Detroit Lions free agency preview: Defense
This is the second in a two-part series assessing the Detroit Lions' position-by-position situation heading into free agency. Today we'll look at the defense, following our first part, on the offense. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 11. The signing period opens March 13 at 4 p.m.
► Under contract: Romeo Okwara, Devon Kennard, Eric Lee, Mitchell Loewen, Jonathan Wynn
► Lions free agents: Ziggy Ansah, Eli Harold
► Best available: Trey Flowers, Shaquil Barret, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, Dante Fowler Jr., Henry Anderson
The Lions need help in the pass-rushing department. Bringing back Okwara on a reasonable-priced two-year deal was sensible, but the team's sack leader from 2018 doesn't solve the overall lack of pocket pressure that plagued the defense a year ago.
There's a general assumption the Lions will make a play for Flowers. He's young (25), productive and a scheme fit, having played his first three seasons in Matt Patricia's defense. But with a marketplace always thirsty for edge help, Flowers' price tag could reach the $16-18 million per year range.
The two Smiths, Za'Darius and Preston, also both bring pass-rush prowess to the table, with Preston having the longer limbs, but Za'Darius steadily improving production.
It's also been reported the Chiefs will soon release Justin Houston after not finding a trade partner. He would have carried cap hits of $15.5 million and $17.5 million the next two years as a trade chip, but, at 30, should come cheaper on the open market. He remains one of the league's most productive pocket disrupters, despite failing to record double-digit sacks since he racked up 22.0 in 2014.
If the Lions are bargain hunting, and willing to go outside their preferred body type, Markus Golden carries some intrigue. He's two years removed from a 12.5-sack season while playing in a 3-4 defense.
► Under contract: Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, Da’Shawn Hand, John Atkins, Jarron Jones
► Lions free agents: Ricky Jean Francois, Kerry Hyder
► Best available: Grady Jarrett, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Christian Covington, Michael Pierce (RFA)
What a difference a year makes. Last offseason, the interior of Detroit's defensive line was a weakness, but general manager Bob Quinn hit a pair of home runs, drafting Hand and trading for Harrison. Now, the unit is arguably Detroit's greatest strength.
Harrison, Robinson and Hand are all capable of playing heavy snap counts, but the team still needs a fourth man for the rotation. A low-cost, short-term contract with an experienced veteran is the likeliest option, and bringing back Francois is a realistic possibility.
► Under contract: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew, Steve Longa, Trevor Bates, Tre Williams, Garrett Dooley
► Lions free agents: Kelvin Sheppard, Nicholas Grigsby
► Best available: K.J. Wright, Anthony Barr, Jordan Hicks, C.J. Mosley, Denzel Perryman
Davis continues to make steady progress in his development and should continue to hold down the middle of Detroit's defense, while Jones, a free-agent addition from a year ago, was solid in the weakside role and is under contract with a reasonable $4.2 million cap hit in 2019.
The depth isn't anything to write home about, but Reeves-Maybin, Killebrew and Longa are all solid special teams contributors, and you can never have enough of those.
It's conceivable the Lions will look to upgrade Jones with a more consistent playmaker, either via the draft or free agency, but they'd want to make that decision sooner than later with a $300,000 roster bonus coming due.
In free agency, the more likely option is cheap depth with potential. Reeves-Maybin remains an awkward scheme fit, Killebrew hasn't played a down at linebacker since changing positions last offseason, Longa is coming back from a serious injury and Bates' status is up in the air after his off-field issues this offseason.
Deone Bucannon, once the prime example of the league embracing hybrid players, is coming off his worst season after Arizona shifted to a 4-3 defense. He could come as a cheap, reclamation project who offers serious versatility.
Jake Ryan, the former Michigan standout, has a good frame and plenty of special teams experience. But like Longa, Ryan will be coming back from an ACL tear.
► Under contract: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Michael Ford, Quandre Diggs, Tracy Walker, Tavon Wilson, Charles Washington, Andre Chachere, David Jones, Dee Virgin
► Lions free agents: Glover Quin, DeShawn Shead, Marcus Cooper
► Best available: Landon Collins, Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Adrian Amos, Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, Bradley Roby, Steven Nelson
This is a prime area for the Lions to use their cap space. Despite Quinn's vote of confidence for Tabor, and Lawson remaining under contract another year, the Lions are in desperate need for a corner who makes more plays on the ball opposite Slay.
Darby would be the easy choice if his health was more certain. He's broken up 54 passes in 46 career games. But again, we're talking about a player coming off an ACL tear, with this one occurring in November. That puts him on track to be ready for the start of the season, but no offseason program while transitioning to a new team is added risk.
Pierre Desir and Nelson are other options. Desir, out of tiny Linwood College, finally showed signs of getting production from his skill set last season, while Nelson is young and battle tested, having experience outside and in the slot.
If the Lions want to address the nickel spot, Callahan, 27, is the top long-term option. He's steadily improved each of his four seasons in Chicago. If the team prefers a stopgap, it's worth checking the price tag on Kareem Jackson, who offers some inside-outside flexibility and is coming off a year where he broke up a career-high 17 passes.
The Lions have been reportedly linked to Collins, but spending big on a safety doesn't make much sense given the promising development of Walker, a third-round pick from a year ago.