With the NFL Draft looming, the Lions align the pieces

With the NFL Draft looming, the Lions align the pieces

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NFL free agency is under way and the annual shift of star players is starting to take shape. The Detroit Lions have been quiet so far in filling in some of their key position holes and opted to add depth to the squad. The biggest signing of the Lions’ free agency campaign thus far would be two time Super Bowl winner, LeGarrette Blount.

Blount signed a one year deal with the Lions March 16 worth up to $4.5 million. The base contract is $2 million guaranteed with opportunity for an additional $2.5 million in incentives.

The Lions had statistically the league’s worst running game in 2017. Blount’s veteran experience will attempt to bolster Detroit’s run efforts, as well as helping to mentor the young running backs on the Lions’ roster.

Blount has 5,888 career regular season rushing yards, with an average of 4.4 yards per carry. The Lions’ only averaged 3.4 yards per attempt, a league low in 2017. Blount adds much needed power running to the Lions backfield for short yardage situations. The Lions were abysmal in third down situations with two yards or less for a first down. Converting just seven times out of the 16 attempts, which is only a 45 percent success rate, and on third and one yard, the Lions posted an embarrassing statistic of 6 for 12, a league’s worst 50 percent conversion rate.

Despite being 31 and entering into his ninth season, Blount has proved in the last two seasons why teams shouldn’t count him out due to his age. In 2016, Blount rushed for a career high of 1,161 yards and posted another career high of 18 touchdowns in his Super Bowl season with the New England Patriots. In 2017, Blount proved he still had plenty of fuel left in his tank with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played all 16 games in a shared role at the running back position with Jay Ajayi, but still posted 766 yards with an average of 4.4 a carry, a statistic consistent throughout his career. In the playoffs, Blount scored a touchdown in each one of the Eagles’ playoff games during their run for the Lombardi Trophy, including a 21 yard scamper for a touchdown during a 90 yard performance in Super Bowl XLII.

The Lions will need to add more than just Blount to their offense if they want to turn around the running game in 2018. The Lions currently have big holes to fill on the offensive line and at tight end. On March 14, Detroit opted to release their 2014 first-round pick, tight end Eric Ebron after having no luck in finding a trade partner. Darren Fells, who found time on the field as a backup to Ebron in 2017, signed a three year deal with the Browns when free agency opened.

Tight End and former Seattle Seahawk, Luke Willson, signed a one year deal with his favorite team growing up, on Wed. March 21. Willson grew up in Ontario, only a 30 minute drive from Ford Field, and even routed for the Lions when he was a youngest. He once dressed up as Lions’ running back legend, Barry Sanders, for Halloween.

Willson signed a one year contract worth $2.5 million with incentives to make more built in. Due to the departures of Ebron and Fells, Willson signed with the Lions with all indications that he will be the starter in 2018, and it’s his job to lose.

Willson played second fiddle to Pro-bowler Jimmy Graham, but still has proven himself as a blocking tight end and has been reliable in his production with limited opportunities. Posting 11 touchdowns during his five season in the NFL.

The Lions will look to add a guard and/or a center in either free agency or the draft to help improve the running game and protect Matthew Stafford. After signing Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang in 2017, the Lions have much of their 2018 starting offensive line intact and under contract until 2019, so adding that final piece could allow for the running game to finally improve.

On defense, the Lions will look to fill the hole at defensive line that veteran Haloti Ngata held in 2015 and 2016, but Ngata had already created that massive gap in 2017 when he sustained a season-ending injury in the fifth game of the year. They placed the franchise tag on defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, which will allow the Lions to retain him for 2018 without signing him to a new contract. This move by the Lions’ front office has lead many mock draft experts to believe the Lions will draft a defensive tackle to replace Ngata in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft.

The Lions reported Wed. March 21, that they have signed Defensive Tackle, Sylvester Williams

former Tennessee Titan, to help replace the hole the departure of Ngata left in the defensive line. Williams is expected to sign a one year deal with salary to be determined. At 6’2” and 313 lbs., the 29 year old, former first round pick, signs with Detroit to help beef up the interior of the Lions defense.

Although the Lions signed Blount in free agency, many experts have also suggested the Lions draft a high profile running back in the first round if one is available. The Lions pick 20th overall and other than Saquon Barkley from Penn State, many of the other running backs could still be available based on the needs of other teams around the league. General Manager Bob Quinn has been known to pick key role players over potential star position players in the past, so it will be hard to know for sure what the Lions will do with their pick at 20.

The Lions have resigned Ansah under the franchise tender, linebacker, Nick Bellore for one year, defensive end, Kerry Hyder, defensive tackle, Christian Ringo and quarterback Jake Rudock all signed their exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) tender, wide receiver,TJ Jones was tendered as a restricted free agent, cornerback, Nevin Lawson re-signed for two years, $9.2 million, long snapper, Don Muhlbach re-signed for one year, $1.105 million, safety, Tavon Wilson re-signed for two years, $7 million and running back, Zach Zenner also re-signed for one more year, but no salary has been determined at this point.

Key departures include linebacker, Tahir Whitehead, who signed a three year deal with Oakland worth reportedly, upwards of $18 million, after leading the Lions in tackles in 2016 and 2017. Ngata signed a one-year deal with the Eagles, tight end, Darren Fells signed with the Cleveland Browns, tight end Eric Ebron was released to make room for salary cap purposes and cornerbacks Don Carey and D.J. Hayden both signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

New free agent signings from the first week of the open market, include linebackers, Christian Jones from the Chicago Bears, for a two-year, $7.75 million deal, and Devon Kennard from the New York Giants, who signed a three-year deal worth $18.75 million. Cornerback, Deshawn Shead, signed a one-year deal after spending last season with the Seattle Seahawks to help fill in holes left by some of the free agent departures from the Lions secondary. The Lions also signed offensive guard, Kenny Wiggins, from the Los Angeles Chargers to a two-year contract worth $5 million.

The Lions have addressed a few needs through free agency during the first few days of the open market. As the season comes closer, the Lions will add more players to their roster for depth. It seems as if the Lions have shifted their focus toward the draft for the time being after signing Blount last Friday. The biggest needs for the Lions are defensive tackle, offensive line, and running back. Expect to see the Lions focus on defense through the draft, but don’t be surprised if they jump on a star-studded running back in the first or second round.

The most exciting time of the year to be a Lions’ fan is coming up on April 26 when the first round of the NFL draft takes place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. This will be the true factor in determining how the Lions will compete in 2018. A good draft class could be the difference maker for this franchise that has been just waiting to explode with success since drafting quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2009.

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