Detroit Lions Free Agency: Best and Worst of the Last 5 Years

Dean HoldenAnalyst IJanuary 24, 2012

Detroit Lions Free Agency: Best and Worst of the Last 5 Years

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    If the 2011 offseason taught Detroit Lions fans anything, it's that impact players do not always have to come from the draft.

    The Lions entered the 2011 draft with major needs at linebacker and cornerback. They drafted a defensive tackle, running back and wide receiver in the first two rounds.

    It was worrisome, since the lockout eliminated free agency before the draft. Normally, teams have a little over a month to fill glaring needs on the team with existing players before they bring in the new blood in April.

    This year, the gaps stayed open until August. And then, just at the advent of free agency, Stephen Tulloch, Eric Wright and Justin Durant joined the team and took a scrap heap of a defensive back seven and made it respectable.

    Granted, it isn't infallible, but it's much better than it was, and there is little doubt that the addition of these players (all of whom started every game they were available) had a major impact on the Lions' fortunes in 2011.

    For all the talk about the difference in draft fortunes between Lions GMs (and if you need a refresher, check out my previous piece), equally important and striking is the differences in free agency decisions.

    Don't believe me? Remember Az-Zahir Hakim, who was signed not once, but twice by the Lions, and didn't produce anything of note either time? Exactly. Free-agent busts are just as important as draft busts.

    And so with that established, let's revisit the Lions' recent free-agency decisions. In doing so, I will highlight the best and worst signings (either new players or re-signed unrestricted free agents) each year, the biggest impact trade (good or bad) and the "addition by subtraction" award for the best decision to let a guy walk.

    Got it? Good. Let's do it.

2007: Who Are These People?

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    Best Addition: Shaun McDonald, WR (from St. Louis Rams)

    Actually, this is only because I can't break my own rule.

    In reality, the best free-agency move the Lions made this offseason is re-signing long-snapper Don Muhlbach, the only player from the 2007 free-agency period that remains on the team.

    But give some credit when it's due. In 2007, Shaun McDonald led the Lions in receptions (79), receiving yardage (943) and receiving touchdowns (eight).

    That's more than Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson had during the one Millen year that the Lions actually had a competent passing offense under Mike Martz and Jon Kitna.

    Sure, he was irrelevant by the end of the 2008 season, but hey, who on the team wasn't?

     

    Worst Addition: Mike Furrey, WR (Re-signed as UFA)

    In 2006, Mike Furrey was one of the best feel-good stories of the season. A former undrafted free-agent safety-turned-receiver, Furrey notched 98 catches for over 1,000 yards in 2006 while playing on a $500,000 one-year contract.

    So theoretically, it only made sense to pay the man who was Wes Welker before being Wes Welker was cool.

    The hindsight on that move isn't so kind. He played two years on a three-year deal, made just under $7.5 million and what did the Lions have to show for it?

    In 2007 and 2008 combined, Furrey notched a total of 79 catches for 845 yards and one touchdown. Pretty good numbers for one season. Not very good for two seasons. Even worse when your numbers for 2007-2008 combined drop off from 2006 alone.

     

    Impact Trade: Dre' Bly and a 2007 sixth-round pick to Denver Broncos for George Foster, Tatum Bell, and a 2007 fifth-round pick

    I'm feeling nauseous just thinking about this, so let me just boil it down to essentials by describing each player's contribution to the Lions.

    Dre' Bly was the best cornerback the Lions had all decade and even made three Pro Bowls in Detroit.

    George "False Start" Foster earned the nickname "False Start" Foster while playing in Detroit, and his poor play facilitated the need for the Lions to draft Gosder Cherilus the following year.

    Tatum Bell is best remembered for stealing Rudi Johnson's luggage on his way into town.

    And the fifth-round pick? Linebacker Johnny Baldwin out of Alabama A&M, who was cut during training camp. Baldwin would later go on to get cut by both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and California Redwoods.

     

    Addition by Subtraction: Shawn Bryson, RB (released, no NFL interest since)

    It's hard to pick one.

    The Lions weren't so concerned with cutting bad players in 2007; they were too busy signing them all to three-year contracts.

    But really, the Lions dealt almost exclusively in bad players in 2007. Every player they cut fell out of the league, and every player they signed eventually got cut and then fell out of the league.

    So why Bryson specifically? After several seasons of being part of perhaps the worst running back committee ever, he played six games in 2006, notching one rushing yard on two carries.

2008: The Calm Before the Storm

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    Best Addition: Um, I guess Rudi Johnson, RB? (cut by Cincinnati Bengals after training camp)

    2008 was just absolute carnage. So much so that Rudi Johnson is really, seriously, unironically the best player they added that season.

    Other options are Brian Kelly, Kalvin Pearson and Gilbert Gardner, unless you like Michael Gaines or Dwight Smith.

    Rudi Johnson's job was basically to keep carries away from rookie Kevin Smith, who was the most productive ground threat the Lions had since the last time Kevin Jones was healthy.

    But at least he played and took some of the wear and tear off of Smith that season, even if giving him the ball was akin to donating a down to the defense.

     

    Worst Addition: All of them, but mostly Daunte Culpepper, QB (retired, last with Oakland Raiders)

    It hurts to think about it, but Martin Mayhew was actually the guy who pulled the trigger on this deal. But for my own sanity, I have to believe it was Rod Marinelli that wanted him.

    Here's how I imagine the conversation went:

    Marinelli: Martin, Martin! We've got a huge problem here. Our top two quarterbacks are out, and we need someone to play next week! All we have on the roster is this second-round pick that we drafted to be the future of the franchise! And he only has a year-and-a-half's worth of experience with the team!

    Mayhew: OK, Rod, let's figure something out. Obviously we need to bring in some emergency depth at quarterback, so what kind of player are you looking for?

    Marinelli: Depth? No, I need someone to play this weekend!

    Mayhew: This weekend? You want to prep a new quarterback for the game four days from now, instead of playing the second-round pick already on the roster?

    Marinelli: I'm afraid naming Stanton the starter might hurt his confidence, so we're holding him out. Now, get on the phone and get me the first retired 300-pound quarterback you can find! Tell him he's already the starter!

    Just to wrap up this story, Culpepper's last NFL victory as a starting quarterback was with Oakland in 2007. Still.

     

    Impact Trade: Roy Williams and a 2009 seventh-round pick to Dallas Cowboys for a 2009 first, third and sixth-round pick

    Everybody knows Jerry Jones can be...um...impulsive.

    Martin Mayhew figured out how to profit off it.

    Moving Roy Williams to Dallas accomplished two things for the Lions.

    First, 2008 was the last time anybody thought to trade more than a tire swing for Roy Williams, so they did get maximum value out of the trade in addition to dodging a lot of contract money (though in the tire swing's defense, at least it's open some of the time). 

    Second and more importantly, it cleared the way for Calvin Johnson to become the Lions' undisputed No. 1 receiver.

    It's disappointing that the Lions weren't able to bring more value from the multitude of picks they got from Dallas, but Brandon Pettigrew still makes the trade well worth it.

     

    Addition by Subtraction: Kevin Jones, RB (signed by Chicago Bears)

    It was sad at the time, but it turned out to be the right move.

    Kevin Jones is still the most recent 1,000-yard rusher the Lions have had, so it's difficult to say anything bad about the guy, especially since his fall from grace wasn't at all his fault.

    Jones was ravaged by injuries every year after his impressive rookie season, and eventually, the Lions had to stop waiting on him.

    The Chicago Bears gave him a shot, but Jones faced the same set of problems with the Bears, and eventually landed in the UFL.

2009: It Doesn't Matter Who They Are, as Long as They're Different

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    Best Addition: Maurice Morris, RB (from Seattle Seahawks)

    The goal of the new regime in 2009 was to wash as much of the old regime out as was humanly possible.

    And so the turnover began, with Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew seemingly finding whatever barely functional parts they could in the scrap heap and affixing them in place of the rusted-out 2008 parts.

    Most of those parts didn't stick for long, but the Lions had to take what they could get, coming off an 0-16 debacle nobody wanted to be associated with.

    Maurice Morris, however, has provided the Lions with quality depth any time his number has been called. And given the rash of running back injuries over the last few years, that has been a lot.

    Honorable mention to Will Heller, who is still holding his own as a very good blocking tight end, and receiver of the Lions' first playoff touchdown in over a decade.

     

    Worst Addition: Grady Jackson, DT (from Atlanta Falcons)

    At first, it was going to be Bryant Johnson. And you could still make that argument. But then I remembered Grady Jackson.

    Jackson is sort of the epitome of the Lions' strategy in 2009. Jim Schwartz wanted to get bigger up front, so he found the biggest guy that nobody else wanted in the 36-year-old veteran.

    Jackson rewarded him with 32 total tackles and no sacks. Schwartz signed him to take up space on the football field. In reality, he just took up space on the roster.

     

    Impact Trade: Cory Redding and a 2009 fifth-round pick to Seattle Seahawks for Julian Peterson

    Cory Redding was too small and a poor fit for Jim Schwartz's defense, and sending him off for Peterson, a former Pro Bowler, made all the sense in the world.

    But three years later, Redding has carved himself a niche with the Baltimore Ravens and seems to be a solid role player. Peterson was cut by the Lions after two years, so I'm not convinced the Lions necessarily came out on the best end of it.

    Still, Peterson quietly held down a starting spot for two years, which isn't too bad in exchange for a guy who would likely have been cut anyway.

     

    Addition by Subtraction: Jon Kitna, QB (Traded to Dallas Cowboys for Anthony Henry)

    I don't even care that Anthony Henry turned out to be a worthless addition. And all things considered, Dallas probably got the better end of that trade.

    But the Lions moving Kitna was a symbolic move. Effectively, this was the first step in the Lions' acquisition of Matthew Stafford. Kitna wasn't really bad, but he needed to go because he wasn't the future.

    The Lions sent a message that they weren't going to get by on stop-gap quarterbacks anymore by trading, well, their stop-gap quarterback. That April, they delivered Stafford.

2010: On the Doorstep

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    Best Addition: Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE (from Tennessee Titans)

    Jim Schwartz's intangible needs for 2010:

    • Instill toughness on both sides of the ball (but especially defense)
    • Change the culture in the locker room
    • Institute a winning mentality

    It's no wonder Jim Schwartz tapped into his inner stalker to get Kyle Vanden Bosch into the fold for 2010.

    Statistically, Nate Burleson has probably been the most productive of the Lions' major 2010 acquisitions, but there is no substitute for the leadership Vanden Bosch brought to the Lions' locker room.

    The Lions expect to win now and in the future (and have actually started doing it), and Vanden Bosch's presence is a big reason why.

     

    Worst Addition: C.C. Brown, SS (from New York Giants)

    In the Lions' defense, they needed somebody to play across from Louis Delmas. But "Can't Cover" Brown was among the worst possible options.

    I'm not sure whether Brown blew more tackles or coverages as a Lion, but perhaps his greatest detriment to the team was limiting the playing time (and therefore development) of rookie Amari Spievey.

    Spievey took the starting role over from Brown eventually, but it couldn't have been soon enough.

     

    Impact Trade: Fifth-round pick to Cleveland Browns for Corey Williams and a seventh-round pick

    Given the way their season turned out, I guess the Packers aren't exactly going to lament about this move.

    But I wish the Lions could get a player of Corey Williams' quality every year for a fifth-round pick. Williams is often the unsung hero of the Lions' defensive line, and admittedly, he's not exactly a stat machine.

    But he eats up snaps and space in the middle of the line, and he might be the Lions' best run-stopper (though Sammie Hill is giving him a run).

     

    Addition by Subtraction: Daunte Culpepper, QB (released to the UFL)

    Not to pile on Culpepper here, but he just plain wasn't good in Detroit. And the Lions cut him and brought in Shaun Hill for a seventh-round pick, who is arguably one of the most solid backup quarterbacks in football.

    Culpepper was a competitor in his time. Problem is, by the time the Lions got hold of him, that time had long since passed.

    And just think. Considering that Stafford spent most of 2010 injured, Culpepper, who was unable to win a game over a season-and-a-half with the Lions, would have played. A lot.

    Instead, Shaun Hill played and won three games in limited action over a single season.

2011: Jumping on the Bandwagon

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    Best Addition: Stephen Tulloch, LB (from Tennessee Titans)

    I spent the majority of the 2011 offseason chastising anyone who thought the Lions would sign Stephen Tulloch.

    I will own up to it here and now, because the Lions signed him to a one-year deal, and I got a lesson in humility.

    Tulloch was a big-name free agent, likely the best interior linebacker on the market, and Martin Mayhew had not made a habit of signing top-tier players. It seemed out-of-character for him.

    But Tulloch seemingly had a difficult time bringing in the kind of contract he was looking for, so he ended up in Detroit on a one-year contract, seemingly to make sure his stock stayed high.

    This represents a seismic change in the way the Lions were perceived in free agency. Much of the Lions' 2011 free-agent class chose the Lions because they saw latent potential and the opportunity to have a good contract year.

    In other words, the Lions were set up well enough (particularly along the defensive front) to make players like Tulloch and Eric Wright look good. One year later, Tulloch led the Lions in tackles, and Wright is a starting-quality cornerback coming off a fine year.

    Who's up in 2012?

     

    Worst Addition: Erik Coleman, SS (from Atlanta Falcons)

    Well, not everybody piggybacked the Lions defense to great personal gains.

    Admittedly, Erik Coleman was only supposed to be a quality depth player behind Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey, maybe pushing Spievey for the starting role if he stumbled.

    Instead, Coleman played in four games, notched two tackles and went down for the year.

    And later in the season, when the Lions actually needed that depth, they were forced to turn to special teamer John Wendling and Bears castoff Chris Harris.

    Wendling is an All-Pro-caliber special teamer, but shouldn't be allowed within miles of an actual functioning defense.

    Harris will be best remembered this season for getting repeatedly burned against the Packers and tacking several millions of dollars onto Matt Flynn's eventual free-agent deal.

    So the intent behind the Coleman signing was solid, but the results were painfully bad.

     

    Impact Trade: Nixed Jerome Harrison/Ronnie Brown Trade

    Sometimes "impact" extends beyond the football field. And sometimes a lockout handcuffs a team's ability to make any other notable trades.

    This falls under both.

    By now, you've all heard the story about how the Lions tried to trade Jerome Harrison back to the Eagles in exchange for veteran Ronnie Brown and how that trade was axed because of doctors finding a brain tumor in his ensuing physical.

    Harrison underwent surgery for the tumor, which could have become fatal if not discovered as soon as it was.

    To the Lions, on paper, all it meant was a cancellation of a trade and yet another running back hitting injured reserve.

    But try making the argument to Harrison himself that this trade didn't have a huge impact.

    And if you want to get really Grinchy in terms of impact for the Lions, look at it this way.

    If Harrison doesn't get traded, he doesn't hit IR. If he doesn't hit IR, the Lions are a little less thin at running back. If the Lions are a little less thin at running back, they don't put a call in to the unemployed Kevin Smith, who was instrumental in the stretch run and could turn out to be the best mistake the Lions ever undid.

     

    Addition by Subtraction: Jerome Felton, FB

    There's nothing wrong with Jerome Felton as a fullback.

    I mean, if you're into fullbacks, that is. But if you're an NFL team in 2011, chances are the passing game is too important to waste on a blocker for your backfield.

    That's where the Lions found themselves, and while the power running game may have suffered for it, the passing game seems to be just fine.

    The current trend in the league is to privilege speed over power on offense, which means the true fullback is a dying breed, with most teams opting for an "H-back" (tight-end/fullback hybrid) to keep versatility and focus on the passing game.

    The Lions determined that Will Heller could step into that H-back role last season and opted to save themselves a roster spot by cutting Felton.

    Felton reunited with former teammates Dan Orlovsky and Ernie Sims in Indianapolis, and it was very nearly too familiar, as the Colts came within a few weeks of repeating the Lions' 0-16 season. That's not Felton's fault, nor is it Sims' or Orlovsky's, but they certainly didn't help anything.