Lions offensive free agency preview: Intriguing options available
Allen Park — NFL free agency opens next week, with the negotiation window beginning on Monday and players allowed to sign with new clubs at 4 p.m on March 18, coinciding with the official start of a new league year.
The Lions got a jump start on filling a roster need when they re-signed veteran slot receiver Danny Amendola last month. But the team will have plenty of work to do with more than a dozen of its own players hitting the market and several other areas of the roster that need an upgrade after a 3-12-1 season in 2019.
As for cap space, the 2020 salary cap has not been officially set, in part because of the uncertainty of labor talks between the league and the players union. The cap is currently estimated at $200 million, which would give Detroit north of $40 million in space.
The next two days, we'll preview free agency for the Lions, focusing first on the offensive side of the ball.
►Lions under contract: Matthew Stafford, David Blough, Kyle Sloter
► Lions free agents: Jeff Driskel
► Top of the market: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Dak Prescott, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston
► Players to watch: Case Keenum, Mike Glennon, Driskel
► Thoughts: After squashing the out-of-left-field rumor the team was shopping Stafford in trade talks, the Lions are presumably still in the market for a backup after a back injury sidelined the starter the final eight games of the 2019 season.
Blough remains under contract, but after going winless in five starts, where he completed 54.0 percent of his passes with more interceptions than touchdowns, it would be a major risk to count on that setup again this season.
There's a reasonable belief the Lions should draft a quarterback and start developing a long-term replacement plan for Stafford, who recently turned 32. But if the team prefers the stopgap approach, there are a handful of experienced veterans who should come with reasonable price tags, given how top-heavy the position is setting up to be in free agency.
One option is bringing back Driskel, who also went winless in three starts, but showed some promise as a dual-threat option when pressed into action.
Keenum, who played last season in Washington on a $3.5 million salary, might also make sense. He has 62 starts under his belt, has completed 62.4 percent of his passes during his career with 75 touchdowns to 47 interceptions. That would be the most reliable performer the Lions would have had behind Stafford since Shaun Hill.
►Lions under contract: Kerryon Johnson, Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson, Nick Bawden, Wes Hills, Tra Carson
► Lions free agents: J.D. McKissic (restricted)
► Top of the market: Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon, Kenyan Drake
► Players to watch: Jordan Howard, Carlos Hyde, Isaiah Crowell
► Thoughts: Multiple times during his tenure as the team's general manager, Bob Quinn has hit the bargain bin when shopping for running backs. But Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and C.J. Anderson didn't provide the returns on even the modest investments.
Given how quickly production depreciates at the position, it's almost always better to bolster depth through the draft, but it doesn't hurt to explore what the market offers.
Kerryon Johnson still projects as Detroit's starter, while Scarbrough made a strong case to be the top complement in the backfield. But there are some veteran, north-south runners who have longer resumes of accomplishment meriting consideration if the price tags are right.
After a couple down years, Hyde bounced back in Houston last season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in route to a 1,070-yard campaign. He'll turn 30 early in the 2020 season, but he's been relatively durable during his career and played all 16 games last year.
Howard, a former division rival, was limited to 10 games in Philadelphia in 2019. He did average 4.4 yards per carry and continues to offer modest contributions in the passing game, as well.
Crowell is a wild card. He didn't play last year after tearing his Achilles during the offseason. He's only 27, so if the medicals checked out, he could be a high-reward risk for some team. He averaged better than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 4.6 yards per carry from 2016-18.
►Lions under contract: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Marvin Hall, Travis Fulgham, Chris Lacy, Tom Kennedy, Jonathan Duhart, Victor Boldin
► Lions free agents: Jermaine Kearse
► Top of the market: Amari Cooper, A.J. Green, Robbie Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders
► Players to watch: Tajae Sharpe, Paul Richardson
► Thoughts: Again, the draft is probably the better place to address this position, especially given the depth of this year's receiving class.
After re-signing Amendola, the Lions return their top four receivers from a year ago, but none are under contract beyond this season. The quickest long-term solution for the team is to work out an extension for Kenny Golladay.
If the Lions are looking for versatile, veteran depth that shouldn't cost too much there are a handful of options on the market that make sense.
Sharpe leads that group. At 6-foot-2, 194 pounds he's got a decent frame. He's only averaged a little more than 30 catches the three seasons he's played, but he's a good route runner and possesses excellent hands, while working both outside and in the slot.
Richardson, meanwhile, is coming off a disappointing stretch in Washington, but that opens a path to reconnect with his former coordinator in Seattle, Darrell Bevell. Richardson has primarily worked outside in his career, but there's enough slot experience that you can line him up there. His best season came in 2017, with the Seahawks, when he caught 44 balls for 703 yards and six scores.
►Lions under contract: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta, Matt Sokol, Paul Butler
► Lions free agents: Logan Thomas
► Top of the market: Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, Eric Ebron
► Players to watch: Thomas, MyCole Pruitt, Ben Koyack
► Thoughts: There isn't a major need at tight end, but if James doesn't deliver in 2020, the team could easily choose to cut its loses after this season.
Nauta, who got promoted toward the end of last season, is a little on the light side for the position, but showed some versatility, taking reps at fullback. That will help him in his quest to maintain a roster spot.
One area where the Lions could stand to upgrade is blocking. Both Pruitt and Koyack are low-volume options in the pass game, but above-average blockers who won't cost much on the open market.
►Lions under contract: Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Joe Dahl, Rick Wagner, Tyrell Crosby, Beau Benzschawel, Joshua Garnett, Dan Skipper, Casey Tucker, Russell Bodine, Matt Nelson
► Lions free agents: Graham Glasgow, Kenny Wiggins, Oday Aboushi
► Top of the market: Jack Conklin, Anthony Castonzo, Bryan Bulaga, Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney, Glasgow
► Players to watch: Daryl Williams, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Ted Karras
► Thoughts: Barring a late change of heart, no one really expects Glasgow to re-sign with the Lions. Despite checking many boxes the organization likes, from toughness to durability to versatility, the decision-makers don't see good value in committing big money to an interior offensive lineman.
That philosophy probably takes Detroit out of contention for Thuney, as well, who could pace the market at the position this spending period. It might also rule out Karras, who significantly increased his value in a contract year by starting 15 games at center for the Patriots.
Vaitai is also going to cash in, with at least some rumblings he could net a deal averaging double-digit millions per year. But the well-regarded lineman's versatility extends to offensive tackle, where the Lions have some uncertainty with Taylor Decker entering the final year of his rookie contract and Rick Wagner's performance declining.
Williams is interesting because he's still relatively young, turning 28 in September, but he's coming off an inconsistent year. Like Vaitai, Williams is versatile. He started at four different spots for Carolina last year, but he's been at his best at right tackle.
►Lions under contract: Matt Prater, Matt Wile, Jake Fox, James Fisher
► Lions free agents: Don Muhlbach, Sam Martin
► Top of the market: Greg Zuerlein, Ka'imi Fairbairn, Matt Bosher, Laclan Edwards,
► Thoughts: If the Lions don't want to pay Martin, or potentially Muhlbach for that matter, it's because they believe they can secure cheaper alternatives. Maybe that's guys they already have in the roster, like Wile or Fisher, or maybe they are spots the team will address with rookies. Either way, don't look for the Lions to open the checkbook for top specialists.