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2021 Detroit Lions free agent profile: Is Tony McRae’s value at gunner enough to get him another shot?

Could the Lions starting gunner return in 2021?

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions cornerback group will be going through some big changes this offseason. Starters Desmond Trufant (reportedly being released) and Justin Coleman (already released) won’t be back, while reserves Darryl Roberts and Tony McRae are unrestricted free agents.

With only Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, and recently re-signed Mike Ford currently on the roster, the Lions will be looking to add depth at the position. So does that open the door for a player like McRae to return to Detroit?

Let’s discuss.

Previous free agent profiles: Mohamed Sanu, Oday Aboushi, Danny Amendola, Matt Prater, Jamal Agnew, Everson Griffen, Duron Harmon, Kenny Golladay, Don Muhlbach, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Darryl Roberts, Marvin Jones Jr., Adrian Peterson, Miles Killebrew, Jarrad Davis

Tony McRae

Expectations heading into 2020

After leaving the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency, McRae followed Brayden Coombs (former Lions special teams coordinator) to Detroit, signing a one-year, $1 million deal.

The connection to Coombs was a big draw for McRae, and he was expected to compete for a starting gunner role, while also providing the Lions insurance at nickel corner.

In training camp, McRae proved to be one of the better gunners on the squad, and late in the practices open to the media, he flashed potential in the slot as things started to click for him. After several practices with multiple pass breakups, the Lions looked like they may have unlocked something in McRae’s game and that it could lead to a contributing role on defense.

Actual role in 2020

8 games (0 starts): 4 tackles (all came in Week 1)
PFF grade: 56.1 on special teams, 32.2 on defense

It didn’t take long for things to unravel for McRae.

In Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, the Lions entered the game with Okudah injured and unable to play. Trufant went down early with a hamstring injury and Roberts stepped into the starting lineup. Then when Coleman went down just before the half, the Lions turned to McRae to hold down the slot.

McRae would go on to play 16 snaps on defense but he struggled mightily in coverage. Despite the low number of snaps, his assignments were targeted five times, where he allowed four catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns.

McRae didn't see another defensive snap in 2020.

However, he did remain the only fixture at gunner on special teams, as Coombs rotated defensive backs on the spot opposite McRae. He was very good at creating angles and pressuring the return man, but unfortunately, after Week 1, he failed to register a tackle, and even missed four in the first four weeks.

In Week 9, McRae went down with a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve.

Outlook for 2021

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

With Coombs, McRae’s biggest champion, no longer with the team, odds are the Lions are comfortable moving on from McRae and bringing in their own guys. It’s possible the Lions try to bring him back on a league-minimum deal based on his special teams experience, but unless new special teams coordinator Dave Fipp saw something exceptional that stood out for him in his film study, McRae will most likely enter free agency.


Should the Detroit Lions bring back Tony McRae?

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