Ranking the Detroit Lions’ top 12 free agents

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have more than 20 players set to hit free agency. Most are unrestricted, meaning they are free to sign with any team at the beginning of the new league year in March.

A handful, such as TJ Jones and Brandon Copeland, are restricted, giving the team the right to tender them. There are three tenders — a first-round, second-round or original-round. If tendered, other teams still can sign the player, but the Lions would have a right to match. If they decline, they get back a draft pick based on the tender. If an original-round tender is applied to a player who went undrafted, there is no compensation.

Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah has six sacks combined in the final two games of the season, but consistency was an issue.

Finally, there are a handful of exclusive-rights free agents, players who have two or fewer years of service time. They can be tendered at league minimum and are unable to negotiate with other teams. Two key players in this group are defensive end Kerry Hyder and Jake Rudock.

Below, we’ve ranked the team’s top 12 free agents, excluding the exclusive-rights players.

■ 1. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah: With a six-sack surge over the final two games, it’s easy to overlook the overall performance. Yes, Ansah finished top-10 in sacks, but his ability to consistently generate pressure was below-average, ranking 69th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. The Lions need to add defensive linemen this offseason regardless, but finding a way to retain Ansah would put the entire defense in better position to succeed in 2018. The franchise tag is always a possibility here.

2. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead: Moved from middle linebacker to the weakside, Whitehead had his best season. Coverage still isn’t a strong suit, but it was improved. The biggest strides came as a run defender, where he showcased high-level recognition and the ability to consistently slip blocks to make stops.

■ 3. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata: Ngata is at the tail end of his career, but he’s expressed interest in coming back in 2018 and the Lions should strongly consider it. Although he’s lost a couple of steps from his dominant prime, he’s still an above-average defensive tackle on a line that lacks quality depth on the interior.

■ 4. Wide receiver TJ Jones: Jones proved he is more than worthy of an original-round tender, which would cost around $2 million and give the Lions the right to match any offer he receives on the open market. After three non-descript years in the league, Jones bulked up and provided critical depth for the Lions last season.

Lions receiver TJ Jones (13) set career highs this season in catches (30) and yards (399).

■ 5. Cornerback D.J. Hayden: We anticipate Teez Tabor will have a much larger role next season, but the Lions will need cornerback depth. This isn’t about scheme continuity, since there will be a new staff and new defensive philosophy, it’s a matter of Hayden showing adequate coverage skills in his first year with the team and having the versatility to play both inside and out.

■ 6. Safety Tavon Wilson: Prior to season-ending shoulder surgery, Wilson was functioning well at strong safety, particularly against the run. Quandre Diggs’ emergence as his fill-in lessens the need to retain Wilson, but letting him go would require a permanent shuffling of the chairs in the secondary.

■ 7. Tight end Darren Fells: Brought in for his blocking, Fells’ performance in that area didn’t always live up the hype. As a pass catcher, he had his ups and downs. Fans will remember a few dropped passes in the red zone, but, surprisingly, quarterback Matthew Stafford had a better passer rating when targeting the veteran tight end than any other option. As a cheap, versatile veteran, Fells is worth retaining.

■ 8. Long snapper Don Muhlbach: The Lions already went down the road of trying to replace Muhlbach, and it didn’t go well. At some point, age will catch up with the veteran, but until it does, the team should keep re-upping. He brings stability to punts and field goals, which is often underappreciated.

■ 9. Center Travis Swanson: For the second straight year, Swanson’s season was ended by a concussion. That’s a massive concern that goes beyond football, but if he opts to continue playing, the performance decline in 2017 was also problematic. The Lions have a center in waiting on the roster in Graham Glasgow and can find a cheaper, more reliable guard option in the draft.

■ 10. Cornerback Nevin Lawson: Lawson’s development hit something of a plateau in his fourth season. He’s a better run defender than Hayden, but weaker in coverage and more of a risk to draw a penalty with his reliance on physicality early in routes. He broke up just four passes in 2017 and has yet to net an interception in his four-year career.

■ 11. Safety Don Carey: Carey offers little on defense, but is a special-teams standout year after year. His ability to navigate through traffic and make stops on kick coverage is underrated. Plus, he’s a stable source of leadership for the young players in the locker room.

12. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill: Hill didn’t make it to the regular season, suffering a bicep injury during training camp. Durability has been a big issue for the former third-round draft pick, but the explosiveness he showed on the practice field carries intrigue. He won’t command more than a minimum deal and it’s worth seeing if he steer clear of injury in 2018.

■ Other free agents: Guard Don Barclay, linebacker Nick Bellore, defensive tackle Rodney Coe (exclusive rights), defensive end Brandon Copeland (restricted), defensive end Dwight Freeney, running back Mike James, punter Kasey Redfern (exclusive rights), defensive tackle Christian Ringo (exclusive rights), offensive tackle Greg Robinson, linebacker Paul Worrilow, running back Zach Zenner (restricted)