The Detroit Lions are beginning to think about how they will approach the 2023 offseason, and free agency is just around the corner for the team.
Before the Lions start pondering how to spend all their cap space on external free agents, they will need to consider which players need to come back from their roster last season.
Like in the last few years, the Lions have several players who earned their keep and have become excellent culture builders for the franchise. While the team’s list of pending free agents is long, it’s easy to narrow down which players should be the first to return.
Here’s a look at some key names the Lions need to bring back immediately this offseason from within.
Justin Jackson, Running Back
Running backs might be a dime a dozen in the NFL and easy to find, but Justin Jackson was a real score for the Lions this year after they added him as a free agent.
Jackson fought his way on the team in training camp and continued to make his imprint on the roster all season long. Statistically, he was solid with 271 total yards on 42 touches and two touchdowns. Perhaps his best run came in a 34-23 upset win against Minnesota in the fourth quarter on second-and-10 to pad Detroit’s lead:
Jackson’s determination and physicality was a constant asset to the offense, as was his pass catching, given his 12 receptions on the season was a fantastic total. The Lions seemed to find something unique Jackson, who is a great third option out of the backfield for the team.
He might not be the first player folks would think to re-sign, but Jackson offered major value to the Lions’ offense that cannot be missed. He needs to come back as a result.
John Cominsky, Defensive Line
Gritty John Cominsky was a coveted free agent before he latched on with the Lions, and most of this past season, it was easy to see why that was the case.
With his energetic and tough approach, statistically, Cominsky enjoyed his best season in the NFL with Detroit, posting 30 total tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble and three passes defended. All season long, he continued to show his strength to the roster and the defense throughout the year. Constantly, he collapsed the pocket up front and was responsible on the edge.
Cominsky has made public pleas to return in recent days, and the Lions can’t ignore him. He should arguably be the first free agent the team re-signs in the coming days given his play and his perfect fit with the franchise.
Isaiah Buggs, Defensive Tackle
If there was one guy who seemed to embody everything Detroit was about, it was Isaiah Buggs, who played a very gritty season for the Lions after being signed as a depth piece for the team before camp.
During the season, Buggs put up a total of 46 combined tackles, one pass defended and one sack. Additionally, he has been an anchor up front for the Lions in the middle of the line with Alim McNeill. The Lions needed his emergence given the health struggles of Levi Onwuzurike, Josh Paschal and others.
Buggs also became a team leader, something that became obvious when he was mic’d up late in the season.
Buggs has said he wants to return, and the Lions shouldn’t mess around with this situation. Given their need for young impact depth players along the defensive line, Buggs needs to come back.
DJ Chark, Wide Receiver
This season, wideout DJ Chark took some time to show his true value to the team thanks to injury. When he was able to return, the impact he made on the game was undeniable.
Chark became a trusted member of the offense, and was relied upon down the stretch. His biggest game came against Jacksonville, a 40-14 blowout win by Detroit.
Chark would finish with 98 yards on the game, and achieve a measure of revenge against his former team. All day long, he was a dependable receiver for the Lions, and made the kind of plays the Lions had been hoping for with the deep ball.
From there, Chark has gone on to have a few more other fantastic games. He posted a 94 yard, one-touchdown game against Minnesota. Then, he collected a 108-yard performance against Carolina in Week 16 with a few fantastic catches.
If he can stay healthy, Chark proved he is a scheme fit and a culture fit in Detroit. While the health is a risk, the Lions should be willing to bank on the notion that Chark proved his worth when he was able to be in the game. For that reason, he should come back.
DeShon Elliott, Safety
The Lions have a big need on the back end, and they have at least one player who made a major case to return with his play in 2022 in 25 year-old safety DeShon Elliott.
Elliott churned out more than a few big plays for Detroit, and possibly the best he made down the stretch was the forced fumble on second-and-six in the first quarter that set the tone against Jacksonville. Without that, the Lions may not get off to such a quality start in a game they would go on to win 40-14.
Signed to a one-year deal this offseason, Elliott made a case to stay as a key young piece. That’s especially true given the fact he has 96 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble, which were solid numbers to finish the season.
Elliott also showed he has the goods for Detroit, standing up for his team in the face of Aaron Rodgers. There’s a lot to love about the fit here, which should make a return a priority.