Lions’ free agency preview

Brandon Pettigrew is actually one of the top free-agent tight ends available this year.

With the NFL’s free-agent period beginning in eight days (4 p.m. on March 11), the Detroit Lions have some decisions to make that will greatly affect their roster for next season.

Here’s a player-by-player breakdown on who could – and who might not – be back:

(Player is eligible to sign with any team in the league. That club does not have to pay any compensation in return.)

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew: Not the most popular Lion among fans, which makes you wonder whether he would jump at the opportunity to leave. Pettigrew is actually one of the top free-agent tight ends available this year. His reputation around Detroit isn’t very good because of his inconsistent hands. But he’s a big part of the run game with his blocking. There aren’t many tight ends these days that can block and are pass-catching threats (provided he doesn’t drop the pass). The Lions supposedly want him back and have made him a priority. The question is whether they can afford him if Pettigrew gets another lucrative offer.

Defensive end Willie Young: Previously considered a back-up player whose best days were in August, Young became a starter last year.  He’s been one of general manager Martin Mayhew’s best late-round draft picks, having been taken in the seventh round in 2010. Young had a solid season with three sacks, seven tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries while making 15 starts. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the ninth-best edge rusher available in free agency. For the Lions, it probably comes down to the cost. They can’t afford to overpay to keep him.

Quarterback Shaun Hill: He’s been a nice insurance policy, serving as Matthew Stafford’s backup since joining the Lions in 2010. Hill was sharp when he got the opportunity to play, but he’s rarely been needed during the regular season the last three years because Stafford has stayed healthy. If they lose Hill, the Lions will need to replace him either with another free agent or a draft pick. It’s unlikely that Kellen Moore is ready to fill the No. 2 slot.

Cornerback Rashean Mathis: Joined the Lions during training camp last year with the idea that he would provide some leadership in a reserve role to a young group of cornerbacks. In the end, Mathis was the team’s most dependable corner, largely because of the struggles by others. But can he do it again? He’s 34 years old with the wear and tear of 11 NFL seasons on his body. The bottom line: If Mathis is on the roster to start the season, the Lions probably didn’t do enough to upgrade the position and their young players still haven’t lived up to expectations.

Offensive tackle Jason Fox: Frequent injuries have kept this former fourth-round pick from establishing himself as a pro. That’s what opened the door last year for the emergence of undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle. Will the Lions give Fox another year to prove he can stay healthy? Perhaps only if no other team makes a good offer to him.

Receiver Kevin Ogletree: The Lions are looking to make major upgrades at receiver. That presumably means that Ogletree isn’t a priority although he could end up in training camp if the price is right.

Receiver Micheal Spurlock: Lost his job as the return specialist to Jeremy Ross during the season and got released, only to end up back in Detroit for the final week. Based on his lack of production, it’s hard to imagine there’s a place for him.

Kicker David Akers: Jason Hanson’s replacement suffered through an inconsistent season coming off a year in which he had been injured. Mayhew already has confirmed that the Lions don’t plan to keep Akers. They drafted a punter last year. Maybe they’ll take a kicker this time.

Defensive end Israel Idonije: The Chicago Bears clearly saw the end was coming quickly for Idonije when they didn’t re-sign him a year ago. Idonije struggled with the Lions and won’t return.

Safety John Wendling: Mayhew has said the team’s special-teams captain won’t be re-signed. Wendling had a good run in Detroit for a player whose skills are limited.

Offensive lineman Dylan Gandy: Hung around for five years with the Lions because of his versatility as a reserve guard/center, but the club will go with a younger player in that role, probably Rodney Austin.

Linebacker Rocky McIntosh: Made some key plays in short-yardage situations, but he’s 31 years old now so the Lions will go younger.

Defensive tackle Andre Fluellen: A back-up player who has been released and re-signed multiple times by the Lions. Never count him out. He could end up in training camp one more time.

Note: Center Dominic Raiola and long snapper Don Muhlbach already were re-signed to one-year deals. Raiola will be returning for his 14th NFL season. Safety Don Carey was re-signed to a three-year contract. All three were eligible to become unrestricted free agents.

(Current team can match any offer made by another club to keep the player or opt to receive a draft pick in return as compensation).

Running back Joique Bell: The undrafted player from Wayne State University in Detroit has proven the last couple years that he belongs in the NFL. He teamed with Reggie Bush to become the first running-back duo in NFL history to both have 500 yards and 500 yards receiving. The Lions definitely plan to re-sign Bell for 2014 and are expected to offer multi-year deal.

Tight end Dorin Dickerson: He was signed October 15 when the Lions were having injury concerns at tight end, released four days later and then re-signed November 19. Dickerson ended up making two catches in five games. He could be back to compete for a back-up job provided he comes cheap.

Note: Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, released by New Orleans, was claimed off waivers and then signed to a one-year deal by the Lions. He was eligible to be a restricted free agent.

(Not eligible to negotiate with other clubs unless current team doesn’t make an offer).

Receiver Jeremy Ross: Made an impact on special teams after getting released by Green Bay early in the season. Ross averaged 29.3 yards on kick returns and 16.2 yards on punt returns with Detroit. He didn’t have enough returns to qualify for the league lead, but if he did, those numbers would have ranked fourth in kick returns and first in punt returns. He returned one of each for a touchdown. He’ll be back, guaranteed.

Receiver Kris Durham: The Lions can get him for an inexpensive price so he’ll likely be in camp trying to keep a roster spot as the team attempts to upgrade at his position. Durham is worthy of one of those spots, just with a reduced role from what he had to try to fill at times the last two seasons.

Cornerback Chris Greenwood: A fifth-round draft pick by Detroit in 2012, Greenwood was hampered by injuries, picked up and later released by Dallas before getting a chance to make his NFL debut with the Lions late in the season. He showed enough that he’s likely to return to compete for a roster spot. His size (6-foot-1, 193 pounds) makes him the ideal type of cornerback these days, but he’s still a project until he proves otherwise.

Linebacker Julian Stanford: The Lions signed him late in the season to help fill a special-teams void when Travis Lewis got suspended for violating the league drug policy. Stanford did enough to warrant another opportunity.

Tight end Matt Veldman: A quality training-camp player but not likely to be a candidate for the 53-man roster.