Allen Park — How often did we hear a Detroit Lions player or coach say “every year is different” this offseason?
But there’s a lot of truth to the phrase. Each offseason, there’s typically significant roster turnover, both for the team’s starting lineup and rotational depth. Not even factoring in the those under contract who could get cut, the Lions have 22 players on expiring deals. And looking over that list, you’ll be hard pressed to say more than an handful merit coming back in 2019.
After last week’s game against Buffalo, a loss which officially eliminated the Lions from playoff contention, veteran defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois talked about the importance of the remaining two games.
“You don’t know who is looking at you, so you’ve got to come out there as if you’re going to the playoffs or you’re trying to win a division title,” Francois said. “You have to put everything out on film, because, like you said, most teams, most coaches, most GMs are going to look, ‘OK, this team is out of the playoffs, let’s see how they play. Let me see how this guy plays when he has nothing to play for.’
“That’s when you can tell a lot about an NFL player.”
These next two games, they’re an audition for many players, whether a potential return to Detroit or for a roster spot somewhere else in 2019. With that in mind, here are the 22 players set to be free agents for the Lions after this season.
►Defensive end Ziggy Ansah: When he was healthy this season, Ansah played well. On a down-to-down basis, he was performing at a level close to his 2015 campaign, when he recorded a career-high 14.5 sacks. But Ansah, much like the previous two seasons, wasn’t healthy often enough. A shoulder injury early in the opener sidelined him six games and hurting that shoulder again ended his year. He finished with four sacks, and it’s probably time for the Lions to move on. Even if the price tag is depressed because of durability concerns, what’s the point of bringing him back if you can’t count on him to stay on the field?
►Tight end Luke Willson: This was supposed to be a happy homecoming for Windsor’s Willson, a chance to prove he was more than the backup he was in Seattle. Instead, it’s been a disastrous marriage. His playing time has been inconsistent, and his usage in the passing game often non-existent. He’s sitting at 87 yards through 13 games and doesn’t have a touchdown. A split is needed, for both sides.
►Running back LeGarrette Blount: He was supposed to be the team’s short-yardage solution, but the only thing short yardage about Blount’s season has been his yards per carry, which sit at a disappointing 2.8. The Lions likely will be looking for a new backfield running mate for Kerryon Johnson this offseason.
►Wide receiver TJ Jones: In his fifth year with the Lions, there’s been an opportunity for a bigger role since the Golden Tate trade, but Jones hasn’t taken advantage of it. He has a couple of big catches, but is sitting on 10 for the year, while making only modest contributions as a fill-in return man.
►Tight end Levine Toilolo: Primarily a blocker early in the season, Toilolo has come on strong as a pass-catching threat in recent weeks, hauling in 10 of his 16 receptions the past three games. With 61 yards over the final two contests, he’ll set a career-high in that department. If he’s interested, he merits strong consideration to come back in 2019.
►Cornerback Marcus Cooper: He’s only seen a handful of snaps for the Lions since being claimed off waivers last month. At the right price, he could serve as quality depth with plus size and experience to go along with the ability to play on multiple special teams units.
►Quarterback Matt Cassel: Coaches like to have a familiar backup quarterback around as a security blanket, but Cassel turns 37 in May and the Lions would probably be better off drafting and developing a young talent behind Matthew Stafford. Depending on how conservative the Lions are with their starting quarterback’s back injury, Cassel might get in some reps these final games to make his case.
►Fullback Nick Bellore: Whatever the Lions have asked of him in recent years, Bellore has stepped to the plate and done his best. The former linebacker has been more than adequate at fullback, while continuing to give the Lions plenty on special teams. If he can be retained for another veteran minimum deal with a quality signing bonus, the Lions should do it, even if it’s just as an insurance policy for 2018 draft pick Nick Bawden, who is coming off an ACL tear.
►Long snapper Don Muhlbach: General manager Bob Quinn tried to replace Muhlbach once and it was a wasted effort, but at 37, the end of the line is not far for the veteran long snapper. Still, it’s far from a pressing need. The snaps have largely remained crisp.
►Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois: As a rotational piece, the 10-year veteran has been helpful with Detroit’s transition to its new defensive scheme, while providing some much-needed vocal leadership for a young locker room. Despite Jean Francois’ outgoing personality with the media, there’s good synergy with coach Matt Patricia, which could merit a second season in Detroit.
►Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard: A midseason signing, Sheppard largely has been a special-teams contributor. With Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones in good health heading into the final two weeks, Sheppard’s role is unlikely to change, but there’s always room for quality depth that can contribute on coverage units.
►Cornerback DeShawn Shead: One of the team’s top free-agent additions this past offseason, Shead was cut before the start of the season and brought back a few weeks later, when he was fully healthy. He’s largely been used as a matchup piece, covering tight ends on third down. When given safety help against some of the league’s top options, he’s been OK, but he’s less reliable when leaned on to handle an assignment one on one. Expect Detroit to be in the market for an upgrade.
►Linebacker Eli Harold: A training camp trade addition, Harold came out the gate hot, recording three sacks in his first three games with the team. Then he and his wife welcomed a baby, he missed a week of practice and fell out of the rotation around that time. He picked up his fourth sack filling in for an injured Devon Kennard. Harold is good depth, but it seems likely the Lions will be looking to upgrade their pass-rush this offseason, leaving little room to bring him back.
►Running back Zach Zenner: The Lions like Zenner, even when he seemingly gets buried on the depth chart. He’s always ready when his number is called, is versatile enough to handle any backfield assignment and is a quality special teamer. It’s not difficult to imagine the team making room on the roster to retain him after this season.
►Safety Charles Washington: One of the teams top special-team contributors, Washington essentially replaced Don Carey on the roster. Not surprisingly, given his role as a gunner on punt coverage, Washington leads the Lions with six special-teams stops.
►Offensive tackle Andrew Donnal: We don’t have any idea what Donnal offers, but he’s pretty much been on the roster the entire season since being claimed off waivers in early September. He’s been inactive most weeks, and the weeks he’s been available, he’s played a grand total of three special-teams snaps.
►Wide receiver Bruce Ellington: It’s difficult to imagine Ellington as anything more than a stopgap, brought in midseason to play the slot after the Tate trade. He’s battled some injuries, and when healthy, the contributions have been modest — 23 catches for 132 yards. You won’t find a receiver averaging fewer yards per catch.
►Tight end Jerome Cunningham: A recent practice-squad promotion, Cunningham only saw four snaps in his Lions debut. Unless that workload picks up in a hurry, the team’s evaluation will be limited to his work on the practice field.
►Defensive tackle Kerry Hyder: It’s been a disappointing season for Hyder, who fought hard to battle back from last season’s Achilles tendon tear. A healthy scratch most weeks, he’s been limited to four tackles and zero sacks. His attitude and energy would be a welcomed addition to any NFL locker room, and he’ll probably be closer to full strength two years removed from the injury, but this might his last hurrah with the Lions.
►Defensive end Romeo Okwara: One of Detroit’s top additions this year, he came free off waivers after the Giants let him go. Filling in for the injured Ansah, Okwara has played more than 70 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps, recording a career-high 6.5 sacks. It should be an easy decision to tender him as a restricted free agent. A second-round tender, which all but assures he’s in Detroit next season, will cost a little more than $3 million.
►Linebacker Steve Longa: Longa was on track for a big special-teams role before tearing his ACL in the preseason. The team’s leading special-teams tackler a year ago, he’ll merit another look from the franchise this offseason if he heals as expected.
►Offensive lineman Leo Koloamatangi: He might not play a snap this season, and if he does, it will probably come on special teams, but the two-year resident of the team’s practice squad intrigued two offensive line coaches enough to keep him around.