Free agency Day 2: WR, RB markets 'non-existent' Detroit Lions stick to patient approach

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Day 2 of the free agent negotiating period was a slow one.

As of late Tuesday night, the Detroit Lions still had not come to an agreement with another team's free agent.

That's not a bad thing. Free agency is fool's gold. About the only time it's worthwhile is if Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is available at quarterback, or if you're trying to surround one of those Hall-of-Famers with other good veterans to make a title push.

Detroit Lions new general manager Brad Holmes talks Jan. 19, 2021, during his virtual introductory news conference in Allen Park.

The Lions are set up to do some bargain shopping the next few days. They still need starters at wide receiver, safety, slot cornerback and linebacker, plus help at a few other positions, including potentially kicker (if Matt Prater leaves). I think they address most of those spots before we hit the vet minimum stage of free agency.

One prominent NFL agent told me Tuesday that the markets at running back and receiver are "non-existent" right now, but it all it takes is one antsy party for that change.

Safety looks very much like a buyer's market, too. All of that is good for the Lions, whose patient approach should not be confused for not having a plan. 

Revisiting franchise tag decision on Golladay

More than 24 hours into the free agent negotiating period, with the wide receiver market at a standstill, maybe the Detroit Lions were right to not use the franchise tag on Kenny Golladay.

The Lions could have retained Golladay's rights last week by tendering him a one-year contract worth about $16 million. I advocated for them to do that, in part because I thought that price would be a discount to what he'd get on the open market, and that in turn would help the Lions trade Golladay for more than the probable 2022 third-round compensatory draft pick they stand to receive for losing him in free agency.

There's no telling what Golladay would have returned in a trade had the Lions held onto him till October, but there would have been plenty of risk in that he would have had to stay healthy and productive  and it is clear now that general manager Brad Holmes had a good handle on the receiver market when he declined to use the tag.

Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay (19) celebrates a touchdown catch against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half Sept. 27, 2020, at State Farm Stadium.

Both free agency and the draft are deep at receiver, and in a shrinking salary cap environment, teams appear to be balking at Golladay's asking price given his lack of consistent production during his four seasons in Detroit.

The Lions are like much of the NFL right now in that they are bargain-hunting for help at receiver. There have plenty of options, too, guys like John Brown, Adam Humphries and Emmanuel Sanders who won't break the bank.

None of those players is as good as Golladay, who will be a steal for some team if his contract comes in at less than the franchise tag. Golladay is a dominant force when healthy, on par if not better than the franchise-tagged Chris Godwin, and if not for COVID he likely already would have landed a monstrous deal.

It's possible Golladay still gets the big contract he seeks. Someone has to blink in this game of chicken, after all.

But Lions look wise for sitting out the game, and that's something the organization has not always been in the past.

Whose plan is better?

Day 2 of the free agent negotiating period is here and since the New England Patriots are once again digging into their bottomless pit of money to try and solve their roster problems, I figure I'd start today's running notes and observations column by asking which approach do you prefer to free agency: the Patriots' money-solves-everything plan or Detroit Lions' sit-back-and-wait-for-bargains strategy?

I realize this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. The Patriots entered the week with one of the most favorable cap situations in the NFL, and Bill Belichick is nearing the end of his career, while the Lions, with a new coach and new GM, continue to cut veterans to free up cap space.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick argues with an official against the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3, 2019.

But in reality, neither team was any good last season, both have what look to be powerhouses in their own division (the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers) and NFL teams are only as constrained by the cap as they want to be.

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The Patriots added a second tight end to their shopping cart today, reportedly agreeing to a deal with Hunter Henry, and now have commitments from seven free agents to sign when the league year opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

According to ESPN, they have guaranteed $137.5 million in new contracts already, which is just shy of the free agent record of $147.2 million by the Miami Dolphins last season.

The Dolphins, of course, missed the playoffs, as have two of the other four teams that have given out more than $100 million in free agent guarantees. The two teams that did not miss the playoffs lost in the wildcard round, so big free agent expenditures generally mean little when it comes to on-field results.

The Lions are in a deep rebuild, but their roster wasn't in that much worse shape than the Patriots entering the week.

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Jared Goff had a better season than Cam Newton last year (the Patriots re-signed Newton this week). Both teams were devoid of talent at receiver (the Lions at least had T.J. Hockenson at tight end). The offensive lines were comparable; New England's was slightly better in 2020, but the Patriots are losing Joe Thuney to free agency. And while the Lions had significantly more work to do on defense, it's not like the Patriots are a top-five defense anymore.

Lions' T.J. Hockenson carries the football as receiver Marvin Jones, left, blocks Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler on Dec. 20, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.

The Patriots' moves this week make them unquestionably the better team in 2021, but are they a playoff team with the Bills and Dolphins in their division? Are they a Super Bowl contender with the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes still at the top of their game?

I'm not sure on either account.

As for the Lions, well, the playoffs don't appear to be anywhere in their near-term future, either, but they're playing the compensatory pick game and have a couple first-round draft picks stockpiled, so they might be in better shape down the road.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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