Friday Focus: The Detroit Lions have had their share of hits and misses in free agency

Posted Mar 8, 2013

Mike O'Hara takes a look back at the best free agent signings by the Detroit Lions

Scott MitchellIn the first 20 years of unrestricted free agency, player salaries ballooned beyond any multiple that economists and accountants would deem sound business practice, and the parade of players changing teams turned the NFL's offseason into a season unto its own.

There are even fantasy free agent leagues. Twenty years ago, who'd have thought it?

With this year's free agent signing period set to begin shortly after midnight on Tuesday, a look back at the first 20 years of free agency shows that the Lions were like most other teams. They had their share of hits and misses.

My 20-year All-Free Agent Lions team is posted below. Some choices are easy. James Stewart stands out at running back with two 1,000-yard seasons. Other positions, such as the offensive line, are more difficult.

One pick is sure to spark controversy. Scott Mitchell is the quarterback on my All-Free Agent Lions team.

I've also expanded the rules for the player I consider the best free agent signing in Lions history.

The money has changed in free agency. The cap took effect in 1994, and the first salary cap was $34.608 million. The 2013 cap is $123 million, up slightly from the 2012 level of $120.6 million, but at the same $123-million limit of 2009.

One thing hasn't changed in free agency. It is still one method of filling holes in a roster, but the draft and development of players are still the foundation for team building.

"The draft is our lifeblood," said Lions GM Martin Mayhew. "There is a role for free agency. People say you can't build a team through free agency. I think that's sort of common sense."

Free agency's impact is apparent in the makeup of last year's roster. The Lions got significant contributions from players such as Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tony Scheffler, Nate Burleson, Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch. All were signed as unrestricted free agents.

Here is my All-Free Agent Lions team. Players qualify only by signing as free agents during the offseason period. It does not include waiver claims, or players picked up during the season.


QB: Scott Mitchell. Fans may not have liked him, but Mitchell was the opening-day starter for five seasons (1994-98), and he threw 32 TD passes in 1995 on a Lions team that went 10-6.

Mitchell was a hot free agent in 1994, and the Lions signed him to a three-year, $11 million deal.

Others considered were Jon Kitna, the first Lion with two 4,000-yard seasons, and Dave Krieg, who replaced Mitchell as the starter after nine games in 1994 and led the Lions to a 9-7 record and wild-card playoff berth.

WR: Nate Burleson, Mike Furrey. Burleson has been a leader and solid No. 2 receiver opposite Calvin Johnson for three years. Furrey came out of nowhere to catch 98 passes in 2006. He dropped to 61 catches in 2007 and was gone after the 2008 season.

RB: James Stewart: Signed in 2000, he filled the void at running back with 1,184 yards rushing in 2000 and 1,021 in 2002. He never played again after sustaining a shoulder injury in an exhibition game at Buffalo in 2003.

TE: Will Heller: He has given the Lions four dependable seasons as a versatile backup since signing in 2009.

Note: Tony Scheffler doesn't qualify because he was acquired in a trade. Rodney Holman and Pete Metzelaars both finished long, distinguished careers with the Lions and played two seasons each as limited role players.

OT: Ray Roberts, from 1996-2000, and Zefross Moss, a solid two-year starter in 1995-96.

G: Dave Lutz, part of the 1993 class. He started out at tackle and moved inside to guard. Damien Woody gave the Lions three solid years at guard (2004-06) before moving to tackle in 2007, his last season as a Lion. Woody was the top-rated guard on the market when the Lions signed him in 2004. Weight issues kept him from playing to his potential in Detroit.

Note: Rob Sims was acquired in a trade, and Stephen Peterman was released by Dallas at the end of camp in 2006 and signed to the Lions' practice squad. Both are long-term starters, but neither was a free agent.

C: Nobody. Between the time Kevin Glover departed in 2008 and Dominic Raiola took over in 2002, the only free agent starter was Jim Pyne in 1998, and he was substandard.


DE: Kyle Vanden Bossch and Dewayne White: Vanden Bosch came in as a leader in 2010. He was injured his first season and age caught up in 2012, but he was a presence on the right side. Injuries limited White to three seasons as a Lion, but he had 13 sacks in his first two seasons (2007-08).

DT: Henry Thomas, James Jones. Both played only two seasons and made impact. Thomas had 10.5 sacks in 1995 and six the next season. Jones was solid in 1999-2000, registering 10 sacks. He was cut the day before the opening game in 2001 in a move that crushed morale on the defense. Both Thomas and Jones helped Luther Elliss blossom into a Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

OLB: Broderick Thomas, Allen Aldridge: Thomas signed for one season in 1994 after a salary dispute with Tampa Bay. That one season was impressive. He had seven sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Aldridge was a power player and started all 64 games from 1998-2001.

Stephen Tulloch

MLB: It's a hard choice between Mike Johnson (1994-95), Earl Holmes (2003-05) and Stephen Tulloch, the starter the last two years. Tulloch wins because he should have more starting seasons ahead of him.

CB: Dré Bly (2003-06) and Fernando Bryant (2004-07). Bly intercepted 19 passes as a Lion and made two Pro Bowls. Bryant was a consistent four-year starter. Bly fell into disfavor with fans for publicly criticizing Joey Harrington, the quarterback Lions fans criticized.

S: Mark Carrier and Kenoy Kennedy. Both were three-year starters. Carrier intercepted nine passes as a Lion.

Special Teams

K: Nobody. Jason Hanson has been the kicker since the start of free agency.

Punter: John Jett (1997-2003): Jett was consistent until sustaining a career-ending leg injury early in the 2003 season. Nick Harris replaced him and had slightly better stats, but Harris was a mid-season replacement and does not qualify.

The Lions' best free-agent signing: Mel Gray, return specialist. He was a special specialist who belongs in a separate category.

The Lions signed Gray in 1989, when the NFL adopted Plan B free agency, which allowed teams to protect 37 players. Gray was left off the Saints' protected list and signed with the Lions.

In six seasons as a Lion, Gray made the Pro Bowl four times and first-team All-Pro three times. He was the best pure return specialist of the 1990's. He twice led the NFL in kickoff return average, including 1994, with a 28.4-yard average and three touchdowns.