Ranking the Detroit Lions' biggest offseason needs for 2020
Allen Park — With the NFL offseason upon us and free agency a little more than a month away, we thought it would be a good time to evaluate and rank the Detroit Lions' needs.
1. Defensive tackle
A few short months ago, the interior of the defensive line looked like it would be the strength of Detroit's roster. Instead, injuries wreaked havoc on the group and the team now faces a complete rebuild.
A'Shawn Robinson and Mike Daniels are both heading toward free agency, and there's little evidence to suggest re-signing either is in the best interest of the franchise. Robinson performed at a replacement level during his contract year, and even at his best, has been a one-dimensional run-stuffer. And Daniels' body is betraying him. Injuries, primarily to his feet, have limited him to 19 games of subpar production the past two years.
On top of those likely departures, Damon Harrison is strongly considering retirement after a string of injuries prohibited him from performing up to the expectations that landed him a contract extension last offseason.
From their top-four a year ago, that would leave the Lions with Da'Shawn Hand, an undoubtedly talented young player who has battled his own injury woes. He missed 13 games last season with elbow and ankle injuries.
Without a quality defensive tackle rotation, a team's ability to stop the run and push the pocket on passing downs is severely hampered. The Lions got the bare minimum in quarterback pressure from its group in 2019 and the defense's 4.1 yards per carry allowed was decent, but should be better given the emphasis in that department.
2. Interior offensive lineman
Another player from last year's roster set to be a free agent is Graham Glasgow. Despite earning his upcoming raise with consistent performance and durability, the Lions are reluctant to invest big money in the guard position, meaning he's unlikely to return to Detroit in 2020.
Kenny Wiggins, Detroit's top backup the past two years, also has an expiring contract, increasing the size of the void the team must fill. It's possible Beau Benzschawel, an undrafted rookie from a year ago, is ready to plug that backup spot, especially after spending a year working on his ability to play center, but asking him to start is a leap of faith.
Don't anticipate the Lions repeating their 2017 plan, when they let Larry Warford walk in favor of T.J. Lang, another high-priced veteran. Creating a competition between a free-agent bargain with experience, like an Oday Aboushi, and a draft pick, seems like the safer bet.
Regardless of what the Lions end up doing with Darius Slay, cornerback remains near the top of the offseason shopping list. That said, sorting out the Pro Bowler's long-term future with the franchise should be addressed sooner than later.
The latest report, from ESPN, is the team is exploring an extension, but if an agreement can't be reached, Slay will be back on the trading block.
If the Lions did trade Slay, cornerback arguably becomes Detroit's top offseason need. Amani Oruwariye, a fifth-round pick from last year, flashed some potential in limited work at the end of the season, but there was little opportunity to show he was prepared to handle covering top-tier receiving talent.
There's good reason so many early mock draft projections are slotting Ohio State's Jeffrey Okudah to Detroit in the first round.
4. Edge defender
The Lions' starters from a year ago, Trey Flowers and Devon Kennard, were solid, not far from spectacular. Flowers, the prize of last year's free agency class, was as advertised — a fundamentally sound player capable of regularly disrupting the pocket, but light on the ability to rack up sacks. Kennard, meanwhile, made strides with generating pass-rush pressure, but similarly doesn't get home often enough.
Some of that inefficiency is related to Detroit's coverage, and some of it is the lack of interior pressure not funneling opposing quarterbacks into the outside rush lanes. Regardless, a team can never have enough disruption from the edges, and the Lions need more depth pieces that can win their one-on-one matchups against offensive tackles, even if their skill set limits their playing time to obvious passing downs.
5. Offensive tackle
The team's top three offensive tackles remain under contract, but left tackle Taylor Decker is entering the final year of his rookie deal, while right tackle Rick Wagner is a potential cap casualty due to his lofty salary not being in line with his recent performance.
Tyrell Crosby is entering his third season and has been solid as Detroit's swing tackle, adequately backing up both Decker and Wagner. With seven starts under his belt, the Lions likely have a good idea what they have Crosby and could potentially elevate him to a permanent starting job.
Of course, that scenario still would require the Lions to find a reliable backup, given both Decker and Crosby have injury histories.
6. Wide receiver
Detroit's receiving corps were a bright spot in 2019, but there's growing long-term needs at the position with both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are entering the final years of their current deals.
The expectation is the team will do everything it can to retain Golladay, a steadily improving foundational piece who led the NFL in touchdown catches last year. Jones, on the other hand, will be 31 years old in 2021 and has finished the past two seasons on injured reserve. That's a trickier negotiation, given how quickly performance can drop off at that stage of a player's career.
In the slot, the Lions could run it back with Danny Amendola, who provided a workable 62 catches last season. But he's 34 and would be nothing more than a stopgap solution.
Whether it's outside or in the slot, this upcoming draft is loaded with receiving talent. There will be value well beyond the first round, so it's a good year for Detroit to restock its cupboards.
After years of stability, the Lions are in a transition phase at the safety spot. Tracy Walker is still a work in progress, but looks to be the real deal. But outside of him, there's some uncertainty.
The team invested a third-round pick in Will Harris last season and he was thrust into a starting role following the surprising midseason trade of Quandre Diggs. Harris didn't look ready, but how many first-year defensive backs are? The experience, however rocky, should prove beneficial going forward. The Lions are in need of some rapid development from the former Boston College standout.
Another youngster with promise is C.J. Moore. Undrafted a year ago, the special-teams standout was provided a few small tastes on defense and the coaching staff like his potential.
The veteran leader from the room, Tavon Wilson, is a free agent. He's worth bringing back, both because of the example he sets and the versatile role he can play within the defensive scheme. Good luck finding a more instinctive run defender at the position for the cost.
One of the most important parts of special teams, the Lions appear primed to move on from Sam Martin after a seven-year marriage. He was adequate in 2019, statistically bouncing back from a rough two-season stretch, but there are cheaper ways of filling the void.
Detroit always could look to draft a replacement on the third day of the draft. The Lions got a long look at two of the top options at the Senior Bowl in Braden Mann and Joseph Charlton.
The team also signed two options to future contracts, inking Matt Wile and Jack Fox, who each spent time on the practice squad last season. Wile (Michigan) has the leg up in experience, with 90 punts with good numbers on his NFL resume. His 42.3-yard net average is better than all of one of Martin's seven seasons.
The Lions don't need more bodies at linebacker as much as they need better production out of the bodies they've invested in.
Thus far, the team has not gotten a first-round return out of Jarrad Davis. His professional approach is beyond reproach, but he simply hasn't been good enough in any facet of his positional responsibilities. After a strong finish to the 2018 season, he appeared to be on the upswing, but he took a step back last season, potentially due to a serious ankle injury he suffered in the preseason.
Additionally, the team spent a second-round pick on Jahlani Tavai and re-signed Christian Jones to an extension. Because of their size and versatility, both are considered scheme fits. Jones probably is what he is at this point in his career, but there's some real potential with Tavai, who flashed some play-making potential during his rookie season.
10. Running back
Kerryon Johnson's durability remains a serious concern. He's had stints on injured reserve each of his first two seasons and it's fair to ask if he can stay healthy for 16 games. His production also dipped significantly in his second season, but the underlying metrics suggest blocking was the biggest culprit in the drop-off.
The silver lining to Johnson's injury last year was the emergence of Bo Scarbrough. A stylistic contrast, his powerful north-south style meshed well with coordinator Darrell Bevell's play-calling down the stretch, to the tune of 4.2 yards per carry.
Is the room stable enough to pass over potential upgrades in the draft? Absolutely not. As mentioned, there are durability concerns, and Scarbrough's sample size is too small to imply he should be locked into a 2020 role. Additionally, assuming J.D. McKissic doesn't return, there's a clear need for reliable receiving option to add to the mix.
11. Tight end
T.J. Hockenson is the Lions' future at the tight end position. The 2019 first-round pick showed his abilities with a massive debut performance and now has to establish himself as a consistent threat at this level. Taking advantage of the mentorship recently offered by Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez would be a good start.
Beyond Hockenson, the Lions are stuck with Jesse James, at least for another year. A disappointing free-agent addition from a year ago, it would cost $3 million more to cut him than keep him for 2020. Therefore, it's the coaching staff's responsibility to find ways to get him more involved in the offense.
The third tight end spot is up for grabs. The Lions always could look to bring back Logan Thomas, who did well in the role last year. Another option is last year's seventh-round pick, Isaac Nauta. Special teams contributions likely will be a key factor for whoever earns the job.
12. Kicker/long snapper
Matt Prater remains under contract and there's no reason to change things up. The leg strength is still there, after going 7-8 from 50 yards and beyond last season.
As for long snapper, it might be sacrilege to say it aloud, but Don Muhlbach can't play forever. He turns 39 this year, after all. But as long as he feels like he can go, which was what he said after the season, there's no reason for a changing of the guard.