The Detroit Lions have a major need for talent at every position with the exception of kicker, punter, and quarterback (debatable depending on your belief in Jake Ruddock as a backup). After fielding a historically awful defense in 2016, it’s no surprise there isn’t a single position group on that side of the ball that doesn’t need at least a starter or two. With a bottom tier offensive line returning just three players, no running game to speak of, pass catchers that can’t catch, and a “special” return specialist, GM Bob Quinn can sign bodies just about anywhere and improve the team.
With almost 40 million dollars in cap space, the Lions will have the flexibility to add some pieces but can’t afford to pay premium dollar for midrange or aging talent. Extensions to key players are in line, Matthew Stafford among the most important, and tough decisions will need to be made on guys like Ziggy Ansah. Cap dollars go fast and Detroit must spend wisely to supplement a team that should be building from the draft. These are the free agents that should be firmly on the Lions radar.
1. Zach Brown (27), LB – Buffalo Bills
The Lions haven’t had an impact player at middle linebacker since Stephen Tulloch discount double checked his way out of Detroit. With a highly questionable DeAndre Levy seemingly far removed from his ‘fear the beard’ days and a whole lotta blah elsewhere, the team needs second level playmakers.
Zach Brown is a 250-pound linebacker with wide receiver speed. Not many track stars are NFL linebackers but Brown breaks the mold with aplomb. Coming off a season with 149 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception, there will be plenty of interest but his contract will likely be a bargain down the road. He would become the Lions best coverage linebacker the moment he signed a contract and has the flexibility and athleticism to move outside when necessary. He’s not only the quickest patch to a tattered linebacking unit, but a sensible one as well.
2. Ronald Leary (27), OG – Dallas Cowboys
Detroit is working on a deal with free agent to be Larry Warford but they need insurance if Warford’s price climbs too high. The interior of the Lions offensive line is average at its best and brutal at its worst. They can’t pay everybody but they need to spend on a starting guard.
If it’s not Warford, the Lions should pony up the cash for Ronald Leary provided his cost doesn’t also climb prohibitively high. He has started 47 games for the Cowboys since 2013 but lost his starting job to rookie wonder La’el Collins in 2015. Collins was hurt early in 2016 and the dominant Dallas line might have actually improved with Leary back in. The Cowboys simply have too much of a good thing and that could benefit the Lions. Leary didn’t allow a single sack last season and bullied defenders in the run game, paving the way for Ezekiel Elliot’s monstrous rushing total.
3. Ricky Wagner (27), RT – Baltimore Ravens
Riley Reiff is a free agent and quite frankly has never lived up to expectations in Detroit. Relying on another rookie as a starter on the offensive line is ill-advised and not something Quinn will be eager to do.
At just 27-years-old, Wagner is coming off his second great campaign in three years after rebounding from a sophomore slump accelerated by Lisfranc surgery at the end of 2014. He has elite right tackle potential and is just as nasty in the run game as he is in pass pro – something the Lions are severely lacking. Young and unlikely to break the bank, Wagner could solidify Detroit’s tackle positions to build around for the foreseeable future.
4. Logan Ryan (26), CB – New England Patriots
With so many holes, there’s an argument for everything, but cornerback has to be at the top of Detroit’s offseason priorities. The Lions have just one (1!) corner on the roster that fans should be comfortable with getting extended playing time. Outside of Darius Slay, thy land is barren. <Insert cliched Bob Quinn New England ties reference here.>
Logan Ryan is good. I think. Always be wary of a player’s success under Bill Belichick. It doesn’t always translate, especially if not given a priority to be resigned. Lions fans know the reverse well – look at the shiny new ring on Kyle Van Noy’s finger. *grinds teeth bitterly* Ryan is a young corner trending up at the right time. He can struggle when misused (something I don’t trust this coaching staff to get right at all) but is a very good #2 and I love his support in the run game. With Slay, an underrated run stopper himself, the Lions would have a nice duo of two-way corners. Ryan is likely to get a contract in range with and probably exceeding the next guy on this list, so proceed with caution.
5. Prince Amukamara (27), CB – Jacksonville Jaguars
I said, “thy land is barren!” And when thy land is barren, you throw money at it until the problem goes away. Detroit can’t sign both but if Logan Ryan is too expensive or unwilling to go from Super Bowl to wasteland, there are other options.
Prince Amukamara, former first-round pick of the Giants, has always had the talent but hasn’t always been able to stay on the field. He showed he can play when healthy and after last year’s one-year prove it deal from Jacksonville, he’ll be looking to cash out for a longer contract. This one is all about the money. He makes sense at the right price but if the bidding climbs too high, hard pass. Look for a 4-year contract in the 30 million dollar range with about 10 million in guarantees and some incentives for games played.
Cordarrelle Patterson (25), WR/KR – Minnesota Vikings
Cordarrelle Patterson has disappointed as a receiver, struggling to pick up vast NFL concepts and that could lead to him being a bargain in the free agent market. What he IS, is a dynamic playmaker and one of the most electric return men in the game. Hey, whatever leads to Andre Roberts never touching the ball again in an NFL game is fine by me. Patterson would round out Detroit’s receiving depth with elite speed and bless the Lions with another huge weapon on special teams. He’ll likely be had for a modest contract and I hope it’s the Lions that capitalize.