Rogers: Analyzing Lions' free-agency moves and remaining needs
Allen Park — The NFL’s new league year begins Wednesday, and as of 4 p.m., unrestricted free agents can sign with new teams. The Detroit Lions took advantage of the league’s early negotiation period and already secured agreements with several players, checking off a number of items on the team’s offseason shopping list.
Allow me to share some observations on each of the deals the Lions have made before laying out the team’s remaining needs.
►Defensive end Trey Flowers (Five years, $90 million)
The Lions paid huge money to land the top defensive lineman on the market, but if you're going to spend that kind of dough, at least you know you're getting a young, consistent player who is already familiar with your coach and scheme. Those factors remove some of the uncertainty that comes with these types of acquisitions.
You can question the money because Flowers doesn't produce big sack numbers, but being a good edge defender is more than sacks. It's also about pressuring the pocket and playing the run and Flowers is excellent in both facets. His pressures (hits, hurries, sacks) compare favorably with Von Miller and DeMarcus Lawrence. That's exactly what the doctor ordered for a defense that finished 29th in pressure rate in 2018.
►Cornerback Justin Coleman (Four years, $36 million)
Coleman's deal is being touted as the most lucrative for a nickel cornerback in the league, but I doubt the Lions view him through that limited scope.
Yes, he played 90 percent of his snaps in the slot the past two years in Seattle, and did it very well, but prior to being traded to the Seahawks, Coleman had a far more versatile role in New England's defense while playing under Matt Patricia.
A part-time role player, Coleman played closer to two-thirds of his snaps as an outside cornerback for the Patriots. Given the familiarity Patricia has with Coleman in both roles, and the money Detroit is shelling out here, don't expect Coleman to be just a nickel in Detroit.
►Tight end Jesse James (Four years, $22.6 million)
The Lions need all kinds of help at tight end and it's easy to understand why James was a target. In the passing game, he offers a big frame and operates well across the middle, up to depths of 20 yards. His production has been modest, averaging 37 catches and 377 yards over the past three seasons, but he's shown reliable hands, dropping only eight of his 173 targets, including just two each of the past two seasons.
As a blocker, James has the desired frame to handle in-line assignments. No one would call him elite as either a run blocker or pass protector, but he's proven to be consistently above-average in both areas.
Even with James in the fold, and Michael Roberts still under contract, it's a safe bet the Lions further address the position in the draft. More on that in a minute.
►Wide receiver Danny Amendola (One year, $4.5 million)
If the Lions made an underwhelming move this week, this would probably be it. The price tag is reasonable for the production, and Amendola is unquestionably an upgrade from what Detroit trotted out last season after trading Golden Tate, but Amendola is in the twilight of his career, even though he professes to be in the best shape of his life.
The slot receiver has long been an important one for quarterback Matthew Stafford, but maybe it gets de-emphasized by new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. If Amendola gives the Lions 60 catches, 600 yards and moves the chains on half those grabs, the signing was worth it, but it still leaves the Lions with a long-term need.
►Running back Zach Zenner (One year, unknown salary)
Zenner earned an opportunity to be Kerryon Johnson's backfield complement with a strong finish to the 2018 season. After breaking two bones in his back during the preseason, Zenner returned with significantly more muscle on his frame and averaged 4.8 yards per carry down the stretch.
Zenner wastes little time running laterally. He's a north-south runner, which seems to suit the current blocking scheme well. Still, the re-signing shouldn't disqualify the Lions from considering another back in the draft, if value presents itself starting on Day 2.
►Guard Oday Aboushi (One year, up to $2 million)
It's difficult to believe the Lions view Aboushi as a potential starter, to fill the void created by T.J. Lang's release. But, as it currently stands, he'll be in the mix for that job along with Kenny Wiggins and Joe Dahl. There's also a belief Tyrell Crosby will be considered, but until we hear from the team or see Crosby taking guard reps in practice, no one can say for certain last year's swing tackle will kick inside.
Again, the draft seems like a reasonable place to look for an alternative, such as Garrett Bradbury or Chris Lindstrom in the second round.
Holes still to fill
The Lions will probably add a few more smaller pieces in free agency and are currently slated to have nine picks in April's draft. Here's how we'd rank the team's needs after the first wave of free agency.
1. Offensive guard
General manager Bob Quinn has invested too much in his offensive line to let it crumble due to a weak link. Maybe Crosby is the answer, but there's not enough evidence to commit to that idea. It would be better to use an early-round pick to pair with Graham Glasgow and Frank Ragnow at the heart of the unit.
2. Tight end
Adding James was a solid start, but the Lions need to get more production out of the position, especially in the pass game. This is an extraordinarily deep class of athletes and the Lions should easily be able to find a contributor in the first four rounds.
3. Edge rusher
Flowers helps shore up one of the team's biggest weaknesses, but you can never have enough pass rushers. That's why, even with Romeo Okwara and Devon Kennard also under contract, you can't rule out an edge defender with the No. 8 pick.
For example, the team could easily justify taking Montez Sweat or Brian Burns in the first round, playing them as the fourth man in the rotation as a rookie while developing them to take over for Kennard in 2020, when the cap hit is $7.18 million, but the dead money is just $1.75 million.
As noted, Coleman probably isn't going to be just a nickel in Detroit, but there's a high rate of injury in any secondary, so adding quality depth is never a bad idea. Quinn still believes Teez Tabor could develop into that guy, but after last season, it would be unwise to bank on it.
5. Wide receiver
As noted, Amendola is a stopgap. Plus, TJ Jones, last year's fourth option, is a free agent. The Lions could draft and develop an inside-outside option in the middle rounds to form a long-term pairing with Kenny Golladay.
6. Running back
Zenner will always have his supporters in the organization and among the fans, but last year's productivity was a small sample size compared to the largely underwhelming three previous seasons. If he shows capable of building on last season's performance, and stays healthy, he'll deserve the role.
Beyond that, Theo Riddick is entering the final year of his contract. He's both the team's best pass catcher and pass protector at the position. It wouldn't hurt putting an emphasis on those skills when scouting the draft.
The Lions believe Jarrad Davis is turning a corner, and there's little reason to believe he'll be unseated as the team's middle linebacker any time soon. At the weakside spot, Christian Jones is a solid, not spectacular option entering the final year of his contract. There's no urgency to upgrade, but it should be considered if the opportunity arises.
Is Connor Cook the guy you want backing up Stafford? Probably not. Quinn believes it's good business to draft and develop a QB, so expect the Lions to take one at some point.
9. Defensive tackle
One of Detroit's clear strengths, the team is pretty well set at the top of its rotation with Damon Harrison, A'Shawn Robinson and Da'Shawn Hand, who is coming off a fabulous rookie season. While the Lions could use a little more depth, Flowers' and Okwara's ability to slide inside minimizes the immediate need.
Long-term, Robinson is entering the final year of his deal, so we can't totally dismiss the team using an early-round pick on an interior lineman.
Quandre Diggs is locked into one job, and by the looks of it, Tracy Walker is primed to take Glover Quin's snaps. The team also has an experienced veteran in Tavon Wilson, capable of playing in a variety of sub-packages or taking on a bigger role in an injury situation. Sure, there's always room to upgrade, but it's a low priority.
11. Long snapper