Only time will tell if what appears to be a promising class of free agents will leave a mark as others have done for the Detroit Lions since the NFL adopted unfettered free agency in 1993.
It is a difficult chore to pick the best free agents signed by the Lions, and it’s obviously open to debate.
Following is one man’s opinion of the top 11. The rules have been expanded in a couple of cases. A group makes up one of the 11 spots because of history and unusual circumstances on how the players arrived at the same time, and there are special circumstances for another player.
Production is a factor for all players, but impact is a key factor for some whose stay in Detroit was short.
As always, feel free to disagree.
1. WR Golden Tate, 2014: He arrived in Detroit on a wintry March day after four seasons in Seattle and faced questions about whether the Lions had overpaid to add him as a slot receiver. He proved to be a big-time producer, with four straight seasons of at least 90 catches and 416 catches overall before being traded to the Eagles in midseason of 2018.
2. CB Dre Bly, 2003: He brought to the Lions’ secondary the ball-hawking ability that he’d shown in college at North Carolina and in four seasons with the Rams. Bly had 19 interceptions and five fumble recoveries in four seasons with the Lions and was a Pro Bowl starter his first two seasons. He was a bright spot on some dreary teams.
3. S Glover Quin, 2013: From Day One as a Lion he handled his own position at an extremely high level while directing the entire secondary like an experienced air-traffic controller. He never missed a game in six seasons in Detroit, and led the league with seven interceptions to earn a Pro Bowl berth in 2014. He was good on the field and in the locker room.
4. K Matt Prater, 2014: Prater’s signing before Game 6 solved a kicking problem that had cost the Lions at least one game. He gave the Lions the best long-range clutch kicker in franchise history. The Lions seemingly are never out of field-goal range with Prater’s strong leg.
5. Offensive line trio, 1993: It was the first season of free agency – and one year before the salary cap took effect – and the Lions splurged to rebuild the offensive line with three starters – guards Bill Fralic and Dave Richards, and tackle Dave Lutz. The Lions improved from 5-11 in 1992 to 10-6 and the old NFC Central title. It was an expensive investment that paid off in the win column.
6. MLB Stephen Tulloch, 2011: The Lions were building the roster with high draft picks and quality free agents to emerge from one of the darkest periods in franchise history. Tulloch was an upgrade at middle linebacker on the 2011 team that made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Tulloch started every game in four of his five seasons in Detroit. Short in physical stature (he was listed at 5-11), he was long on production.
7. WR Marvin Jones Jr., 2016: In his first season as GM of the Lions, Bob Quinn had to acquire a veteran receiver to help fill the void created by Calvin Johnson’s retirement. A 232-mile drive south on I-75 to Paul Brown Stadium is where Jones had shown big-play ability with the Bengals. In 40 games with the Lions he’s been a deep threat for Matthew Stafford, with 151 catches, 16.8 yards per catch and 18 TDs.
8. DT Henry Thomas, 1995: He played only two seasons with the Lions, but he provided the sudden impact they needed. Thomas had 10.5 sacks in 1995 and helped the Lions win their last seven games to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record. He had six sacks in 1996. A change in schemes in 1997 made him expendable. He played four more seasons, including the last three in New England.
9. QB Dave Krieg, 1994: He started only seven games in his one season with the Lions, but he led them to a wild card playoff berth with his performance at a critical time. The Lions went 5-2 after Krieg stepped into the huddle after Scott Mitchell went out with a season-ending injury. In his 15th season at age 36, Krieg gave the Lions playmaking, leadership and production – 14 TD pass vs. three picks.
10. RB James Stewart, 2000: It’s a narrow choice over Reggie Bush. Stewart hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark twice in his three seasons as a Lion. Bush did it once in two seasons. The Lions’ running game disappeared in 1999, the year after Barry Sanders retired. Stewart restored it. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury in the last preseason game of 2003 ended his career.
11. Mel Gray: It’s a special spot for a return specialist who deserves to have the rules expanded to include him in any list of all-time anything involving the Lions.
Gray was the first player signed by the Lions when the NFL adopted Plan B free agency in 1989. Under Plan B, teams could protect 37 players. The rest were free agents, and eligible to sign with any team.
Gray was the first player signed by the Lions when the Saints failed to protect him. It might have been the Lions’ best signing under any system. Gray was first team All Pro four times in six seasons as a Lion.
He was fearless returning punts and kickoffs. In his career with the Lions he returned five kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns. He had three kickoff returns for TDs in 1994.