Lions free agent profile: Will Detroit give Joel Heath another shot?

Pride of Detroit

After a rough season on the defensive side of the ball, the Detroit Lions are surely going to make some significant changes to the personnel this upcoming offseason. While additions from other teams will draw the most excitement and headlines, Detroit would be wise to look over their own roster first for potential re-signees that can help build the roster out thoroughly, as we’ve already seen from the re-signing of linebacker Josh Woods earlier this week.

For our next free agent profile, we’re going to discuss a player who never got a chance to prove himself with the Lions last year. An offseason injury cost this defender his entire 2021 season, leaving his future with the team relatively unknown. Because his injury happened so early in the year, there’s a good chance you’ve forgotten about him completely.

Let’s talk about defensive lineman Joel Heath.

This is the latest installment in Pride of Detroit’s free agent profiles series, and if you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: Tracy Walker, Charles Harris, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Alex Anzalone, Josh Reynolds, KhaDarel Hodge, Nick Williams, Dean Marlowe, Kalif Raymond, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Tim Boyle.

Joel Heath

Expectations heading into 2021

Heath was signed to a futures deal by the Detroit Lions in mid-February—almost exactly a year from this posting. He had opted out of the 2020 season, so it wasn’t clear what expectations were for the defensive tackle. He had spent four previous seasons with the Houston Texans as an undrafted player from Michigan State.

In his rookie year, he actually made the team, started six games, and tallied 2.0 sacks. But over the next three seasons, his role with the Texans dramatically decreased to a point where he was on and off the roster in 2019 and only played in two games.

In Detroit, he was viewed as someone who could come in and back up some of the interior defensive line. At Michigan State, Heath made the transition from defensive end to defensive tackle, and at the next level, he showed he was capable of playing anywhere from 3-to-7 tech. That sort of veteran depth could have been helpful with the Lions moving on the likes of Danny Shelton in the offseason.

Actual Role in 2021

0 games: Tore ACL in the first week of OTAs

Unfortunately for Heath, just about everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. In the very first week of Organized Team Activities, Heath suffered a “freak” torn ACL injury during a non-contact drill, ending his season before training camp.

But even if he had made it to the regular season, there wasn’t a lot of room for Heath to break into the lineup. Prior to his injury, the Lions had traded for Michael Brockers, giving the team the veteran interior presence they needed. They also drafted Levi Onwuzurike in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, meaning Detroit was carving out a role for a young developmental player, too.

So if Heath would have stayed healthy, it’s possible he would’ve made the final 53-man roster over someone like Kevin Strong (especially after Da’Shawn Hand’s injury). However, there just wasn’t really an available role on defense available over the guys they already had. In 2021, Nick Williams, Brockers, Alim McNeill, John Penisini, and Onwuzurike accounted for 2,339 snaps. Every other interior defender throughout the entire season (Hand, Bruce Hector, Strong, Jashon Cornell) combined for 168 defensive snaps.

Outlook for 2022

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Heath is in a tough spot. The last football game he played was almost three years ago, and he hasn’t even been regularly practicing since then. He’ll be 29 years old before the next season starts, and he’s already dealt with several knee injuries in his career.

That being said, he never really had a shot in Detroit last year, and there may be more room for a role on defense this upcoming year. The Lions do have a lot of players under contract for 2022 (Brockers, McNeill, Onwuzurike, Penisini, Cornell, Hector, Eric Banks), but you can really only call Brockers, McNeill, and Onwuzurike locks for the roster. There will be competition.

The Lions seem to love chip-on-your-shoulder guys who have a lot to prove and there aren’t many people in the entire NFL with more to prove than Heath after two years out of football. He would come obviously at an incredibly low price, so there is little downside to re-signing him. But at the same time, it looks like Heath’s ceiling is relatively low at this point in his career after two unlucky years.

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