The NFL's annual game of musical chairs—free agency—didn't take long to affect the Detroit Lions. On Wednesday the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed free-agent cornerback Eric Wright away from Detroit. It was not a huge surprise. Wright had a productive 2011 and was one of the top 10 cornerbacks available.
That said, he is not an elite player. Which is why the Lions wanted him to stay, but were not going to get in a bidding war with anyone over him.
The loss makes a tenuous situation at cornerback even more so. Wright is obviously gone. Brandon McDonald is a free agent and could walk at any time given the right deal. Alphonso Smith has worn out his welcome and has been trade bait for several weeks.
That leaves the Lions with only three cornerbacks under contract: Chris Houston, Aaron Berry and Don Carey. Houston I trust, but Berry not so much; and who is Don Carey?
Obviously, the cornerback position has just been elevated to the Lions' biggest concern.
They can address it via the draft, but I seriously doubt the Lions want to go into the season with only two cornerbacks, someone named Don Carey and a rookie.
Free agency is going to play a role.
The good news is that the Lions' salary cap situation is not as dire as it once was. Players restructured their deals and Calvin Johnson's new contract—as massive as it is—actually helped the cap situation this year.
Stephen Tulloch and Jeff Backus still need to be signed, so cost will continue to be a factor as the Lions try to address their need at cornerback. For this reason, I do not foresee the Lions going after any big names.
Actually, they couldn't if they wanted to because the top-tier guys have already been signed or franchised.
Here is a list of available free-agent cornerbacks that I consider to be high-value targets. Their price is right and they have proven to be solid contributors.
I had intended on including William Marshall on this list. Alas, as I was writing it, he signed with the Miami Dolphins.
Corey Graham has been a special teams ace for the Chicago Bears for five years. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl in 2011 for his contributions.
His work ethic and performance on the field earned him playing time at his given position—cornerback—as well. He rewarded the Bears for giving him an opportunity.
His numbers in limited duty were solid. He only had 16 tackles, but he added two forced fumbles and three interceptions.
Graham is a competitor and a playmaker and he wants more playing time. The Bears apparently are not willing to give it to him, and he may not be the best fit for their Cover 2 system.
I found varied reports on what his annual salary was last year, but I could not confirm any one for sure. I think it's safe to say, since he was mainly a special teams contributor, signing him would not take much.
He's got plenty of upside and versatility, which could come in handy if the Lions lose special team stalwarts Rashied Davis and Maurice Stovall to free agency.
The Bears' loss could be the Lions' gain.
We all know how suspect the New England Patriots' defensive backfield was last year and Molden was obviously a part of it. That said, he had the best year of his career last year.
He was waived by Houston after failing to make an impact but was quickly scooped up by the Patriots prior to the 2011 season. His numbers were not terrible. He played in all 16 games, had 36 tackles and two interceptions.
Molden is raw and he needs work on reading and reacting to offenses quicker. However, he has all the intangibles: good size, above-average strength, athleticism and speed. He also plays well on special teams.
In 2011, his salary was a paltry $742,500. That includes his signing bonus.
The Lions could be rewarded for taking a flier on Molden. He is the definition of a low-risk, high-reward player.
Honestly, I would be surprised if the Pittsburgh Steelers let Gay go, but crazier things have happened in the NFL.
He is one of the more versatile corners in the league. He started off as the Steelers' nickelback but worked his way into the starting lineup by overtaking Bryant McFadden.
He has also played safety.
Without question, 2011 was his best year as a pro. He played in all 16 games, had 61 tackles, one fumble recovery and two interceptions. He is an above-average corner and would likely start with Detroit now.
Despite these positives, the Steelers appear to be high on two second-year corners and re-signing Gay might not be a priority.
At $735,000 a year, Gay seems like a bargain to me.
In that respect, he probably suffered from a bit of Larry Brown-itis. His reputation grew exponentially because of a good performance on the biggest stage.
Porter is not the elite player that some wanted him to be. That is probably why New Orleans is not interested in re-signing him. He is, however, a solid player that can make a positive impact on a team.
The other knock on Porter is his durability. He has suffered from a variety of injuries during his four years in the NFL. In fact, he has never played in all 16 games.
He does make plays, though. Some might say he has a nose for the ball. In 2011, he amassed 52 tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception.
His salary was around $1 million last year, which might be a little higher than other options out there, but his experience, both as a starter and in the playoffs, makes him a good value.
Newman is the wild card of this bunch. Released by the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday, he definitely has the stink of failure still on him. Deservedly or not, he seems to be taking most the blame for the Cowboys' defensive backfield woes last season.
As far as numbers go, Newman's 2011 season—53 tackles and four interceptions—was on track with his career averages. Unfortunately, he was on the losing end of two very high-profile plays, and these moments tend to stick in everyone's mind.
He was posterized in Week 4 by Calvin Johnson, and he was hurdled by a New York Giants fullback during the final week of the year. That play was key in the Cowboys not making the playoffs.
Maybe Newman has lost a step. Maybe he is not the same player as he was in 2007 and 2009 (both years he made the Pro Bowl). Funny, his numbers in 2011 were nearly identical to those years.
More than likely, Newman's release was a salary cap dump. He was due $6 million and—right or wrong—the Cowboys felt his play had dropped off.
I do not know what he will get on the open market, but I would think teams have a little leverage given he was released. He also will receive his guaranteed money from Dallas regardless of what team he plays for.
These factors will probably result in a deal more in line with what the Lions are looking for.