The Detroit Lions have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) in March. They will do their best to try and retain the players they want back before the free agency period opens, but that’s not always possible as players often want to test their market value.
It would be surprising to see the Lions retain all their UFAs and therefore ranking them in order of perceived preference is a valuable exercise. Below is my preferred order of rankings and not necessarily how the team views these players.
Tracy Walker, FS, starter
One of the most valuable players on the Lions defense, Walker played some of his best football as a professional in 2021, closing out the year with a game-sealing interception and an NFC Defensive Player of the Week recognition.
Walker has said he wants to return to Detroit and continue to be part of the team's building of a “foundation” and echoed that when he broke down the huddle—a high honor—after the final game. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said bringing Walker back is a priority and believes he is a leader on the defense.
“He’s bought into everything that we’re trying to get done in this defense as far as a safety’s perspective and he’s grown,” Glenn said. “He’s grown in that and he’s also become a leader as far as linebackers, as far as getting everybody together and watching some tape. That’s what we expect of our safeties.”
And based on our poll from last Sunday, you agree the Lions should bring back Walker, to the tune of 93-percent of the vote.
Charles Harris, EDGE, starter
I called Harris a “potential lottery ticket if developed properly” in my evaluation of him after he signed with the Lions. Not only did he step up when both EDGE starters went down, but he thrived when doing so and played the best football of his career. Harris finished the season with 7.5 sacks, more than all his other seasons combined, and a 78.6 pass-rushing grade from PFF.
There’s a lot of questions surrounding the Lions edge players this offseason, and returning Harris, regardless of what they do with the others, should be a priority. And he is receptive to staying in Detroit, as he told MLive’s Kyle Meinke and Ben Raven on their Dungeon of Doom podcast.
“I’m at the point in my career where I’m looking for stability,” Harris said. “I’m looking for stability and a coaching staff and a team and a group of players that surrounds me that trusts me and that I trust that we can go out there together. I really want to be part of a team that wins something. I haven’t won anything yet in my career.”
Alex Anzalone, ILB, starter
There may not be a player this coaching staff trusted more than Anzalone this past season. Whenever they got the chance they raved about his effort, intelligence, and leadership. The biggest obstacle for Anzalone retuning is the shoulder injury that cut his season short. He has a history of shoulder injuries dating back to college and has landed on IR in three of his five NFL seasons.
The Lions would probably love to bring him back, but they better have an insurance policy on the roster if/when he gets injured again.
Josh Reynolds, WR, starter
Reynolds and Jared Goff seemed to unlock something in each other and both saw an increase in efficiency when they were rejoined together. Reynolds wants an opportunity to start, and Detroit should be able to offer him the option to compete for a starting role. Having Goff still under center in 2022 could make this an easy decision.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, starter
When the Lions moved on from Jamie Collins, most thought it would be rookie fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes who stepped into the starting role. But after splitting time early, it became clear that Reeves-Maybin was the more reliable option, and he seized the opportunity to make noise in the middle of the defense. Reeves-Maybin continued to get better as the season wore on and it appears he is just scratching the surface of what he can do on defense. He’s also arguably their best non-kicker on special teams. Lots of appeal to bring him back in the fold in 2022.
Kalif Raymond, WR, starter
Raymond probably never should have been starting for the Lions, but when all the wide receivers on the depth chart above him failed, his reliability earned him a critical role in the Lions' offense. As Amon-Ra St. Brown emerged and Reynolds settled in, Raymond fell back into a third wide receiver role but it became clearer that he is more of a situation receiver and full-time return man. The Lions still need a lot of depth at the position, and having some stability in the return game, are both good enough reasons to see him offered another contract.
Tim Boyle, QB, backup
The coaches really seem to like Boyle but he never really turned a corner on the field. He could be a reliable backup, but I could also see the Lions wanting to upgrade.
Nick Williams, IDL, starter
The Lions asked Williams to take a pay cut before the season and then drafted two defensive tackles on Day 2 of the NFL draft. Alim McNeill is already starting at nose tackle and Levi Onwuzurike seems primed to take Williams starting role. Would Williams entertain returning as a reserve and another low offer? My guess is he will test the market.
Dean Marlowe, SS, backup
Marlowe was the Lions' third safety for most of the season and even started down the stretch when Will Harris moved to outside corner due to injury. Marlowe wasn’t bad, but he also didn’t stand out. He was average pretty much all the way around. That’s nice stability, but for a staff that prefers to play the younger players to allow them to develop, the soon-to-be 30-year-old Marlowe may be on the move.
KhaDarel Hodge, WR/gunner, backup
The Lions claimed Hodge to be a reserve wide receiver and special team contributor, where he earned a starting gunner role. He did basically exactly what the Lions expected him to do, but little more. Despite being lower on this list, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see him offered a contract and brought back to fight for a role.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, injured reserve
Hamilton was tremendous in training camp but he suffered an injury late and was placed on injured reserve ahead of the season, unable to play in 2021. He was playing well enough in August and September that he could return on a one-year deal, but we know little about his injury and how that will factor into these decisions.
Joel Heath, IDL, injured reserve
Another player placed on IR ahead of the season, Heath tore his ACL but was seen rehabbing with trainers several times. With the depth on the defensive line, bringing him back won’t be a priority, but after spending a year with the team, they may add him to the 90-man roster to give him a shot.
Tyrell Crosby, OT, injured reserve
One of the great stories of 2019, Crosby stepped into a starting role at right tackle and established himself on the field. In 2021, Crosby and the new coaching staff’s relationship appeared to get off to a rocky start as Crosby skipped voluntary workouts, which is not uncommon, but he was one of only a few players to do so and it was right after the Lions drafted Penei Sewell to challenge for the right tackle position. Translation: not a great look.
Then Crosby was injured (hamstring) in training camp, further setting him back, and when he wasn't recovering fast enough he quickly fell behind in his development. By the end of camp, coach Dan Campbell said very frankly that Crosby wasn’t playing well enough, and a few days later he was released with an injury designation and returned to the roster on IR.
Here’s where things get a bit more complicated. Crosby had back surgery in mid-December, which according to Dave Birkett of the Free Press, was misdiagnosed by the Lions in training camp. Right now, Birkett is the only beat writer to make this statement, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it was accurate, especially when you look at the timeline of events surrounding the injury.
Crosby was injured in early August with what was called a Grade 1 hamstring injury. About a week later Crosby returned to practice, and just two days after that the Lions fired their head athletic trainer, Dave Granito. Two weeks later, Crosby was released, reverted back to the Lions after clearing waivers, and was placed on injured reserve.
In the end, the Lions and Crosby’s relationship appears fractured. If he is able to return to form and the two sides were willing to work together again, Crosby would be much higher up in these rankings, but that ship may have sailed.