When the Detroit Lions parted ways with Martin Mayhew in 2015, there was a clear goal in mind: build a championship-caliber team. Bob Quinn, a key figure to the New England Patriots dynasty, was brought in to turn around a team that kept falling short of playoff success.
2020 is almost finished, and so too is the Quinn era. After five years of work, the Lions only have a single playoff appearance—a blowout loss to the Seahawks in the 2016 season—to show for it.
What went wrong?
A general manager is tasked with acquiring talent through multiple means: draft, trading, and signings. Today, I want to focus on the free agent moves that Quinn made over his tenure with the Lions and try to pinpoint what went wrong. His drafting had hits and misses, certainly, but much as already been said about the likes of Jarrad Davis, Teez Tabor, Kenny Golladay, or T.J. Hockenson.
For the sake of brevity, I will only be focusing on free agent signings of note—no re-signings or draft picks, nor any signings below $3 million per season. A low-cost signing failing to pan out does not necessarily reflect poorly on the general manager.
Marvin Jones, WR: 5 years, $40 million
It was a very quiet debut season for Quinn, and his only splash signing was former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Marvin Jones. Superstar receiver Calvin Johnson had just retired, and while Golden Tate was a great complementary piece, he was just that: complimentary. Jones could never fill the shoes of the potential Hall of Famer, but he performed quite admirably in the offense, although his later seasons were marred with injury. Given that the free agent pool included the likes of Alshon Jeffery (who was franchised by the Bears), Travis Benjamin, and Michael Floyd, Jones turned into arguably the best of the bunch for a pretty fair price.
Rick Wagner, OT: 5 years, $47.5 million
The Lions needed to replace tackle Riley Reiff, who landed a five-year, $58.75 million contract with the Vikings. Wagner received a similarly hefty five-year, $47.5 million contract with Detroit, but the Lions never got anything more than a replacement level player. Wagner was probably a better option than Corey Robinson, but for the price tag, you would hope for more.
Akeem Spence, DT: 3 years, $9 million
Spence flew under the radar with the Buccaneers, and $3 million per season seemed a bit rich for what many viewed as a backup-level player. Spence would end up only playing a single year in Detroit, likely a victim of a defensive scheme change in 2018 with Matt Patricia. However, his contract wasn’t a killer, and he had some positive moments as a pass rusher, including three sacks and a solid PFF grade. He was also in one of my favorite football photos:
I'll forever love this picture of Ansah and Spence. pic.twitter.com/hOQ8T5Dafy— John Whiticar (@Whiticar) May 3, 2018
Cornelius Washington, DE: 2 years, $6 million
Washington had spent four seasons with the Bears in a relief role and three sacks to his name. This, for some reason, was an appealing option for the Lions. Washington added two sacks for Detroit in 2017, but there was little else positive to come from the signing, coming in as a below-average run defender and pass rusher. Washington would be cut the following season. At least his contract wasn’t significant.
Paul Worrilow, LB: 1 year, $3 million
The Lions shelled out three million for a core special teamer, and while there is some value in special teams skills, Worrilow did not warrant the contract. Worrilow filled in at times due to injuries to the linebacking corps, and he demonstrated that he should not be a starter. It was just a one-year contract, and Worrilow left the following offseason, but the Lions could have gotten a similar player for cheaper.
D.J. Hayden, CB: 1 year, $3.75 million
Hayden, the former Raiders first-round pick, was brought in to add some depth and competition behind Darius Slay, and perhaps take the nickelback position away from Quandre Diggs. Instead, Hayden largely split time with Nevin Lawson, and both players were mediocre at best. Hayden had nine passes defended, but the Lions needed an upgrade, not a stopgap.
T.J. Lang, OG: 3 years, $28.5 million
On paper, this contract for a top-tier guard seemed fair, and at times, Lang lived up to this contract. He received a Pro Bowl nod in 2017 and could have been an important part of the offensive line going forward. However, health was a key factor working against Lang, who ended up missing 13 games as a Lions in 2017 and 2018 before being released in 2019. Health is a hard thing to forecast, but it looks like the Packers made the right move letting him walk.
DeShawn Shead, CB: 1 year, $3.5 million
What was said about Hayden could also be said about Shead, although Shead did not even play the full season. Originally in competition for the CB2 position, Shead did not even make the initial 53-man roster. He was re-signed a few weeks later, but did very little before finishing the season on the Injured Reserve.
Christian Jones, LB: 2 years, $7.75 million
Bob Quinn loved giving sizeable contracts to former Bears backups. Jones was brought in to bolster a very weak linebacking group. A few years later, Jones remains on the team, but the linebackers remain a weakness. Late into the 2019 season, the front office extended Jones despite lackluster play, a move that will likely force him to be a cap casualty in 2021. At times, Jones has been the best linebacker on the team, but that speaks to how bad everyone else around him as been.
Devon Kennard, LB: 3 years, $18.75 million
With the hiring of Matt Patricia, the Lions need a jack linebacker for his defense. Kennard fit the bill after four seasons with the Giants. Kennard would end up posting 14 sacks in his two years with Detroit, but he was among the least efficient pass rushers in the league:
Overdue for an update on these.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 12, 2019
Double team rate as an edge rusher (x) by pass rush win rate as an edge rusher (y).
PRWR = rate pass rusher beats blocker in 2.5 seconds.
ESPN stats, NGS data. pic.twitter.com/L83ErcibxR
The Lions did not have a lot of depth, eventually trading for Eli Harold, so it could have been worse than Kennard.
LeGarrette Blount, RB: 1 year, $4.5 million
Blount was historically bad, and little more needs to be said. A yards per carry average of 2.7 is on par with fullbacks, not $4.5 million running backs. Worst of all, this took touches away from then-rookie Kerryon Johnson. Even Zach Zenner was a better option.
Sylvester Williams, DT: 1 year, $3.5 million
The Lions needed a nose tackle and thought the former first round pick could fill that very large void in the roster. Instead, Williams was a huge liability along the interior, and he was released after just six games. I would add more, but his tenure was extremely forgettable.
Danny Amendola, WR: 1 year, $4.5 million
With Golden Tate traded away, a slot receiver was needed for Matthew Stafford’s offense, and what better fit than a former Patriot? Amendola has been one of the better Patriots players to jump to Detroit, totaling over 1000 yards in his year and a half of service. He hasn’t been flashy, nor has he been the YAC-king Tate was, but he’s been a decent receiving option. The Lions re-upped him on another one year contract for $5 million in 2020. Amendola’s best days are certainly behind him, but his so far contracts have been fair for his production.
Justin Coleman, CB: 4 years, $36 million
If this grade was given halfway through the 2019 season, Coleman would have garnered an A+. Unfortunately, the productivity did not last. Coleman was incredible early on, totaling nine passes defended, two forced fumbles, and a pick in the first six games. Since then, he has drastically cooled off, with just five passes defended, one forced fumble, and no interceptions in the following 17 games. His coverage has not been up to snuff for a contract of that size. Even with a weak secondary around him, this is not the type of production the Lions were hoping for. Still, he is arguably the best corner on the team right now, but that says more about the rest of the team.
Trey Flowers, DE: 5 years, $90 million
Trey Flowers is a tricky signing to assess. On one hand, $90 million for a player of his caliber seemed like a fair deal, especially given that Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, and DeMarcus Lawrence were all franchised tagged. Detroit badly needed a defensive end, they had money to spend, and Flowers had experience with the coaching staff. However, Flowers was never an elite pass rusher like those three ends, never registering double-digit sacks on a season. So far for the Lions, he has been the best, most-consistent defender on the team, boasting some excellent run defense. Yet given that the NFL has become a passing league, is $90 million a lot for a player that isn’t a dynamic pass rushing threat? I think so. It was a decent signing, but at a hefty cost.
Jesse James, TE: 4 years, $22.6 million
This might be Quinn’s worst move as a general manager. The tight end position was a weakness entering the season—Hockenson had not been drafted yet—but paying the middling Jesse James over $5 million is unfathomably awful. Through almost two seasons, James has just over 250 receiving yards. He hasn’t even been an asset as a blocker. The Lions will have to eat a $4 million cap hit if they release him in 2021. At least Blount was gone after a season.
Mike Daniels, DT: 1 year, $9.1 million
Much like T.J. Lang, the Lions took a gamble on a former Packer they deemed too injury prone. Much like T.J. Lang, injuries derailed Daniels’ tenure in Detroit. Daniels was injured for most of the season, playing over 50 percent of snaps in just a single game to six tackles and a single sack. There was a lot of hype surrounding the acquisition, but it failed miserably. Although the price tag was steep, it was just one year.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, OT: 5 years, $45 million
These 2020 signings need to be taken with a grain of salt, given that we have yet to see a full season of these players in Detroit. For Halapoulivaati Vaitai, however, it is hard to be optimistic about the return on investment we have received so far. Injuries plagued Vaitai practically all season. He shifted inside to guard—to mediocre success—before ending up on the Injured Reserve, likely ending his season. Worst of all, his replacement at right tackle, Tyrell Crosby, has played decently, so it makes you wonder why the Lions paid so much for arguably their sixth-best lineman. The team had better hope he can rebound next year.
Jamie Collins, LB: 3 years, $30 million
Collins was an integral acquisition to bolster Matt Patricia’s defense, given his familiarity with the Patriots system. Collins has been great at times, awful at others, but that still makes him the best linebacker on the team. His age has been showing, struggling to cover faster backs and tight ends. Patricia has since been fired, so the future of Collins and his role on this team is thrown into question. How well will he fit into a new defense? He will likely stay around for 2021, but his contract becomes cuttable after that.
Nick Williams, DT: 2 years, $10 million
In a move reminiscent of Cornelius Washington and Christian Jones, the Lions—yet again—gave a sizable contract to a former Bears player with limited starting experience. This signing has yielded better results than the Washington signing, but it still leaves more to be desired. The Lions have been depleted along the defensive line, and Williams has seen a larger role than many expected. He has had some success, but those good snaps have come too sparsely to render Williams anything more than average. He could easily be a cap casualty next offseason.
Chase Daniel, QB: 3 years, $13.05 million
In 2019, the Lions learned the hard way that an injury to a starting quarterback can kill a team. Naturally, they tried to rectify that mistake by acquiring a dependable, experienced backup. Daniel is experienced, but paying $13 million for a player on par with David Blough is a huge misstep for the Lions. Daniel is earning more than Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Andy Dalton, all of whom had starting experience. The Lions could have gotten a younger, better, and cheaper player.
Danny Shelton, DT: 2 years, $8 million
With the departure of Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson, the Lions had practically zero depth at defensive tackle. Shelton was brought in the fulfill the role of nose tackle in Patricia’s defense. A former first-round pick in 2015, Shelton had disappointed prior to his 2019 campaign with the Patriots, a season proved to be the best of his career. The Lions rewarded him with a two-year deal, but their investment has yielded modest returns. Nose tackles are critical to run defense, and Shelton was fine in that regard. However, that was probably his lone strong suit, which speaks highly to his minimal impact. If anything, he was outplayed by rookie John Penisini. His first year in Detroit likely ended early after being placed on the Injured Reserve. I think his contract was fair at the time, and I don’t hate the move now. He is being paid less than Williams, so he gets a slightly higher grade.
Desmond Trufant, CB: 2 years, $21 million
Much like Shelton and Vaitai, Trufant ended his first year with the Lions on the Injured Reserve. Whereas Shelton was healthy for most of the season before a late knee injury, Trufant had been bothered by a hamstring injury all season long, and it prevented him from truly showing if he was a capable starter. His stats have been poor, much like the rest of the secondary, and the Lions really needed a veteran corner to fill the void left by Darius Slay’s trade. Hamstring injuries tend to linger—Julio Jones has struggled similarly with one this year—so a full offseason of recovery should be beneficial. With a limited training camp and no preseason, you have to wonder how big of a factor conditioning was. I’m tempted to give this an incomplete grade, but he was a liability in the secondary when he did play, and the Lions needed more.