Thoughts on Day 1 of NFL free agency: Troy Hill makes sense for Lions; Patriots splurge

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Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
·8 min read
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A few thoughts to wrap up Day 1 of free agency:

• What is Bill Belichick doing?

The New England Patriots broke character in a big way Monday to become the NFL's biggest spenders in free agency. They signed tight end Jonnu Smith, pass rusher Matt Judon and wide receiver Nelson Agholor among six new faces, and while I like some of the players they added (Smith, Judon and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, in particular), the reality is big forays into free agency rarely work.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick  takes questions before the joint practice on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Allen Park.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick takes questions before the joint practice on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Allen Park.

I get it. The Patriots were the NFL's premier team for two decades, and last year's 7-9 season was tough to take (especially since Tom Brady won the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). And, yes, New England was one of a handful of teams brimming with cap space.

Still, Monday's flurry of moves were tough to watch, like an old boxer swinging wildly for one last title fight, knowing he can't make it to Round 12.

The Patriots, for my money, are still the second- or third-best team in the AFC East and the only way to get back to the top is to draft better and/or nail the quarterback position.

• Jamal Agnew's three-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars puts the Lions in line for a sixth-round compensatory pick in 2022, according to OverTheCap.com. The Lions could pile up a few more picks before the negotiating period is up - for losing Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Jarrad Davis and Matt Prater - though they ultimately may give some back with their own free agent signings.

It's been a while since the Lions have had a compensatory draft pick, and there is a fine line teams playing the comp pick game need to walk. The Lions, for instance, still need starters at linebacker, slot cornerback, safety and receiver, and at some point signing serviceable players for now outweighs hoping for the payoff of a future Day 3 draft pick.

• After missing out on Rams safety John Johnson, who agreed to a three-year deal with the Cleveland Browns, the player I think the Lions should target above all others now is Johnson's old teammate, cornerback Troy Hill.

I don't get the sense that Hill will be the same type of tone-setter that Johnson would have been, but he has staff ties from his five seasons with the Rams and is one of the best options available at the important slot cornerback position.

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Troy Hill (22) signals incomplete pass after breaking up a play to New England Patriots wide receiver Damiere Byrd.
Los Angeles Rams cornerback Troy Hill (22) signals incomplete pass after breaking up a play to New England Patriots wide receiver Damiere Byrd.

The Lions are going to be young in the secondary this fall and need a veteran to help guide them along. There are plenty of options still available at corner and safety. Short of breaking the bank for a player like William Jackson, Shaquill Griffin or Anthony Harris, Hill is the best of the bunch.

• Speaking of Prater ... a lot of fans have assumed he'd be back in Detroit, and he still might. But Prater is the best kicker on the market and might find a multi-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals or another team that the Lions are unwilling to match. There hasn't been much movement in the kicker market yet, but this one is bound to pick up before the new league year opens Wednesday.

Free agency reveals draft failures

Jarrad Davis should have been an eight-year starter at middle linebacker, at least that's what the Detroit Lions hoped when they made him the 21st pick of the 2017 draft.

On Monday, Davis reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the New York Jets, which is good for him in that it gives him a chance to revitalize his career, but bad for the Lions in that, five years later, they are left with nothing from Davis' draft class.

Teez Tabor, the Lions' second-round pick in 2017, is still bouncing around the league but has not played an NFL game in three years. Kenny Golladay, their third-round pick that spring, is expected to sign a big-money deal elsewhere in free agency this week. And Jamal Agnew, a fifth-round pick, is headed to the Jacksonville Jaguars after agreeing to a three-year contract Monday.

LIVE UPDATES: NFL free agency rumor mill and transactions

Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis.
Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the Lions' fourth-round pick in 2017, is the last man standing of what was once a nine-person draft class, and that turnover is a big reason why the Lions are where they are now — rebuilding after another disappointing season.

Five years is a lifetime in the NFL, so roster churn is expected. And to be fair to former general manager Bob Quinn, a coaching change at the end of the 2017 season hastened the departure of some of those picks.

But the Lions have missed on far too many high draft picks over the years, and when players like Davis and Tabor don't pan out, that leaves a huge hole in the roster. (Similarly, the Lions have just one player from their 2016 draft, left tackle Taylor Decker, still under contract.)

All eyes are understandably on free agency this week, but if there is one lesson to be learned from the movement around the league it is that teams that cannot draft and develop players have no chance of succeeding.

[ Ranking Lions' biggest needs entering free agency: Predicting how they fill holes ]

Okwara deal solid for Lions

I generally take a wait-and-see approach to NFL free agency. It's rare players see the end of contracts handed out during the negotiating period, and only slightly more common that the players who sign those deals make significant impacts on their teams.

So forgive me for not breaking out the bubbly over the Detroit Lions' three-year deal with Romeo Okwara, though I do think it is a good move to keep him.

Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara grabs the face mask of Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky during the second half at Ford Field, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020.
Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara grabs the face mask of Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky during the second half at Ford Field, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020.

Okwara was the Lions' best pass rusher last season, and at 26 years old in June, is in the prime of his career.

NFL Network shared some financial details of the contract (I'll do a full post on the rest when they become available): A $14 million signing bonus, $26 million the first two seasons with $20 million of that fully guaranteed.

That's a nice chunk of change of change for a player who went undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2016 and, three years ago, could have been had by anyone on the waiver wire. Bob Quinn claimed him, in what was arguably the best move of his tenure as GM, and the Lions are still reaping the rewards.

Okwara had 7.5 sacks in 15 games in his first season in Detroit in 2018, but when I studied the film of those sacks, most were of the coverage variety. Fast forward to last season, and Okwara was making plays all on his own.

I don't know if he has another 10-sack season in him, but he is a valuable four-down player (though maybe he plays fewer special teams snaps now that the team is fully invested in him) and the best pass rusher on the Lions roster.

We'll see if the Lions continue to use him as a hand-down defensive end or a stand-up rusher in new coordinator Aaron Glenn's scheme, and while I'm still lukewarm on the Lions' front seven, Okwara and a healthy Trey Flowers can be a nice duo up front for a rebuilding defense.

MOVES: Lions re-sign LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cut OL Joe Dahl

Lions in on John Johnson

Update: The Browns are reportedly signing Johnson to a three-year deal worth $33.8 million.

CBS Sports listed four teams as being in the market for Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson — the Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns — and the Lions' inclusion on the list should come as no great surprise.

Johnson, as I wrote previously, makes sense as the Lions' No. 1 target in free agency. He's a very good player, would fill a major need in the secondary and most importantly could be the type of tone-setter Dan Campbell wants for his team and locker room.

Chicago Bears receiver Darnell Mooney tries to run past Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson on Oct. 26, 2020 in Inglewood, Calif.
Chicago Bears receiver Darnell Mooney tries to run past Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson on Oct. 26, 2020 in Inglewood, Calif.

Johnson likely ends up as the highest-paid safety on the market, given that Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye and Justin Simmons were franchised.

The Jaguars and Browns have significantly more cap space than the Lions, and for that reason, can probably give Johnson better terms or structure on his deal. But the cap is so malleable that it should not be an excuse for missing out on any player a team really wants.

Johnson's price might surge beyond where the Lions feel comfortable going, or he may decide one of his other suitors — I'm surprised the Los Angeles Chargers aren't in the mix — is a better fit.

But he remains the best player on the market for a Lions team that should not be making any wild signings if it misses out on Johnson.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions-Romeo Okwara deal looks good; wasted 2017 draft hurts