Lions prioritize draft over splashy moves in free agency

The Lions will seek help for DE Aidan Hutchinson along the line via the draft and possibly free agency. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

DETROIT -- For the Detroit Lions, the 2023 season was certainly one to remember.

The organization won its first division championship in three decades, tied the franchise record for most wins in a season (12) and reached the NFC Championship Game under the guidance of third-year coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes.

So the question now is: What's next?

History suggests Holmes and Campbell won't be making any bold moves through free agency when the window opens on March 13, but they'll do their due diligence.

The Lions are expected to have upward of $55 million in cap space and they have the No. 29 pick in the first round of the NFL draft.

Although this year's salary cap will be $30.6 million more per team than last year's $224.8 million, Holmes has said he will remain selective and strategic in identifying top free agents.

Ideally, the Lions want to acquire the best players through the draft, develop them and re-sign them once they're eligible for an extension, such as wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, Pro Bowl offensive lineman Penei Sewell and defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who are all eligible for extensions this offseason.

"That's why we always talk about how selective and strategic we do have to be in free agency, because you don't really know these players," Holmes said during Tuesday's availability at the NFL combine. "You see what you see on film, but like I've told all of you that's the easy, coherent part. Can a guy come off the football? OK. That's easy. But you don't really know them, and so that's why you have to be real careful, but when you draft and you know your own guys, you feel a lot more comfortable."

The biggest needs for the Lions in free agency and the draft include outside cornerback, defensive end, offensive guard, defensive tackle and wide receiver. Some of their notable free agents include safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and wide receiver Josh Reynolds, but perhaps their biggest priority will be whether to extend veteran quarterback Jared Goff.

Coming off one of the best years of his career, Goff will be entering the final year of his contract next season. Although the Lions haven't reached a decision on Goff's future, it'll be interesting to see if they lock him down as their guy for the short term or long term based on his recent play, which included becoming the third quarterback in franchise history to record multiple playoff wins. They were the Lions' first playoff wins in more than three decades.

Defensively, there was inconsistency, particularly in the pass rush and the secondary.

The Lions could benefit from adding depth at cornerback and pairing another edge rusher with Aidan Hutchinson.

With offensive guards Jonah Jackson and Graham Glasgow also set to enter free agency, the Lions could consider adding depth on the interior offensive line.

"If you want to be a good team, you have to draft well and then you re-sign those guys. That's your core, and then you find the right pieces of free agents to fill in with. We both believe that," Campbell said "So, I think you've got to be careful. You want to go spend top dollar on a free agent that's not your own, you want to know everything about that player before you bring him into your locker room.

"I mean, you can see the tape on all these ... whereas your own guys, you pay top dollar for your own guys that are worthy from production because you know everything about them. It's something we believe in, it's something we're gonna continue to do."