Which Detroit Lions free agents will be back, which are going elsewhere

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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The Detroit Lions have re-signed two of their own free agents in recent weeks, inking restricted free agent Romeo Okwara to a two-year extension and signing veteran long snapper Don Muhlbach to a one-year deal.

They still have 15 players who will become unrestricted free agents at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Here’s a look at the prospects for each on the open market, and the chance they’ll be back in Detroit.

Ziggy Ansah

Position: Defensive end.

2018 statistics: Seven games played, two starts, 11 tackles, four sacks.

Outlook: Injuries derailed Ansah’s career in Detroit, but he’s still the Lions’ No. 1 free agent. After playing last season on the franchise tag, and tearing his shoulder labrum in December, Ansah needs a fresh start elsewhere and he should have options as a high-risk, high-reward pass rusher.

Chance of returning: 5 percent. 

More:Lions have cap space, but can they land big-ticket free agents?

Detroit Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah (94) runs out of the tunnel before the game against the New York Jets at Ford Field in Detroit, Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.

Zach Zenner

Position: Running back.

2018 statistics: Eight games played, one start, 55 carries, 265 yards, three TDs.

Outlook: The Lions want Zenner back, but he won’t lack for interest after a strong finish to 2018. Not only is Zenner a solid backup running back, he offers added value on special teams. He’s the team’s second most attractive free agent.

Chance of returning: 37.5%. 

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LeGarrette Blount

Position: Running back.

2018 statistics: 16 games played, eight starts, 154 carries, 418 yards, five TDs.

Outlook: Blount didn’t bring much value to the Lions’ backfield last season, when he averaged a career-low 2.7 yards per carry. He’s not expected back as the Lions want more production out of their No. 2 running back.

Chance of returning: 1 percent.

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Fullback Nick Bellore runs a drill, during the Detroit Lions training camp at their practice facility in Allen Park on Sat. July 28, 2018.

Nick Bellore

Position: Fullback.

2018 statistics: 14 games played, four starts, one carry, 0 yards.

Outlook: Bellore has been a good soldier throughout his time in Detroit, switching from linebacker to fullback full-time last year. He’s a valuable special-teams player, and that’ll earn him interest on the open market. Even with seventh-round pick Nick Bawden returning from injury next season, Bellore is worth keeping around.

Chance of returning: 40 percent.

Ricky Jean Francois

Position: Defensive lineman.

2018 statistics: 16 games played, 11 starts, 30 tackles, two sacks.

Outlook: Jean Francois is a loyal backer of Matt Patricia and someone who’s good for the locker room, but John Atkins played well late in the season and the Lions are deep on the interior defensive line. He could linger on the market, so a return isn’t out of the question.

Chance of returning: 20 percent. 

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Luke Willson

Position: Tight end.

2018 statistics: 14 games played, eight starts, 13 receptions, 87 yards.

Outlook: Willson signed a one-year deal with the Lions last spring in hopes of cashing in bigger after a strong 2018. He hardly had any passes thrown his way in Detroit, and heads to free agency where a strong tight-end draft could further depress his value. Still, he should benefit from a fresh start.

Chance of returning: 1 percent.

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Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia talks with tight end Levine Toilolo prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium, Dec. 9, 2018.

Levine Toilolo

Position: Tight end

2018 statistics: 16 games played, 10 starts, 21 catches, 263 yards, one TD.

Outlook: Toilolo had a more productive season than Willson, but he, too, likely is headed elsewhere as the Lions reshape their tight end room. Toilolo won’t cost a mint, but he’s a solid blocker who should have options this week.

Chance of returning: 4 percent.

TJ Jones

Position: Wide receiver.

2018 statistics: 15 games played, three starts, 19 catches, 190 yards, two TDs.

Outlook: Jones turned down a multi-year offer as a restricted free agent from the Lions last spring and wasn’t able to capitalize on more playing time when the Lions’ receiving corps was in shambles late in the year. He’s not expected back.

Chance of returning: 2 percent.

Eli Harold

Position: Linebacker

2018 statistics: 13 games played, 10 tackles, four sacks.

Outlook: Harold had a weird year, logging three sacks in the first three games then barely playing the rest of the year. He’s a serviceable backup who has some pass-rush value, and could return if the Lions don’t land a bigger fish in free agency.

Chance of returning: 9 percent.

DeShawn Shead

Position: Cornerback

2018 statistics: 12 games played, one start, 18 tackles, one forced fumble.

Outlook: The Lions signed Shead in free agency last spring, cut him at the end of training camp, then brought him back in September for the balance of the year. He didn’t offer much value on defense and the Lions are looking for a defensive back with starting potential.

Chance of returning: 8 percent.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Cassel is rushed by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jaleel Johnson during the second half at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, December 23, 2018.

Matt Cassel

Position: Quarterback.

2018 statistics: Two games played, 7-for-17 passing, 59 yards, one interception.

Outlook: The Lions let it be known at the NFL combine they were looking to improve their backup quarterback situation, but there aren’t a lot of great options out there. Chances are Cassel’s time in Detroit is done, but the door doesn’t appear to be closed on a return.

Chance of returning: 15 percent.

Andrew Donnal

Position: Offensive lineman.

2018 statistics: Two games played.

Outlook: The Lions claimed Donnal off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens last fall and kept him around most of the year even though he was rarely active. Just 27 years old, Donnal will have to compete for a roster spot if he does return on a minimum-type deal.

Chance of returning: 7.5 percent.

Marcus Cooper

Position: Cornerback.

2018 statistics: Four games played, one tackle.

Outlook: Cooper does not figure into the Lions’ long-term plans, but he saw spot duty on defense over the final three weeks and could return as a depth signing depending on who else the Lions add in free agency.

Chance of returning: 10 percent.

Kelvin Sheppard

Position: Linebacker.

2018 statistics: Seven games played, one start, five tackles.

Outlook: Sheppard played primarily on special teams after signing with the Lions at midseason. Like Cooper, he does not figure into the Lions’ long-term plans and will only be back as a depth piece.

Chance of returning: 5 percent.

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Lions defensive lineman Kerry Hyder.

Kerry Hyder

Position: Defensive lineman.

2018 statistics: Seven games played, six tackles, one sack.

Outlook: The Lions already have informed Hyder they won’t tender him a contract as a restricted free agent, and it doesn’t appear as if he fits into their plans at any other level, either. He barely played last season in his return from a torn Achilles.

Chance of returning: 1 percent.

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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