Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn speaks to the media on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Indianapolis during the NFL combine.
Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — This year’s combine was the 11th that I’ve attended in my years on the Detroit Lions beat, and before that covering Michigan and Michigan State, and after most of those trips to Indy, I’ve written some form of this column right here.

For everything that happens on the field in Indy, the 40-yard dashes and bench presses and position drills, the most important “events” take place off the field in restaurants and hotel bars, and in the luxury boxes at Lucas Oil Stadium.

That’s where conversations are had that shape the upcoming league year. About trades. About free agency. And yes, sometimes about the draft, too, though with free agency first up next week the draft is still really on the backburner for now.

An example: I saw one prominent agent early in the week in Indy and asked him what he was up to. “Tampering,” he said, and we all laughed knowing it was true.

So from conversations with scouts and agents and team personnel, here’s some whispers I heard at the combine and what they might mean for the Lions:

• Everyone agrees 2019 is a big year for the Lions, that the clock is ticking on the current regime and that they can’t go through another season rife with fan apathy and full of negative headlines. But the feedback I received was split almost 50-50 on what last year’s rough season will mean to the Lions this spring.

One school of thought is that it’s a new year and new locker room — figure there’ll be 30 percent turnover or more from last year — and that Matt Patricia both weeded out some of the players who wouldn’t fit his style and learned from the mistakes he made as coach. But there’s another school of thought, shared with me by multiple agents and one personnel executive in Indianapolis this week (plus one Lions player earlier this year), that the team will have a hard time convincing free agents to take its money without overpaying because the Patriot way isn’t for everyone, especially when you’re not winning.

The Lions didn’t land any big-time free agents last year and, as one agent said to me, you could argue they overpaid for their two big free-agent signings in 2017 (T.J. Lang, who received a significantly smaller offer from the Green Bay Packers, and Rick Wagner).

When I ran this theory by another agent who had talks with the Lions last week, he discounted completely. Money and opportunity are the only things most players care about, he said, and if those come in Detroit his guys would be happy to go.

• So what are the Lions looking for in free agency? Well, as has been Bob Quinn’s M.O., he talked with everyone about everyone (or so it seemed) in Indy. But trying to separate the smoke from the brisket, I believe the Lions will prioritize an edge rusher, slot receiver, tight end, defensive back and backup quarterback.

That doesn’t mean they’ll land all of those positions. The price for free-agent pass rushers could get out of hand quick, considering how few good ones there will be on the market. But I do think the Lions are serious about all of those spots.

A couple players of interest who would fit, depending on the money: Trey Flowers, Preston Smith, Adam Humphries, Jamison Crowder and Kareem Jackson.

Lions free agency: Why these pass rushers could be a fit


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• As for a backup quarterback, the Lions finally seem serious about getting off the vet minimum train (which they’ve been riding with Dan Orlovsky and Matt Cassel for some time). They’re not going to sign Nick Foles and probably won’t be in on Teddy Bridgewater, but they do want someone who can either push Matthew Stafford a little or be there to fill in if he has to miss a game or two because of injury, or perhaps both. (Stafford did play through a serious back injury last year.)

The problem, of course, is that good quarterbacks, good backups even, don’t often get to free agency. Perhaps the Lions try and address this spot via trade, but if they don’t land a serviceable backup that way or in free agency, I’d certainly expect them to take one in the draft.

• I highly, highly doubt Ziggy Ansah will be back, and it’s probably better that both parties move on. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts up double-digit sacks on a prove-it deal wherever he goes next year.

• In fact, most of the Lions’ free agents won’t be back. After Ansah, running back Zach Zenner is the Lions’ best free agent. Yes, they’d like him to return, but Zenner should have other options. If Zenner goes elsewhere, the Lions will be in the market for a backup to Kerryon Johnson. And no, it won’t be LeGarrette Blount, who’s time with the Lions is done.

• A quick reason for optimism on the free-agent front: New vice president of football administration Mike Disner is universally respected and known as someone who gets deals done. That’s not to knock his predecessor, Matt Harriss, but I had several people bring Disner up to me unprompted in Indy.

• A couple draft notes to end this: First, there was so much buzz about the Arizona Cardinals taking Kyler Murray No. 1 that if I was doing a mock draft today I’d make that the pick. Murray didn’t throw in Indy, but none of his counterparts wowed NFL scouts, and Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury is widely believed to have eyes for the Oklahoma quarterback.

If the Cardinals decide they want to draft Murray, that could start an interesting chain of dominoes. They’d have to trade Josh Rosen, their first-round pick last year, and if Rosen goes to someone in the first seven picks that could have a trickle-down effect on the Lions.

More: ‘I don’t love Greedy:’ Why LSU CB Williams doesn’t fit Lions

Dwayne Haskins is the only other quarterback worthy of a top-10 pick, but if one potential suitor fills their quarterback need with Rosen (and Jacksonville signs Foles in free agency, as is expected), well, Haskins could tumble and the Lions could lose out on a defensive player.

• How realistic is Murray to the Cardinals? Here’s NFL Network’s Charles Davis on the topic: “It’s legitimate because we don’t have the same money in our first-round quarterbacks that we used to and you don’t pay the price that you used to. … If they think that Kyler’s better they will likely take him and then worry about dealing Josh and go from there.”

• The defensive line class could be a generational one, but Nick Bosa is clearly the best player out there. If the Cardinals don’t take Murray, they’ll take Bosa. And if Bosa doesn’t go No. 1 to Arizona, he’ll probably go No. 2 to San Francisco.

• Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Kentucky’s Josh Allen are the next best players in the draft, and though defensive tackles sometimes fall, the scouts I spoke with don’t see much chance of that happening with Williams. He’s a “yes sir, no sir” kid, still young (he’s in braces still), has plenty of upside and had a flat-out dominant year at Alabama.


Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams explains what he loves about football, at the NFL combine March 2, 2019 in Indianapolis.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons is the second best defensive tackle in the class. He won’t go in the top 10 after tearing his ACL and because there’s video out there of him striking a woman multiple times who was fighting with his sister. The video is ugly, but one NFC area scout who’s spent plenty of time on Mississippi State’s campus called the incident “a blip” on his character sheet and said whatever NFL team takes him will get steal somewhere later in Round 1.

• The Lions, unless they sign a top defensive end in free agency, are more in the market for an edge rusher than defensive tackle, and one name I’m more keen on as a fit after going to Indy is Houston’s Ed Oliver. I went into the week thinking Oliver was just a three-technique defensive tackle but one personnel evaluator I trust said Oliver’s best fit will be with a team who moves him all around the defensive, as a hand-down end, stand-up linebacker, playing inside. He’s an incredible talent who makes sense for the Lions.

• The draft is still seven-plus weeks and a bunch of smokescreens away, but if I had to guess right now I’d say the Lions’ pick, if they stay at eight, comes from a pool of players that includes Oliver, Devin White, Rashan Gary, Clelin Ferrell, Montez Sweat and T.J. Hockenson.

More from NFL combine:

NFL draft prospects Ed Oliver, Devin White big into … horses?

Mel Kiper explains why Lions should draft Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.


2019 free agents who may fit position of need and scheme to draw interest from GM Bob Quinn, coach Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions.
Marlowe Alter, Detroit Free Press