News & Analysis

Detroit Lions 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Lions players huddles before a play against the Saints during the first half at Ford Field on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. 10042020 Detroit Lions huddle

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Detroit Lions are next, and they've already made their biggest move of the offseason. Not only will they enter the 2021 season with a new coaching staff and front office, but they’ll also enter next year without Matthew Stafford, their starting quarterback since he was taken at the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Stafford now leads the Los Angeles Rams' offense, while Jared Goff takes over in Detroit — ushering in what many expect to be a rebuilding season.

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There is some talent on this roster, though. Detroit must decide how to prioritize its limited cap space and which direction it wants to go with the five top-105 picks at the franchise's disposal in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): –$9,025,122 (9th lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 7, 41, 72, 89, 103, 137

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Jared Goff 21 / 32 $28.2 million
RB D’Andre Swift 39 / 70 $1.9 million
WR ?
WR Quintez Cephus 86 / 127 $0.9 million
WR ?
TE T.J. Hockenson 11 / 71 $5.6 million
LT Taylor Decker 9 / 38 $4.9 million
LG Jonah Jackson 32 / 39 $1.1 million
C Frank Ragnow 3 / 37 $3.7 million
RG ?
RT ?

This offense could look very different in 2021 from the 2020 group. Beyond the coaching change of Anthony Lynn stepping in as offensive coordinator and Goff replacing Matthew Stafford at quarterback, each of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola are free agents this offseason. There are no guarantees that any of the three will be back on new deals — or the franchise tag, in Golladay's case. That leaves Cephus and 2020 opt-out Geronimo Allison as the only viable wide receivers under contract. The position could very well be Detroit’s biggest need heading into the offseason. 

The other area of need — assuming Goff is who Detroit wants to start at quarterback — pops up on the right side of the offensive line. Decker, Jackson and Ragnow seem secure in their jobs from left tackle to center, but the same can’t be said for right guard and tackle. 

Halapoulivaati Vaitai signed a five-year, $45 million contract with Detroit last offseason, and he should have a role at one of the spots given that the Lions would incur a dead cap hit of nearly $15 million if they released him. Vaitai played 282 snaps at right guard (64.9 PFF grade) and 168 snaps at right tackle (52.8 PFF grade) in his first year with the Lions. It’s hard to say at this point where Detroit sees him next year. 

Oday Aboushi played the most snaps of any Lions offensive lineman at right guard last season, and he is set to hit free agency in several weeks. Tyrell Crosby will be back under contract in 2021 after earning a 64.2 PFF grade on 657 snaps at right tackle last season.  

Can Jared Goff be successful in this offense outside of Sean McVay’s system?

There is a reason that Detroit was able to get the return it did for Matthew Stafford. Part of the package from Los Angeles — a 2021 third-round pick in addition to 2022 and 2023 first-round selections — was to offload Goff’s contract. Now, all signs point to Goff starting next season in Detroit, and things could certainly be worse. 

Goff has shown he can perform like a top-10 quarterback if in the right environment. In those situations, you can see why he was taken first overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. 

Across the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Goff’s 83.9 PFF grade ranked 11th among all quarterbacks. However, he took a step back these past two seasons with a decline in offensive line play and the loss of wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Over the past two years, Goff ranks just 22nd at the position in overall grade.

We’ve seen quarterbacks helped immensely by the McVay-style offense that incorporates a heavy dose of outside zone and play action off the rushing attack. You can expect the Lions to lean on the run game under new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, but it will be a different scheme from what Goff has run over the past four years. 

The Lions have more questions than answers at wide receiver, and while they have the makings of a solid offensive line from left tackle to center, the right side projects as a weakness. Goff’s performance this year in Detroit will help answer the question of whether some of his past success was simply a product of the offense he ran in Los Angeles.  

What do the Lions do with Kenny Golladay?

It's valid to argue that it may not make sense for a team tight on cap space and on the verge of a rebuild to pay Golladay top-tier wide receiver. The counterargument there is that Golladay is more than capable of being the top pass-catching option in an NFL offense, and he’s a borderline elite receiving threat when comparing him to other wide receivers across the NFL. Rebuilding or not, those are not easy players to find. 

When you add in that the other two starting wide receivers for Detroit in three-wide-receiver sets are also free agents this offseason, it's only another reason to keep Golladay. It makes sense for the Lions to extend him on a multi-year deal that keeps his cap number down in 2021 and see what they have in this offense next year with Goff.  

Is Halapoulivaati Vaitai best suited at right guard instead of right tackle?

As Lions writer Tim Twentyman speculated, recent comments by new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn seem to suggest the team sees Vaitai as a guard rather than a tackle. Lynn said of the offensive line, “Right now I think that’s our deepest unit. We can use a little more depth at tackle, but I like the guys that can play inside.”

Vaitai actually played over 100 more snaps at right guard than he did at right tackle last season, and he saw his grade jump over 10 points at guard. Prior to the 2020 season, Vaitai had played just 45 snaps at guard in his NFL career.

If he does stay inside as the team’s right guard to start next season, then the Lions will have to decide whether to keep Tyrell Crosby at right tackle for another year or look for an upgrade at the position.  

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Kenny Golladay, Sammy Watkins, Jaylen Waddle   

Even if the Lions do bring back Golladay, they will still need to add receivers since both Jones and Amendola are likely gone. 

Watkins could be an option in free agency to play with Goff again at the right price. Injuries have contributed to his limited production in Kansas City the past few years, but Watkins has a track record of being a solid complementary option after showing flashes of elite play in Buffalo. He posted 593 receiving yards and eight touchdowns with Goff and the Rams in 2017. 

Waddle makes some sense for Detroit if the team looks to go with a wide receiver over defense in the first round. He has the speed and quick-twitch ability that scares defenses, and he’s not just a deep threat. Waddle is strong at the catch point and can work over the middle of the field.   

Guard: Oday Aboushi, Germain Ifedi

If Vaitai ends up playing tackle, guard isn’t a position I see Detroit allocating many resources to in either the draft or free agency. Bringing back Aboushi — even just as a depth piece — wouldn’t hurt. His 68.6 PFF grade in 2020 at right guard ranked 12th out of 40 qualifiers at the position. 

If the teams opts to look outside the organization, Ifedi could be a guy who provides solid play for cheap. His 64.8 overall grade at right guard last season — his first at the position after kicking inside from tackle — was a career-high mark. His experience at right tackle would be a bonus when it comes to depth along the line.   

Tackle: Alex Leatherwood, Jalen Mayfield

I could see the Lions looking at a tackle on Day 2 in the 2021 NFL Draft, assuming they don’t target Oregon’s Penei Sewell if he falls to their seventh overall pick. 

Anthony Lynn has already made it clear that he wants the Lions to be able to run the football. Leatherwood is coming off an 85.4 run-blocking grade this past season with Alabama and has the length and strength to move defensive linemen off the ball in the run game. Similarly, Mayfield can hang his hat on his power. He isn’t a finished product by any means, but he could be a guy who Detroit targets should he be on the board when the team is picking in Round 2.  

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI ?
DI John Penisini 119 / 125 $0.8 million
DI ?
EDGE Trey Flowers 9 / 110 $20.0 million
EDGE ?
LB Jamie Collins Sr. 24 / 83 $11.3 million
LB ?
CB Jeffrey Okudah 115 / 121 $7.6 million
CB Amani Oruwariye 100 / 121 $0.9 million
CB ?
S Tracy Walker 57 / 94 $2.4 million
S ?

With Aaron Glenn taking over as defensive coordinator, there will be a shift in defensive philosophy from the Matt Patricia units of the past several years. That'll be a welcome sight; Detroit’s defense ranked 31st in expected points added per play allowed over the past three seasons — beating out only the Las Vegas Raiders. Needless to say, the team's defense needs the most work.

Penisini could draw a starting nod in 2021 at nose tackle if Detroit remains a base 3-4 team. He led all interior defensive linemen on the team in snaps played as a rookie last season (576). Beyond him and Flowers, Detroit will look to upgrade all across their defensive front.

Flowers was off to another strong start last season before going down with injury, and his return will help matters. The other edge position is still somewhat up in the air, though. Romeo Okwara put together a career year in 2020, but that could drive his price up in free agency. His brother, Julian Okwara, is also waiting in the wings after the team took him at the top of the third round in the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Linebacker projects to be one of the bigger needs on Detroit’s roster this offseason. Collins should return given his contract structure, and he was the team’s highest-graded linebacker, at 64.2 overall, last season. Jahlani Tavai and Jarrad Davis were both highly drafted, but neither has lived up to that draft pedigree early in their NFL careers. 

At cornerback, both Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman stand out as cap casualty candidates. That means the younger Okudah and Oruwariye will likely be counted on for significant snaps outside with a starting vacancy in the slot. Walker is the other member of the secondary currently on the roster who projects for a starting role at safety in 2021. The Lions will likely replace Duron Harmon — one of the team’s 2020 starters at the position — as he enters free agency in the coming weeks.      

Who in this defense should Detroit look to build around?

No team wants to be in a situation where it goes position by position and doesn’t find one player it feels confident will produce at a high level in that spot for the next five seasons. That may be where the Lions are defensively, though.

Trey Flowers is the closest thing the Lions have to a guaranteed, high-level contributor following four straight seasons with 80.0-plus PFF grades. However, Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press wrote earlier this month that Flowers' future with the team was murky, citing his contract and fit in Glenn’s new defense. That said, it doesn’t make much sense for Detroit to part with such a quality player along the defensive line without much else in the way of reliable talent.

You can potentially point to Jeffrey Okudah or Tracy Walker because of their age and past performance, but neither is coming off an impressive 2020 season. The Lions need to build this unit from the ground up starting this offseason.

Can Jeffrey Okudah bounce back in his second season?

Okudah had plenty working against him as a rookie, from a shortened offseason to injuries to difficult assignments in Matt Patricia’s defense. Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed with what he put on tape.

Okudah was just about as complete a cornerback prospect as one could ask for coming out of Ohio State. Not only did he have the physical tools, but he also had the performance to back up those tools on the Buckeyes' defense. It was why he ranked third on The Athletic’s Consensus Big Board and fourth overall on PFF’s Big Board

Unfortunately for the Lions, they got the low end of his range of outcomes in his first season with the team. Okudah allowed 579 yards into his coverage on just 251 coverage snaps, the most of any cornerback with at least 200 coverage snaps in the NFL this past season. Aaron Glenn will have to prioritize getting the best out of the Lions’ 2020 first-round pick. The talent is certainly there for a much-improved sophomore campaign next year. 

Does Aaron Glenn push for any of the Saints free agents he worked with this offseason?

Many Saints players won’t be retained given the flurry of moves New Orleans still has to make to get under the 2021 salary cap. Marcus Williams (PFF’s 15th-ranked free agent), Trey Hendrickson (PFF’s 61st-ranked free agent) and Sheldon Rankins (PFF’s 101st-ranked free agent) would all provide a boost to the Lions in 2021 in areas of need. 

The only problem is that the Lions — though not in quite as dire of straits as the Saints — don’t project to have cap space to burn as things stand right now, either. They could potentially work out a deal for one of those players, but they’ll first need to part ways with Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman, Nick Williams and Danny Shelton.

Williams would be the ideal target from that trio given his age, production, familiarity with Glenn and the need for a starting safety next to Tracy Walker due to Duron Harmon hitting free agency.   

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Roy Robertson-Harris, Marvin Wilson

It’s hard to say exactly what Glenn’s defense will look like up front. As all defensive coordinators tend to do, he stressed that Detroit will be multiple in their fronts. I’m working under the assumption that they will be a base 3-4 defense, but their priority inside will likely be guys who can play from 5-technique to 3-technique. 

Robertson-Harris has been a solid rotational piece along the Chicago Bears defensive line in each of the past three seasons, earning PFF grades of 67.0 or higher on over 200 defensive snaps every year since 2018. He has had nearly an even split in snaps lined up over the tackle and snaps inside the tackle in recent years.  

Wilson’s draft stock took a hit in 2020 after a dip in production across six games this past season at Florida State, but he still profiles as one of the better interior defensive linemen in the class. Wilson earned 90.0-plus PFF grades in both 2018 and 2019. He wins with his power.  

Edge defender: Romeo Okwara, Ronnie Perkins

Detroit would probably like Okwara back, but his pass-rushing success this past season did stand out as a massive leap compared to his previous four seasons, which could drive up his next contract enough to price him out of a return.

Perkins is one potential draft target for the Lions. As the PFF Draft Guide points out, Perkins doesn’t have much strength to his game, which could limit him to a designated pass-rushing role. He can have success in that role, though. Perkins has plenty of speed to work with on the edge.

Linebacker: Micah Parsons, Chazz Surratt

Parsons is one of the more frequently mocked prospects to Detroit at the top of the first round, and it’s not difficult to see why. 

PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner wrote prior to the 2020 season that Parsons was the best college linebacker prospect since Boston College's Luke Kuechly. He has rare physical tools combined with the kind of instincts that nearly all great linebackers have. It’s a blue-chip talent meeting an area of need for the Lions. The biggest concern is the value of drafting an off-ball linebacker inside the top 10. 

If the Lions go elsewhere in Round 1, Surratt is a later option who would need some development after switching from quarterback to linebacker at North Carolina. There are plenty of reasons to bet on Surratt’s athleticism and playmaking ability, though. He was an extremely effective blitzer at UNC, with 62 quarterback pressures on just 200 pass-rushing snaps over the past two seasons.  

Cornerback: Gareon Conley, Cameron Sutton, Mackensie Alexander 

Detroit needs help at cornerback, but those reinforcements may have to come on the cheaper side of things given the team's current cap situation and other positional needs.

Conley is one of the more intriguing young free agent cornerbacks after missing the entire 2020 season with an ankle injury. The former first-round pick will likely be looking for his third team at just 25 years old, but there are still reasons to believe he can figure things out in a man-heavy system. 

Conley earned a respectable 68.0 coverage grade after being traded to Houston in 2019. It could be a solid chance on the part of Detroit to add some young competition outside for something resembling the one-year, $2.5 million deal PFF currently projects him for. 

Sutton would provide the Lions some inside-outside versatility. Over the past two seasons with Pittsburgh, he earned an 84.2 overall grade across 411 snaps in the slot and a 70.9 grade in 233 snaps out wide. If the Steelers opt to keep Mike Hilton around, Sutton could be available this offseason. 

Lastly, Alexander would be a slot-only target. He earned coverage grades of at least 64.0 in each of the past three seasons on over 500 defensive snaps. Excluding last year, Alexander has also graded well against the run throughout his career. 

Safety: Marcus Williams, Ar’Darius Washington

If the Lions want to spend big money on a free agent this offseason after clearing some cap room, Williams makes the most sense. Aaron Glenn was Williams’ positional coach across his first four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. More importantly, Williams has been one of the more underrated safeties in the league since being drafted in 2017. He’s a playmaker on the back end who has recorded PFF grades of 89.2, 71.1, 88.2 and 78.6 in his four NFL seasons. 

Washington stands out as one of the bigger values at safety when comparing PFF’s Big Board to some of the other early consensus rankings. Washington is PFF’s second-ranked safety and 42nd-ranked player overall in the class thanks to his instincts. He may be undersized, but he has the skill set to overcome that at the NFL level.   

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