Better or worse? Evaluating Lions roster after first wave of free agency

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Unlike baseball, where free agency is drawn out over the entirety of MLB's offseason, the NFL's version is a fast and furious frenzy of agreements, with the majority of top players agreeing to contract terms within a week of the market opening. 

The Detroit Lions certainly have been busy the past week. The team has released a couple of starters from last season, orchestrated a pair of trades and signed eight new players.

So as the 2020 roster starts to take shape with the NFL Draft on the horizon, let's look where things are looking better, and worse, for the Lions after the first wave of free agency. 

Quarterback Chase Daniel has a career completion percentage of 68.3.


If you were counting on the Lions to draft a developmental backup to groom behind Matthew Stafford, the addition of Chase Daniel likely squashes those dreams, and there are about 5 million reasons why. That’s the dollar amount guaranteed to Daniel over the next three years. Daniel has a $2 million cap hit for 20. Admitting the signing was a mistake and cutting him this year would cause that hit to jump to $5 million. Basically, not happening.

There’s no question Daniel is better than David Blough, the undrafted rookie who went winless in five starts last season. He understandably struggled when thrust into the fire, especially after playing for a different team during the preseason, and Daniel’s resume is further bolstered by his experience. We’re not talking about the equal amount of starts the veteran has as Blough over his 10-year career, but the knowledge Daniel gained working with the likes of Sean Payton, Drew Brees and Andy Reid, in various schemes. A massive component of a backup QB’s job is how they help the starter prepare during the week, and Daniel has a more-seasoned set of eyes to assist Stafford.

If pressed into action, Daniel is a decent placeholder in a pinch. He plays it safe, with a lot of short throws, but that’s led to a completion percentage of 68.3% during his career. Blough was at 54% last year.

Is Daniel better than Jeff Driskel? That’s a more difficult question to answer. Driskel offered a different skill set, able to make impressive plays with his feet. That’s not Daniel’s game. Still, all factors considered, Daniel’s experience is the trump card in this conversation.

► ROSTER STATUS: Slightly improved

Wide receiver

The Lions made their key free agency move at wide receiver a few weeks back when they agreed to bring back Danny Amendola for another season. That move makes sense. Despite his advanced age, by NFL standards, he was productive in his first season with the Lions. Plus, he epitomizes the culture coach Matt Patricia is still working toward implementing. 

The problem at receiver remains the uncertainty beyond next season. Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, last year’s deep threat Marvin Hall and Amendola are all on expiring deals. This draft is ripe with talent, and there’s an expectation the Lions will address their long-term needs there, but until they do, that’s a bird in the bush, not the hand.

► ROSTER STATUS: Holding steady

Running back

The running back market has been one of the slowest to develop, so there’s still a chance the Lions address the position in the second wave of free agency. So far, not only has the team not made any additions, but they opted not to tender restricted free agent J.D. McKissic, who signed with Washington.

McKissic was a role player, but the former college slot receiver brought a diverse skill set with his pass-catching ability. Kerryon Johnson can do a lot in the receiving game, but he’s not as polished as McKissic as a route runner.

On the whole, the group looks decent on paper, given the way Bo Scarbrough came on down the stretch. Still, there are durability concerns with both him and Johnson. We simply cannot discount the pursuit of an upgrade in the coming weeks, whether it comes via free agency or the draft.

► ROSTER STATUS: Slightly worse

Tight end

McKissic wasn’t the only member from last year’s roster to sign with Washington. The nation's capital also will be the new home for tight end Logan Thomas, who was Detroit’s third option last year, and arguably the team’s most consistent blocker.

It’s possible the Lions lean on the development of second-year players T.J. Hockenson and Isaac Nauta, but we can’t rule out the addition of a block-first tight end before the offseason program begins.

► ROSTER STATUS: Slightly worse

Offensive line

Offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai likely will start at right tackle for the Lions.

The Lions are in the midst of a pretty aggressive makeover of the right side of the line. It started with the release of Rick Wagner, a justifiable move given his declining play and inflated salary. Instead of going back into the market and paying top dollar to the best option available, Jack Conklin, general manager Bob Quinn went shopping in the next tier, landing Philadelphia backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who brings decent experience, positional flexibility and well-regarded upside.

On top of that, the price tag looks reasonable with $5.4 million, $10.4 million and $8.4 million cap hits in the first three years. And while Vaitai has played both left tackle and guard, it’s looking safe to slot him at right tackle, where he figures to be a big upgrade over Wagner as a run blocker.

But that improvement is lessened by Detroit’s guard situation. As expect, the team let Graham Glasgow walk, leaving a massive hole along the interior of the line. Glasgow wasn’t an All-Pro or even a Pro Bowler, but he was an above-average, well-rounded, durable player.

There are still some veteran options on the market who can fill the gap without much of a drop-off, but the draft looks like the best spot to fill the need after the Lions added an extra third-round pick this week.

► ROSTER STATUS: Moderately worse

Edge rusher

One of the most surprising moves made the Lions this past week was releasing Devon Kennard, a two-year captain who played more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps each of the past two years. He wasn’t an impact player, by any means, but he was steady and reliable on the edge, producing seven sacks in both 2018 and 2019.

Kennard’s release came a day after the Lions reached an agreement with former Patriots standout Jamie Collins on a three-year contract. This isn’t a one-for-one replacement, in term’s of usage, but Collins figures to take up a good chunk of those snaps on the edge.

As an edge rusher, Collins is far more efficient. In 2019, Kennard was tasked to rush the quarterback on 436 passing plays, where he generated 43 pressures (9.9 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. Collins, meanwhile, generated 33 pressures, but only rushed the passer 194 times (17.0 percent).

Kennard, meanwhile, with an extra 15 pounds on his frame, is a better edge-setting run defender.

As for how the rotation is flushed out, it remains to be seen. Romeo Okwara is likely to maintain a prominent role, while last year’s fourth-round pick Austin Bryant could see increased reps after dealing with injury much of his rookie season. Linebackers Jahlani Tavai and Christian Jones also figure to see some work along the line. Finally, the draft remains a possibility for help, but outside of Chase Young slipping to the No. 3 pick, it’s difficult to bank on consistent production from a rookie.

► ROSTER STATUS: Slightly improved

Defensive tackle

The Lions seem to have a new offseason tradition of remaking a position group. Two years ago, it was running back, and last season it was tight ends. This year, defensive tackle is getting the overhaul.

Gone are Damon Harrison, cut after a disappointing, injury-riddled season. And A’Shawn Robinson, who got a sizable three-year deal from the Rams. Mike Daniels is still on the market, but after multiple foot injuries sapping his playing time and production during his first season with the Lions a year ago, another go-around seems unlikely.

The Lions already have signed two interior replacements to pair with holdover Da’Shawn Hand. Danny Shelton will fill Harrison’s role as the run-stuffing nose tackle. A former first-round pick, the 345-pounder has been a solid run-stuffer throughout his career, plus the contract is about a third of Harrison’s last deal with Detroit.

The second addition is Nick Williams, a relative unknown who is coming off an impressive audition as an injury fill-in with the Bears last year. Another solid run-stuffing lineman, he found some success as a pass-rusher last year, recording six sacks with good hand play, angles and hustle.

The Lions desperately lacked pressure up the middle last season. The team’s defensive tackles combined for just 4.5 sacks in 2019. Williams and Shelton should provide a modest boost in that department, without a drop-off in playing the run.

► ROSTER STATUS: Slightly improved

Linebacker Jamie Collins (58) has spent parts of five seasons in New England.


In addition to getting after the quarterback off the edge, Collins will see some time off the ball, as well. In his two stints with the Patriots, he’s thrived in coverage. In 2019, he was targeted 32 times, but opponents only mustered 175 yards and no touchdowns on those plays. Collins, meanwhile, intercepted a trio of passes, bringing his career total to 12.

► ROSTER STATUS: Slightly improved


The big move the Lions made at safety wasn’t a signing, but a trade, swapping Day 3 picks with the Patriots in exchange for Duron Harmon. Long used as a third safety in New England, where he played at least 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, he not only gives Detroit another versatile back-end defender, but one who thrives in coverage. That’s a far different strength than Tavon Wilson, the man he’ll effectively replace.

Harmon is at his best as a center fielder, showing excellent range, instincts and ball skills throughout his seven-year career. He’s recorded 10 interceptions over the past three seasons and his eight picks in the fourth quarter of games since 2015 are the most of any defender in the league.

In addition to Harmon, the Lions also added Jayron Kearse, who was effective in limited playing time for the Vikings last season as a hybrid safety and slot corner. He provides good depth and should have an impact on special teams.

► ROSTER STATUS: Moderately improved


No roster change figures to be more jarring than the departure of Darius Slay. Not wanting to meet his contract demands, the Lions shipped out the three-time Pro Bowler to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a pair of draft picks.

It took the Lions a long time to find a shutdown corner of Slay’s caliber. The working assumption is the team will use their first-round pick on Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah to fill the void. We’ll just have to wait and see if that plays out as expected.

In the meantime, the Lions found a respectable short-term solution, signing free agent Desmond Trufant. A former first-round pick who has spent his entire career with Atlanta, he had four interceptions (and zero penalties) in an injury-shortened 2019 season.  

Detroit also added some nickel depth, inking Tony McRae to a one-year deal. Primarily a special teamer in Cincinnati a year ago, he’ll push Jamal Agnew to be the next man up behind starter Justin Coleman.

► ROSTER STATUS: Moderately worse

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers