Dave Birkett breaks down the busy first day of free agency for the Detroit Lions on Monday, March 11, 2019.
Detroit Free Press
Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due.
The Detroit Lions entered the free-agent negotiating period Monday with more than $40 million in cap room and what seemed like as many holes to fill, and they went out and spent that money on arguably the best available players at their two biggest positions of need.
Trey Flowers has never been a big sack guy. He never reached double digits in four NFL seasons with the New England Patriots or before that in college. But he is the type of movable chess piece that Matt Patricia wants in his defense, and he does fill an undeniable need at right defensive end.
Jesse James won’t be confused for Tony Gonzalez anytime soon, but he, too, fills a huge need at tight end. He has one 40-catch season in his career, has improved every year as a blocker and at 24 years old was the most coveted tight end on the market.
It’s an impressive group, one that checks a lot of boxes. And while it’s premature to say that Monday’s moves will make the Lions appreciably better in 2019 — free agency, after all, is the biggest crapshoot of the year, after the draft — general manager Bob Quinn should be commended for his aggressive approach in getting deals done.
Too often, teams get scared off by bidding wars because they’re worried about overpaying middling players, even with the salary cap rising every year.
The Lions, in one way or another, probably overpaid for all four of the free agents they signed or agreed to terms with Monday. Flowers will reportedly make $17 million a year, which is a lot for a pass rusher who doesn’t produce many sacks. Coleman is now the highest-paid slot cornerback in the NFL at about $9 million annually; some teams thought his value would come in around 75 percent of that number. And Danny Amendola’s one-year contract ($4.25 million base salary) seemed especially high to people I canvassed across the league.
The numbers on James’ deal still aren’t known, but it’s expected to be in line with or exceed the three-year deal that Tyler Kroft got from the Buffalo Bills that reportedly maxes out at $21 million.
But at the end the day, the Lions landed four players they truly coveted with risk they felt was worth taking.
Flowers, Coleman and James will all be 26 or younger when the season starts, an age when NFL players are just coming into their prime. And Flowers, Amendola and Coleman all played for the Patriots, when Patricia was defensive coordinator and Quinn was in the team’s front office.
Yes, it’s a bit of a running joke around here. The Lions have become the Midwest version of the Patriots, without the wins.
But as Quinn explained last month, there’s security in familiarity when it comes to spending big money in free agency.
“It really comes down to what guys are available to you, what guys you think are a system fit and what guys do you know, you might have some personal experience with, that you feel better about giving a big contract to,” he said.
Obviously, the Lions felt good about giving Flowers, Coleman and James long-term deals, and the Flowers signing in particular is one Quinn had to have.
One NFL executive estimated at least eight teams were in on Flowers, whose market skyrocketed after players like Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, DeMarcus Lawrence and Dee Ford received the franchise tag. The Lions had a colossal need for a defensive end, and to lose Flowers — even to a team like the Miami Dolphins, where ex-Patriots assistant Brian Flores is the head coach — would not have been a good look for a team desperate to turn things around after a 6-10 season.
Yes, the Lions are a desperate team, and they acted like it Monday, but there’s nothing wrong with that when trying to snap a six-decade-old championship drought.
The rest of the NFC North mostly sat out the first day of free agency Monday, and plenty of other teams did as well. The Patriots, the organization Quinn and Patricia hail from, lost their two biggest free agents (Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown) without much of a fight, and yet there’s not much doubt they’ll win their division again next year.
The Lions? It’s way too early to say what Monday’s spending spree really means.
We’ve seen dream teams built in free agency and die a slow death in the fall, and the Lions still have myriad holes to fill. They need a backup running back, a new right guard and another cornerback, to name three starting jobs still up for grabs.
But roster spots don’t fill themselves in the NFL, at least not with anyone above replacement grade, and that’s why Quinn and the Lions were on the attack Monday.
Whether those moves pay off come fall, only time will tell. But in the moment at least, it’s a good start.