah. In the time since, the team re-signed eight of its own players with expiring contracts and added 10 new names to the roster.

General manager Bob Quinn continued to fill out the depth chart this week, inking linebacker Jonathan Freeney, tight end Levine Toilolo and center Wesley Johnson. None of those moves are going to move the needle with the fanbase, but as the draft nears, the Lions have done an effective job creating a situation where they don’t have to reach to fill obvious needs.

“Yeah, you want to really build your team, you know, through the offseason, to go into the draft without a ton of needs,” Quinn said at the league meeting earlier this week. “Now, you want to get younger, obviously, at different positions, but to really lock yourself into getting a starter, or getting three starters, going into the draft is really hard.”

A number of the moves the Lions have made have been short-term commitments, one-year deals to serve as stopgaps. So there are still plenty of long-term concerns to address in the draft.

The Lions will enter the event with six selections, tied for the fewest in the league. Quinn said he “absolutely” would like to add more picks, but also noted fulfilling that desire is easier said than done.

Considering the moves the team has made, and the current state of the roster, here’s a reassessment of the team’s biggest needs heading into the draft.

1. Guard: Travis Swanson remains a free agent, but there’s been no sign the Lions are interested in bringing him back. That means Graham Glasgow is destined to shift to center, leaving an opening at left guard. The team signed free agents Kenny Wiggins and Johnson, who will compete with Joe Dahl for the job, but adding another legitimate contender in the draft would make all the sense in the world.

2. Defensive tackle: Sylvester Williams is a prime example of this offseason’s stopgap additions. The former first-round pick inked a one-year deal with the club that will pay him $3.5 million in 2018. That’s a quality short-term solution, but the team could use a long-term option to play the nose tackle position in Matt Patricia’s multiple front, or even a penetrating 3-tech who could be an upgrade over Akeem Spence. No one should be surprised if the Lions go with an interior lineman in the first round, with Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne, Maurice Hurst and Taven Bryan all carrying appeal.

3. Tight end: The Lions dumped Eric Ebron and saw Darren Fells depart in favor of a three-year deal in Cleveland, leaving a significant void. The team filled it with Luke Willson, an athletic option who has the potential to outproduce what he’s done in the NFL thus far, and Toilolo, a big-bodied blocker who more closely mirrors Fells’ skill set. Second-year man Michael Roberts should also help make up some of the production lost with Ebron’s departure, but there’s no doubt the Lions could use more talent at this spot.

4. Running back:LeGarrette Blount is just what the doctor ordered, a hulking 250-pounder with the ability to pound across the line to gain in short-yardage situations. But he’s also on a one-year deal and will be 32 years old by season’s end. Additionally, Ameer Abdullah is also in the final year of his rookie contract. The Lions can get by with their current rotation, but with a deep class of running back prospects, this is a good year to secure the team’s future at the position.

5. Defensive end: Ansah’s return is a temporary solution, but either he continues to be plagued by injuries and inconsistency or has a resurgence, sending his value sky-high. Both scenarios decrease the likelihood he’s with the Lions in 2019. Beyond Ansah, the Lions have a decent rotation. Anthony Zettel blossomed in his second season and should continue the upward trajectory, Cornelius Washington is a steady run stopper, and Kerry Hyder, the team’s sack leader from 2016, is due back from a torn Achilles. If he’s anywhere close to the same player he was before the injury, it will be a big boost to a pass rush that was anemic at times last season. That said, you can never have enough players capable of pressuring the quarterback, so if the Lions can land a prospect capable of doing it consistently, even situationally, the team would be wise to pull the trigger.