ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Too small. Too slow.
Stephen Tulloch has heard those things for much of his life, forcing him to settle for playing at North Carolina State after being a high school star in Miami. The linebacker just kept making plays in college, but standing shorter than 6 foot and approaching a 5-second 40-yard dash left him available in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft when Tennessee took him.
When Tulloch got a chance to start for the Titans, he made the most of it and led them with 300-plus tackles combined over the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The franchise, though, didn't make much of an effort to keep him around.
Tulloch gambled on himself by signing a one-year deal last summer with the Detroit Lions and it paid off with a five-year contract worth $25.5 million, including $11.25 million guaranteed according to a person familiar with the deal. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because financial terms weren't announced.
"I dreamed about this moment my whole life," the 27-year-old Tulloch said Thursday at a news conference following his signing.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz were pretty fired up about it, too.
"He's a really important part of what we're doing," Mayhew said. "So, we're excited to have Stephen back."
Detroit has been able to retain all the players, other than cornerback Eric Wright, that it wanted to bring back from the franchise's first playoff team since the 1999 season.
Tulloch made a team-high 111 tackles with the Lions when he was reunited with Schwartz, his defensive coordinator in Tennessee.
"He's everything that is right with the NFL and the game of football," Schwartz said. "I get a little choked up because I've known Stephen since he was 20 years old."
The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Tulloch makes up for his measurables with intangibles such as passion, toughness and work ethic.
"This is not just a great day for the Lions, this is a great day for every kid who was told he was too small and every kid that wasn't the fastest guy on paper," Schwartz said.
Tulloch said a few other teams expressed interest in him as a free agent, but he really wanted to return to a team and a city that proved to be a good fit for his game and charitable efforts.
"My heart was still here in Detroit," Tulloch said.
The Lions, unlike past years, wanted to keep their best players instead of trying to upgrade talent by looking elsewhere.
Detroit extended Calvin Johnson's contract, keeping its All-Pro receiver under contract for eight more seasons, and retained defensive end Cliff Avril for at least another season with a franchise tag. The Lions also re-signed offensive tackle Jeff Backus and backup Shaun Hill to two-year contracts. They bolstered depth by keeping safety Erik Coleman, defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, long snapper Don Muhlbach and adding cornerback Jacob Lacey after losing Wright to Tampa Bay.
"The pieces are there," Tulloch said. "I think we're heading in the right direction."