You read that right.
I'm not saying they're right, or wrong, but the Detroit Lions believe that they're serious competitors in the 2023 NFL season.
Let's wind back to the 1-6 start last season. It feels like a long time ago now, but Dan Campbell received what we call over here "the dreaded" vote of confidence from the owner, which is usually pretty swiftly followed by a sacking when losses continue and "they were who we thought they were". Instead, the Lions went on a mazy run down the stretch, winning 8 of the final 10 to miss out on the playoffs by one win. On both sides of the ball, the Detroit Lions were top 10 in DVOA during that period.
The revolution of the roster (and it was a revolution, not a rebuild, and definitely not a retool) up until this offseason had been predicated on getting rid of bad contracts, surviving all of the dead cap of that, not risking the future by not deferring salaries into future years and taking punts on prove-it deals for high upside, low-risk players.
How has that changed? There are three main ways:-
1) Willingness to spend bigger money for better players on longer contracts
This is evidenced by the two longer signings made:-
i) CB Cameron Sutton, 3 years, $33m, $22.5 guaranteed (for more info on Sutton, Pride of Detroit's interview with Steelers beat writer Nick Farabaugh is excellent - listen here). This is the most guaranteed money handed out to a new signing in the Brad Holmes regime.
ii) RB David Montgomery, 3 years, $18m, $11m guaranteed, $8.75m guaranteed at signing. This is quite a lot of money these days for a veteran running back, but David Montgomery is one of the few running backs in the NFL capable of being a bell cow back and is a bona fide RB1.
2) Increasing depth on the roster by asking existing depth pieces to take pay cuts, rather than be cut
This is a little projection on my part, but it's been widely speculated that one or all of DEs Charles Harris, Romeo Okwara and G Halapoulivaati Vaitai would have been cut on their current deals entering this offseason, but despite that, all of these players have played at a high level in Detroit. Instead of making a very "business decision" to cut one or some of these, all were asked and agreed to take pay cuts to remain here - in Okwara and Vaitai's case the contract reworking saved more cap in 2023 than cutting them would have done (and didn't push too much into a 2024 void year).
Now, the Lions have 6 (SIX) quality defensive ends.
At the rush end - Aidan Hutchinson (potential perennial 10-sack-a-season guy), Charles Harris (who had had 7.5 sacks on half a season of starts in 2021), and James Houston (who got 8 sacks on just over 100 snaps in 2022).
At the big end - Josh Paschal (2022 2nd round pick, the Lions internally are very high on his potential), John Cominsky (2 years, $8.5m, $4m guaranteed, the team plays so much better with him on the field.) and Romeo Okwara (who had 7.5 sacks in 2018 and 10 sacks in 2020).
This unit is injury-proof with that depth - at every stage, it should gain production. They should all be fit and healthy and rotating often so that everyone is fresh and all of them should eat in 2023.
In terms of Vaitai, the salary cut allowed the Lions to sign former Lion G Graham Glasgow (1 year, up to $4.5m - full terms not disclosed) to replace the outgoing C Evan Brown. Glasgow and Vaitai's cap hits now are less than Vaitai's original cap hit. Glasgow played to an elite level when he was last with Detroit, which helped him get a bumper contract from Denver and provides the Lions with the quality offensive line depth they so desperately needed.
3) Pushing cap hits into future years to provide room for more signings
Earlier I alluded to the fact that the Lions were reluctant to do this generally (with the notable exception of WR DJ Chark in 2022). They knew the Lions would not be competing for titles in 2021 and 2022 so they did not want to hamper future efforts by loading up in a futile year. Now, we have the following pushed into 2024 (or later, if specified) as a result of actions in this offseason:
DE Romeo Okwara $3.5m
DE Charles Harris $2m
G Halapoulivaati Vaitai $3.8m
NB/S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson $2m
CB Emmanuel Moseley $1m
CB Cameron Sutton (cap hits 2023 $3.3m, 2024 $12.7m, 2025 $12.7, 2026 (void) $4.4m, ergo a $9.4m cap hit jump into 2024)
RB David Montgomery (cap hits 2023 $2.8m, 2024 $6.9m, 2025 $7.1m, 2026 (void) $1.1m, ergo a $4.1m cap jump into 2024)
DE John Cominsky (cap hits 2023 $2.3m, 2024 $6.2m - $1.2m dead)
G Graham Glasgow $1.5m
P Jack Fox (restructured this offseason, 2023 $2m, 2024 $4m, 2025, $3.7m, 2026 $4m, ergo a $2m cap jump into 2024)
Total dead cap for impending free agents or cap hikes into 2024 = $33.2m
It's a massive vote of confidence in this team to go and compete.
I'll look at this roster, and justify why the Lions could be considered real contenders this season in another article, but in summary of that:-
The offense has improved with Glasgow and Montgomery coming on board and hopefully, Vaitai returning healthy. It was a top-10 unit all season last year.
The defense has massively improved with Gardner-Johnson, Moseley, and Sutton on board, and it was a top 10 unit for the most recent 10 games they played.
AND the draft picks are left to come. 5 of them are in the top 81 (as it stands). Maybe the aim should be really high, especially given the perceived weakness in the NFC North.
Ask yourself, why not us?
What do you think of the Lions' chances and the philosophy switch into this season?
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