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Coming off a positive second season, Brad Holmes and the Detroit Lions are building something special in Detroit. With a huge chunk of the roster improving and a great culture, the Lions should be a big free-agent destination this coming offseason. However, before they bring anyone in, they will need to decide which in-house free agents they should bring back. Here is how they should prioritize their free agents this offseason.
In-house free agents that need to return in 2023
With a career year in 2022, Jamaal Williams will be due for a big raise in free agency. He rushed for 1000 yards and a Lions' record 17 touchdowns. With D'Andre Swift‘s injury history, the Lions would be wise to invest in a reliable 1B. Williams is a great power compliment to Swift's receiving prowess, and if Swift is out, Williams can step in as the bell cow. Plus, he has played at least 13 games in every season and has relatively low wear on his body due to splitting carries.
Williams is a good player on the field, but in the locker room, he is absolutely elite. From his Hard Knocks speech or postgame Week 17 speech, it is clear that Williams is the emotional leader of the locker room. His authenticity and toughness perfectly embody the Lions' culture, and it is evident why Dan Campbell loves him. From a leadership standpoint, the Lions simply cannot afford to let Williams walk out the door.
After being a late addition to the team, Isaiah Buggs also emerged as a leader on this team. After Tracy Walker's injury, the defense needed a new leader to emerge, and Buggs stepped up big time. Buggs counting stats were very pedestrian on the season, but that underscores his effect on the game. At nose tackle, Buggs played well against the run and was a huge part of the Lions improvement against the run in the second half of the year.
His play also allowed Alim McNeill to slide from nose tackle to a 3-technique. Playing McNeill at the 3-tech, allowed him to shine and led to his huge game against the Giants. Buggs is a solid player who allows his teammates to be better and is a leader in the locker room. At his expected price tag, it should be a no-brainer to bring him back.
Alex Anzalone was a player fans were dying to replace at the start of the year, but he did a good job dispelling the notion. Anzalone was not amazing or an All-Pro player, but he was steady and solid. Against the run, Anzalone showed strong play for most of the year and tackled a lot better in 2022.
Another area where Anzalone showed growth was as a blitzer. The Lions blitzed a lot on 3rd down, and Anzalone did a good job pressuring and rushing quarterbacks. A great example was his pressure on Aaron Rodgers in Week 17 leading to Kerby Joseph‘s interception. The Lions could still use an upgrade at linebacker, but bringing back Anzalone makes a lot of sense for 2023. He is a steady player who leads the defense and provides a steady force for the young linebackers on the roster.
Like Buggs, John Cominsky was added late in the offseason, but that did not stop him from being an impact player for the Lions defense. The fourth-year player had a career year in Detroit as he racked up 4 sacks and 12 QB hits. PFF credited him with 32 hurries as well. These numbers are all almost triple his previous career highs on only a slight increase in playing time.
Cominsky fits really well in this scheme as a big end who can also play at tackle. The Lions don't have much depth up front, so it makes a ton of sense for the Lions to bring back a good player and a superb scheme fit. Luckily for the Lions, he knows it is a perfect fit here and wants to be back in 2023.
Technically, Evan Brown is a reserve on the interior of the offensive line, but in the last two years, he has stepped into starting roles and held down the fort. In 2021, he started a large chunk of the year with Frank Ragnow exiting with a foot injury. The next year, Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed the entire season with a back injury requiring Brown to step in again. A natural center, Brown played well in 2021. The Lions missed having a star in Ragnow, but Brown performed at a starter level. Brown is a little undersized at guard and not quite as good, but he still played admirably at the new position.
In 2023, the Lions will need depth on their offensive line. Ragnow is battling an injury on the same foot. Back injuries are always unpredictable at guard, and Vaitai could be a cut candidate this offseason. If something did happen on the interior, Brown has proven that he could step in, and the offensive line won't miss a beat.
The offensive line is the heartbeat of the Lions' explosive offense, so it is important to keep that group running well. The only caveat with Brown is that a team could try and poach him with a big raise and a guaranteed starting spot. If no one does, it would be wise for the Lions to pony up and pay their top reserve as a solid insurance policy.
All stats via Pro Football Reference