Lions mock offseason v3.0: Pre-combine edition
With the NFL scouting combine coming in a few short days and more players around the league finding their way to free agency before that period even begins in mid-March, it’s time to roll out the latest Detroit Lions mock offseason.
More than just a mock draft, the mock offseason incorporates internal roster moves and free agent signings and departures. It provides a more complete context for the decisions in the draft and free agency as they work in tandem to build up the Lions.
This edition goes heavier on the defensive spending in free agency, which allows for more draft capital to help keep the offense humming along for years to come.
Lions mock offseason v1.0: Kicking off the offseason options
Lions mock offseason v2.0: Post-Senior Bowl edition
A reminder that each of these mock offseasons represents a potential path Lions GM Brad Holmes and the team can follow, not a recommendation or endorsement of any course of action. It’s not a prediction either, just a look at how the Lions might approach the offseason.
Lions free agents to re-sign
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Entering the weekend before the 2023 scouting combine, the Lions have about $20 million in cap room to spend. That includes the monies freed up by terminating the contract of Michael Brockers and the signing of CB Mac McCain.
The keepers amongst the Lions’ own unrestricted free agents:
DL John Cominsky, granting his wish to remain in Detroit.
NT Isaiah Buggs
RB Jamaal Williams
LB Josh Woods, for his special teams
K Michael Badgley
S DeShon Elliott
CB Mike Hughes
Keeping Hughes likely means choosing him over Will Harris. Both CBs played their best ball down the stretch. Hughes provided a real lift on the outside, notably in run defense. As a depth piece, he is deemed more valuable here than Harris, who will sign elsewhere by popular Lions fan demand.
In this scenario, LB Alex Anzalone cashes in on his best season and signs for more money elsewhere. Starting RG Evan Brown does the same, leaving two starting spots open with holes that must be capably filled. DeShon Elliott returns here with the thought that his durability issues keep the market down for the starting safety. There will be other suitors for Elliott, but in this scenario he returns to Detroit.
In a draft class and free agency class where the RB position is absolutely loaded, the Lions let reserve Justin Jackson test the market.
Players under contract to cut/restructure
The Lions already got a head start on this front. Detroit released veteran DL Michael Brockers, a move that frees up $10 million in cap room to spend on free agency in 2023 — with a dead cap hit of $3.9 million to swallow, too.
In this scenario, the Lions get a small boost with the injury-induced retirement of DT Levi Onwuzurike. This potential move would add $1.6 million to the dead cap figure while freeing up just under $600,000 in cap room.
Two holdover moves from the prior mock offseason:
Cutting RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai (saving $16 million over the next two seasons) and FB Jason Cabinda ($2.1 million savings in 2023).
In a change from the last edition, the Lions choose to keep Charles Harris instead of Romeo Okwara as the veteran EDGE presence. The choice frees up $7.5 million in cap room (instead of just over $4 million) but adds $7 million to the dead cap figure.
Free agents to sign
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In this pathway, GM Brad Holmes opts to put more emphasis on adding instant contributors on defense in free agency. One upgraded starter comes at each level of the defense.
First up is CB Jamel Dean, last with the Buccaneers. One of the fastest players in the NFL, Dean has also emerged as one of the best press-man cover CBs in the league. His ability to control the releases of receivers and run hip-to-hip with anyone without requiring over-the-top safety help him are perfect fits in Detroit’s defensive scheme. Dean won’t come cheap, but three years and $42 million — close to fully guaranteed — should land arguably the best CB on the market.
The spending continues at linebacker. While veteran Bobby Wagner is certainly appealing after being cut by the Rams this week, the same amount of money could land a younger player with even better coverage skills. That would be Buffalo’s Tremaine Edmunds.
Edmunds is not yet 25 but already has five years of NFL experience. He’s topped 100 total tackles every season. In his last one with the Bills, Edmunds significantly improved at playing in coverage and at avoiding missed tackles in the run game. He’s a long-term building block, something that’s conceivable the Lions would splurge for at a position where the regime typically doesn’t emphasize on defense. Four years and $52.5 million is steep for an off-ball LB but Edmunds and Malcolm Rodriguez together could be the Lions’ starting LBs for that entire timeframe with little need for more investment.
Up front comes a repeat projection. Viking DT Dalvin Tomlinson looks like a fantastic fit for the Lions as the starting nose tackle. He’s been one of the best run stuffers in the league across different defenses and schemes for years. Still just 28 years old, Tomlinson is coming off his most consistently disruptive season. Signing Tomlinson for two years and $20 million, as well as bringing back Buggs as his primary reserve, means the Lions don’t need to spend high draft capital on a non-premium position like DT, not with the emergence of young Alim McNeill as the 3T down the stretch.
Detroit also must add a veteran reserve QB, what with Jared Goff being the only signal caller on the entire roster as the offseason begins. We laid out several options earlier this offseason. In this instance, the Lions choose ex-Cowboys QB Cooper Rush.
This action doesn’t leave much room to add more than lower-level players who can add depth with some upside to outplay expectations. Two that fit the bill and get signed here:
Rams LB Travin Howard, who missed almost all of 2022 with a hip injury after playing a more significant role in his first two seasons. He’s a Brad Holmes-era draft pick with the Rams (7th round 2018) and a hybrid S/LB that can run.
You might recall Howard’s shining NFL moment:
#Rams are re-signing LB Travin Howard to a 1-year deal, per @Schultz_Report
They recently released him from his previous contract to make some cap space room for extensions for Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp, but now he's back on a different deal.pic.twitter.com/shOvWUa2Wj
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) June 14, 2022
Browns OG Hjalte Froholdt could be (could!) the replacement for the man who he once replaced in Cleveland, free agent Evan Brown. Froholdt doesn’t have Brown’s range but he’s proven capable of filling in at either guard or center and being an asset in the run game.
NFL draft, first round
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The rule here is straightforward. I run three different draft simulators (PFF, Fanspeak, PFN) and if the player is available for the Lions’ picks at No. 6 and No. 18 on two of the three, they’re eligible to get picked. It’s not perfect, but it adds some realism to the projection.
No. 6 overall: Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Gonzalez brings length, athleticism, pure sprinter speed and some scheme diversity to the starting outside CB position. He’s a high-end prospect that offers more potential with his size and speed than Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon, who was also available. I think Witherspoon is a better player right now, but I can see why the Lions would opt for Gonzalez too,
Of note: I really wanted to take a QB here after the way free agency played out. But the only one of the top four QBs (Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, Will Levis) that met the above qualification was Levis, and I don’t believe the Lions have that level of interest in Levis.
No. 18: We have a trade!
The Lions accept a trade from the New York Giants, who are moving up from No. 25 in order to select USC WR Jordan Addison.
Lions get No. 25 overall, No. 89 overall in the third round and No. 254 overall in the seventh round.
Detroit sends back No. 18 overall and No. 194 overall in the sixth round to New York.
At 25, the Lions select Pittsburgh DT Calijah Kancey
Kancey is very undersized, listed at six feet tall and 280 pounds. But he’s also far and away the most accomplished interior pass rusher in the draft. In Detroit, he’s a pass rush specialist who pushes Alim McNeill into the NT spot on passing downs and adds serious juice to the pass rush. Kancey and his high-motor style can also play the DE spot in odd-man fronts (both three and five DL), something Lions DC Aaron Glenn might mix in more of in 2023.
It’s something of a luxury pick to take a role player in the first round, but that’s why having the extra pick and the free agency class signed here are so important. The trade back gives Detroit better value and an extra pick, too.
Rest of the draft
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No. 48: Daiyan Henley, LB, Washington State
No. 55: Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA
No. 81: Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa
No. 89: Nick Broeker, OG, Ole Miss
No. 154: Michael Wilson, WR, Stanford
No. 183: Clayton Tune, QB, Houston
No. 254: Andre Szmyt, K, Syracuse
The first four players taken here can all be starters in 2024. Broeker sure looked ready to start in Detroit right away at RG during Senior Bowl week with his balance and athleticism. Wilson and Tune are reserves with some upside. Szmyt is the top kicker in the draft after overcoming issues with some truly awful holding and snapping at Syracuse during part of his career.