For Detroit, the offseason started with a less-than-shocking change at the head coaching position when the team and Lions General Manager Bob Quinn decided to move on from Jim Caldwell.
Since then, the team’s head coaching search has progressed significantly. From looking internally for the answer—offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and now former defensive coordinator Teryl Austin—to scouring the market of coveted coordinators, it seems as though Detroit finally has their guy. Matt Patricia emerged as an early frontrunner, and according to an Albert Breer tweet, the Lions have informed other potential candidates that they’re moving forward with Patricia as their new head coach.
While the coaching search is undoubtedly Quinn’s top priority—and until that’s truly settled in ink, nothing else matters—he has some tough personnel decisions to make this offseason. The Lions have 17 unrestricted free agents, six exclusive rights free agents—ERFAs aren’t able to negotiate with other teams as their rights belong exclusively to the team that tendered a contract to them—and four restricted free agents. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 27 players in total.
Quinn has talked about making sure the 30 percent of talent turnover that NFL teams typically experience is better than the 30 percent they lose to free agency. Below are all the impending free agents Detroit has on their roster for now, divided into tiers based on their free agent status and ranked based on answering the question of how the Lions can improve their personnel turnover.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFAs)
6. Rodney Coe
5. Kasey Redfern
4. Christian Ringo
3. Jace Billingsley
2. Jake Rudock
1. Kerry Hyder
While this is a short list of players, and a list filled with players Detroit already has viable starters in place instead of these guys, it has a couple names that could be valuable to the team moving forward, albeit for much different reasons.
Kerry Hyder, should he recover and bounce back to his 2016 form after suffering an Achilles injury in the preseason, could be a legitimate contributor and above-average depth along the Lions defensive line. He’s versatile, being able to play both inside and outside, and while the Lions need to upgrade some of their starters along that defensive front, Hyder’s presence would provide a huge boost.
Jake Rudock’s place as the backup quarterback in Detroit is solidified after spending his first full-time season behind Matthew Stafford. While many view Rudock as a potentially valuable trade asset, especially after the rumors last preseason, Rudock’s most valuable role could end up being a sense of stability and consistency backing up Stafford.
Restricted Free Agents (RFAs)
4. Zac Kerin
3. Brandon Copeland
2. Zach Zenner
1. TJ Jones
With how little Zach Zenner played this season, combined with the “emergence” of Tion Green and a coaching change, it certainly seems like it could be the end of the line for Zenner in Detroit.
T.J. Jones, on the other hand, definitely played his way into earning another shot to make the team next summer. Jones put up career numbers across the board, catching 30 passes for 399 yards and a touchdown in 14 games.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs)
17. Don Barclay
16. Mike James
15. Greg Robinson
14. Dwight Freeney
Group “Don’t count on it”
Other than maybe Mike James, the Lions are most likely moving on from everyone listed above. Freeney is a tweet away from retirement, and the franchise’s decision to move on from Jim Caldwell, a connection that certainly played a factor in Freeney signing with Detroit, is the writing on the wall.
Don Barclay’s performance in Cincinnati was enough to know the Lions could do better by bringing in an undrafted rookie this offseason to groom and compete at a fraction of the cost. While the Greg Robinson experiment seemed worth it on paper, a change in scheme and scenery didn’t do the trick for the former No. 2 overall pick.
13. Nick Bellore
12. Jordan Hill
11. Paul Worrilow
Group “The Old Newbies”
All three defensive players were brought in last season as free agents, and with the exception of Jordan Hill, who lost his 2017 season due to injury, the two linebackers ended up playing relatively significant roles in Detroit. Bellore logged time on special teams and defense, but was also the team’s de facto fullback, catching a touchdown pass against the Baltimore Ravens.
Paul Worrilow was a divisive player ever since the Lions inked him to a deal early on in free agency. Detroit was in desperate need of linebacking help after a tumultuous 2016 season, but signing Worrilow didn’t seem like the type of move to necessarily fix that. What he did bring to the table was a knack for performing on special teams, something Quinn absolutely values and takes into account with the bottom third of his roster.
10. Don Muhlbach
You don’t ever count out Don Muhlbach. Bob Quinn’s biggest rookie mistake as general manager was deciding to draft Jimmy Landes to replace the tried-and-true long snapper. However, as the offseason moves along, stick with Pride of Detroit as we keep you updated on all things #LONGSNAPPERWATCH2018.
9. Don Carey
Another veteran who brings so much to the special teams side of the ball, Don Carey will be 31 before the start of next season. Carey signed a one-year deal back in November of 2016 to keep him in Detroit through last season, and as a gunner on the punt team, Carey has been valuable staple of that unit for the past few years. Should his next deal be as favorable as his last, it’s easy to see Quinn keeping Carey in Detroit.
8. Travis Swanson
Of any player on this list, finding the right spot for Travis Swanson in these rankings was the most difficult. Swanson’s level of play in 2017 took a noticeable dip—ranked 33rd among qualifying centers on Pro Football Focus—from his promising performance during the 2016 season. With Graham Glasgow making a smoother transition to center from left guard than many expected, Swanson could be on the way out. Beyond just his play, however, what can’t be ignored about Swanson is the role concussions have played in his career.
Concussions are starting to become a reoccurring problem for the center. In 2016, Swanson suffered a concussion against the New Orleans Saints, cutting his first truly productive campaign short. His 2017 season also ended prematurely due to a concussion sustained in the Lions victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14. After these types of injuries have landed him on injured reserve over the past two seasons, Swanson’s football playing career may be in jeopardy.
7. Tavon Wilson
Wilson’s season in 2017 was cut short due to a shoulder injury that landed him on IR, but he did appear in ten games this past season, starting in nine of them.
A former Patriot that Quinn brought with him from New England last season, Wilson’s number was most often called for defending the run, something he did an adequate job of in 2017. Wilson could be viable depth for the Lions, but there are quite a few options the team has going into next season should they decide to move on from the veteran.
Miles Killebrew didn’t take the leap during his sophomore season that many expected, but still under his rookie contract, he’s virtually a lock to make the roster. After Wilson’s injury, Detroit moved Quandre Diggs from nickel corner to safety, a position where he played some of his best football.
6. Nevin Lawson
Lawson was another player many fans were hoping to see build off of a rather successful season in 2016, but things went south in a hurry for the corner opposite of Darius Slay. By Week 8, Lawson’s playing time decreased significantly, and often times it was D.J. Hayden earning more opportunities to play on the outside in favor of Nevin.
After earning an overall grade of 76 from Pro Football Focus, Lawson’s overall grade for 2017 was just 41.7, ranking him 113th among qualifying cornerbacks. Considering he’ll be just 27 years old by the start of next season, it could be worth it for the Lions to bring him back if he’s someone willing to accept a team-friendly contract—and, of course, he fits in with what the new coach wants to accomplish on defense.
5. D.J. Hayden
Brought in during 2017’s free agency, Hayden was in search of a chance to hit the restart button after things failed to work out with the Oakland Raiders—the team who drafted him with the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Hayden’s play saw its share of ups and downs, but he did finish second, tied with Quandre Diggs, for the most passes defended on the team. Similar to Lawson, Hayden is still relatively young, 28 by the time the season starts in 2018, and should he be willing to come back on another one-year, incentive-laden deal, Hayden could be back in Detroit for an encore.
4. Darren Fells
Detroit brought in Fells before they spent a draft pick on Michael Roberts in last year’s draft, but that didn’t seem to alter the team’s plans for Fells. In five of his sixteen games played, Fells saw more than 40 snaps in each of those contests, and never played less than 24 snaps in 2017.
Fells should be high on the Lions’ list of priorities heading into free agency. If not, Detroit will have to find another option, likely in free agency with just five picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.
3. Haloti Ngata
Detroit has quite the list of needs this offseason, and one position they need to address by not only restocking with depth, but also finding a starter to pair with A’Shawn Robinson, is defensive tackle. The Lions saw plenty of faces come and go all along the defensive line, but the loss of Ngata last season clearly had an impact on the unit’s ability to stop the run and generate pressure.
Before the start of the 2017 season, it seemed like Ngata was preparing for the last season of his football career. In May, Ngata saw a neurologist for tests on his brain before making a decision to play last season as more and more players are becoming aware of the long-term effects of concussions.
Ngata would prefer to play for the Lions in 2018, and the cost of bringing back a respected veteran player like him would be worth it for a franchise still trying to find its footing after losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley a few seasons ago.
2. Tahir Whitehead
Whitehead was as divisive a player the Lions had on their roster heading into last season. He was forced to play middle linebacker for a team that was woefully undermanned with talent at linebacker, and playing out of position resulted in Whitehead struggling mightily—he posted a grade of 36.5 on Pro Football Focus.
In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Lions tended to their need at linebacker, drafting Jarrad Davis to man the middle and allowing Tahir to slide back over to his more natural position on the outside in the process. Whitehead responded about as well as anyone could have expected, finishing with the most tackles for loss (8) and 110 tackles—and posting a 79.6 grade on Pro Football Focus (25th among 87 qualifying linebackers).
Along with Davis, the Lions drafted Jalen Reeves-Maybin who played a lot like a rookie in 2017, making eye-popping plays in the best and worst ways possible. As the Lions continue to groom their next group of linebackers, it would make a lot of sense for Detroit to retain a proven and reliable commodity like Whitehead.
1. Ezekiel Ansah
As far as personnel decisions go, this has to be Quinn’s most difficult challenge to date as Lions GM.
Ansah’s past two seasons have been injury-plagued campaigns filled with some intense highs—six of his 12 sacks in 2017 came against the Giants and Bengals—but those performances were few and far in between.
When healthy, everyone knows what Ansah is capable of doing. There isn’t any clear way handling this situation, especially because it’s unknown if we’re ever going to see him healthy and back to his 2015 form. Ansah agreeing to any type of one-year, prove-it type deal is unlikely, so he seems like a prime candidate for the Lions to use the franchise tag on to see if he can stay off the injury report.