Lions spent big on free agency, but what did they get for their money?
Allen Park — There's no wrong way to build a roster, but if you ask most NFL decision-makers, their preference would be to draft and develop. Draft picks are cheap and re-signing players you develop is the best way to build a stable foundation.
But other avenues exist for teams to add pieces, with the most important being free agency. When your foundation isn't as stable as you'd like it to be, often due to coaching or scheme changes, sometimes you have to spend more on the open market to plug holes or accelerate a transition.
That's where the Detroit Lions found themselves this offseason. According to data tracked by Spotrac, the franchise was one of the biggest spenders on free agents this past year, committing nearly $180 million in contracts to 22 players in 2019.
Those deals range from the additions of long-term pieces, such as Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman, to long-forgotten roster competition such as Luke Bowanko and Tommylee Lewis.
Like every team, the Lions got varying degrees of return on their spending, but overall, general manager Bob Quinn sounded pleased with how he used the team's cap space this year, focusing his comments on the three big-ticket additions — Flowers, Coleman and tight end Jesse James.
Acknowledging Flowers' slow start following offseason shoulder surgery, Quinn said the defensive end he signed to a five-year, $90 million contract played "exceptionally well."
"I think he played really well for us in all aspects – run defense, pass defense, quarterback hits, hurries, sacks," Quinn said.
That's an accurate assessment. After the first two weeks of the season, Flowers recorded 7.0 sacks, a half-sack shy of his career-high. He also ranked among the top-15 in quarterback hurries and hits during that stretch, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Coleman, Quinn acknowledged an up-and-down season for the nickelback who scored a four-year, $36 million deal from the Lions.
"He played really, really well at the beginning part of the season, had a little bit of a lull mid-year and then kind of played really good towards the end of the season again," Quinn said. "So I think I’m good there."
Coleman satisfied Detroit's need for a playmaker at the position. He tied for 15th in the NFL with 13 pass defenses, while also forcing three fumbles.
But coverage inconsistencies, which showed up throughout the offseason program, carried into the regular season. According to Pro Football Focus, Coleman was targeted 110 times while in coverage, second most in the NFL. He allowed 70 receptions for 856 yards, eight touchdowns and a 108.0 passer rating against. He gave up a reception every 8.2 snaps in coverage. All those figures ranked near the bottom of the league.
As for James, the season was an unquestionable disappointment. For the team's four-year, $22.6 million investment, he provided 16 catches, 142 yards, zero touchdowns and average blocking in his first season with the Lions.
"Jesse James needs to get more involved in the offense," Quinn said. "I think when you sign a tight end in the offseason and then you draft one in the first round, it’s kind of hard. It was kind of a hard thing for Jesse. But I know Jesse is excited about going forward with a really deep tight end room and that’s going to be a big part of our offense going forward."
James certainly isn't going anywhere. His cap hit is scheduled to jump to $5.3 million in his second season, but the dead money remaining on the deal is $8.3 million, meaning it would cost more to part ways with the veteran tight end.
Below are some of Quinn's other free-agent signings, what they cost to sign and how they produced in 2019:
► WR Danny Amendola, one year, $4.5 million: Amendola provided good value as a stopgap slot receiver solution, finishing with 62 catches for 678 yards. He also served in an important leadership role, being named captain and helping elevate the performance of the rest of the wide receiver room.
► DT Mike Daniels, one year, $8.1 million: Daniels never got up to full speed in Detroit. A late addition to the roster, he got off to a slow start following last year's season-ending foot injury, suffered an injury to the opposite foot in Week 3 and ended the year on injured reserve with an arm injury. In nine appearances, he tallied 10 tackles and 1.0 sack.
► CB Rashaan Melvin, one year, $2.15 million: The veteran journeyman started 12 games for the Lions, recording 67 tackles and breaking up 11 passes. His tackling and length were strengths, but he too struggled to consistently cover his assignments, giving up 52 catches for 750 yards and four scores.
► RB C.J. Anderson, one year, $1.5 million: Anderson was out of shape during the offseason program, attempted to work himself into shape during training camp and was cut after two games after averaging 2.7 yards on 16 carries.
► TE Logan Thomas, one year, $895,000: The former quarterback proved to be a solid value, outperforming James as both a pass-catcher and a blocker. Thomas hauled in 16 balls for 173 yards and a score, despite playing nearly 150 fewer snaps than James.
► QB Tom Savage, one year, $895,000: Savage's history of concussions cropped up during the preseason and by the time he returned to practice, he'd been passed on the depth chart by veteran Josh Johnson. Savage was cut before the start of the season, while Johnson was dumped in favor of Jeff Driskel two weeks into the season.
► S Andrew Adams, one year, $920,000: Despite showing a nose for the ball on the practice field throughout training camp, Adams couldn't sneak on to Detroit's roster to begin the regular season. After he was cut, he found his way back to Tampa Bay, where he started 11 games. He only recorded one interception this season, against the Lions in Week 15.
► OL Oday Aboushi, one year, $1.25 million: Aboushi spent much of the season as a healthy scratch on game days, not seeing the field until the closing minutes of Week 9. But as the injuries mounted down the stretch, he started the final two games of the season and showed he might be worth another look in 2020.
► WR Jermaine Kearse, one year, $1.35 million: Reconnecting with Darrell Bevell, who coached him in Seattle, Kearse had the inside track on Detroit's fourth receiver job. That plan was short-lived as he suffered a season-ending broken leg in the first preseason game.