Detroit Lions free agency: There's a big need for a slot receiver

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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The free agent negotiating period opens Monday and the Detroit Lions have holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Here is the sixth in a series of position-by-position breakdowns on the top players available in free agency and what the Lions might do at each position.

Wide receivers/tight ends

The Lions’ wide receiving corps looked like one of the most balanced, effective units in the NFL early last season, but turned into a liability by the end of the year. Kenny Golladay had a breakout season with 70 catches and 1,063 yards, but Golden Tate was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in late October and Marvin Jones finished the season on injured reserve. Golladay and Jones remain under contract for 2019, but the Lions are looking for a third wheel and have money to spend. Golladay is in Year 3 of an inexpensive rookie deal and isn’t eligible for an extension until next season, and Jones, whose future with the team has been subject to speculation, is reasonably priced going into Year 4 of his five-year deal.

Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay catches a pass against Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White during the first half Dec. 16, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

The Lions need a slot receiver to take Tate’s place and are expected to be in on some of the best this market has to offer, including Adam Humphries and Jamison Crowder. If they were to move on from Jones, they’d need another complement for Golladay in the passing corps. TJ Jones almost certainly has played his last down for the Lions, while Bruce Ellington could return after the team was forced to cut him from injured reserve last month once he healed from a late-season hamstring injury.

At tight end, the Lions had one of the least productive units in the NFL last season, and general manager Bob Quinn has made no secret of his desire to upgrade the position. Neither Luke Willson nor Levine Toilolo is expected back, and the Lions almost certainly will acquire a veteran via trade or in free agency, and take a rookie in April’s draft. Neither the wide receiver group nor the tight end group is especially deep in free agency, but this might be the best tight end draft class in the last decade.

On the Lions’ roster for 2019: WR-Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Brandon Powell, Chris Lacy, Andy Jones, Deontez Alexander, Brandon Reilly; TE-Michael Roberts, Jerome Cunningham. 

Pending free agents: WR-TJ Jones; TE-Levine Toilolo, Luke Willson.

Top free agents – WRs 

Golden Tate, Philadelphia Eagles – Remember this guy? All Tate did was catch 90 or more passes in his first four seasons in Detroit. The Lions came close to signing him to an extension last fall but dealt him for a third-round pick instead. A few months from his 31st birthday, Tate is headed for one more big pay day and it probably won’t be coming from the Lions.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Adam Humphries weaves past Detroit Lions long snapper Don Muhlbach on his way to 109-yard TD return on a missed field goal to end the first half at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 24, 2018 in Tampa, Fla.

Adam Humphries, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Humphries is a player who makes a ton of sense for the Lions, but he’s going to cost $10 million or so per season. The Clemson product has seen an uptick in his receiving yards and catches in each of his four NFL seasons. He can return punts in a pinch, and he doesn’t turn 26 until June so he still has some upside. 

Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers – Williams is an outside receiver in a market that’s not overflowing with great options at the position. He’s 6-foot-4 and he can fly, but he hasn’t put up big numbers since the 2016 season despite not missing a game the last two years.

Three more to watch: Jamison Crowder, Washington; Chris Hogan, New England Patriots; Danny Amendola, Miami Dolphins

Top free agents – TEs

Jesse James, Pittsburgh Steelers – James is the most desirable of a weak tight end class. He’s a solid blocker who had a career-high 423 yards receiving last year, and while he won’t transform an offense he’s still coming into his own at just 24 years old.

Nov 4, 2018; Baltimore, MD, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James (81) catches a pass in front of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (24) during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Cook, Oakland Raiders – Cook had a career-high 68 catches and six touchdowns last season, and while he’s arguably the best receiving tight end on the market, he’s also closing in on 32 years old. The Lions, for what it’s worth, didn’t show much interest in him as a free agent two years ago.

Tyler Kroft, Cincinnati Bengals – Kroft is one of three Bengals tight ends set to become an unrestricted free agent. Tyler Eifert is the better all-around player, but he can’t stay healthy. C.J. Uzomah had a nice season in his most extensive playing time of his career. Kroft isn’t great at anything, but he can do a little of everything.

Three more to watch: Jeff Heuerman, Denver Broncos; Maxx Williams, Baltimore Ravens; Demetrius Harris, Kansas City Chiefs.

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown celebrates a touchdown catch against the Titans in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The Steelers won, 40-17.

One wildcard

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers. How is it that no one wants arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL? That’s the situation Brown and the Steelers find themselves in as Brown has torpedoed his trade value to the point the Steelers have been unable to deal him so far. Their relationship seems irreparable, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s dealt. And while there’s a good chance he’ll eventually be a headache for whoever acquires him, in the short-term he’s sure to cause problems for opposing defenses on the field.

[ Detroit Lions should take a chance on Antonio Brown ]

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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