Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have found a veteran tight end to bolster the team’s thin depth chart at the position, agreeing to sign former Seattle Seahawk Luke Willson to a one-year deal Wednesday morning.
The contract reportedly will pay Willson $2.5 million, with the ability to earn more through incentives. The addition leaves the Lions with between $13-14 million in cap space.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Willson was a big Lions fan as a kid — even dressing up as Barry Sanders for multiple Halloweens — but was surrounded by Packers supporters at home, including his father Mike and older brothers Eric and Greg.
Willson recalled going to Lions-Packers game at the Silverdome and his brothers relentlessly teasing him with the Packers ahead in the fourth quarter. His signing is forcing family members to rethink their allegiances.
“After I figured out everything that was going on, my dad was beside me, so I called my mom at work and then talked to my brothers right after,” Willson said on a conference call with reporters. “(Eric) shot me a text that said, ‘To be honest with you, I never thought I’d be rooting for the Lions, but here we go.’
“They’re fraternal twins that are two years older than me. When you’re a kid, a youngster growing up, and you have two older brothers who are Packers fans, picking on me a little bit, now the tables are turned and they’ll be supporting the Honolulu blue and silver and I’m fired up about that.”
In additional to being a Lions fan, Willson’s college position coach was former Lions tight end David Sloan.
Since being drafted in the fifth round out of Rice in 2013, Willson has spent his entire five-year pro career with Seattle. Never a top option in the passing game, he’s averaged 18 catches for 226 yards per season. He’s hauled in 11 touchdowns, including a career-high four last season.
The last three years, Willson shared the field with five-time Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham. The two developed a close bond and Willson praised his former teammate for elevating his approach.
“I think the biggest thing that I picked up from Jimmy was the effort he put into his body and his preparation off the field,” Willson said. “I thought I was dedicated years ago. Then I met Jimmy and I realized there was a whole other level I had to get myself to.”
The 6-foot-5, 254-pound Willson brings added value as a special-teams contributor and blocker, particularly in the run game. Analytics site Pro Football Focus graded him positively in that area every year of his career.
Willson adds some much-needed depth at tight end after an offseason of turnover at the position. The Lions unexpectedly released former first-round pick Eric Ebron last week, clearing his $8.25 million salary off the books. The team also lost Darren Fells in free agency when the veteran landed a three-year, $12 million deal from the Cleveland Browns.
Michael Roberts and Hakeem Valles return in 2018. Roberts, a fourth-round selection out of Toledo last year, primarily worked as a blocker as a rookie. After catching 45 passes, including 16 touchdowns, his senior season at Toledo, he was targeted just seven times last season, catching four balls for 46 yards.
Valles was on the practice squad most of the year, prior to getting a late-season promotion to the active roster. He appeared in one game, playing 18 snaps. He didn’t see any passes his direction.
“You know, I think there's a great opportunity for me to compete and really help this team,” Willson said. “Maybe some nostalgia played into it, from being a kid. Again, this is a dream come true.”