Detroit Lions Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

Dean HoldenAnalyst IFebruary 21, 2012

Detroit Lions Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

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    It seems like it has been longer than three years since this picture was taken.

    In January of 2009, the Lions cleaned house, attempting to fumigate a thoroughly rotten organization that had led to a decade of losing seasons and an 0-16 year to cap it off.

    In three years, Jim Schwartz, Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand turned a league laughingstock into a playoff team. The Detroit Lions may have been 0-2 in January of 2012, but they were 10-5 heading into it, not 0-15.

    But now the rest of the league knows what we know. They know the Lions have a hungry young team full of talent and potential. They know the Lions' biggest stars are in their early years, and likely to improve as they continue to learn the NFL game.

    They know the Detroit Lions are to be respected and feared, not laughed at.

    That makes this the most difficult offseason yet for the Lions' current front office. Lots of teams can spring forward and catch the league by surprise when they start to put it together. Considerably fewer can keep up that pace once they have a year of good performances on film.

    The Lions have a lot to consider this offseason, between key free agents leaving, salary cap issues, and of course, the draft. And there will be a flood of information and analysis about each individual happening as it happens.

    So instead of reading a bunch of different stuff about the Lions' offseason moves this year, check out this complete analysis of what the Lions have done already as well as what they could do. Then, check back (bookmark this!) for updates with analysis of what they did do, as they do it, throughout the offseason all the way up until the 2012 kickoff.

     

    Last updated: 03/17/12

Tracking Free-Agent Signings, Re-Signings and Roster Moves

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    The Lions' offseason has been exceptionally slow to this point in terms of actual development.

    But that doesn't mean by any stretch that they haven't been busy.

    Right now, the Lions are focused primarily on talking the talk. They are currently in contract negotiations with WR Calvin Johnson, DE Cliff Avril, LB Stephen Tulloch, OT Jeff Backus, CB Eric Wright and QB Shaun Hill.

    All but Johnson are set to be free agents in 2012.

    In typical Lions fashion, nobody in the front office is willing to divulge any information about how the contract talks are going, but it's a safe assumption that each of these players will factor heavily into the Lions' free agency strategy.

     

    UPDATES:

    3/17/12: Two bits of interesting quarterback news, and another one directly related to quarterbacks today.

    First and foremost, backup QB Shaun Hill has re-signed in Detroit with a two-year deal (terms uncertain as of yet). Not long after, longtime Lions OT Jeff Backus did the same with a two-year, $10 million contract. Both deals were reported by the Detroit Lions' official website.

    These moves come only a day after the New York Jets signed QB Drew Stanton, who will play his home games outside the state of Michigan for the first time since his early teens.

    Though there will be some that decry Backus' return for not one, but two more years, his return makes all the sense in the world, especially if the Lions draft a replacement. Backus is aging and this two-year deal may be the last one he signs as a player, but he's still capable of holding the fort (against anyone but Jared Allen).

    More importantly, Backus is a wealth of knowledge, and a safety net for any young kid who tries to step into the Lions' blind side. The Lions' next left tackle is going to need some seasoning before being thrown into the Jared Allen/Julius Peppers/Clay Matthews fire, and keeping Backus on board for the ride gives the new kid (whoever he is) the time to get acclimated and a mentor to help.

    That said, if Backus is still the Lions' starting left tackle by the end of this two-year deal, something has probably gone very wrong.

    Hill's re-signing comes as no surprise, and it makes all the sense in the world. Hill is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league, and though the Lions would love to not have to use him, it's a comforting insurance policy knowing he's available.

    To Stanton, I say the following: Good for you!

    I have long said that Stanton's opportunities would never come to him if he continued to stay in Detroit. In New York, he will have the opportunity to not only earn the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, but he could even push Mark Sanchez for the starting job.

    Whether that says more about Stanton or Sanchez, I leave as your decision.


    3/15/12: In a couple of under-the-radar moves, the Lions have re-signed reserve safety Erik Coleman and brought in former BC Lions (of the CFL) RB/FB James Bryant.

    Neither of these moves are particularly surprising. Coleman was a cheap answer to a need at reserve safety, and is relatively talented while healthy (but he hasn't been, which is why the price was right).

    Bryant is a total unknown quantity. He was effectively a practice squad player even in the CFL, and has, at times in his career, played linebacker, defensive end, fullback, and heavyweight boxer.

    Anwar Richardson of MLive.com has the best collection of info on Bryant to this point, but all signs point to his signing being a zero-risk tire-kicking experiment.


    3/14/12: The eagle has landed. The Lions have announced a seven-year, $132 million contract extension for Calvin Johnson.

    This was the Lions' top priority for this offseason, and it's difficult to argue that this amount, or any amount, is too much to effectively guarantee the Lions have a top 10 passing attack for the next eight years (most likely a top five for most of those). Johnson alone has that effect, especially when paired with Matthew Stafford.

    While this will tie up a whole bunch of salary cap space for the next eight years, it actually reportedly saves the Lions $9 million in 2012. Very possibly, that means it's "game on" for re-signing Stephen Tulloch.

    Eric Wright won't see any of that money, though, as he's too busy rolling in a new five-year, $37.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

     

    3/12/12: The Lions have been busy preparing for free agency to start up. They kind of had to be, considering how they were reported to be a little more than $11 million over the salary cap with about a day to fix it.

    Up against the wall, the Lions restructured the contracts of Matthew Stafford, Ndaumkong Suh, and Nate Burleson to get themselves under the 2012 salary cap by the league deadline Tuesday (3/13). With at least part of that freed cap space, they (finally) extended restricted free-agent tenders to Corey Hilliard, DeAndre Levy, and Sammie Lee Hill.

    Levy was given a second-round tender, while Hilliard and Hill were both given original-round tenders (that's a sixth for Hilliard, a fourth for Hill).

    The biggest surprise here is that Hill, arguably the most valuable player in the bunch, wasn't better-protected. Hill has become a much better player than his fourth-round draft status would indicate, and it's entirely possible a team takes a run at him in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

    An original-round tender should actually give Hill the opportunity to field a few offers, which may put the Lions in a situation to either match the deal or let Hill go in exchange for a fourth-rounder. Certainly, that's a good problem to have, but you have to wonder if an eventual fourth-round pick would turn out to be better than Hill already is, or if teams might not still have given him an offer for a second-round tender.

     

     

    3/5/12: Adam Schefter is reporting that the Lions used their franchise tag on Cliff Avril.

    This move pretty much mirrors what Martin Mayhew has already said, that the only thing worse than tagging Avril was playing without him. Clearly, contract talks were moving slowly enough to make the Lions afraid he would sign an offer on the open market.

    An interesting wrinkle to this development is that the Lions chose to give Avril a non-exclusive franchise tag. This is effectively the same as restricted free agency, in that other teams are still able to negotiate with Avril, but the Lions have the ability to match any offer Avril gets, and any team that actually signs him has to give up two first-round picks.

    Now, the odds of Avril being worth a monster contract and two first-round picks is next to nothing. But it's an interesting maneuver because the Lions still want to give Avril a long-term deal. So by allowing Avril to test the market (albeit in a controlled setting), they may be looking to use another team's offer as a reference point in contract negotiations.

    Don't be surprised if this isn't the last time we hear about Avril's contract status. As a franchise player, Avril is slated to make about $10.6 million next year, and that's not something the Lions can really afford without dumping some players elsewhere. So for now, think of this as a four-month extension on the negotiation deadline for Avril's new contract.

     

    2/25/12: Though it's not an official league move yet, the Detroit Free Press has reported that the Detroit Lions will not offer a restricted free agent tender to reserve linebacker Ashlee Palmer.

    The move should come as little surprise, as Palmer had been only a marginal special teamer, and his RFA tender would have come in at over $1 million. The Lions are cash-strapped under the cap right now, and could fill Palmer's spot with a late-round or undrafted free agent for about half the cost. They might get more upside out of it, too.

Salary Cap Status

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    Lions' 2012 Cap Room

    Not much. If you look closely, you can see Calvin Johnson reaching for all of it.

    According to Spotrac, the Lions have $101,331,381 of their cap room spoken for in 2012. That's the closest we're likely to get to an official figure, but Spotrac also has Johnson's 2012 salary listed at about $17.8 million. In reality, he hit an ungodly number of incentives and escalators last season, so he is estimated to be making closer to $22 million.

    And that's only Johnson. No word on whether Matthew Stafford gained some bonus pay with his fantastic 2012 season.

    There will be a slight increase in the salary cap in 2012, accounting for inflation and increases in revenue, but it's safe to assume the jump won't be much more than a few million from the $120 million level agreed upon in 2011. Let's estimate it at $124 million for now.

    The point here is the Lions are the NFL salary-cap equivalent to a homeless guy searching under vending machines for change.

    If we assume the Lions have between $10-15 million to spend under the cap, it sounds good at first, but... well, just keep reading.

     

    UPDATE:

    3/14/12: The big story is Calvin Johnson re-signing with the Lions. The undercard is the deal saves Detroit about $9 million in 2012. Now the Lions have that money to re-sign (some of) their major free agents.


    3/12/12: Turns out the initial reports were a bit optimistic. After slapping the franchise tag on Cliff Avril, the Lions turned out to be about $11 million over the salary cap.

    The Lions have dealt with it via some strategic contract restructuring, but the cap remains a problem, especially as they try to sign their other free agents and impending draft picks.

    Incidentally, the Lions are going to get a little salary cap help this year from, of all people, the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.

    The Redskins and Cowboys are reportedly being docked $36 million and $10 million in cap space this year, respectively, for front-loading contracts during the 2010 uncapped year despite being told repeatedly not to by the league office.

    That money, rather than going in the league's pocket, is being redistributed to the rest of the teams in the NFL at a rate of $1.6 million per team. That's not much, but every little bit helps.

    So make sure and say thanks to Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder for trying to spit in Roger Goodell's face and game the system anyway.

     

    The Free Agency Situation

    The guys listed on the last slide (DE Cliff Avril, LB Stephen Tulloch, OT Jeff Backus, CB Eric Wright and QB Shaun Hill) are free agents that the Lions want to bring back. Avril and Tulloch, in particular, are due monstrous deals.

    How do the Lions do that with $10 million (or so) under the cap? Avril or Tulloch alone are likely to exceed that.

    The Lions can probably free up a little breathing room by re-signing Johnson (to avoid that $22 million hit), but Johnson has all the leverage. If he played the next two years at his normal salary and then with the franchise tag, he'd be in line for about $40 million. Chances are the Lions will have to guarantee him more money than that to get him under contract, and if they're doing all that, how much money under the cap are they really going to save?

    Of course, by no means am I saying it's not important that the Lions get Johnson under contract. It's the most important thing the Lions have to do this offseason. I'm just raising the possibility that it doesn't help the cap situation as much as we might think.

     

    Other Contract Woes

    Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch are two of the five highest-paid players on the team. The others are franchise cornerstones Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh.

    Nate Burleson, arguably the fourth-best receiver for the Lions last year (Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew and possibly even Titus Young are more productive at this point) made $4 million last year, making him the seventh-highest paid on the team.

    Dominic Raiola isn't quite a sieve yet at center, but he's making $3.4 million to regress before our eyes.

    Leadership is a big part of why these guys are getting paid, so it's hard to argue that they should be cut for decreased production. But if the Lions are looking to save cap room, some of these veterans will end up having to go.

     

    On the Bright Side...

    For every pricey veteran the Lions sport on the roster, there is a value-priced player who is younger and still productive at the same position.

    For Vanden Bosch ($5 million projected against the cap in 2012), there is Lawrence Jackson ($2.1 million) and Willie Young ($506,000).

    For Williams ($6.1 million) there is Nick Fairley ($2.2 million) and Sammie Hill (depends on RFA tender, but likely won't be more than Fairley).

    And for Burleson ($4 million) there is the aforementioned Young ($1.2 million).

    And of course, the guys who are really driving up the salary numbers in Detroit are high draft picks, but unlike previous years, they're actually important to the team. Stafford, Johnson and Suh will all cost the Lions at least $10 million against the cap in 2012, but at least they're earning it.

Last Year's Holes

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    Ultimately, the Lions weren't too bad in terms of holes last year, but the ones they did have showed up in big ways at bad times.

    And most of the holes the Lions are facing right now are a result of pending free-agent re-signings. But Tom Lewand is a shrewd money guy, and Martin Mayhew is a Jedi at the negotiating table, so let's look at this assuming the Lions get all their targets re-signed for 2011. What holes still exist?

     

    Interior Offensive Line

    Really, what the Lions were missing last year was a running game. We champion the fact that Matthew Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards last season, but he also set the team record for passing attempts in a season.

    I would go so far as to say that if Stafford has a better statistical season in 2012, the Lions as a team might have a worse season. Throwing the ball 60 times a game is no way to run an offense, even if it does produce video game-caliber numbers.

    To take some of the pressure off Stafford, the Lions have to run it better. We can blame injuries to running backs all we want, and to some extent that's fair, but it would also help if those running backs could stop running into a brick wall every time they try to take it between the tackles.

    Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims are all solid or better in pass protection. But when it comes time to run blocking, none of them do much more than holding their ground.

    And if Raiola faces a bull-rush from a nose tackle, the Lions are lucky if the whole play isn't blown up while he backpedals five yards into the backfield.

    The Lions were an exceptional pass-blocking team in 2012, especially if you take into account the number of attempts and the ineffective rushing game. That starts in the middle. Even in the games where the Lions had a solid rushing attack, an extremely low percentage of yards came up the middle.

    The Lions should find themselves in a lot of games where they hold the lead late. And without the benefit of a power-running game, those games are going to continue to be more complicated than they need to be.

     

    Cornerback

    Assuming the Lions are able to re-sign Eric Wright, there is little doubt he will start alongside fellow veteran Chris Houston. And that's all well and good, as long as the Lions don't ever want to be better than average in the secondary.

    Gunther Cunningham has a well-documented fear of starting rookies in his secondary. His fear is well founded; there is no position on the defense harder to learn and more visible in failure. But the Lions are going to need a stronger player at cornerback than what they have right now, and if that means drafting him now and starting him later, so be it.

    Houston is solid, Wright was at least serviceable for much of last year, and Alphonso Smith and Aaron Berry are young and inconsistent, though both still sport some upside. None of them are really true top corners.

    The Lions focus on not really needing elite corners because of their pass rush, but when the pass rush was neutralized, it was open season down the field. It would be nice to have at least one elite cornerback to take away the biggest opposing receiving threat regardless of how well the pass rush is performing.

     

    Safety

    In reality, the Lions were let down in a big way by their safety play. That has a great deal to do with the injury to Louis Delmas, but it also has to do with doubts about Amari Spievey.

    It's far too early to be thinking about giving up on Spievey, who should be coming into his comfort zone next season after his rookie season position change. But he didn't play like a future star in 2011. He didn't even play like a future starter in some games.

    Now, Louis Delmas is a solid player, and while he may not be the next Ed Reed, he's a great deal more talented than any other safety on the team. Problem is, he has been fully healthy less often than Matthew Stafford since 2009, and that opened the door in 2011 for the likes of John Wendling and Chris Harris to try their hands in the defensive backfield.

    That didn't turn out very well. Wendling is an All-Pro caliber special teams player, but shouldn't be allowed within five miles of a functional defensive unit. And Harris got burned so often in Green Bay, there should be a provision on Matt Flynn's free-agent contract giving Harris a commission.

    The Delmas/Spievey duo may be just fine for 2012, but it would be nice to see someone better than Harris or Erik Coleman available to step in when/if somebody goes down again with injury.

     

    Running Back

    Running back was only a hole for the Lions in 2011 if you ignore the sheer quantity of running backs the Lions couldn't use because of injury. If the Lions get everyone back who was injured last year, at full health, the Lions might have one of the most talented stables of running backs in the entire league.

    That's a big if, though, considering Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best are coming off career-altering injuries.

    Leshoure's Achilles injury is the kind that he can recover from, but it may affect his speed and agility for the rest of his career.

    Best's concussion issues have reached a point where his long-term health may be affected if he continues to play.

    The Lions may be able to survive one of these scenarios, but not comfortably. The run game is already weak, and the only promise of improvement is in the idea that these guys will come back from injury at 100 percent. It would be silly for the Lions to ignore the possibility that they don't.

The Lions' 2012 Free Agents

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    According to Spotrac, the following Detroit Lions players will be unrestricted free agents as of the beginning of the 2012 league year. Unless the Lions sign these players to a deal prior to the start of free agency, they will be free to sign with any team in March.

    DE Cliff Avril
    OT Jeff Backus
    LB Bobby Carpenter
    S Erik Coleman
    WR Rashied Davis
    OG Leonard Davis
    LB Isaiah Ekejiuba
    DT Andre Fluellen
    P Ben Graham
    S Chris Harris
    QB Shaun Hill
    CB Brandon McDonald
    RB Maurice Morris
    LS Don Muhlbach
    RB Kevin Smith
    QB Drew Stanton
    WR Maurice Stovall
    OG Donald Thomas
    LB Stephen Tulloch
    CB Eric Wright

    These players are listed as restricted free agents. The Lions have the right of first refusal on these players, and if another team opts to exceed the Lions' offer, the Lions can either match the deal or accept compensation in the form of a draft pick.

    DT Sammie Lee Hill
    OT Corey Hilliard
    LB DeAndre Levy
    LB Ashlee Palmer


Estimating Contract Value for Each Free Agent

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    Last updated: 03/17/12

     

    So as you've seen, the Lions have a wide collection of free agents, ranging from the crucial to the irrelevant.

    These will be discussed in more detail on the next slide, but for now, here's a quick look at my estimates for how much each free agent should be approximately worth in 2012, whether it's the Lions paying them or someone else.

    A few things to note before you dive in.

    First, these figures are for 2012 salary only, not total contract value. I figure this with a basic estimation of a contract and then taking the average per-year value of the contract. More on total contracts on the next slide.

    Second, the four players at the bottom are restricted free agents. Instead of listing their contract value, I will list the tender I expect the Lions to apply to each player.

    Finally, any players who I expect to have a difficult time finding any work in 2012 will be denoted with "Min." This means that I expect these players to either go unsigned or be signed to a league-minimum contract (likely as a camp body).

    Any other questions about what I have here, feel free to click forward.

    Position Player Name Proj. 2012 Salary Action Taken
    DE Cliff Avril $6.4 million Franchise Tag ($10.6 million)
    OT Jeff Backus $2.5 million Re-signed (2-yr, $10 million)
    LB Bobby Carpenter $1 million TBD
    S Erik Coleman Min.

    Re-signed (1-yr, terms unknown)

    WR Rashied Davis Min. TBD
    G Leonard Davis Min. TBD
    LB Isaiah Ekejiuba Min. TBD
    DT Andre Fluellen $1.3 Million TBD
    P Ben Graham Min. TBD
    S Chris Harris Min. TBD
    QB Shaun Hill $2 million Re-signed (2-yr, terms unknown)
    CB Brandon McDonald Min. TBD
    RB Maurice Morris $1 million TBD
    LS Don Muhlbach $900,000 TBD
    RB Kevin Smith $1 million TBD
    QB Drew Stanton Min. Signed by NYJ (1-yr, terms unknown)
    WR Maurice Stovall $700,000 TBD
    G Donald Thomas Min. TBD
    LB Stephen Tulloch $6 million TBD
    CB Eric Wright $2 million Signed by TB (5-yr, $37.5M)
    DT Sammie Lee Hill First round Original Round
    OT Corey Hilliard Min. Original Round
    LB DeAndre Levy Second round Second Round
    LB Ashlee Palmer Min. Not tendered

Re-Signings and Contracts for Lions Free Agents

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    Last updated: 03/14/12

     

    For a more detailed description of the keep/cut decisions I'm making, check here.

    But for descriptions with contract predictions on the Lions' current free agents, stay right here.


    Cliff Avril

    There's no question the Lions want to keep Avril, and there's almost as little question that he wants to stay. The issue is that contract.

    The Lions could franchise tag Avril, but that would cost the Lions $10.6 million against the salary cap. Both sides would rather get a long-term deal done.

    Ultimately, Ray Edwards' contract from last season is likely going to serve as a benchmark for Avril. Edwards earned a five-year, $30 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons last season, and he's comparable in every way to Avril.

    Avril's camp will argue that Avril is a better player than Edwards, and that's true. The Lions will argue that Edwards tanked when he lost his supporting cast in Minnesota, and that's also true. Ultimately, I think Avril makes more than Edwards, but just enough to matter in principle.

    Re-signed: Five years, $32 million

    UPDATE 3/5/12: Adam Schefter is reporting that the Lions used their Franchise Tag on Cliff Avril.

    The franchise tag will theoretically cost the Lions $10.6 million this season, but like I mentioned before, don't take your eyes off this just yet. There's still lots of time for a long-term deal to come about for Avril and the Lions.

     

    Jeff Backus

    Now that the Lions are finally getting things turned around, it would be a shame if Backus wasn't around to see it. The Lions will pursue him, and he will likely give the team a hometown discount on a short contract in order to stay in Detroit for the turnaround.

    Backus has been in Detroit for over a decade of losing, and he's made a lot of money in the process. Now is the time for him to earn a modest contract and enjoy the turnaround.

    Re-signed: Two years, $5 million

    UPDATE 3/17/12: Backus did indeed get a two-year deal, though the amount I projected for him is actually what he'll be making in one year, not both.

    I thought Backus' age and bicep tear would keep his price tag down much lower, but it seems like the Lions aren't too concerned about that. I can't blame them, considering we're talking about a guy with 176 consecutive starts.

    It's good to have Backus back in the fold as a safety net while the Lions find and groom Matthew Stafford's blind-side protector for the next 10 years, but I have to wonder if $10 million is a price too steep to pay. That pretty much cuts down a huge chunk of the salary cap cleared by Calvin Johnson's new deal.

     

    Bobby Carpenter

    Carpenter has been a solid depth addition for the Lions, but I wonder about him. Carpenter was trying to earn himself a deal and perhaps a starting position last season, and it didn't materialize.

    But last season, Carpenter had all of about a week to find himself a deal in a frenzy of free agency action. Now he has months. I figure there's a good chance somebody signs him away, as much as I'd like to see him back (and previously predicted he would be).

    Not re-signed

     

    Erik Coleman

    Coleman was supposed to be a quality depth player to step in if Louis Delmas got injured or Amari Spievey regressed.

    Both happened, but Coleman was on injured reserve for it. Instead of being a safety net, he tore a hole in it and let Chris Harris in. There are better, healthier players for the Lions to pursue just as cheaply as they did Coleman. At this point, I'd be more comfortable allowing Ricardo Silva to remain on the roster.

    Not re-signed

    UPDATE 3/15/12: Apparently, the Lions weren't content to kick Coleman's tires just once. So after an injury-addled 2011, they're giving him another shot.

    I assume they got a good deal on this re-signing (like, a veteran-minimum kind of good deal), but the terms of the deal are uncertain as of yet. As long as they didn't give the guy $3 million, it's probably a solid signing.

    Coleman didn't do much last year, but he was a starting-quality player before coming to Detroit, and the Lions don't really want to go another season with Chris Harris.

     

    Rashied Davis

    Davis has always done whatever it takes to remain with a team for one year on special teams.

    Mission accomplished.

    Not re-signed

     

    Leonard Davis

    Should be active for the Lions as many games in 2012 as he was in 2011.

    Not re-signed

     

    Isaiah Ekejiuba

    No doubt Ekejiuba is an ace special teamer, but the Lions are going to be in flux at linebacker this year, and I don't think they can afford as much space for pure special teams guys as they could in the past.

    There figures to be entirely too much talent on the roster at this point to continue forward with Ekejiuba. Doug Hogue can do his job, and he has more upside with the defense.

    Not re-signed

     

    Andre Fluellen

    In theory, Fluellen has been cut ever since the Lions sent in their draft card with Nick Fairley on it. I firmly believe Fluellen would not have made the final cut if not for Fairley's foot injury.

    Fluellen isn't a bad player, he's just a bad 4-3 tackle. Look for him to be cast as a five-technique in his new home, or possibly at tackle in a Tampa-Two scheme (like he was originally drafted for).

    Not re-signed

     

    Ben Graham

    I've made this argument a thousand times, and I'll do it again. Graham was awesome. Ryan Donahue is at least as good, 14 years younger, and still under contract.

    Case closed.

    Not re-signed

     

    Chris Harris

    If he's still around in 2012, the Lions need to start looking for Martin Mayhew's corpse and traces of Matt Millen's DNA.

    Matt Flynn should just hire him to play for whatever team he's up against each week.

    Not re-signed

     

    Shaun Hill

    I thought there was a reasonable chance for Hill to sign with another team this offseason, and there still is. But the Lions are being unexpectedly aggressive in their attempts to bring him back, so maybe he'll hang around after all.

    Hill has certainly proven himself capable in the past, and there's no question 2011 showed the value of a solid backup quarterback. The only question is money. I figure Hill makes a little less than his last contract. Stafford has proven he is both capable and durable enough to finish a season, and that gives Hill a little less bargaining leverage.

    Re-signed: Two years, $4 million

    UPDATE 3/17/12: Like I did with Backus, I correctly projected a two-year deal for Hill. Unlike with Backus, I don't know how much money he's due for.

    It still seems reasonable to think he'd sign for about $2 million a year, especially now that it looks like he won't have to play half the season each year.

     

    Brandon McDonald

    If the Lions have any plans whatsoever of improving their secondary this season, McDonald's spot will be the first to go to a new draft pick or free agent.

    That is, unless you expect them to cut the upside-laden Alphonso Smith or Aaron Berry.

    Not re-signed

     

    Maurice Morris

    It's the end of a good ride with Morris, but unless the Lions find themselves in running back Ragnarok in training camp again, they have too much talent on the roster to stick with the veteran any more.

    Not re-signed

     

    Don Muhlbach

    The Detroit Red Wings have the "Mule." The Detroit Lions have the "Muhl."

    There, I helped you pronounce the name of the guy who will be the Lions long snapper (still) for the next few years.

    Re-signed: Three years, $2.7 million

     

    Ashlee Palmer

    Update (02/25/12):

    The Detroit Free Press reported today that the Detroit Lions will not offer reserve linebacker Ashlee Palmer a restricted free-agent tender, which means he will be free to sign with any team in free agency.

    Because Palmer is a RFA, he wasn't included in this initial list. However, the news of what amounts to his release by the Lions seemed noteworthy enough to include.

    Palmer's release makes sense, considering the Lions would have had to tender him over $1 million to keep him as a RFA in 2012, and he only plays a marginal role on special teams. For a team as cash-strapped as the Lions, it's hard to justify playing that kind of money for that kinds of impact.

     

     

    Kevin Smith

    After four years, Kevin Smith is still an unknown quantity. He'll get a contract in 2012, but a low-risk one. Perhaps coming off the bench as a spell back will help him stay healthy for a full season.

    Maybe not. We'll see.

    Re-signed: One year, $1 million

     

    Drew Stanton

    That the Lions have already entered contract talks with Shaun Hill should be a message.

    It's the same message the Lions have been sending since 2007: "We're just not that into you."

    At this point, the only way Stanton ends up back in Detroit again is if he continues to castrate himself and keep crawling back to a team that has never really wanted him. There are better opportunities for him elsewhere, if he doesn't want to eternally be the Lions' third-string quarterback.

    Not re-signed

    UPDATE 3/17/12: Stanton has agreed to a one-year deal with the New York Jets.

    This is what I was talking about when I said he'd find better opportunities elsewhere. Not only is Stanton almost a lock to be the second-string QB behind Mark Sanchez, but if Sanchez continues to regress, Stanton could even see an opportunity to push him as the starter.

    This is a great opportunity for Stanton to revive his career, which was stagnating in Detroit. But then again, he did just sign with the Jets. I hope the kid has the mentality to deal with that locker room.

     

    Maurice Stovall

    Call me crazy, but I actually liked what I saw out of Maurice Stovall last season. He was a bigger factor in the preseason than he ever was in the regular season, but he's still a 6' 5" wide receiver who plays a solid game in special teams.

    Not a bad commodity to stock up on. Stovall is also young, and not without upside.

    Re-signed: One year, $700,000

     

    Donald Thomas

    Like Leonard Davis, Thomas is a guard. Also like Davis, Thomas will be as irrelevant in 2012 as he was in 2011.

    Not re-signed

     

    Stephen Tulloch

    Here we have perhaps the biggest question of the offseason. Does Stephen Tulloch stay or go?

    I have been preparing myself for the probability that Tulloch leaves for his monster deal in free agency. But then I think about how I was dead wrong last season about him not coming to Detroit in the first place, and I'm a little humbled.

    So I'm coming around to the idea that the Lions could get this deal done. I'm going to go ahead and predict that the Lions lock the guy up for a while. If the Lions' front office was clever enough to get him here, they're clever enough to keep him.

    Re-signed: Four years, $24 million

     

    Eric Wright

    The Lions want to keep him, he wants to stay, and the Lions have no better options at this point. Seems like a recipe for a re-up.

    I doubt Wright is due for a big payday this season after spending much of last season graded as one of the worst cornerbacks in the league, so the Lions should delight in getting him back to hold down a starting job while they wait for the next big thing.

    Re-signed: One year, $2 million

    UPDATE (3/14/12): Maybe Wright was a little undervalued in Detroit, and this deal is pretty consistent with my hunch that the free-agent market goes crazy for cornerbacks in the wake of the most prolific passing season in NFL history.

    But we're talking about a deal that involves Eric Wright, the No. 2 corner on a team that gave up over 900 passing yards in the two most important games of the season, getting over $7 million a year.

    I get that the Bucs have money to spend this offseason, and I can see Wright being worth a fair amount of money (more, even, than I predicted). But this has to be considered a gross, knee-jerk overpayment.

Projected Salary Cap After Re-Signings

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    So, let's say the salary cap increases to $124 million for 2012.

    Let's also say the Lions re-sign the players I've specified at the contracts I've specified on the last slide.

    Add it all up from the Lions' listed $101,331,381 (before signings), and what do you get?

    A cap number of $122,831,381.

    Just under the wire, right? Wait a second. What about that Calvin Johnson's bonus cash Spotrac didn't account for? Let's modestly estimate that at a $4 million increase. Now let's factor in first and second-round tenders for restricted free agents Sammie Hill and DeAndre Levy.

    Our total now comes to $130,265,381 on a projected cap of $124 million. And here's where the trouble starts. I even called for relatively modest contracts for the Lions re-signings, assuming they would take less money to stay in Detroit (don't laugh, they all did it last year). And the Lions are still millions over the cap.

    Now, that's a projection and an imperfect one. Even if the contracts are close to what I've projected, they won't be evenly distributed over each year. But even as an estimate, it's easy to see where the Lions are in trouble here.

    The team has lots of options here, but none of them are easy or pleasant. The best possible option is to get Calvin Johnson's contract situation figured out so that he's no longer making $22 million in 2012. If they can negotiate him down to only $16-17 million in 2012, that's direct savings to the cap, and it locks Johnson up for years. That's win-win.

    It's also proving to be incredibly difficult.

    The Lions have other options, such as cutting some of their more highly-paid veterans. Corey Williams seems to be a popular choice. He's a good player, and the money he's making is well-earned. But he isn't much of a leadership figure (like Kyle Vanden Bosch or Nate Burleson), and he has a first-round pick ready to take his spot in Nick Fairley.

    Another option the Lions have after the lockout is "borrowing" against future salary caps to make some extra space. The Lions reportedly did this in 2011, and can borrow up to another $1.5 million in 2012. That will help a little, but the bottom line is the Lions need to make some tough decisions coming soon, because they can't afford to even re-sign their own players in this situation.

    And we haven't even started talking about signing draft picks.

Biggest Needs After Re-Signings

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    If the Lions can re-sign all the players they want from last season, it will have done well to ensure new holes don't open up. But it will do precious little to fill their existing holes.

    The run game is still an issue, the secondary still needs to be better, and the linebacker depth is still paper-thin, even with Tulloch back in the fold.

    And so the needs after re-signings look a lot like the needs before re-signings. And that's the best-case scenario.

     

    Interior Offensive Line

    The Lions are not going to be able to solve this problem with the likes of Leonard Davis and Donald Thomas.

    This is going to require money or a high draft pick, and there's no getting around it. The Lions just plain need more talent in the middle of the offensive line.

    The good news? If the Lions can add talent to the interior line through the draft, and if that player turns out to be starting quality, they can save some money by cutting, say, Stephen Peterman and his $2.25 million salary.

    It has to happen eventually, so why not sooner than later while there's still money to save?

     

    Cornerback

    Getting Eric Wright back would help a little. But he's nothing more than a guy who can start for a little while longer while they groom someone else.

    This is another position that badly needs improvement through the draft. Gunther Cunningham basically refuses to start a rookie cornerback, and getting Wright back ensures he doesn't have to. But that makes this a prime time to get a talented young guy and start grooming him to take a starting job after either Wright or Chris Houston is done in Detroit.

     

    Safety

    Nothing changes here regardless of free agency. Delmas and Spievey will start in 2012, and neither is a sure thing, so the Lions badly need depth.

     

    Linebacker

    I won't go into the running backs again, because I'll just assume (perhaps dangerously) that the Lions will field at least two functional running backs out of Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith.

    But if the Lions lose/cut Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer and Isaiah Ekejiuba, as I've predicted, they'll be heading into 2012 with four linebackers on the roster. Doug Hogue would be the only bench player.

    That's not okay. Perhaps it's more likely that the Lions keep one of the aforementioned players (Palmer seems the most likely, unless they can get Carpenter to stay), but whatever they choose to do, they badly need to fortify the linebacker position beyond the starting three.

Identifying Potential Free Agents the Lions Could Sign

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    Interior Offensive Line

    The Lions don't even have the money to sign their own free agents, much less make a move on Ben Grubbs, Carl Nicks, or another elite-tier guard. This is an area where the Lions are going to have to look toward the draft.

    The only players the Lions are likely to pursue here in free agency are low-tier veterans who could be signed to one-year contracts like Russ Hochstein or Stacy Andrews. But it's more likely they just draft someone and stick with Dylan Gandy for depth.

     

    Cornerback

    Cortland Finnegan is the name that keeps getting tossed around, and it's understandable why. Finnegan has the same connection to former Titans defensive coordinator (now Lions head coach) Jim Schwartz as Stephen Tulloch did last season.

    But the Lions have a whole lot less cap space this year, and Finnegan is looking for a big payday. Specifically, he's looking for a deal bigger than the one Jonathan Joseph signed with the Houston Texans last year. That deal is paying Joseph almost $10 million a year.

    Pray tell, how in the world do the Lions afford that, given what you already know about their salary cap situation? Finnegan would have to take a massive pay cut, and he's not looking for that. He wants to get paid.

    Of course, all of this becomes moot if the Titans use the franchise tag on Finnegan, which seems increasingly likely as the sides remain distant in contract talks.

     

    Safety

    There's plenty of youth at the position, so this is a place the Lions are likely to spring for a veteran to shore up a depth spot. They tried last year with Erik Coleman, and they came up empty.

    Atari Bigby could be a quality addition, but he's not exactly any more reliable in the injury department than Coleman was.

    Ironically, a great fit for the Lions could be Jarrad Page, also known as the guy costing the Lions a sixth-round draft pick this year for tampering charges. After that mess, the least they could do is finally sign the guy.

     

    Linebacker

    If I know the Lions, the only free agent linebackers they're looking at this offseason are their own and the ones branded "undrafted."

    Still, the Lions are lacking a true veteran presence at linebacker, so they might kick the tires on a player like Na'il Diggs. They could also wait on Erik Walden's domestic assault trial, and see whether the extremely classy former Packer will be on the market.

    I bet they won't, though.

Potential Contract Values for Lions' Free-Agent Targets

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    The Lions aren't likely to be big players in free agency. Tom Lewand said so himself.

    But they will need to sign some guys, and those guys are going to cost money. Here are the approximate contracts the Lions could offer for the potential free-agent targets discussed in the last slide.

     

    Russ Hochstein/Stacy Andrews: One year, $850,000 (for either one)

    I listed Russ Hochstein and Stacy Andrews as potential targets for the Lions, just in case they wanted some depth, or in a Leonard Davis-like move to see if they can get some cheap production.

    Both were veterans on one-year contracts of less than $1 million last season, and both would be looking at a roughly equivalent contract in Detroit.

    Neither is very likely to be in Detroit next season, but they're more likely than, say, Ben Grubbs. The Lions don't mind kicking the tires on veteran players when the price is right, so why not?

     

    Cortland Finnegan: Four years, $24 million

    Cortland Finnegan is a good cornerback, and he's going to make good cornerback money. That's just how it is.

    If the Titans allow him to reach free agency at all, he will probably command a deal pretty close to what he's looking for. The Lions are only looking at about $20 million in cap room before they sign anybody. They can't spend half that amount on one player.

    Finnegan is looking for about $10 million a year. This deal offers $6 million a year. It's even less than what the Titans offered him, and Finnegan will turn it down if he cares about the money at all (and he does). But it's all the Lions can afford. As it is, they'll probably have to make some major sacrifices just to offer this much.

    Furthermore, the Lions won't be able to get Finnegan on a simple one-year deal (like they did Tulloch), because the Titans are already threatening to franchise tag him. Why would he fight against getting tagged, only to ultimately take less money with a different team on a one-year deal anyway?

     

    Atari Bigby: One year, $800,000

    There's nothing special about Atari Bigby, and there really hasn't been for several seasons. He's only been a 16-game starter once in his career, and that was in 2007 for the defensively-challenged Packers.

    Bigby also surfaced in 2009 as a consistent starter, and he seemed to be a playmaker when he took the field, but I wouldn't guess the Lions would expect too much of him.

    Where Bigby is valuable is in his ability to play both defense and special teams. With as many pure special teams players as I am predicting the Lions to cut, they would do well to pick up a couple players like Bigby who can play on special teams coverage and not be embarrassing in actual defensive coverage.

     

    Jarrad Page: Two years, $1.8 million

    This might be stretching it a little for a guy who has played for four teams in three years.

    But as the Lions were penalized for pointing out, Gunther Cunningham likes Page from his years with him in Kansas City, and he might be willing to give the guy a shot after a couple of down seasons.

    Several years ago when those comments were actually made, Page might have been in line for a starting position. Now he's likely just a depth player, and perhaps someone who can push Amari Spievey in training camp.

    Page is still only 27, and his inability to fit in with the Patriots, Eagles or Vikings in the last two seasons could make him the perfect "square peg" to plug in as a depth player at a value price.

     

    Na'il Diggs: One year, $1 million

    In case you were wondering, I was joking about Erik Walden. Besides, the Lions might be able to sign Diggs for less than Walden's bail money.

    Diggs isn't necessarily a likely choice in and of himself, he's more like a placeholder for any bargain-priced veteran free-agent linebacker who can come in and make plays as a reserve linebacker. But the man himself isn't a bad choice.

    Diggs is coming off a season with the San Diego Chargers in which he didn't start a game for the first time in his career, but he still made 40 tackles, 34 of them solo, in 13 games of reserve work. The Lions will happily take that kind of production, especially if they end up losing Bobby Carpenter (as I've predicted).

    The Lions are certainly not going to spend a lot on bringing in a backup linebacker, but there's no doubt they will need to shore up the position. At 33, Diggs is no longer a premier player, but he's not getting paid like one, either. He made $910,000 with the Chargers last season, and he earned himself a raise with a decent season off the bench, but he shouldn't float out of the Lions' price range.

Analyzing the Lions' Draft Strategy, Positions of Need

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    We've discussed this in the past, and if you've been reading my work since January, you know where I stand on the Lions' draft strategy.

    But the "best player available" mantra is misleading. The Lions' braintrust is not so dogmatic that they'll take the best player at any position, they have to make sure they're getting a player they can use.

    Nick Fairley stretched that paradigm to its limit in 2011, but he still made sense. Once he got healthy, he featured strongly in the Lions' defensive line rotation, so he was a usable impact player. And if the Lions end up parting ways with Corey Williams this year, they'll look like geniuses for having a first-round pick ready to step into his place.

    But that's not how it works with every position. Quarterbacks don't work in a rotation. The Lions rarely use more than two tight ends in a game. Those positions are set. Even the running back position, full of question marks as it is, is unlikely to get an early-round draft pick (though it's not inconceivable).

    There are some positions that just don't make sense for the Lions right now, and they know that. But I don't think the team is at a point to turn down talent at a position where they could physically use it. That means if a wide receiver (let's say Justin Blackmon, since it won't happen) falls out of the top 10, and the Lions have a shot at him, they'll take him.

    They won't take him because they need a wide receiver, they'll take him because the Lions are in a position where he can make an impact. And that's what the Lions are looking for. It doesn't matter what positions they draft, as long as they continue to draft players who have a positive impact on the game.

    If you really think about it, that makes the most sense. As long as the Lions continue to draft players who have a positive impact come game time, they will continue to improve as a team. If the Lions are drafting players who don't impact the game (either because they aren't moving up on the depth chart, or they're just not that good in the first place), they're drafting poorly.

    Now, I'd be lying if I said needs didn't factor in at all, and I'll freely admit that I expect the Lions to address the offensive line in the draft. But if they don't, and they still draft a collection of players that all make the Lions a better team in their respective ways, then who am I to complain?

Draft Names to Watch Closely

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    To contradict everything I just said on the last slide, I will now proceed to focus on draft names the Lions could target to fill team needs.

    Yeah, I know what I said, but it so happens that the Lions needs are likely to match up pretty well with the players that fall to them, considering they're finally coming up in the latter half of each round. The 23rd pick is a place where top interior linemen, linebackers and safeties start coming off the board.

    Nobody ever said the Lions couldn't take both the best player available and the player at the position of greatest need. It's a dream scenario, but it's incredibly likely this season.

     

    Interior Offensive Line

    Peter Konz (C, Wisconsin) and Cordy Glenn (G/T, Georgia) are the names being tossed around with regularity here. Either the year's top center candidate or the second-best guard would be right at home in Detroit, and neither would be a reach in the first round.

    Of course, the top guard candidate is David DeCastro of Stanford, but he's dominant enough to almost certainly be off the board in the top half of the first round. Of course, in the unlikely event that he is available, he's a no-brainer.

    Other players to watch are Ben Jones (C, Georgia) and Brandon Washington (G, Miami). Either could be a conceivable Day 2 pick. Kelechi Osemele (G/T, Iowa State) is a bit of a sleeper. He's a lot better than the amount of buzz around him would indicate.

     

    Cornerback

    The Lions need a cornerback, but the position is a veritable minefield this year. There are plenty of talented players, but a good portion of them have serious character red flags (many of them drug-related).

    Janoris Jenkins was booted from Florida for his repeated drug offenses, and Dre Kirkpatrick was just arrested for marijuana possession a month ago.

    Now, it's no shocker to learn that athletes smoke weed in college. This is hardly the first time this type of thing has happened. What's bothersome is that Kirkpatrick was prepared to perform at the NFL Combine, and they test for drugs at the Combine.

    Quite frankly, it's not even so much that Kirkpatrick smoked that's the problem here. The problem is he was still in possession a month before the Combine, where he knew he would be tested. Was he too stupid to kick the habit beforehand, or did he just not care enough?

    Either way, it's a serious problem, and images of Charles Rogers/Ricky Williams should dance in the heads of the Lions' war room members when they're deciding where Kirkpatrick goes on their Big Board.

    The added complication is that after the top tier of corners, the talent level drops sharply. If the Lions are looking for a corner in this year's draft, they're either going to roll the dice on a potential character problem, or have to settle for a mid-tier player like Georgia's Brandon Boykin or Dwight Bentley of Louisiana-Lafeyette.

     

    Safety

    I don't think the Lions go safety in the draft, because they already have plenty of youth invested in the position.

    With Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey installed as starters, the Lions should be more concerned with bolstering the bench spots with a veteran.

    Still, when the Lions reach the late rounds, they could look for sleepers. Team needs go out the window when you're just looking for guys to stick on Day 3. The Lions could very easily spring for a tumbling safety prospect like LSU's Brandon Taylor in the late rounds, if the value is right.

    Taylor is the type of prospect who falls on draft day because he doesn't wow in any one phase of the game. But he's a hard worker, and is versatile enough to play safety, cornerback, or special teams effectively. That's ample value for, say, a fifth-round pick.

     

    Linebacker

    The extent to which linebacker is a need is directly related to the Lions' ability to get Stephen Tulloch back under contract.

    If they can't, they need a new starting linebacker. If they can, they can look to shore up some depth.

    That may or may not affect whether the Lions draft a linebacker, but I'm willing to bet it affects where they draft a linebacker.

    If the Lions get a shot at Luke Kuechly of Boston College or Dont'a Hightower of Alabama in the first round, they would likely get immense value out either of those players. But unless they plan to replace one of their existing starting linebackers (which is possible), it might constitute reaching for players they can't use.

    But bring Nigel Bradham from Florida State, Travis Lewis from Oklahoma, or another mid-round developmental project into the mix, and there's no issue with bringing them in now and coaching them up to fill bigger holes as they emerge later. It's all an issue of positioning.

     

    Quarterback

    If you watched the Lions at all last season, you know the Detroit Lions don't need a quarterback. Matthew Stafford is good for a while.

    But if free agency plays out the way I expect, the Lions will need a project quarterback to take the No. 3 spot previously filled by Drew Stanton.

    Well-run teams with franchise quarterbacks in place (e.g. Packers, Patriots) make a habit of developing young project quarterbacks so that they can trade them off as table scraps to less-fortunate teams for large returns.

    The Patriots did it with Matt Cassel (and coming soon, Ryan Mallett), the Packers could have done it with Matt Flynn if he was still under contract, and even the Eagles were able to get a king's ransom for Kevin Kolb.

    So why not Detroit? Matt Stafford should be hanging around for another 15 years or so, so why not use the depth chart behind him to bring in some extra value?

    Now, I'm not suggesting the Lions spring for a quarterback in the early rounds. But if a sleeper pick slips into the fifth or sixth round, and the value gets too hard to ignore, the Lions should absolutely spring for him.

    I'm looking at you, Kirk Cousins/B.J. Coleman/Russell Wilson.