This is the eighth of an eight-part series previewing the Detroit Lions’ positional needs heading into free agency. The negotiating window officially opens on March 15, and deals can be signed starting on March 17. Today: Defensive line Previously: Wide receivers | Running backs | Quarterbacks | Tight ends | Offensive line | Defensive line | Secondary
Under contract: Jamie Collins, Jahlani Tavai, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman (futures)
Expiring contracts: Reggie Ragland, Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Christian Jones (released)
Best available: Shaquil Barrett (Bucs), K.J. Wright (Seahawks), Jayon Brown (Titans), Eric Wilson (Vikings), Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins)
Other names to watch: Samson Ebukam (Rams), Alex Anzalone (Saints), Denzel Perryman (Chargers), Leonard Floyd (Rams), Bud Dupree (Steelers), Haason Reddick (Cardinals), Matthew Judon (Ravens), Nick Vigil (Chargers), Neville Hewitt (Jets), Kwon Alexander (Saints), De’Vondre Campbell (Cardinals), Avery Williamson (Steelers), B.J. Goodson (Browns)
Breakdown: The Detroit Lions need linebackers, whether we’re talking inside, off-ball, on-ball or creating pressure off the edge, you name it, and they need it. We kept our defensive line preview more centered on those who put a hand in the dirt more times than not, hence more edge rushers making an appearance on this rundown. It’s worth noting the top of the free-agent linebacker pool took significant shots with Matt Milano re-signing in Buffalo and Lavonte David doing the same in Tampa Bay.
Jarrad Davis had his fifth-year option declined around this time last year. Christian Jones was released in a recent cost-saving move, with Reggie Ragland and special-teams mainstay Jalen Reeves-Maybin sitting without deals. Jamie Collins, last year’s most significant free-agent addition to the defense, had his contract restructured, with the Lions working on getting below the $182.5 million salary cap. On top of that, Josina Anderson reports the team remains interested in re-signing Reeves-Maybin.
Davis, for what it’s worth, remained beloved in the locker room by teammates and coaches alike through his entire four-year tenure, despite never meeting the on-field expectations that come with being a first-round pick. The NFL Network reports Davis could have more than a couple of teams calling for his services this week, with the top of the free-agent pool taking an early hit.
Detroit acquired Shaun Dion Hamilton via waivers after the season ended, adding another linebacker with some pro experience. While on the topic of in-house names, Jahlani Tavai is entering a critical Year 3. The 2019 second-rounder hasn’t shown much despite 31 games and 16 starts through two seasons. He had only 58 tackles last year despite appearing in 16 games, failing to record a sack or interception. Pro Football Focus had Tavai ranked 96th of 99 linebackers with enough snaps to qualify, putting Detroit’s new coaching staff in dire need of finding capable bodies.
The Buccaneers have been busy clearing the linebacker market’s top talent, re-signing David and reportedly getting to work on a long-term deal for Shaquil Barrett. If Barrett hits the market, it’s hard to imagine him not commanding some serious coin with 27.5 sacks through his last 31 games. His sack numbers dropped last year, but his pressures remained through the roof, with his 77 trailing only Aaron Donald’s 98 among all defenders. With that said, don’t get those hopes up for Barrett. He’s likely not looking to leave the defending champs for a cap-strapped team staring down a lengthy rebuild.
With Milano and David off the board before the negotiating period, attention turns to K.J. Wright. It’s hard to imagine the linebacker playing anywhere other than Seattle, even after his comments he’s not looking to take an in-house discount. Wright is as consistent as linebackers come and would be quite the get even at this stage of his career. The 31-year-old had 86 tackles, two sacks and one interception in 16 starts last season. He’s played his entire 10-year career with the Seahawks.
Kyle Van Noy finds his name back on the market one year removed from signing a four-year, $51 million deal with the Dolphins. He posted six sacks and 69 tackles in 13 starts in Miami last year. Getting after the quarterback is what Van Noy does best, and the former second-round pick to Detroit is still a talented pass-rusher despite Miami’s cost-saving decision.
This brings us to Samson Ebukam, Alex Anzalone and Denzel Perryman, among others, on the more realistic market, each with a level of familiarity with the staff or front office. Ebukam was a fourth-round pick to the Rams in 2017 while new Lions general manager Brad Holmes was running LA’s college scouting department. He started 14 games as a rotational edge defender last season, racking up 4.5 sacks and 31 tackles across 364 snaps. Ebukam’s production isn’t going to blow anyone away, but there’s enough to suggest that he might have more to offer than advertised with an increased role.
Perryman is an old-school linebacker, standing as one of, if not the, most feared run-stoppers at the position on the market. He’s struggled to consistently stay on the field since entering the league in 2015. Still, the Lions need linebackers, and while Perryman isn’t going to shore up any concerns stopping the pass, he’s going to improve the run defense. Anthony Lynn, the first-year Lions offensive coordinator, was his head coach for the last four seasons. If Davis lands elsewhere this offseason, Perryman is one to watch.
Anzalone is another name with connections to the new staff, playing under Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn in New Orleans for four seasons. The linebacker had a rough showing his last time out against the Buccaneers in the playoffs, but a change of scenery and a clearer path to playing time could boost the oft-injured linebacker.