Be cautious, as you should with the Lions. Be cynical, if you wish, about more ex-Pats coming to town. But don’t underestimate the impact of these pickups, because on a busy, busy day, GM Bob Quinn boldly addressed many of the team’s pressing needs.
This was decisive and impressive, as far as offseason deals go, arguably the biggest free-agent haul in Lions history. On the first day teams could legally talk to players, the Lions did more than talk. They landed four players, three in their primes (25 and younger), and displayed the aggressiveness and urgency we’ve been waiting to see, while plucking guys that fit their plan.
Contracts can’t be official until Wednesday, but the Lions picked up the most-coveted pass-rusher available, New England’s Trey Flowers. They landed Seattle’s Justin Coleman with the biggest contract ever given a slot cornerback. They nabbed a nifty slot receiver in former Patriot Danny Amendola. And they agreed to terms with 6-7 Steelers tight end Jesse James, who’s only 24. No, the Lions didn’t pull off any robberies, but they did something more important — they found good players willing to take their money.
If nothing else, it chills one narrative about the Lions, in their fourth season under Quinn and second season under Matt Patricia. The no-nonsense “Patriot Way,” as practiced by the Lions, didn’t scare away top free-agents. And without busting the bank on any individual, they fortified a defense that showed signs of improvement under Patricia.
You’re allowed to be encouraged by that, while still being discouraged by the Lions’ 6-10 record and dubious history. You’re allowed to demand playoff contention now, and if Quinn is feeling the pressure to deliver, good. Last offseason was tame, and the Lions missed out on some free-agent targets. Armed with more salary-cap space (10th-most in the league), they cashed in quickly Monday, and set themselves up to be more calculating (and less desperate) in the April draft.
Lengthy to-do list
Do they still need pass-rushers and defensive playmakers? Of course. But they don’t have to feel compelled to take one at No. 8.
Do they still need another tight end and more offensive playmakers? Of course. But they’re far less likely to make fans shriek by taking a tight end at No. 8.
Does Matthew Stafford still need more weapons? Sure. But it can’t just be about propping him up with flashy options. Building a staunch defense and running game are suitable plans too.
I know, I know. The cautionary tale never changes: March dollars don’t necessarily produce playoff flowers. But they produced Flowers, 25, an impact edge rusher who will sign for about what was projected — a reported $80 million over five years. Flowers was considered the top defensive end available and the No. 1 free agent on some lists, partly because he comes without the drama of someone such as Le’Veon Bell.
Flowers had a decent total of 21 sacks the past three seasons in New England, but that defense — previously manned by Patricia — is more about moving pieces than spotlighting one player. During the Patriots’ Super Bowl run last season, Flowers led the team with 7.5 sacks (plus two more in the playoffs), and ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in quarterback hits and hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
Flowers won’t be as much of a pass-rushing terror as Ziggy Ansah could be, but Ansah couldn’t stay healthy and the Lions moved on. There are some obvious common threads in the Lions’ acquisitions — versatility, toughness and familiarity with Patricia.
Even Coleman, 25, has a Patriots connection, and the Lions were willing to overpay ($36 million, four years) to get him. He played two seasons on Patricia’s defense in New England before heading to Seattle. And of course Amendola, 33, had a five-year run with the Patriots, and will get about $5 million on a one-year deal.
Amendola essentially takes Golden Tate’s spot in the slot, and will cost considerably less than the former Lion, now a free agent. Also of note is Amendola’s reputation as a solid team guy, more likely to fit as Patricia tries to radically alter the Lions’ culture.
We can chuckle about the influx of ex-Pats, from Quinn to Patricia to all sorts of plug-in players, and the jokes are out there. The Lions have become the Used England Patriots, or the Pattycats, or the Midwest Minutemen.
It does give you pause. Bill Belichick didn’t ante up to keep some of these guys, and he doesn’t make many dumb personnel decisions. But the Patriots also don’t overpay for anyone, and the Lions don’t have much of a choice.
The Lions certainly upgraded their talent depth, as active and proactive as any team Monday. Almost as important, they continued to upgrade their “buy-in” depth, as Quinn collected more players who have proven they can handle Patricia’s demanding system. There was whispered grumbling during a grueling training camp last summer, and discontent was evident quickly in the opener, that tidy 48-17 loss to Jets.
Some players adjusted, and so did Patricia. More players are on the way, players more likely to know what to expect. Quinn hinted during the NFL combine the Lions would be active in free-agency because they know what they want and what they need.
“We’re trying to get guys that are versatile players that are gonna have to learn more than one position,” Quinn said last month. “An NFL resume is huge, and you got plenty of tape against NFL competition. That’s a safer bet than drafting anybody from the first round down to the seventh.”
If possible, the Lions just showed they can be safe and bold at the same time. On a wild day, they made their moves, and although results still must be seen on the field, at least it appeared they knew what they were doing.