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Detroit Lions 2016 free agency analysis

A breakdown of the Detroit Lions players entering free agency in 2016, including Restricted and Exclusive Rights Free Agents.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

March 7 is the beginning of the "tampering period" for NFL free agents. The tampering period is a three day window, ending March 9, in which a player's agents can talk with teams to which they aren't under contract. This gives them the opportunity to gauge interest in players before they can officially sign on to any team. This window is controversial because players can't officially agree to anything and aren't supposed to discuss specifics, but it's impossible to enforce properly. In many ways, that means that March 7 marks the start of free agency.

With that in mind, the idea here is to give an overview of which players the Detroit Lions have that will be available in free agency, and what can be expected of them. This can be taken in combination with the earlier post on the state of the Detroit Lions' cap space, and the state of the Detroit Lions' roster to help shape expectations for what will be happening in the lead up to the NFL Draft in April.

Free Agents By Position and Type of FA

2015 starters are in bold, defined as 50%+ snaps in at least 6 games.

2015 significant contributors are in italics, defined as 25%+ snaps in at least 6 games

Name Position Age 2015 Cap Hit Type of FA
Haloti Ngata DT 32 $8,500,000 UFA
Stephen Tulloch ILB 31 $5,800,000 UFA
Jason Jones DE 29 $3,983,333 UFA
Manny Ramirez G 33 $3,000,000 UFA
James Ihedigbo SS 32 $2,000,000 UFA
Isa Abdul-Quddus FS 27 $1,500,000 UFA
Tahir Whitehead OLB 25 $713,000 UFA
Travis Lewis ILB 28 $674,793 UFA
Darryl Tapp DE 31 $665,000 UFA
Lance Moore WR 32 $665,000 UFA
Don Muhlbach LS 34 $665,000 UFA
Dan Orlovsky QB 32 $665,000 UFA
Josh Wilson CB 30 $665,000 UFA
Jermelle Cudjo DT 29 $660,000 UFA
C.J. Wilson DE 28 $494,188 UFA
Corey Wootton DT 28 $428,000 UFA
Crezdon Butler CB 28 $275,294 UFA
Bear Pascoe TE 30 $103,325 UFA
Tim Wright TE 25 $585,000 RFA
Corey Fuller WR 25 $510,000 ERFA
Brandon Copeland OLB 24 $460,000 ERFA
Khyri Thornton DT 26 $338,411 ERFA
George Winn RB 25 $330,000 ERFA
Isaiah Johnson FS 23 $204,705 ERFA
Braxston Cave CB 26 $25,588 ERFA

Free Agents by Offense/Defense

Starters Significant Contributors Other Total
Defense 5 2 8 15
Offense 2 1 6 9

Unrestricted Free Agents

$1 million 2015 cap hit

Tahir Whitehead (OLB) – It’s hard to know what Whitehead’s status will be. He started the year in the dog house for unspecified reasons. He never got even one-third of the snaps in the first five games and didn’t pass 50 percent of snaps until Week 10. However, he received over 70 percent of snaps in seven of the last eight games. He plays well while he’s in, but there is obviously some reluctance among the coaching staff to play him. He was a steal at $713,000 last year, and should be looking for double that this year. He’d still be worth it, but it depends on how the coaching staff feels.

Travis Lewis (ILB) – For the first time in his career, Travis Lewis got a significant amount of playing time on defense. This was a mistake. His playing time increased until Week 8, when he stopped playing defense entirely. He’s still only 28, but he’s shown a cap on how much he can do. He was useful on special teams, though. If they bring him back, that’ll be the only reason, which puts a pretty hard cap on how much they’ll be willing to spend. I wouldn’t expect him back.

Darryl Tapp (DE) – One of the older guys on the team (31), Tapp has been slowly moving up the depth chart. When he got cut last year, Tapp re-dedicated himself to proving his worth. With the turnover on the defensive line, he got more playing time, and proved a reliable rotational defensive end. With the dearth of defensive linemen on the team, Tapp would be a good player to bring back to bolster the depth on the team, and likely won’t cost much either.

Lance Moore (WR) – Moore came to the team hoping to prove that his stint in Pittsburgh was a fluke, and he could still perform. While he didn’t show anything of significance, he also didn’t completely flop. With Calvin leaving, it’s possible he gets re-signed, but I don’t think it’s likely. He’ll be 33 next season, and he has never really done a lot. I’d expect them to move on, but they could also bring him back at minimum to compete for a depth spot.

Don Muhlbach (LS) –Not a lot to say here. He’s Don Muhlbach. There’s no reason to think he won’t be back again.

Dan Orlovsky (QB) – I highlighted the backup QB position in the positional breakdown as a point of potential conflict for general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Jim Caldwell. New England has preferred younger quarterbacks behind their starter, and Caldwell has preferred established vets. If they go with the established vet, Safety Dan is probably back for league minimum again. Otherwise, he’ll be gone.

Josh Wilson (CB) – Wilson was a reliable nickel back for the first half of the year. When he got hurt, Quandre Diggs passed him, and performed even better. As a 32-year old journeyman, Wilson is unlikely to get a starting job anywhere. If they see Diggs as an outside CB, Wilson is definitely back. If not, they might still bring him back as depth. Cornerbacks get injured, and there’s no such thing as too much depth.

Jermelle Cudjo (DT) – Cudjo fell just short of the "significant contributor" label. After Haloti Ngata, Caraun Reid, and Tyrunn Walker, there was a group of three DTs taking the DT3 and DT4 snaps: Gabe Wright, Cudjo, and Khyri Thornton. With only Reid and Wright still on the team, it’s reasonable to expect one or more of those rotational DTs back. Of them, Cudjo is the oldest, and got his snaps earlier on in the season. He could be back cheap, but I’d expect him to be gone.

C.J. Wilson (DE) – Wilson was last on the pecking order at DE last year, even after Philip Hunt. He rotated in a lot near the end of the year but was signed to the team late in the season. They might bring him back as a camp body, but I wouldn’t expect any commitment to him. A "last in, first out" situation.

Corey Wootton (DT) – Not a lot to say about Wootton. He never played a single snap for the Lions, despite injuries, at various points to Reid, Ngata, and Wright ahead of him. I don’t see him coming back.

Crezdon Butler (CB) – Butler hasn’t done a lot on defense. For the half of the season he was on the team, though, he primarily played on special teams. He doesn’t bring a lot, and I don’t think it’s likely he’s re-signed unless it’s later in the year after a rash of injuries.

Bear Pascoe (TE) – Pascoe filled in when Pettigrew got injured at the end of last year. A 30-year old journeyman blocking TE is a bit of a niche fit, and there was a reason he was available in the middle of December. It’s unlikely that he’s back.

$1 million - $4.5 million 2015 cap hit

Isa Abdul-Quddus (S) – Abdul-Quddus took about 28 percent of the defensive snaps in 2014. In 2015, he stepped it up to over 50 percent. In the first half, he only averaged about 30 percent of snaps, but that number jumped to 80 percent in the final half of the season. At only 26 years old, he probably wants to test out free agency and see what he can get. I expect the Lions to re-sign him, though. He’ll probably remain in this range, and probably remain in the lower end of it. I’d expect him to be looking for a multi-year deal, too.

James Ihedigbo (S) Digs had a very strong first year in Detroit, but a very weak second. He’s 32 years old with nagging injuries, and his replacement seems to have risen already. It’s probably a good thing he’s moving on. He was a great complement to Glover Quin, but the emphasis is on was.

Manny Ramirez (OG) – After starting the year as the most reliable offensive lineman on the team, he was inexplicably sat in Week 6, and only made brief reappearances for injuries. As a flexible player on the offensive interior, he brought a lot to the team. He’s going to be looking for an opportunity elsewhere, which likely means that he was told he wouldn’t get the chance to start on the Lions.

Jason Jones (DE) – The second-most entrenched player going to free agency this year, Jason Jones was signed in 2013, and lost his first year to injury. He’s on the older end, turning 30 this year, and his injuries are a little worrisome. But in 2014, he established himself as the primary edge rusher opposite Ezekiel Ansah. This last year saw him cede some of that role to Devin Taylor, who edged him out with 52.5 percent of snaps versus Jones’ 51.7 percent. Part of that was due to injury, with him combining for two snaps in the last two weeks. $4 million is a bit much for his contributions last year, but not completely out of line. Given the cap space available, I could see him being re-signed for a similar amount as his last contract. He’s still got quite a bit in the tank, but it depends a lot on Quinn’s plans for the team.

$4.5 million+ 2015 cap hit

Stephen Tulloch (ILB) – For years, Tulloch was one of the most underrated players in the league. He consistently outperformed his contract, his expectations, and his peers. His focus, ability to control the run, and ability to read the offense and react was an integral component in the development of defensive linemen and DeAndre Levy. His injury came at an unfortunate time, and we’re left wondering what would have happened if he hadn’t torn his ACL after sacking Aaron Rodgers. Regardless, he did, and never fully recovered from the injury. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but he still has some left in the tank. That tank, however, is almost certainly going to be somewhere else.

Haloti Ngata (DT) – From the time Ngata was acquired, there have been rumblings of a contract extension. These haven’t abated, but the size of the contract is a pretty big sticking point made all the stickier by his performance last year. Ngata is a former All-Pro DT, but he is now 32. He was injured to start last year, but recovered and returned to form. He wasn’t the pass rusher that Ndamukong Suh was, but he didn’t need to be given the edge pressure. He got paid $16 million last year, but the Lions only paid $8.5 million. Where does that put him? Hard to price. I think his next contract will probably be for over $6 million per year, but under $10 million per year. Where it falls in there depends on too many people’s opinions not to test the market, I think.

Exclusive Rights/Restricted Free Agents

These are players that the Detroit Lions have first claim on when they hit free agency, if the Lions so choose. In order to exercise these rights, they must submit a qualifying offer. Restricted free agents can be offered one of three kinds of contracts: Either a Right of First Refusal contract, a Second Round Tender, or a First Round Tender. With any qualifying offer, the team gets the option to sign the player to any contract they are offered in free agency. If the player is given a tender for a round, the team receives that round pick if they choose not to match the offer.

First Round tender - $3,635,000

Second Round tender - $2,553,000

Right of First Refusal - $1,671,000

I doubt any of these players will get more than a Right of First Refusal. As we saw last year with George Johnson, these players can be traded for lower picks if appropriate.

If a player is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, they don’t even have the ability to negotiate with another team. Any contract offer at all qualifies, and none of the money is guaranteed. In some cases, the team might want a multi-year contract, but 1-year contract at minimum salary is generally expected.

All tenders must be made by March 9, which is the end of the tampering period.

Timothy Wright (TE) – As a RFA, the question for him comes down to whether he is worth $1.7 million or not. Since he just finished off a three-year contract averaging $500,000 per year for three different teams, that seems unlikely. I wouldn’t expect him to be tendered. If they can bring him back for minimum, it’s possible. However, since he ended the year buried behind Bear Pascoe on the depth chart, and last got more than 15 percent of snaps in Week 6, I don’t think it’s likely. I would expect him to be gone.

[Editor's note: On Thursday, the Lions offered all six of the following ERFAs contracts, leaving the players the choice to either sign the tenders or sit out the 2016 NFL season]

Corey Fuller (WR) In 2014, Fuller took significant snaps in every game. In 2015, he was hoping to build on his disappointing 2014 production with more playing time by filling in as a deep threat to spell Calvin Johnson. This was not what happened. Besides getting severely fewer snaps, he didn't pass fourth on the wide receiver rotation in any game. With the potential short-hand at wide receiver, he may come back, but expectations should be tempered. The Lions are likely already looking for his replacement.

Brandon Copeland (OLB) – If he were an RFA, I’d expect him to be gone. Since the Lions have exclusive rights on him, though, there’s a good chance he comes back. He never played much, but he’d be worthwhile as a camp body for $500,000 with no guarantees.

Khyri Thornton (DT) – Thornton is an interesting case. He played in six games, and averaged about 28 percent of the DT snaps in them. Those six games came in weeks 11-16. At 26-years old, and never having played for another team, he’s the exact kind of player you want to hold onto. The fact that he is an ERFA, costs nothing to sign, and the Lions are weak at DT are just bonuses. I’d look for him to get more of a look in the preseason, hoping to make a case for staying as the third DT in rotation.

George Winn (RB) – Winn came in the last offseason hoping to establish himself as Bell’s back-up. Then Zach Zenner happened, and Winn got pushed down to the back-up’s back-up. I don’t think he gets cut loose, just because RBs get hurt, and Winn has shown he can be a power back in the NFL. But I expect him to be on the 53 or 75 man roster cuts to go on the practice squad.

Isaiah Johnson (FS) – Johnson was a priority UDFA in the last offseason. With the dearth of safeties on the team, and the lack of risk in signing him as an ERFA, I think he gets signed. As with Winn, though, I think he is going to be playing for a practice squad spot when the 75 and 53 man cuts come around.

Braxston Cave (C) – Interestingly, center is a position that is already overloaded with young guys who haven’t proven anything. Between Travis Swanson as a sub-par starter, Gabe Ikard claimed off waivers (who will be an RFA in 2017), and Darren Keyton (who will be an ERFA in 2017), Cave is actually the oldest Center on the roster. I don’t see any value in bringing him back. He’s likely to get cut from the 90-man roster if they do sign him.