Before we get into the draft, even before we start dreaming about some of the players available in free agency a couple months from now, the Detroit Lions will have to make some key decisions on their own. 21 different players are currently unsigned for 2019, and while a good chunk of turnover is expected for every season, the Lions would be wise to keep some of these players around.
Here’s a look at the 21 potential free agents the Lions will be evaluating, ranked in order of likelihood to be re-signed.
Exclusive-rights free agents (3)
3. DE Mitchell Loewen
2. S Charles Washington
1. LB Steve Longa
If desired, the Lions can bring all three players back on cheap deals without having to worry about losing them to another team. Exclusive-right free agent deals are just as the name suggest: exclusive. If Detroit sends them an offer, the players’ only options are sign the deal or sit out the season.
Of the three, Loewen is the least-known commodity. Detroit picked him up off of waivers just days before their season finale against the Packers, and he did not play in that game. In fact, he’s only played in three games since entering the league as an undrafted prospect in 2016. But Detroit adding him so late in the season suggests they may want to see him around next year.
As for Charles Washington and Steve Longa, both have enough special teams value to warrant a roster spot among the 90 this offseason. Longa was missed both on special teams and as linebacker depth, something the Lions still need.
Restricted free agents (2)
2. Kerry Hyder
1. Romeo Okwara
This one is pretty easy. Despite being healthy for most of the year, Kerry Hyder Jr. was active for just seven games this season. On the other hand, the Lions clearly valued Romeo Okwara. The early-season addition led all defensive linemen in playing time, participating in a total of 72.7 percent of snaps this year.
Hyder is almost certainly gone, while Okwara will almost certainly be back. The question is what tender the Lions will place on Okwara?
A restricted free agent tender allows a team to lock in a one-year deal at a set amount, while also allowing the player to seek another team in free agency. If another team decides to pay the player more, they must send a draft pick to the original team based on the tender value. Last year, here were the contract terms for each type of tender:
First-round tenders are valued at $4.149 million in 2018.
Second-round tenders are $2.914 million.
Original-round and low-level tenders are $1.907 million.
Those figures are likely to rise with an expected increase in the salary cap, but a second-round tender seem like a reasonable deal for Okwara while also ensuring another team doesn’t swipe him for a Day 2 pick.
Unrestricted free agents (16)
Tier “Thank you for your service”
16. RB LeGarrette Blount
15. CB DeShawn Shead
14. TE Luke Willson
These three were band-aids the Lions hoped would provide more support than they actually did. Blount never blossomed into the short-yardage back they Lions were in desperate need of and provided far too many negative plays than positive ones. DeShawn Shead could barely make the field despite the team’s clear need for a reliable cornerback. And Luke Willson was a versatile blocker at times, but a huge disappointment as a receiver.
Detroit needs an upgrade at all three positions.
Tier “There may be something left, but not likely”
13. LB Kelvin Sheppard
12. CB Marcus Cooper
11. OT Andrew Donnal
10. WR Bruce Ellington
9. WR TJ Jones
Marcus Cooper and Kelvin Sheppard represent in-season replacements that Detroit kicked the tires on to help some thin defensive units. Neither made a particularly noticeable impact, but at least Cooper has the youth to potentially warrant another shot.
Andrew Donnal somehow managed to stay on the roster for almost the entire year after Detroit picked him off waivers prior to Week 1. However, for most of the year he was either injured or inactive. A more-experienced Tyrell Crosby should make him expendable.
At wide receiver, both Bruce Ellington and TJ Jones disappointed in 2018. The Lions will certainly need depth at the position in 2019, opening the door for either to return. However, both failed to make a strong case for themselves when given the opportunities late in the season.
Tier “The Lions may not have a choice but to bring them back”
8. DE Eli Harold
7. QB Matt Cassel
6. FB Nick Bellore
5. DT Ricky Jean Francois
Each one of these players can fill a much-needed role in 2019 and has shown just enough to be considered for the job. Eli Harold looked extremely promising early in the season, tallying 3.0 sacks in his first three games following the trade from the 49ers, but Detroit relied less on him after the birth of his child. Matt Cassel barely played at all, but is a quick—albeit underwhelming—fix to Detroit’s need for a backup quarterback. Nick Bellore was an adequate fullback in 2018, but the Lions may want Nick Bawden in that role now that he should be healthy. Lastly, Ricky Jean Francois was a powerful leader in the locker room and a reasonable rotational player on the defensive line. But with A’Shawn Robinson, Da’Shawn Hand and Damon Harrison Sr. all playing at the top of their game now, is Francois’ leadership still necessary?
Tier “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE HEALTHY AND MAKE THIS EASY?”
4. Ezekiel Ansah
Ansah’s talent is still undeniable, but unfortunately neither is his injury history. The Lions took a big risk giving him a the franchise tag last year, and it didn’t pay off. Who knows what kind of deal Ansah will be seeking or what other teams will be offering? But if the Lions can somehow keep Ansah in Detroit with an incentive-laden deal, it may be worth it for the pass rush-needy team.
Tier “Earned another shot”
3. LS Don Muhlbach
2. RB Zach Zenner
1. TE Levine Toilolo
Don Muhlbach has been good enough to warrant a lifelong contract in Detroit and should retire on his own terms.
Zach Zenner ran for 237 yards and 4.65 yards per carry in the final four games of the season. He deserves a legitimate shot at Detroit No. 2 running back job next year.
Lastly, Levine Toilolo was the No. 1 ranked pass blocking tight end in the league, and even emerged as a possible receiving threat late in the season. He should, by no means, be the team’s No. 1 tight end in 2019, but he’d certainly be a valuable TE2 or TE3 in 2019.