- The Lions worked out safety Stefan McClure on Thursday, as Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com tweets. Two of the Lions’ safeties, Don Carey and Rolan Milligan, are on the physically unable to perform list, thereby opening up room at the position. Unlike Carey, McClure hasn’t seen any game action in the NFL. He went undrafted from California last year and spent some time on the Colts’ practice squad.
Rashad Jennings has proven that he can dance. Now, he wants to prove that he can still play football at a high level. The free agent running back says that he is anxious to play in 2017 and eager for an NFL opportunity.
Jennings added that he has had “simple conversations” with the Lions, Packers, Ravens, Rams, and Dolphins. The veteran hopes that those simple conversations will lead to a deal from one of those teams, but for now, he’s in “wait and see” mode.
The reigning Dancing With The Stars champion had a paltry 3.3 yards per carry average last year on 181 rushes, but did record 35 receptions. On the plus side, Pro Football Focus graded him as one of the NFL’s best pass blockers in 2016 and he isn’t too far removed from a productive 2015 season in New York.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Less than a month ago, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125MM extension to become the NFL’s highest-paid player. Carr’s stay atop the league’s earnings mountain might not last much longer, though, as there’s “internal optimism” that the Lions and quarterback Matthew Stafford will agree to a new deal within the next two weeks, reports Stacey Dales of NFL Network (via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com).
Stafford’s entering the final season of the three-year, $53MM extension he signed in July 2013, but his next contract figures to obliterate that pact in value and could surpass Carr’s. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Stafford inked his current pact after a 20-touchdown, 17-interception showing for him and a 4-12 season for Detroit, and both he and the Lions have been far more successful since.
Stafford helped guide the Lions to a decent 34-30 record and two playoff berths over the past four seasons, and he’s now arguably fresh off the best two-year stretch of his career. Thanks in part to Jim Bob Cooter‘s promotion to offensive coordinator, Stafford tossed 56 TDs against 23 picks and completed upward of 67 percent of passes from 2015-16. He threw 24 scores and a meager 10 INTs last season, when both Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus ranked him as the league’s eighth-best passer.
Given the 29-year-old Stafford’s strong output in recent seasons, the ever-rising salary cap and the importance of his position, a mega-deal looks like a formality. Lions president Rod Wood implied as much last month, saying he’d be “comfortable” making Stafford the league’s top-paid player and adding, “It’s a premium position, and you need to have a very, very good player at that position to be credible and be competitive, and I think we do have that, and we’re working on getting a deal done.”
Another sizable contract would be the third for Stafford, who had the benefit of entering the NFL as the No. 1 pick in 2009, shortly before the league introduced the rookie wage scale in 2011. His initial deal was worth $78MM over six years and included $41.7MM in guaranteed money. Having established himself as a quality signal-caller since then, the eight-year veteran is on a path to becoming one of the highest earners in league history.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com looked at the Lions‘ defensive tackle depth chart. With Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson, and Akeem Spence as locks for the roster, there is now a fourth spot in play since Khyri Thornton will be serving a six-game suspension to start the year. There are a few notable names in the mix including Ego Ferguson, Jordan Hill, and Bruce Gaston. Twentyman notes that the Lions carried five DTs last season, but we might not see a repeat since players like Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel are able to play both inside and outside.
- This week, PFR’s Dallas Robinson gave us an in-depth recap of the Lions‘ offseason.
Although the Lions finished 9-7 and claimed a NFC Wild Card slot, underlying metrics show Detroit wasn’t as good as its record. Pro Football Reference calculates expected wins and losses based on points scored and points allowed, and the Lions were closer to a seven- or eight-win club based on those numbers. Detroit finished 27th in the NFL in DVOA, worse than clubs such as the Jaguars, Bears, and Chargers, none of whom came close to a postseason appearance.
Still, the Lions presumably still believe they’ll contend with the Packers and Vikings for the NFC North in 2017, and had several obvious areas of focus to attend to this offseason. Let’s take a look at how they did:
- T.J. Lang, G: Three years, $28.5MM. $19MM guaranteed.
- Ricky Wagner, T: Five years, $47.5MM. $17.5MM guaranteed.
- Akeem Spence, DT: Three years, $9MM. $3.5MM guaranteed.
- Paul Worrilow, LB: One year, $3MM. $2.75MM guaranteed.
- D.J. Hayden, CB: One year, $3.75MM. $2.25MM guaranteed. $1.5MM available via incentives.
- Cornelius Washington, DL: Two years, $5.825MM. $1.5MM guaranteed.
- Khyri Thornton, DT: Two years, $3.3MM. $325K guaranteed.
- Darren Fells, TE: One year, $1MM. $100K guaranteed.
- Jordan Hill, DT: One year, minimum salary benefit. $85K guaranteed.
- Nick Bellore, LB: One year, minimum salary benefit. $80K guaranteed.
- Matt Asiata, RB: One year, $840K. $60K guaranteed.
- Armonty Bryant, DE: One year, minimum salary benefit. $40K guaranteed.
- Don Muhlbach, LS: One year, minimum salary benefit. $40K guaranteed.
- Cyrus Kouandjio, T: One year, $800K. $35K guaranteed.
- Tony Hills, T: One year, minimum salary benefit. $10K guaranteed.
- Bruce Gaston, DT: Two years, $1.32MM.
- Ego Ferguson, DT: One year, $615K.
- Keshawn Martin, WR: One year, minimum salary benefit.
The Lions’ offensive line wasn’t a success in 2016, as the unit ranked 31st in adjusted line yards and 18th in adjusted sack rate, so general manager Bob Quinn made upgrades to Detroit’s front five the focal point of the 2017 offseason. The first step was swapping out right tackle Riley Reiff for free agent Ricky Wagner, whom the Lions made the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL (not counting Lane Johnson, who was paid like the Eagles’ left tackle of the future). With Reiff in tow, Detroit averaged only 2.93 yards on rushes to the right side, according to Football Outsiders. Baltimore, Wagner’s former employer, averaged 4.62 running to the right, meaning improvement should be on the way in the Motor City.
Wagner wasn’t the only addition to the right side of the Lions’ offensive line, however, as the team also signed T.J. Lang to replace Larry Warford at right guard. Not only did Detroit land one of the league’s best guards in Lang, but it stole him from a division rival, weakening the Packers’ line in the process. In order to ink Lang, who reportedly narrowed his free agent choices to Detroit, Green Bay, and Seattle, the Lions guaranteed two-thirds of his $29MM contract, an unprecedented total. Lang, 29, missed three games with injury last season and is now recovering from January hip surgery, but he should be available for training camp.
Darren Fells will be lining up next to Wagner and Lang on the Lions’ front five, and the veteran tight end will essentially act as a sixth offensive lineman on many plays. Fells, whom Detroit signed after he was non-tendered by the Cardinals, managed only 14 receptions a season ago, but uses his 6’7″, 280-pound size as one of the league’s best blocking tight ends, both in the run and pass game. His presence should allow the Lions to split Eric Ebron out wide in more creative formations.
Although Detroit has improved its blocking, that doesn’t mean free agent addition Matt Asiata will suddenly become more effective. Over the past three years, Asiata has been among the league’s most inefficient backs. Of the 49 running backs who have managed at least 250 carries since 2014, Matt Asiata ranks next-to-last with a 3.45 yards per carry average. Last season, Asiata placed in the bottom-10 among backs in both DVOA and DYAR, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics. Not guaranteed a roster spot, Asiata shouldn’t be part of Detroit’s Week 1 squad unless an injury strikes.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Lions surprisingly didn’t target any high-profile free agents after the team ranked dead last in defensive DVOA, instead opting to patch over the unit with low-cost additions. In that vein, Detroit signed defensive linemen Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington, and it’s difficult to see either providing much of an impact next season. Spence, particularly, ranked 123rd of out of 125 qualified interior defenders, per Pro Football Focus, which gave Spence horrible marks against the run. Washington, on the other hand, earned good scores as a pass-rusher, meaning he’ll likely contribute in sub packages.
Both of Detroit’s linebacker signings — Paul Worrilow and Nick Bellore — have recent starting experience, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the duo spends more time on special teams than as regular players on the Lions’ defense. Worrilow and Bellore each played more than 40% of their previous club’s special teams snaps, and Quinn has shown a willingness to pay for special teams aptitude, as evidenced by the signing of Johnson Bademosi last offseason and the extension of Don Carey in December. Detroit’s special teams unit finished sixth in DVOA in 2016 after ranking 13th and 31st in the two years prior.
After fielding the league’s worst pass defense last year, the Lions’ only free agent signing in the secondary was former first-round bust D.J. Hayden. Taking a chance on a former 12th overall selection is never the worst idea, but given Detroit’s immediate needs in the defensive backfield, the club should have gone after more known commodities. Jason McCourty, Davon House, and Morris Claiborne all signed for similar money as Hayden, and I’d take them all over the former Raider.
This is the third suspension in the past year for Bryant, notes Birkett, who suggests that it’s time for the Lions to cut bait on the soon-to-be 27-year-old. Detroit re-upped Bryant back in March, but as a minimum salary benefit deal with a meager $40K signing bonus, escaping the contract would be easy for the club.
Bryant, whom the Lions claimed off waivers from the Browns last October, appeared in just five games in 2016 (all with Detroit), but he did tally an impressive three sacks during his short campaign. In the best season of his four-year career, 2015, Bryant totaled 14 appearances and 5.5 sacks.
With Bryant at least temporarily out of the picture, the Lions look even thinner at defensive end behind starters Ezekiel Ansah and Kerry Hyder. They’re currently set to enter the season with Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel and late-round rookies Jeremiah Ledbetter and Pat O’Connor among their reserves at the position, as Roster Resource shows.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- Cornelius Washington ventured from the Bears to the Lions in part because of Detroit’s attacking 4-3 scheme as opposed to the 3-4 currently being deployed in Chicago, Tim Twentyman of Lions.com notes. Washington will be a part of the Lions’ rotation up front, with Twentyman predicting the former Bears backup will have a good chance to rush from the tackle spot on passing downs.
“There are ton of guys in the league that know what I can do, coaches and GMs, but I have no timetable to sign with a new team,” Bell said. “I’ve never been an injury prone player. I feel better than I have in a long time, physically. Just waiting on the call.”
It could be a while before Bell gets the call he’s waiting for. Bell will turn 31 in August and he didn’t get to show teams a whole lot on the field last season.
Bell spent the majority of his career with the Lions before hooking on with the Bears last fall. His stint in Chicago lasted just four games and he totaled only three carries. When a December workout with the Packers did not result in a deal, he circled back to Detroit to serve as the team’s No. 4 RB behind Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington, and Zach Zenner. He did not attempt any carries in his second Lions stint and had just one catch for negative two yards.
Bell’s most productive season as a runner came in 2014 when he ran for 860 yards and seven touchdowns. He also thrived as a pass-catching specialist for Detroit in 2012 and 2013, recording upwards of 50 receptions in each season.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- Thurston Armbrister is among Lions linebackers with an on-the-bubble status entering training camp, writes Tim Twentyman of the team’s website. Armbrister wasn’t much of a factor on defense in 2016, his first season as a Lion, as the ex-Jaguar only played 63 snaps and made nine tackles in 14 appearances. However, he was one of Detroit’s key special teamers, racking up the fourth-most snaps (260) for a unit that Football Outsiders ranked as the sixth best in the NFL.
Former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson has hinted that Detroit’s long string of failure played a role in his retirement, and he reiterated that sentiment last week, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “I was stuck in my contract with Detroit, and they told me, they would not release my contract, so I would have to come back to them,” Johnson said. “I didn’t see the chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall … and not going anywhere.”
As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk details, the Lions and new general manager Bob Quinn may have misled Johnson into thinking he’d be forced to stick with Detroit in 2016. While Johnson says the Lions wouldn’t have released him from his contract, Detroit almost surely would have had to make some sort of adjustment to Johnson’s cap charge, which would have totaled $24MM. By convincing him to retire, the Lions saved more than $11MM on its 2016 salary cap.