Detroit still needs to address this offseason, but for the first time in a long time, the Lions have stability at a number of positions — so where does Brad Holmes need to upgrade this team this offseason?
Each offseason gives teams an opportunity to update and reinvent the team for the upcoming season. For some teams, it’s about making wholesale changes in an attempt to get themselves moving in the right direction. For others, the changes are more subtle and concentrated—a tweak here and a tweak there in the hopes of getting the formula right just right for championship match.
It’s been a while since the Detroit Lions found themselves this close to contending for a division title and playoff success, and general manager Brad Holmes deserves a lot of credit for putting this team in this position. Entering his third offseason, Holmes has hit high in the draft with top picks like Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson, and he’s put together an impressive collection of Day 3 finds in Amon-Ra St. Brown, Malcolm Rodriguez and James Houston . In free agency, Holmes has stuck to short-term contracts for players looking to earn a payday on their next deal. While results on the field have been mixed in terms of player performance, Holmes’ wise decisions have at least allowed him to maintain flexibility and maneuverability.
After trading Matthew Stafford in 2021 and TJ Hockenson at the trade deadline last year, the Lions have five picks among the top 81 picks in this year’s NFL Draft, including picks No. 6 and 18 overall. Michael Brockers was recently cut by the team, giving them $10 million in cap relief this offseason and bringing their total cap space to roughly $26 million. There will likely be other moves internally to see that number increase, whether it’s the case of more loss-making injuries like Brocker’s or restructuring deals to provide cap space in the here and now, paving the way for the Lions to make some moves once free agency begins again a couple of weeks.
This brings us to today’s question…
What are the Detroit Lions’ biggest needs this offseason?
Offense is clearly the strength of the Detroit Lions entering this offseason. In 2022, the Lions offense ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, posting the fifth-best points-for-average (26.6) despite being shut out in Week 5 against New England.
Despite the offense moving in the right direction, especially with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson staying in Detroit, the Lions still have some spots to shore up offensively, namely the right guard spot. Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed the entire 2022 season with a back injury that required surgery, and for a player who turns 30 before the start of the 2023 season, Vaitai may well end up being cut in an effort to free up over $6 million in cap space. Evan Brown provided replacement-level play at best in Vaitai’s absence, but he seems best suited to be a reliable depth piece in the middle.
But for a team that ranked 28th in team defense DVOA and gave up the fifth-most points per game (25.1) a season ago, the Lions’ biggest need is definitely on the defensive side of the ball.
Erik Schlitt reminded me last Saturday that the Lions have signed the following interior defensive linemen to their roster: Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike and Demetrius Taylor. Isaiah Buggs figures to be a priority free agent for the Lions, considering only McNeill has any meaningful NFL track record of any of the currently signed defensive linemen. To add to that, not only did Buggs emerge as the leader of this defense, but his consistent play coincided with the Lions’ defensive improvements in the second half. But even if the team re-signs Buggs, the Lions shouldn’t shy away from upgrading the spot next to McNeill. Buggs playing in a rotational role as the first lineman off the bench would be a way to raise the talent level on the field for more plays each game.
The linebacker position was sparked by the surprising play of Malcolm Rodriguez who plateaued a bit – in part due to injury – in the middle of the season, but the highlights of his rookie season seem to be indicative of where his ceiling lies. Alex Anzalone made marked improvements in his second year with Detroit, and the veteran linebacker confirmed that there have already been talks with the team about a reunion in 2023. Again, much like the situation with Buggs, Anzalone would be a useful depth/situational piece for this defense, but an improvement at that spot would be huge for a defense that struggled mightily against the run (second-worst, 5.2 YPC), and was porous against even slightly mobile quarterbacks.
Where the Lions absolutely need to upgrade this offseason is at cornerback, and it’s easy to see why. Detroit has a tough decision to make with Jeff Okudah and his player option for the 2024 season. Last season, Okudah looked like one of the best cornerbacks to defend the run in the NFL, sound in coverage at times, but letdowns down the stretch, including a second-half benching against the Carolina Panthers, could leave the team with Chase Lucas as their only cornerback signed beyond 2023.
Cornerback is a premium position in the NFL, and the quality of play on the edge is what can really set a defense apart in today’s league. Detroit’s current starters — Okudah and Jerry Jacobs — on the outside aren’t signed beyond this year, and both could be seriously upgraded, so it’s no surprise to hear people peg Jalen Ramsey to the Lions, or see so many draft picks using both picks 6 or 18 to draft Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez or Joey Porter Jr.