The Detroit Lions, thanks to Matthew Stafford’s wizardry late in games, somehow finished 9-7 and made the playoffs as a wild-card team. They weren’t nearly as good as their record indicated, feasting on lesser competition, but it was a successful season nonetheless.
Now, the Lions’ work is cut out for them. The defense needs attention, their offensive line is in danger of losing two starters, and the running game is almost non-existent. Detroit has $36 million in cap space this year, so there’s room for a big free agent or two in addition to a handful of draft picks. But where should the Lions focus their attention?
Here are five players they should target in free agency.
RB Eddie Lacy (Packers)
The Lions aren’t sure what they’re going to get from their backfield. Ameer Abdullah can’t seem to stay healthy, Theo Riddick is more of a receiving back, and Zach Zenner isn’t a guy who can carry the ball 20 times a game and have success. Lacy, having struggled with weight and injuries the past two years, figures to be a bargain-bin option for any team out there. He’ll be hoping to prove he can keep his weight under control and return to his past self, when he rushed for 1,100 yards in back-to-back years. The Lions need a back on first and second down before giving way to Riddick and Abdullah, assuming both are healthy.
Getty ImagesLeon Halip
LB Perry Riley (Raiders)
Tahir Whitehead has good potential at middle linebacker, but there are several questions about the Lions’ depth outside of him. DeAndre Levy can’t stay healthy, leaving Whitehead as the only reliable cog at linebacker. Riley had a good season with the Raiders after coming over from Washington, and he’d pair well with Whitehead, who’s a speedy linebacker in the middle. Riley seems to be past his struggles in Washington and has turned into a solid starter.
DT Brandon Williams (Ravens)
Williams has only played in a 3-4 with the Ravens, but there’s no doubt he could make the transition to 4-3 defensive tackle in Detroit. He’d come in and play 1-technique for the Lions, giving them a run-stuffing stud in the middle while also providing some pressure from the interior defensive line – something the Lions have struggled to generate since Ndamukong Suh left. Williams is the top defensive tackle on the market, so he won’t be cheap, but with the Lions struggling against the run in 2016, it’s clear they need to shore up the run defense.
DE Andre Branch (Dolphins)
Just about all of the top pass rushers are off the board due to the franchise tag. Jason Pierre-Paul would have been a huge addition, but Branch would be a decent consolation prize at a much, much cheaper price. He had a career year in 2016, recording 49 tackles and 5.5 sacks with two forced fumbles. He’s good against the run and would fit nicely opposite pass-rushing specialist Ziggy Ansah. Signing Branch would allow the Lions to address their many other needs in free agency, too.
CB Logan Ryan (Patriots)
Darius Slay has solidified himself as a No. 1 corner for the Lions. Beyond him, there are question marks. Nevin Lawson is likely to be the other starter, but adding someone like Ryan would give the Lions flexibility in the secondary. He can play both the slot and outside, which is a huge asset for cornerbacks in today’s NFL.
Teams have shifted toward having five defensive backs on the field most of the time, which emphasizes the need to have three starting-caliber corners. Ryan would give the Lions exactly that. It’s also worth noting GM Bob Quinn has ties to New England and was a part of the team’s decision to draft Ryan.
Stew Milne-USA TODAY SportsStew Milne
G Larry Warford (Lions)
The Lions have two pending free agents on the offensive line: Warford and Riley Reiff. Both are valuable, but Warford is coming off his best season since he was a rookie in 2013, and he should be rewarded for returning to top-level form. He was one of the Lions’ most consistent players on offense, proving to be a punishing run blocker while also holding up well in pass protection.