Best and Worst Moves Detroit Lions Made in Free Agency
Some of those moves, notably signing wideout Golden Tate (pictured), have definitely improved the football product, while others barely register a blip on the depth chart.
While Detroit is not yet done signing free agents, general manager Martin Mayhew and his staff are shifting focus to draft preparation. Other than maybe signing a safety—more on that later—the Lions don't figure to appear much on the daily NFL transaction report over the next few weeks.
Here's an early take on Detroit's free-agent action thus far, from the good to the bad.
Best: Signing Golden Tate
There was no doubt heading into free agency that the Detroit Lions had to upgrade the wide receiving corps. Even with a deeply talented draft class coming up, adding a proven veteran weapon was critical.
Detroit accomplished the mission by plucking Golden Tate away from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Tate is talented enough to have led the NFL champs in receptions and yards last season, but that only tells part of the story of Tate's allure to the Lions...
Golden Tate has dropped 5 of 149 catchable passes in the last 3 seasons, lowest rate of any WR. Best hands in the NFL. #Lions— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 12, 2014
Reliable hands and the ability to rack up yards after the catch are two qualities the Lions have sorely lacked at wideout in recent years. Tate offers both those attributes at elite levels.
As former Lion Lawrence Jackson opined, he also brings toughness and grit:
I like Golden Tate to Detroit...gives a little Stafford an Anquan Boldin option...— Lawrence Jackson (@LoJackson94) March 12, 2014
The price was not cheap at five years and $31 million, though the structure of the deal makes it quite cap-friendly in 2014. Tate should prove he's worth every last penny.
Worst: Missing out on Safeties
When Detroit released longtime starter Louis Delmas in a money-saving move, the Lions created a hole at one of the starting safety positions.
It was widely speculated that Mayhew would fill that hole with a free agent. Yet despite numerous dalliances with several different starting-caliber safeties, the hole remains unfilled.
It was downright discouraging for Lions fans to watch the safety population settle elsewhere:
- T.J. Ward to the Broncos
- Jairus Byrd to the Saints
- Donte Whitner to the Browns
- Antoine Bethea to the 49ers
- Malcolm Jenkins (pictured) to the Eagles
- Mike Mitchell to the Steelers
- Bernard Pollard to the Titans
- Roman Harper to the Panthers
While Ward and Byrd were out of Detroit's price range, all of the others signed deals that the Lions could afford to dole out.
The Lions have hosted three safeties since free agency opened. But Chris Clemons, Thomas DeCoud and James Ihedigbo all left team offices in Allen Park without a contract.
There's a chance one of those will sign as soon as today, but there's also a chance the Lions are caught standing alone when the music stops on the game of free-agency musical chairs.
That leaves Don Carey and Isa Abdul-Quddus as the top options to start opposite of last season's free-agent prize, Glover Quin. Both players are best served in reserve roles.
Best: Bolstering the Defensive Line Depth
The starting four along the defensive front was already in place heading into free agency. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley will man the tackle spots, while Ezekiel Ansah will start at right defensive end. At left end, either Jason Jones or Devin Taylor will earn the starting nod, while the other will play a prominent reserve role.
But there was a crying need for more depth at both tackle and end. After all, the only other tackle on the roster two weeks ago was yeoman veteran C.J. Mosley, while 2013 starting end (in place of an injured Jones) Willie Young left via free agency.
Mayhew did a fine job in restocking the bottom of the depth chart.
New additions to the den include:
- Defensive tackle Corvey Irvin
- Defensive end Darryl Tapp
- Tackle Vaughn Martin
- Tackle/end Andre Fluellen
Of course, Irvin and Fluellen both have prior stints in Detroit. Their tenures might not last very long, either, but they bring inexpensive experience and depth.
Martin and Tapp are definite keepers. Both figure to occupy the fourth spot in the rotation at their respective positions, roles that inferior journeyman (like Fluellen) have manned in recent years.
Tapp signed for one year at an economical rate of $920 thousand. He offers the exact same number of sacks (8) as Young over the last four seasons, while Young signed for $9 million over three years in Chicago.
He also has experience with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin from their time in Seattle together. While Tapp's role with Washington was limited last season, he still made an impact:
Martin also signed for just under $1 million for 2014. A fourth-round pick by the Chargers in 2009, the 330+ pound Martin offers a lot of functional beef to fortify the line.
These are not moves that will move the meter, but the Lions are quietly a better team with the additions. Mayhew inexpensively filled vacancies with proven NFL talent that is better than the players they are replacing on the 53-man roster.
Worst: Bringing Back Brandon Pettigrew
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew hit the open market after the Lions opted not to use the franchise tag on the 5-year starter.
After looking at options with other teams, including the New York Jets, Pettigrew ultimately returned to Detroit.
This is a move that sort of fits under both "best" and worst" categories.
It's a good one in the sense that Pettigrew is a solid starter with familiarity to quarterback Matthew Stafford and the rest of the locker room. Had he not returned, a replacement was a necessity either in the limited free-agent crop or, more likely, the NFL draft.
Yet it's also a negative that he returns. Undrafted rookie Joseph Fauria proved more than capable of handling the starting role after Pettigrew went down with a late-season injury.
The new contract of just over $16 million and four years is steep for a player with what appears to be a limited role. At best, Pettigrew figures to play about 60 percent of the snaps and split the tight end passing targets with Fauria. He's a decidedly average player with some lingering injury issues.
This one is debatable now. Whether bringing Pettigrew back into the den with such a salary commitment is a good idea or not will get resolved this fall, but count me on the pessimistic side.
Best: Avoiding the Budget Buster
While it's always tempting to root for the big splash signings, the Lions practiced sound fiscal discipline in free agency.
Some other teams got caught up in the free-spending frenzy. Players that certainly interested the Lions wound up extracting far more lucrative deals from other suitors, money that Detroit was wise to keep in its own pockets.
A few of the more notable overpriced deals include:
|Player/Position||Team||Years||Total $$ Value||Guaranteed $$|
|Michael Johnson, DE||TB||5||43.75 million||16 million|
|Vontae Davis, CB (pictured)||IND||4||36 million||20 million|
|Dennis Pitta, TE||BAL||5||32 million||16 million|
|Zane Beadles, G||JAX||5||30 million||12.5 million|
All of those players would have made the Lions a better team. They also would have put undue stress on a cap-strapped team constrained by behemoth deals with Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh.
Take Pitta as an example. The Ravens guaranteed him the entire value of what the Lions are paying Pettigrew, whose deal is guaranteed for just $8 million. They are pretty comparable talents with similar profiles, though Pettigrew has been much more durable.
Pitta might be a little more explosive down the field and a more reliable set of hands, but there's no way anyone would consider him twice as valuable as Pettigrew. Yet that's what the Ravens are paying him to be.
Or consider Beadles. He wouldn't even start for the Lions ahead of either Rob Sims or Larry Warford, yet the Jaguars are paying him more than the entire Lions starting offensive line to lure him from Denver.
The Lions exercised prudent spending, and they are better off for it.