Written by: JT Bowen
The Lions’ 2019 free agency was uncharacteristically active, by Detroit standards. The bulk of the action came in the opening day, highlighted by inking prized pass-rusher Trey Flowers to a five-year, $90 million deal, but featured a number of signings to bolster the roster and enter win-now mode. Though the win-now mentality implemented by Patricia and Co. in Year 2 never panned out, the return of the staff and availability of cap space due to backloading contracts shows the ownership believes in them in 2020.
With arguably no leash shorter than the one Quinn and Patricia are on, the front office knows they have to compete at a high level next year if they want to hold on to their jobs, and, as a result, will probably be big spenders for a second straight year when free agency opens, looking to improve positions across the roster and add depth.
But first, let’s look at how the Lions’ acquisitions from last offseason went.
Danny Amendola, Wide Receiver
Starting very early in the opening day of free agency, Detroit added former Patriots, Rams, and Dolphins slot receiver Amendola to a cheap one-year deal. The fans and the media were largely disappointed by this move, as the addition of the 33-year old journeyman did not bode well for a Lions receiving corps that needed talent following Golden Tate’s departure and injuries to Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. However, Amendola turned in a great 2019 campaign. Like many of the receivers, Amendola disappeared at moments, but turned in a nearly 700-yard year, which exceeded most expectations. Given Amendola’s age, his long-term future is unclear in Detroit, but he would be a good option to bring back on another cheap one-year deal, as he has shown he can still produce into his mid-30s.
Jesse James, Tight End
The Lions were able to address one of their biggest needs early in the free agency period, signing Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James to a four-year, $22.6 million contract. At first this looked like a great add for Detroit— James was just 24, coming off a career year as a Steeler, and bolstered a position that was horrific in the 2018 season. He was perhaps a bit overpaid, given his lack of consistency and the overall value of the position he played, but the Lions had money to spare. The wheels started to come off of the hype train, though, following Detroit’s selection of Iowa TE TJ Hockenson at #8 in the first round. The pick fogged up the Lions’ long-term view of the position, and though many assumed the Lions would role predominantly in 12-personnel, it wasn’t heavily used over the course of the season. Hockenson, after a dominant Week 1, solidified himself as the TE1, limiting James’ minutes. And even after Hockenson’s season-ending injury, James played poorly in expanded snaps, not showing presence in the redzone and struggling to block, which was his calling card as a player. With nowhere to go but up, James should improve in Year 2 as a Lion, but with Hockenson clearly the first option, the tight end should remain overpaid and underperforming
Justin Coleman, Cornerback
Yet another early signing for the Lions, Detroit added former Seahawk (and Patriot, briefly) Justin Coleman to a four-year, $36 million deal. Similar to the Amendola signing, this media and fans were split on this deal — making a largely unknown player the highest-paid slot corner in the league. Coleman struggled in camp to find his footing in a new scheme, but had a spectacular start to the season. Coleman, through the first four games of the season, was making a legitimate All-Pro case, showing great coverage, speed, and versatility. However, his ability to punch out balls, forcing fumbles and critical incompletions, was his true strong point. But, much like most of the secondary (and the team, for that matter), Coleman took a big step backward from the Packers game onward. He became a liability in coverage, and lost his playmaking ability. Though he started to turn things around towards the end of the season, he was nowhere near his early season form. The jury’s still out on this signing, but I think Coleman has a chance to build on the good and turn in a more consistent 2020 campaign
Trey Flowers, Defensive End
The big fish of the Lions’ 2019 free agency class, Matt Patricia was able to reel in the former Patriot in a blockbuster five-year, $90 million deal. Flowers had multiple suitors for his services last offseason, but ultimately chose Detroit over Miami, likely thanks to his perfect fit in the defensive scheme and ties with Matt Patricia. Flowers underwent surgery in the offseason, and missed the majority of training camp as he recovered. The rust was evident through the first few games of the year, as Flowers was a non-factor in some early contests. Gradually, though, he started to become the player we all thought he could be. Flowers ended the year with eight sacks, which is pretty solid given the variety of roles he plays on the defensive line and the Lions’ habit of sending three rushers. Although he wasn’t the leader of the defensive turnaround we were all hoping for in 2019, Flowers’ quietly strong year bodes well for his long term outlook, and he looks to be a stalwart of the defense for years to come
Rashaan Melvin, Cornerback
Despite the Lions’ addition of Justin Coleman early in free agency, Detroit still needed depth at corner, and potentially a starter opposite Darius Slay. That came in the form of ex-Raider Rashaan Melvin, whom the Lions added towards the beginning of camp. Melvin was clearly looking for a career-reviving year, after a horrific season in Oakland the year prior. Melvin took the starting role after the team cut ties with Teez Tabor, and had a strong start. Melvin’s play dropped off steeply in the back half of the season, and he became a liability on defense, getting exposed by Giants rookie Darius Slayton among other receivers. The Lions may have interest in bringing Melvin back on another cheap deal for depth, but he’s clearly not the long-term option as a starter in Detroit.
Mike Daniels, Defensive Tackle
Undoubtedly the most shocking of Detroit’s offseason additions, former Packer Mike Daniels joined the team right at the start of training camp after an unceremonious departure from Green Bay. Daniels, peculiarly, chose Detroit over about a dozen other teams, citing the ingenuity of Matt Patricia. The Daniels signing was the perfect capitalization on an exciting offseason for Lions fans, and his colossal failure of a year perfectly represented the disappointing season. Daniels had a poor start to the year, and unlike some other players, did not improve over the course of the season. Daniels suffered an injury that kept him out until later in the year, and saw his season end on injury reserve after a brief return in which he played pretty decently. Daniels’ prove-it deal was largely a failure, and his future in Detroit is blurry. If the Lions can bring him back on a cheap deal, short-term deal, I feel they should in spite of his injury history, but purely from a performance standpoint, his 2019 was not one for the books.
Oday Aboushi, OL- Healthy scratch in most games, didn’t play well in reserve role. Can’t see him returning.
Tommylee Lewis, WR- Had a solid camp, but didn’t end up making 53-man roster.
CJ Anderson, RB- Started season as RB2, but was surprisingly cut early in the season, the first of many to come through the running back roulette in Detroit.
Jermaine Kearse, WR- Roster lock and looked like a savvy signing until sadly breaking leg in preseason. Interesting to see if Lions will bring him back this season.
Logan Thomas, TE- In all honesty, maybe the Lions’ best signing from a purely consistency-gauging approach. Played well in a reserve role as the third tight end, and recorded his best year. Could see him coming back.
JD McKissic, RB- Another nice add, former Seahawk who Lions scooped as a waiver-wire addition just before season started. Managed to stay healthy, added special teams value, and was an elusive pass-catching back for the Lions all year. I see him returning next year.
To Conclude: Detroit’s free agency class and its respective impact in 2019 is a mixed bag. On one hand, you have a number of respectable deals that, though they haven’t really resulted in drastic positive change in play, look like they might be high contributors for the future, but contrarily, some major misses. At the end of the day, however, there has yet to emerge a true gem of a signing in this class, a star that the team can build upon, and for that reason, the grade will be lower.
Thanks for reading. In the next article, I will try and mock up a free agency preview of the fast-approaching 2020 period, so keep your ear to the ground.