Sign, Tag, Walk: What to Do with Each of the Detroit Lions' 2013 Free Agents
The Detroit Lions have a lot of 2013 free agents.
This tends to happen when teams can only afford to sign players to one- or two-year contracts.
What the Lions have to deal with right now are those short-term contracts expiring, along with some rookie contracts.
That's appropriate for a team that exhibited a need for major changes this past season.
Now, there are only three options for the guys on this list: sign them, tag them, or let them walk. And to hear GM Martin Mayhew (via Mlive) tell it, those options might be down to two.
So with that in mind, here's the verdict on every one of the Lions' 2013 free agents, in alphabetical order (with a slight detour to start).
Guys That Have Already Been Taken Care of
The Lions have already signed LB Ashlee Palmer and S Don Carey to contract extensions, so they're already out of the free agent mix before we even begin.
Neither signing cost the Lions very much, and both players provide quality depth, so there's no issue with these moves. They are low-impact signings, overall, though Palmer is a standout player on special teams.
The "Short-Term Rentals Without a Chance" List
These are the guys who don't get a full entry, because the Lions signed them while just trying to fill out the roster this season or in order to make up for injuries.
They won't be brought back next season because the Lions had never really intended to have them on the team in the first place. They were just guys off the street that got signed because of unavoidable circumstances.
Some of these guys played pretty decent ball for the Lions this year, and it's not like the chances of them coming back are at an absolute zero. But, suffice it to say, if the Lions can't find better players than these guys to fill the roster next year...uh-oh.
FB Shawn Chapas
WR Kris Durham
DT Andre Fluellen
CB Pat Lee
CB Justin Miller
Cliff Avril, DE
Now, it's finally time to lay that discussion to rest. Avril is going to sign a long-term contract somewhere, be it Detroit or elsewhere.
Last season, I was leaning towards "pay that man," because not only was Avril continuing to produce, but he was improving each year and had a knack for impact plays and turnovers.
But Avril spent most of the 2012 season being invisible. Sure, he had 9.5 sacks, which led the team, but did any of those really come in game-changing situations? Were they the result of a great individual effort, or was he just in the right place at the right time?
All told, Avril was simply not an impact player in 2012. The Lions' pass rush was not effective off the edges, and Avril is still going to be looking for impact player money. The Lions offered him $10 million a year over three years last season, and Avril turned it down.
I like Avril a lot, and I hope he re-signs with the Lions for an amount that they can stomach. That said, the Lions may not be quite as gung-ho about keeping him as they were last year, so if he gets the same kind of offer as he did last season, he should spring for it—if he gets it.
Joique Bell, RB
Joique Bell has been a diamond in the rough for the Lions, who have badly needed some stability at running back.
Bell isn't a flashy back, but he has a certain way about him. I don't think he's truly a power back, but he sheds tackles like a power-runner. He almost looks awkward with the ball in the open field, but he has otherworldly balance that makes him deceptively difficult to bring down with only one guy.
Bell didn't get a ton of carries in 2012, and as a result, his overall numbers aren't all that impressive. He finished 2012 with under 500 yards in both the rushing and receiving categories.
That said, he was responsible for 899 yards from scrimmage, averaging 5.0 yards per rush and 9.3 yards per reception. Officially, Kevin Smith was the Lions' third-down back in 2012, but Bell filled the role far better, and he should continue to do so in 2013, especially since he'll be easy to keep as a RFA.
Gosder Cherilus, OT
It's five seasons into Gosder Cherilus' career, and it's still difficult to say if he's any good.
The key word for Cherilus' career is inconsistent. When he's good, he's rock solid. But when he isn't good, he's all over the place.
The good thing for Cherilus is that when he messes up, it usually doesn't mean a sack, it means a penalty. But Cherilus takes a bunch of penalties.
The good news for the Lions is that Cherilus isn't likely to draw top-dollar interest in free agency, so if the Lions want him back, they should be able to get him without blowing up the savings account.
That said, they have a first-round pick waiting around in Riley Reiff. He was so good last year, the Lions had to invent packages to use him.
This is an opportunity for the Lions to get Reiff some consistent starting experience before he takes over the blind side for Jeff Backus, and it also gives the Lions a full season to find their next right tackle.
Louis Delmas, S
If there was a player that the Lions might consider using the franchise tag on, it's Louis Delmas.
But, as noted earlier, Mayhew has pretty much already said that the team will not use the franchise tag this offseason, so that is a moot point.
Plus, the thing is, Delmas may not be that difficult to re-sign. A lot of players try to negotiate contracts based on stats and body of work, not contextual factors such as game impact.
But realistically, Delmas doesn't have a very impressive body of work, and his inability to stay healthy has hindered the Lions' secondary for years.
Not only that, but he's not exactly a ball hawk in the passing game (pictured).
Delmas knows that he's a better player than what he has been able to show so far, and he may not be looking for his big payoff until he's played a strong, full season. The Lions can get him back on a one- or two-year deal worth less than the franchise tag amount.
If I'm wrong about that, he's gone.
Justin Durant, LB
Justin Durant had a nice, quiet year in which he posted 103 tackles.
Durant led the team in solo tackles, and trailed only Stephen Tulloch in total tackles. Not only that, but Durant is a surprisingly young 27, and his best years may be ahead of him.
Outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense are a dying breed, which means Durant is going to have limited interest as a free agent because only a handful of teams still run his scheme.
That said, Durant is still a good player, he's still going to want to get paid, and he's one of two starting outside linebackers the Lions have to deal with this season. The Lions might toss a deal or two Durant's way, but they may be more interested in keeping the younger DeAndre Levy.
Perhaps they will try to fill Durant's spot from in-house options with guys like Tahir Whitehead or Ashlee Palmer.
Drayton Florence, CB
Drayton Florence made some of the best and worst plays for the Lions this season, and it's tempting to say that the Lions want to keep him.
But that would mean that the Lions would be standing pat with one of the worst units in the league in terms of individual skill.
The Lions already have three rookie cornerbacks heading into their second years, each of which has shown promise in some way. Florence is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, so the upside is gone.
To keep him would mean to say that the Lions can't do any better. But they certainly can.
Jason Fox, OL
Jason Fox has been a Detroit Lion for three years, and these headshots are still some of the only photographic evidence of his existence.
That said, the injury issues that plagued Fox in his first two years in the NFL seem to have subsided, and since he has basically no game film on file, there's no threat of anyone showing an interest in him.
Fox may still be the Lions' plan for their next starting right tackle, but he also could be cut before the season starts. All we know for sure is that there's a reason that he has stuck around the team for three years despite not playing. There has to be some talent here.
Fox is a RFA this year, but the Lions may decide to save some money by not tendering him and instead signing him to a minimum contract. The odds of anyone else signing him are incredibly slim.
Dylan Gandy, G/C
Enough is enough.
The Lions have held onto Dylan Gandy for years, one year at a time. He's good enough to be a backup who keeps getting re-signed to one-year contracts, but he's not good enough (or young enough) to replace any of the current interior lineman as starters.
In other words, Gandy isn't very good, and he's held onto his job only because the Lions haven't challenged him with anything more serious than an afterthought UDFA in training camp.
The Lions signed talented, but oft-injured, Bill Nagy to the team early in the 2012 season, and that alone could be reason enough to keep Gandy off the team. Nagy is both younger and more talented than Gandy.
And that's if the Lions don't bring in anyone else on the inside, which is far from assured.
Jason Hanson, K
Jason Hanson is no longer one of the best placekickers in the league, but he's far from the worst.
After 21 years of service, as long as Hanson wants to play, the NFL's third all-time leading scorer has a home in Detroit. Period.
Nick Harris, P
Look, I love Nick Harris and all, and I appreciate his service during some dark years in Detroit, but his punting average this season (41.5) was about two yards longer than Jason Hanson's (39.3).
Yes, that's Jason Hanson's punting average. If your punter is almost being out-punted by your 42-year-old placekicker, something is wrong.
Surely, the Lions can do better, especially considering how much they struggled with field position last season.
Will Heller, TE
Give Will Heller some credit. He's not much of a receiving threat, but last season, with the Lions missing most of their wide receivers and Brandon Pettigrew, Heller stepped up.
That said, "stepped up" refers to eight catches in the Lions' last three games, which is about half of his season total.
Heller is a blue-collar guy who does just what his team asks of him, but he's not particularly good. The Lions might need to use his spot to look for a guy capable of replacing Pettigrew or Tony Scheffler in the next year or two.
Sammie Hill, DT
He's not flashy and he doesn't get sacks, but Sammie Hill is one of the most important members of the Lions defense.
That is not just on the defensive line, mind you, but the entire defense.
While Corey Williams and Nick Fairley were battling injuries, Hill was able to spot-start next to Ndamukong Suh and basically save the unit from being subjected to Andre Fluellen.
Hill is far more effective in limited snaps than he is as a starter, but since he was drafted in 2009, he has made spot-starts when asked, and has been an impact situational player otherwise.
Because Hill isn't an every-down player, he won't get a lot of early interest in free agency. But his combination of ideal size and a developing skill set will have some teams calling eventually.
If the Lions end up losing Hill, they'll have to reinvest a lot of resources toward finding a replacement. Expect them to instead sink those resources into just keeping the man himself.
Corey Hilliard, G/T
Corey Hilliard has been valuable to the Lions as a versatile backup capable of playing most line positions.
But his upside is basically non-existent, and the Lions have quietly built up enough depth on the offensive line to not need to keep the marginal hangers-on anymore.
Hilliard was inactive on game day for most of the season anyway, and with Jason Fox and Bill Nagy apparently ready to go, there is no reason for Hilliard to take up money and a roster spot.
Chris Houston, CB
This might be the biggest question of the Lions' offseason, perhaps even bigger than Cliff Avril.
Chris Houston is the only constant in the Lions' otherwise beleaguered secondary, and losing him means that the team would have to scramble to find a new top cover corner.
Two years ago, Houston tried the free agent market and was unhappy with what he found. So he signed a two-year contract with the Lions in hopes that he could play his way into a better deal.
In those two years, Houston has posted his two best seasons as a pro, by far, and now he's going to get paid. He's going to be expensive, no matter who pays him.
The thing is, if the Lions want a true No. 1 corner, they're going to have to pay top dollar to somebody anyway, and Houston is still likely to come cheaper than a guy like Brent Grimes.
So if the Lions have to spend that kind of money anyway, it might as well be on the guy who already knows the system and the coaches, right?
Lawrence Jackson, DE
The Lions will likely be looking to save some money this year at defensive end, a position that pulled down a lot of money and not so much production.
But Lawrence Jackson is a reasonably productive rotational defensive end who isn't likely to command a high price tag. There shouldn't be much reason why the Lions can't retain him this season, and given the possibility of changes on the defensive line, Jackson could be in line for a spike in playing time.
Jackson has long been thought of as a guy who could potentially start at defensive end. The Lions may get a chance to test that theory this year, depending on what the unit looks like in August.
Jacob Lacey, CB
Jacob Lacey inspires about the same sentiments as Chris Houston did after his first year.
With some variance, it falls right around: "Meh. I guess he could be worse."
Nobody is going to be lining up to throw money at Lacey, unlike Eric Wright last season. If the Lions want him, they should be able to keep him.
Given the complete lack of depth and reliability at CB, there is likely no harm in seeing what Lacey can do with a second year in the system. He's young, and he has the tools to play better. He could be an inexpensive fix to a big problem.
DeAndre Levy, LB
I mentioned (or at least implied) earlier that the Lions would likely keep either Justin Durant or DeAndre Levy this offseason, but not both.
I fully expect the team to try keeping both players, but I doubt it will work. Levy, then, would appear to have the inside track at sticking around.
For starters, Levy was the only RFA last season that the Lions felt strong enough to give more than an original-round tender to. Levy responded by turning in perhaps his best year as a pro.
He's still not a star, but he's playing within himself and is becoming a solid tackler. He also shows better awareness on the field, which can likely be attributed to the Lions not moving him around every year anymore.
Even better, Levy has experience playing in the middle of the Lions' defense, which is valuable if Stephen Tulloch goes down.
Is Levy the absolute best player that the Lions could sign at OLB? No, but he's effective and still has room to grow. Assuming that his price tag is as reasonable as it should be, the Lions have little reason to let Levy walk.
Stefan Logan, KR/PR
Stefan Logan's final return as a Detroit Lion will be him downing a free kick at his own four-yard line.
And that pretty much sums things up here.
Don Muhlbach, LS
When is the last time you saw a botched snap on a field goal or punt for the Lions?
That's how you know Don Muhlbach is doing his job, and as long as he keeps doing that, then there is no reason for him to go anywhere.
It also seems that he can force fumbles on kick returns. So, bonus!
Kassim Osgood, WR/ST
This is a tough call. I have been tempted to say that the Lions had no need to sign players who are exclusively special teamers.
But the atrocious play that the Lions turned in on special teams in the first half of the season turned me on that a bit, and Kassim Osgood was nothing of solid all year.
If the Lions find better, younger guys who can play special teams like Osgood can, then so be it. Until then, the Lions may want to keep this guy around.
Ricardo Silva, S
Ricardo Silva is far from perfect, but he's young and can stay healthy, and that's something no other Lions safety can say.
Also, he's a restricted free agent, and I simply can't picture the Lions letting a guy walk who has given them quality minutes—especially considering how the entire safety position is in such disarray.
Kevin Smith, RB
When Kevin Smith was relegated to basically no touches upon Mikel Leshoure's return, it was bad news.
When Joique Bell started getting all the rest of the carries, it was even worse.
I like Kevin Smith, and he's an easy guy to root for. But chances are exceptionally high that he has run his course in Detroit.
Amari Spievey, S
Is he any good, or is he another third-round bust?
The Lions will give Amari Spievey some sort of RFA tender so they can find out, but this is his last chance to prove his case.
Spievey has turned in some great performances and some total head-scratchers. He has worked through some personal issues that have taken his head out of the game, and he suffered a season-ending concussion in October that did the same thing in a more literal sense.
It's highly likely that the Lions give him a year to get things figured out before making any final decisions, especially since it's a low-risk, potentially high-reward proposition.
That doesn't mean Spievey will make the team come September, mind you. It's just that he'll be there to get a shot at it.
Corey Williams, DT
Had they known that he would be hurt for more than half the season, it's likely that the Lions would have tried getting out from under Corey Williams' massive cap hit before the start of last season.
Williams will never again earn the kind of money that Cleveland signed him to (and then Detroit paid most of), but he's still a decent player. But the Lions have to be prepared to move on from his middling—and declining—production.
Williams was a valuable part of the Lions' defensive line for his first two seasons, and some argued that his all-around game made him the best player on the line, even with first-round picks and franchise players surrounding him.
That wasn't true last season, and for a player who will be 33 next season, it likely won't be true next year. Either Williams takes an epic pay cut, or he will be gone.
Willie Young, DE
Is the Great Willie Young to be the next Cliff Avril? More importantly, are the Lions going to need him to be?
Young has certainly shown more promise than your average seventh-round pick, and while it remains to be seen where his ceiling may be, there's no real reason for the Lions to let him walk.
Granted, Young failed to record a single sack in 2012, despite playing snaps in all 16 games. Ironically, this performance was the exact opposite of his 2011 showing, when he posted three sacks in extremely limited action.
Young will likely get a chance to see how far he has come in 2013, and the real question will be whether it is worth a major contract in his first unrestricted free agency period in 2014.