Lions 2023 free-agency tracker: Upgrade at secondary continues with addition of C.J. Gardner-Johnson

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2023 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year has begun, which means free-agent signings can be made official. The first round of the 2023 NFL draft begins April 27 on ESPN.

The Detroit Lions have brought in former Chicago Bears RB David Montgomery to replace Jamaal Williams. They upgraded the secondary with the signings of C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley. Detroit also brought in WR Marvin Jones Jr., Denver Broncos OL Graham Glasgow, while bringing back defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs, LB Alex Anzalone, RB Craig Reynolds, DE John Cominsky, OL Matt Nelson and CB Will Harris among others.

Here's a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free-agent signing, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

C.J. Gardner-Johnson, safety

What it means: The Lions' front office was adamant about upgrading the secondary. Not only did they talk the talk, but they also actually walked the walk by bringing in Gardner-Johnson who is coming off a Super Bowl run with the Philadelphia Eagles. Detroit’s biggest weakness was by far its secondary and Gardner-Johnson was the NFL’s co-leader in interceptions with six. The 25-year-old is also familiar with the Lions staff from his time with the New Orleans Saints. Head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn were both on the staff.

What's the risk: Minimal. This move is a clear upgrade in talent. Gardner-Johnson is versatile and can play slot corner or safety. Also, the Lions are signing a playmaker of his caliber at a cost-efficient rate for one year. It seems like a win-win for the organization. Gardner-Johnson did miss five games last season with a lacerated kidney, but when he was available, he allowed just 1.0 yards per coverage snap.

David Montgomery, running back

The Lions and the former Bears running back have reached an agreement on a three-year, $18 million deal, including $11 million guaranteed, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Tuesday.

What it means: This move likely means locker room leader Jamaal Williams, the NFL’s leader in rushing touchdowns (17) in 2022, will be leaving Detroit after a career-best season. Montgomery wasn’t as productive as Williams last year but, like Williams, excels in short yardage situations. He was considered to be among the top running back options on the market in free agency this offseason, rushing for 801 yards and five rushing touchdowns while appearing in 16 games. Montgomery also caught 34 passes for 316 receiving yards and a touchdown.

What's the risk: The risk is minimal. The Lions had to lock down another reliable runner in the backfield to complement starter D'Andre Swift. In Montgomery, the Lions are getting a guy who isn’t flashy but has been productive in his career, rushing for 1,070 yards in 2020 and amassing at least 800 rushing yards in all four of his NFL seasons.

Cameron Sutton, cornerback

The Lions are signing Sutton to a three-year deal worth up to $33 million, ESPN confirms.

What it means: The Lions are fulfilling a major need on the defense. Sutton will bring leadership to a much-needed cornerback group after coming off a career-best season in which he snagged three interceptions and 15 pass breakups with the Steelers. Detroit’s defense allowed opponents to score 25.12 points per game, which as tied for the third most in the NFL last season. His versatility allows him to play on the outside or line up in the slot, if necessary. Although he’s 28, the Lions can continue to develop Sutton. Prior to the past two seasons, he had only started in eight games for the Steelers.

What's the risk: There’s not much of a risk with this signing. Sutton has proven to be a quality starter over the past two seasons, even earning a reputation as a lockdown cornerback. Detroit needed a guy to come in and help former No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah play with more consistency. He’s also proven to be durable, appearing in at least 16 games in four straight seasons. Detroit needed a veteran presence on the defense and this is a guy who is more than capable of making big plays.

Emmanuel Moseley, cornerback

Moseley and the Lions have reached agreement on a one-year, $6 million deal, per a source.

What it means: The Lions aggressively addressed their secondary by adding Moseley in addition to Sutton. Before joining the Lions, Moseley spent his entire career in San Francisco. In 2022, he racked up 22 total tackles and five passes defended along with an interception in five games before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in his left knee.

What's the risk: There’s a serious risk that Moseley isn’t able to stay healthy. Throughout his five-year career, Moseley has only played in more than 12 games once. There is no guarantee he will be 100% by the beginning of training camp, but he should be ready for the season opener. His one-year contract is more of a prove-it deal that doesn’t lock the Lions into a long-term situation, so they are able to take a chance on a guy who is productive when healthy.

Isaiah Buggs, defensive tackle

The Lions agreed to a two-year deal worth up to $6 million, a source has confirmed.

What it means: This move shows that the Lions are committed to keeping their core intact. Although the defense struggled as a whole, Buggs enjoyed a career-best season. He started in 13 of 17 games while racking up a sack and a forced fumble along with 46 total tackles and 10 quarterback hits. “We're going to build something great here and I want to be a part of it when it happens,” Buggs said after re-signing on Monday. “I didn’t want to go into free agency wondering about where I was gonna be or where I was gonna end up. When Detroit called and they said, ‘we want you back,’ I wanted to be back.”

What's the risk: Prior to last season, Buggs had started in just seven games over the previous three years with the Steelers with little success. So, some could question if last season’s performance was an anomaly. Detroit still needs a game-changer on the interior so even with this move they have major holes to fill to be more competitive.

Marvin Jones Jr., wide receiver

One-year, $3 million contract that can be worth up to $5 million, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What it means: After losing free agent receiver DJ Chark to the Carolina Panthers, the Lions have reunited with a former player who has proven to be productive in the league and in Detroit. Jones Jr. spent the past two seasons in Jacksonville where he led the squad in receiving yards in 2021. But prior to that, he played a key role in Detroit from 2016-20. Jones enjoyed his career best season in 2017, with 1,101 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The Lions have added another offensive weapon for Goff who could help replace Chark.

What's the risk: There’s minimal risk with this move, especially on a one-year deal. During the NFL Owner’s meetings, Lions GM Brad Holmes said the front office would monitor the wide receivers’ room after losing Chark and he took one of the best options available via free agency. “You never really can have enough of those guys, just to be honest with you. And just to add more competition, but whether it’s Chark’s skill set or a different flavor, if it’s just the right football player, we’ll definitely continue to monitor that position,” Holmes told reporters.

Alex Anzalone, linebacker

Anzalone is re-signing with the Lions on a three-year deal, a source confirms.

What it means: Anzalone was one of the most productive players on defense last season, starting in all 17 games and registering a career-best and team-leading 125 total tackles, along with seven tackles for loss. This move shows that the front office has faith in the development of the defense by locking down a familiar face. The Lions defense ranked among the worst in the league, but did help the team win eight of its last 10 games.

What's the risk: Does this move actually improve the defense? That’ll be something to keep an eye on moving forward after this move. Yes, Anzalone was the team’s top tackler but you can’t overlook the fact that the defense allowed a league-leading 6.20 yards per play from opponents and they’re running it back with Anzalone on a three-year deal. There’s certainly a moderate risk.

Matt Nelson, offensive line

What it means: The Lions re-sign a player who has been a key contributor to their offensive line, which is one of the strengths of the team. Nelson displayed his versatility in 2022, playing both the left and right tackle in a backup role, allowing only two penalties and no sacks. He also didn’t commit a single penalty in 2021 when he stepped up to start in 11 games at right tackle, so this signing keeps the O-line intact.

What's the risk: There’s little risk with this move. This is yet another safe signing of a guy who has been around the organization. Nelson has seen steady action and proven he can contribute, appearing in 40 career games for the Lions since joining the team in 2019 as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa. He worked his way from the practice squad as rookie after switching from the defensive to offensive line.

John Cominsky, defensive end

The Lions have agreed to bring back Cominsky on a two-year deal, a source has comfirmed.

What it means: Cominsky is coming off a career-best season in which he started nine games, racking up 30 total tackles and four sacks with five tackles for loss. He spent his first four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons before enjoying the breakout year in Detroit. This deal marks a major accomplishment for Cominsky, who was waived by the Falcons last May before getting claimed by Detroit off waivers less than a week later.

What's the risk: There’s a mild risk here that Cominsky’s play isn’t sustainable, and he won't be able to help improve a defense that was one of the NFL's worst last season. Yes, he finished with the second-most quarterback hits (12) behind DE Aidan Hutchinson and was able to free up teammates to make plays -- all while playing through a broken thumb -- but with the Lions bringing back the same key guys from last year's front seven, is his play enough to spur a turnaround?

Graham Glasgow, guard

The former Broncos’ free-agent guard -- the Lions’ third-round pick in 2016 -- is returning to Detroit on a one-year deal worth up to $4.5 million, a source comfirmed to Adam Schefter.

What it means: Glasgow is reuniting with the franchise that drafted him in 2016. This move adds depth to O-line with fill-in offensive lineman starter Evan Brown set to leave Detroit for the Seattle Seahawks. Glasgow spent the past three seasons with the Denver Broncos, starting 33 of 37 games and can fill multiple roles, if necessary, with experience at left guard, right guard and center throughout his NFL career.

What's the risk: There’s minimal risk with this move. Detroit’s offensive line allowed just 24 sacks last season -- second fewest in the NFL behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- so they’re already producing at a high level. Glasgow brings a plethora of experience with 91 career starts and appeared in every game in 2022, proving his durability for a Lions unit that has been plagued by injuries over the previous couple years.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, linebacker

What it means: The Lions are re-signing a high character guy who was named a team captain during the 2021 season. He is a solid special teams player who can help replace Chris Board who recently signed with the New England Patriots. Reeves-Maybin spent his first five seasons in Detroit before signing with the Houston Texans in 2022.

What's the risk: There’s minimal risk with this move. Although the Texans cut Reeves-Maybin in March, he enjoyed his career-best season under Campbell in Detroit in 2021 with 82 total tackles, four passes defended and two forced fumbles. With more defensive snaps, he has proven he can produce, notably on special teams.

Craig Reynolds, running back

What it means: The Lions beef up their depth in the backfield by bringing back Reynolds. He will look to compete for the backup job next season after appearing in a career-best nine games in 2022, rushing for 102 yards on 23 carries along with nine receptions for 116 receiving yards.

What's the risk: Reynolds did miss some significant time, notably during the second half of the season, after being placed on the injured reserve list with a rib injury. However, this move isn’t too risky because the Lions are not expecting him to get a heavy workload. Reynolds played behind running backs Justin Jackson, D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams last season and is a safe signing to maintain depth in the backfield.

Will Harris, cornerback

The Lions re-signed Harris to a one-year deal worth $2.58 million.

What it means: This means the Lions are committing to the development of their young players. Although the secondary was arguably the biggest hole on the roster, Harris was one of the most productive guys among the group. Ahead of the 2022 season, he switched from safety to the slot where he started in 10 of 15 games, racking up 53 total tackles with four passes defended, two tackles for loss and an interception. Detroit continues to prioritize its secondary.

What's the risk: There’s a risk this still doesn’t move the needle for the defense, though the Lions have positioned themselves for better results. Although Harris won’t have as much of a role as he did in previous seasons, the defense needed a cornerback upgrade desperately, which is why they added Sutton and Moseley. However, it was wise to sign Harris to a one-year deal because they won’t have a long-term commitment if he isn’t productive this season. Detroit allowed 82 plays of 20-plus yards last season, which were the most in the NFL. So, this adds depth to the cornerback room.

C.J. Moore, safety

Moore received a two-year, $4.5 million deal with $3 million fully guaranteed and another $1.25 million available in potential incentives, according to NFL Network.

What it means: Moore confirmed that the New England Patriots made him a contract offer through free agency, but ultimately the Lions countered and will be bringing back their guy. He was effective on special teams while appearing in 11 games this past season. Moore also displayed his creativity with two rushes for 55 yards on fake punts and is familiar with the organization after signing as a undrafted free agent in 2019.

What's the risk: There’s minimal risk with this re-signing. He is entering his fifth season with the Lions and racked up seven special teams tackles in 2022. He excels on special teams and is capable of making plays which makes him valuable to the roster. “It’s gonna be scary, it’s gonna be a lot of plays being made in the back end,” Moore said during Monday’s media availability. “I’m excited for the competition and just to go to work with these guys. Just ready to have fun and win some games.”

Nate Sudfeld, quarterback

What it means: Although Jared Goff has proven to be the starter, Detroit needs depth at the position. So, this re-signing helps do that. General manager Brad Holmes said he will make having quality backups a priority this offseason so don’t expect the Lions to be done here.

What's the risk: There’s a major risk if the Lions don’t sign or draft another backup for Goff. Sudfeld appeared in only two games last season and didn’t register any stats. So, this signing alone doesn’t address the situation successfully.

Michael Badgley, kicker

What it means: The Lions address their kicker situation by bringing back a proven option. Badgley joined the Lions on the practice squad after being released by the Bears. He ultimately took over the job, hitting 20-of-24 field goals and all 33 extra points last season. His longest field goal was 53 yards in 2023. He was also named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for Week 13.

What's the risk: There isn’t much of a risk with this move. The Lions struggled in this department before signing Badgley in October, who helped stop the bleeding. Detroit will still likely add some competition for the job through the draft or free agency. However, his strong play last year, when he helped stabilize the situation, earned him an opportunity to return as the starter. He’ll have to work for it though.

Jake McQuaide, long snapper

McQuaide is returning to the Lions on a one-year, $1.317 million deal.

What it means: Brad Holmes’ ties to the Los Angeles Rams are thick and he leans on them often. This is another example. A two-time Pro Bowl selection in 2016 and 2017 from his days with the Rams, McQuaide has spent the past two seasons in Dallas, though appeared just four games last year due to a torn triceps muscle that ended his season. McQuaide has played in seven playoff games and has 12 seasons of NFL experience on his resume.

What's the risk: Assuming he's 100% healthy after the injury, there’s minimal risk with this move. McQuaide, 35, adds a veteran presence to a young team filled with players mostly under 30 years old. In addition to the production on the field, this could be a good move for the locker room as well.