Predicting who the Lions might sign when the free-agency period begins on Tuesday is difficult, and so is looking back on which players represent the best signings since free-agency was adopted in the NFL in 1993.
This week’s Monday Countdown ranks the Lions’ 10 best free-agent signings, with some rules.
In all cases, impact is more important than longevity, regardless of the rules. And while some lists have been compiled in other years, the changes in order are based on more recent additions which reflect value and impact.
One rule is most obvious: players had to qualify as free agents under NFL rules, and they had to be veterans who signed during the offseason. For example, that excludes rookies who were signed as undrafted free agents and players who were cut during the season and signed to the roster.
In my list, I included a unit of players who were signed together to fill a specific need in the same area, and an entry of two who qualified under the same scenario, but at different positions.
My top free agent qualified under a separate set of rules put in place by the NFL at the time he signed.
From No. 10 to No. 1, here is my top 10 list of Lions free agents.
As always, feel free to disagree.
10. OLB Broderick Thomas, 1994: He was a “system fit” in two ways – in the Lions’ 3-4 scheme as a powerful pass-rusher at left outside linebacker, and in the new reality of limitations imposed by the salary cap which took effect in 1994.
After five seasons in Tampa, Thomas signed a one-year contract with the mutual understanding that he’d move on in 1995. He gave the defense a presence – a perfect fit.
9. DT Henry Thomas, 1995: He stopped at the Silverdome for a look-see on his free-agent tour and left a Lion.
Bill Ford referred to a line in the auto industry: “Don’t let the customer out of the showroom.” Thomas didn’t drive away in an armor-plated F-150 (OK, Brinks truck), but he did get an offer too good to pass on.
Thomas was an excellent player in two seasons as a Lion. He had 7 sacks in 1995 and a career-high 10.5 in ’96. He opened the way to reconstruct the defensive line. Robert Porcher moved from tackle to end, where he flourished as a Pro Bowler, and Luther Elliss, a rookie in ’95, moved inside to tackle in ’96 and advanced his game with Thomas’ help.
8. The Big 3: Not Ford, Chrysler and GM, but three offensive linemen who signed together in 1993 to rebuild a unit that was shredded by tragedy and injury. Mike Utley was paralyzed in a 1991 game, and Eric Andolsek was killed in the offseason before the 1992 season.
Bill Fralick, Dave Richards and Dave Lutz all got big signing bonuses in 1993, when there was no salary cap. It was understood that Fralick and Richards likely would be Lions for one season. Lutz remained a Lion for three years.
As Coach Wayne Fontes juggled three starting quarterbacks – Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer and Andre Ware – the additions on the offensive line helped improve the offense. The Lions won twice as many games as in 1992 – 10-6 vs. 5-11 – and won the NFC Central, only to suffer a heart-breaking playoff loss to the Packers on the now-historic TD pass to Sterling Sharpe in the final minute.
7. FB Tommy Vardell, 1997: In his first season as head coach, Bobby Ross put a fullback in the offense and wanted a veteran to play the position. Vardell filled that role, even though he was a tailback at heart from his days at Stanford, when he scored 22 TDs as a senior at Stanford and was known as “Touchdown Tommy Vardell.”
Vardell made himself a superior blocker and produced in limited opportunities, scoring 6 TDs in 1997 and 6 in ’98.
The payoff was 1997. He helped clear the way for Barry Sanders to rush for a career-high 2,053 yards. The Lions made the playoffs as a wild card with a 9-7 record.
Vardell was gone after the 1998 season, but the Lions got their money’s worth out of him.
6. OT Ray Roberts, 1996: Lomas Brown’s departure in free-agency left a void on the offensive line at left tackle, and Roberts was signed to fill it. He wasn’t as good as Brown, but Roberts was more than adequate as a five-year starter, despite being hampered by injuries at times.
Sanders won back-to-back rushing titles in 1996-97. Roberts’ career ended after the 2000 season, his last as a Lion.
5. RB Reggie Bush, 2013: James Stewart warranted top 10 consideration but lacked Bush’s impact. Stewart was signed in 2000 and provided a power threat with 1,184 yards and 10 TDs in a 9-7 season. Stewart had two 1,000-yard seasons in his four years as a Lion.
Bush gave the Lions an immediate lift. The Lions needed a back who could make an impact as a runner/receiver, and Bush wanted an offense that fit his skill set. The Lions provided a comfortable fit for both.
Bush has a celebrity aura, but he is one of the guys in the locker room and works as hard as anyone in practice. Bush gave the Lions an explosive duel with 1,006 yards rushing, 54 receptions and 7 total TDs. Fumbles and dropped passes were the only downside.
4. The entry – DE Kyle Vanden Bosch & WR Nate Burleson, 2010: After consecutive seasons of 0-16 and 2-14 and a 3-37 record in the previous 40 games, the Lions needed veteran leadership and production. Short-term payoff was important, and Vanden Bosch and Burleson provided both.
Vanden Bosch’s work ethic set a high standard, and his influence remains, even though 2012 was his last season. Burleson’s upbeat personality and presence in the locker room were important. His best season as a Lion was 2011, with 73 catches. Injuries reduced him to 15 games and 66 catches the last two seasons, and he didn’t really stretch defenses. He was released last month.
3. CB Dre Bly, 2003: He was the top-rated cornerback in free-agency in ‘03, and the Lions might have over-paid to sign him. If so, he was worth it. He made the Pro Bowl his first two years in Detroit and was an alternate in ’05.
Bly had great hands and instincts and used both to intercept 16 passes his first three seasons in Detroit. He was gone to Denver in ’07 and finished his career in San Francisco in ’09.
2. QB Dave Krieg, 1994: Question this one all you want.
He turned 36 in his 15th season, was signed to be Scott Mitchell’s backup, spent one season in Detroit and started seven games.
That makes him the No. 2 free agent on this all-time list?
It’s more about impact than numbers – and Krieg had both in his limited time.
He sat the bench for eight weeks while Mitchell struggled after signing a big free-agent contract. Mitchell went out for the year with a broken wrist in Game 9 on the road against the Packers. Enter Krieg. He almost brought the Lions back in that game, but they lost to drop to 4-5.
After that, the Lions won five of the next six – including a four-game winning streak – and made the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They nearly won a playoff game at Green Bay but wound up with a 16-12 loss when Herman Moore caught a last-minute pass inches beyond the end line on fourth down.
Krieg’s stats were dazzling – 14 TDs, 3 interceptions, a 61.8 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 101.7.
The Lions would not have made the playoffs without Krieg. That’s how important he was – and why he’s No. 2 on this list.
Not since Tobin Rote stepped in for Bobby Layne in the 1957 championship season has a backup done as much for the Lions as Krieg did in 1994.
1. KR Mel Gray, 1989: Put an asterisk on the rules, but they’re my rules, and Gray qualifies.
In 1989, the NFL opened the door to free-agency with Plan B free-agency, a system that allowed teams to protect 37 players on their roster. The rest could be signed by other teams, with no compensation.
Gray had spent three seasons in New Orleans as the Saints’ primary return specialist. He did not live up to his draft status as a second-round pick in 1986.
The Lions jumped on Gray, and it paid dividends. From 1990-94 he made four Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro three times.
As a Lion, he scored 2 TDs on punt returns and 5 on kickoff returns. He led the NFL in punt return average (15.4) and kickoff return average (25.8) in 1991 and kickoff return average (28.4) in 1994, with 3 TDs.
The bigger the moment, the better he played – and there was no greater moment than Game 15 of the 1991 season in arctic conditions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
With a wind chill of minus 6 and swirling winds of 15 miles an hour, Gray raced through would-be tacklers in a 78-yard punt return TD that gave the Lions a 21-10 fourth-quarter lead.
They held on for a 21-17 victory that clinched a playoff berth. It was the Lions’ last road victory over the Packers.
A memorable game, moment and player.