There is no doubting that the 2013 version of the Detroit Lions, especially on defense is going to look far different from the team that finished with eight straight losses en route to 4-12 record.
The Lions have a total of 22 unrestricted free agents, many of whom have played an integral part over the years in the team’s rebuilding process. Because of the team’s salary cap situation, players looking for bigger contracts (Cliff Avril) will likely be looking elsewhere for offers.
Listed below are a group of players that the Lions should find a way to bring back. They won’t be the highest paid players, nor are stars, but play critical roles in the team’s success in all three phases of the game.
*Note: I believe the team needs to bring back Delmas as well, but could do so on the franchise tag.
1. Chris Houston, CB:
It may be a good thing for the Lions that Houston really struggled in the last few games of the year. He was torched in the Atlanta game, especially, as Roddy White and Julio Jones caught touchdown passes over Houston. That being said, other than Suh and Fairley, Houston was really the only playmaker the Lions had on defense. Not only that, he is the only constant in the Lions defensive backs group that you can count on week in, week out.
Like a lot of the unrestricted free agents, it really depends on what the asking price is here. Houston is not a No. 1 cornerback on most NFL teams. He is a fantastic No. 2 guy, and should be paid accordingly. If the asking price is not ridiculous, Houston will be brought back.
2. Sammie Lee Hill, DT:
As the staff and management repeatedly say, the goal is to keep good players here. Hill is one of those players. He may have regressed a bit in 2012, but what Lions’ player didn’t regress? Hill, in his fourth year out of Stillman College, recorded only 15 tackles on the season and did not have a single sack.
Defensive tackles rarely fill up the stat sheet, unless you are Ndamukong Suh, which Hill is not. But he could start on a few teams in the NFL, so having him as your run-stuffing, third defensive tackle is a luxury this team should look to keep. Again, if the price is right, bring him back.
3. Lawrence Jackson, DE:
LoJack came on strong at the end of the year, finishing with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the last four games. That is not a good number by any means, but the Lions will take what they can get out of the defensive end position (which is not much). With uncertainty surrounding starting defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, and whether or not the two will be brought back, Jackson becomes very valuable as he fits this system that the Lions employ very well.
There is no telling what the Lions will do at any position right now, as it is so early in the offseason, but don’t be surprised if the team uses a defensive end-by-committee approach at one of the spots next year. Jackson should be a part of that rotation.
4. Will Heller, TE:
Heller, or as I like to call him, Dexter (because he looks exactly like Michael C. Hall), had a coming out party in the latter portion of the year when Pettigrew was out with an injury. Heller assumed the starting role and actually displayed some hands that we are not accustomed to seeing. That just adds to his versatility as he is already one of the better blocking tight ends in the game. Add in the fact that they Lions don’t have a fullback on the roster, and that makes Heller even more valuable as he assumes that role as well.
Despite being the third tight end on the Lions, he plays a crucial role in the Lions offense. He will most likely be brought back.
5. Kassim Osgood, WR/ST
This one may come as a surprise. Why would a special teamer be a must-sign. Well, look at how our special teams improved drastically after the disaster that were the Titans and Vikings games. Since that debacle, the Lions gave up an average of 6.2 yards per punt return and 20.5 on kickoffs. That all happened when Osgood signed with the Lions.
Now, is he solely responsible for that improvement? Of course not…there are 11 guys on special teams that can make a tackle. But Osgood, along with John Wendling and Ashlee Palmer, are stalwarts are the Lions’ special teams units. If the Lions want to win in all three phases of the game, the special teams aspect needs to be fixed, and Osgood can help with that.