Lions defensive free agency preview: Will Detroit pay up if Darius Slay is traded?

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — After previewing the offense earlier this week, we turn our attention to the defense for the second part of our Detroit Lions free agency preview.

As a reminder, the negotiating period begins on March 16 and free agents are able to sign with new teams at 4 p.m. on March 18.  

Vinny Curry

Edge

Lions under contract: Trey Flowers, Devon Kennard, Romeo Okwara, Austin Bryant, Jonathan Wynn

Lions free agents: None

Top of the market: Jadeveon Clowney, Shaq Barrett, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler Jr., Matthew Judon, Bud Dupree

Players to watch: Vinny Curry, Ronald Blair, Emmanuel Ogbah

Thoughts: Quarterback pressure is a subjective statistic, but for every analytics site that has a measure, the Lions rank near the bottom of the NFL. And if you can't pressure the quarterback, in this pass-happy era with consistently improving quarterback play, your defense is going to get picked apart. 

Opposing quarterbacks had more time to throw against the Lions than any other defense in 2019 and the results were a league-worst 284 passing yards against with an opposing passer rating just under 100. 

The Lions have decent starters, but they need more juice from their edge rushers. Trey Flowers figures to be a franchise cornerstone for years to come, while Devon Kennard, who matched his career-high with 7.0 sacks last season, is entering the final year of his contract. The depth is concerning, with Romeo Okwara a non-factor a year after leading the team in sacks and rookie Austin Bryant limited to 133 snaps because of injury. 

The top of the market is loaded with edge-rushing talent, but most of those options are expected to get the franchise tag. And Fowler, who had 11.5 sacks and 67 pressures in 2019, could command a contract in the ballpark of $15 million per year. That's a tough ask for Detroit after giving Flowers a similar deal last offseason. 

Curry represents a more re reasonable option. After bottoming out during a short stint in Tampa Bay, he rediscovered his productivity returning to Philadelphia last season, tallying 41 pressures in rotational duty. 

Blair, meanwhile, is an upside option. He only played 200 snaps as part of San Francisco's dominant defensive front, but showed some rushing prowess, registering pressure on nine percent of his passing down reps.

Shelby Harris

Defensive tackle

Lions under contract: Da'Shawn Hand, Kevin Strong, John Atkins, Frank Herron, Olive Sagapolu

Lions free agents: Mike Daniels, A'Shawn Robinson, Jamie Meder, Darius Kilgo

Top of the market: Chris Jones, Javon Hargrave, D.J. Reader, Leonard Williams, Arik Armstead

Players to watch: Reader, Shelby Harris, Andrew Billings, Gerald McCoy

Thoughts: After cutting Damon Harrison, there's not a bigger need on Detroit's roster than defensive tackle. Hand is back to lead the rotation, but his durability woes make him a massive question mark. 

It would be surprising if the Lions didn't use a healthy chunk of cap space on the position in the early stages of free agency. Hargrave and Reader will both be big-ticket items, but could make sense. Each is a run-stuffer first, but both bring some ability as pocket disrupters in passing situations. 

Harris is a little bit older, turning 29 this year, but is coming off a year where he recorded a career-high 6.0 sacks for the Broncos while continuing to be steady in run support, while the 6-foot-1, 325-pound Billings plays a similar style to Reader, but is expected to have a cheaper price tag. 

McCoy is an intriguing possibility, as well. Picked one spot after Ndamukong Suh in the 2011 draft, McCoy is starting to see his production naturally decline at 32 years old. Still, he's more productive than most interior defenders. Like Mike Daniels a year ago, the Lions could afford to pay a hefty price for a one-year rental to stabilize the position with a strong veteran presence.

Durability is less of concern than it was with Daniels. McCoy has appeared in 75 of 80 possible regular-season games the past five seasons. 

Linebacker

Lions under contract: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Steve Longa, Jason Cabinda, Anthony Pittman, Christian Sam

Lions free agents: None

Top of the market: Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins

Players to watch: Collins, Tyler Matakevich, Nick Kwiatkoski

Thoughts: Detroit certainly doesn't need bodies at linebacker. The team is returning everyone from last year, locking up Jones with an extension in November, before he could become a free agent. 

But it's not difficult to make an argument the Lions need more talent at linebacker. Plus, Jarrad Davis' long-term future is uncertain. The team still has a decision whether to pick up his fifth-year option, which would give him a significant raise in 2021. 

Collins gets a mention because of his past working relationship with Lions coach Matt Patricia. Returning to New England last year, the do-everything linebacker got his career back on track, intercepting three passes, forcing four fumbles and racking up 7.0 sacks. 

As for Matakevich and Kwiatkoski, they're outstanding special teamers. In the latter's case, he also showed he has the potential to be a quality starter last season, performing well as an injury fill-in for Danny Trevathan.  

Byron Jones

Cornerback

Lions under contract: Darius Slay, Justin Coleman, Amani Oruwariye, Jamal Agnew, Michael Jackson

Lions free agents: Rashaan Melvin, Mike Ford (exclusive rights), Dee Virgin (exclusive rights)

Top of the market: Byron Jones, Chris Harris, Logan Ryan, Trae Waynes, Kendall Fuller

Players to watch: Jones, Harris, Darqueze Dennard

Thoughts: Slay remains on the trade block, and if he's dealt, the Lions will need to pony up for a viable replacement. Speculation has tied the team to Jones, in part because of how well the Cowboys corner fits in Detroit's man-heavy scheme.

Jones isn't the same type of playmaker as Slay, but he's sticky in coverage and does a good job limiting the production of his assignments. At 27 years old, and widely considered the best at his position on the market, the contract could be massive. It shouldn't surprise anyone if Jones ends up the highest-paid cornerback in football, by annual average salary. 

As for Harris, the Lions made overtures at the trade deadline last year. The risk, as the team is similarly weighing with Slay, is giving significant money to an older defensive back. Harris' production dipped a bit last year, and at 31 years old, that trend might not reverse. 

Adrian Phillips

Safety

Lions under contract: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, C.J. Moore, A.J. Howard

Lions free agents: Tavon Wilson, Miles Killebrew

Top of the market: Justin Simmons, Antony Harris, Devin McCourty, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Tre Boston

Players to watch: Wilson, Adrian Phillips, Andrew Sendejo 

Thoughts: The resources invested into a safety will largely depend on the franchise's internal evaluation of Harris. Thrust into a big role last season after the team traded Quandre Diggs, Harris went through some predictable rookie struggles. Relying on him to make a massive developmental jump would be a calculated risk. 

That's why, at the very least, bringing back Wilson makes sense. Beyond providing a veteran voice in a room otherwise loaded with young players, he's a versatile and reliable back-end defender who has often been Detroit's best run-supporting defensive backs. 

If the Lions want to invest a little more capital to improve the position, Phillips would be a nice pull. He missed extensive time with a broken arm last season, but the former Texas Longhorn is a chess piece that can line up deep, in the box or handle man coverage assignments from the slot. 

Oh, and he's a top-tier special teams performer who was a first-team All-Pro in 2018.