6 Detroit Lions Who Deserve Long-Term Extensions
This offseason, the Detroit Lions gave long-term contract extensions to Calvin Johnson and Stephen Tulloch, ensuring that both remain Lions through the primes of their careers.
But there is still work to be done. The Lions have built a very strong core group of players, but their restrictive salary cap situation has prevented them from dealing out many contract extensions.
Next year it won't be any less difficult. The salary cap numbers aren't going anywhere just yet, and there will be another collection of players entering free agency and awaiting long-term deals (from somebody).
But team president Tom Lewand figured out how to go from $11 million over the salary cap to approximately as much under the cap, and he signed Johnson to the richest deal in NFL history in the process. He can work some more magic and get guys back for the long haul next year.
The only question is, who?
I'm glad you asked...
The first guy on the list is no surprise, because the Lions are already actively trying to extend his contract.
There is some debate as to whether Cliff Avril is worth the $10.6 million he is set to make with his franchise tender, but relatively little doubt that Avril is worth having back for the right price.
The big question at this point is, what is that right price? Obviously Avril and the Lions are far apart on that number—otherwise they'd have a deal done by now.
Regardless of how much the Lions end up paying Avril, it's hard to let a guy walk who leads the team in sacks and forces a fumble on just about every other sack.
I know there is some sentiment that Avril is a product of the Lions' defensive line, and he would wither against double teams.
To that I say, "so what?" Who cares what Avril would do in a different scheme, with different players? Isn't the important thing that he excels in the one he's in? And did everyone just forget about him having four fumble-sacks as a rookie in 2008? How much help did he get from his fellow linemen that year?
The fact is, Avril has steadily improved his game over his first four years in the league, and now that he is set up to enter his prime, it's a good time to ship him away? I think not.
The Lions front office knows that they need to lock Avril up for the long haul, and at this point, shouldn't that be enough to convince us?
Slowly, quietly, Chris Houston has become a formidable cover man.
The 2012 season will be Houston's third with the team, and the end of his second Lions contract. He played the remainder of his rookie contract with Detroit in 2010, then signed a two-year deal with the team after failing to find a long-term contract on the open market.
But Houston's time is coming. After being criticized earlier in his career for a lack of ball skills and only four interceptions in his first four seasons, he picked off five passes in 2012 alone, returning two for game-changing touchdowns.
Houston was once considered no better than a No. 2 corner, but in the Lions' defensive system, he's proving to be a capable No. 1 guy.
Houston is part of the reason the Lions aren't as panicked about drafting a cornerback ASAP as many fans are. He's also a rationale for Gunther Cunningham's notorious distaste/phobia of rookie cornerbacks.
Cornerback is a difficult position to learn, perhaps the most difficult in football at the professional level. It generally takes three or four years for a cornerback to truly get over the hump and be consistently effective.
So instead of rushing out to draft a cornerback in the first round, why not just keep the key guys they have on board and let them grow?
Houston is entering his sixth year and should be approaching his prime, and he has shown notable improvement over his first two years with the team. Like with Avril, it makes no sense to let Houston leave just when he's about to be at his most effective.
What Tony Scheffler does for the Detroit Lions is relatively subtle.
He caught only 26 passes in his 2011 campaign, but six of those were touchdowns, and he averaged over 13 yards per reception.
So Scheffler is subtle, but important. He's not worth a multi-millions megadeal, but he's certainly worth a three- or four-year extension with reasonable terms. He's a pass-catching threat that gives the Lions an extra option, especially close to the goal line.
Scheffler's overall production was down in 2011, mostly because Matthew Stafford had three legitimate wide receivers to throw to all year. The "one ball" theory strikes again. But what Scheffler does well is take a small number of targets and turn them into a great deal of impact.
Scheffler might not get the numbers or the playing time that Pettigrew does, but the Lions need him on the roster. The Lions' second TE is about as important to the offense as the third DT or DE. They may not be every-down players, but you know when they are on the field.
Meanwhile, what's Ernie Sims up to these days?
There are three good reasons to extend Justin Durant past the 2012 season.
One is that he has played solid football and earned his spot on the roster.
Two is to maintain the chemistry he started building with Stephen Tulloch.
Three is blind panic about who plays linebacker in 2013.
Of course, I know the Lions front office has a handle on this, and I expect the situation to change by the end of this offseason. But as of right now, Tulloch and Doug Hogue will be the only linebackers left on the roster a year from now.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that Durant isn't a game-altering linebacker. He's solid, and he keeps the play in front of him most of the time. But he also needed time to adjust last season, and he should build on his 2011 performance this year.
At his worst, Durant is a solid starter. Not every player on the team needs to be a superstar, and Durant has shown enough to make him worth a four-year contract or so, as long as the Lions don't overpay him.
Remember how I said the Lions' second TE was about as important as their third DT? How those players make maximum impact with minimal field time?
Yeah, Sammie Hill is that guy. He only makes it on the field when Ndamukong Suh or Corey Williams need a spell, but he makes a big impact with few snaps.
Hill is the proof that Jim Schwartz's strategy of rotational defensive linemen works. If Hill were a starter, playing 80 percent of the snaps in a game, he would be a marginally effective player.
But put a fresh Hill, with his impressive size and strength, up against a guard who is worn down from blocking Suh for the last 10 snaps, and he wreaks havoc.
Now, it's true that Hill is the third- or fourth-best lineman on the team, so re-signing him wouldn't seem to be such a high priority. But if re-signing Andre Fluellen was a high priority for Jim Schwartz, why wouldn't Hill be an even greater priority?
He would, and he is. Hill is only through his first three seasons as a pro, and he needed a lot of coaching as a fourth-round pick out of tiny Stillman College. He has yet to realize his full potential, and the Lions should probably be a part of that.
I could look up when Matthew Stafford's contract ends, and I could tell you that the Lions need to extend his contract the year before that.
But no. Forget that; I don't care when it ends, extend his contract now. Yesterday. Can't do it soon enough.
Maybe this is an overreaction to a great season, but it's not like this is the Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick we're talking about. I'm not calling for the Lions to dump money on a former seventh-round pick for completing four passes in a row.
We're talking about a No. 1 overall draft pick that just became the second-youngest (and fourth ever) player to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. And this, in what was basically his sophomore season (in terms of games played).
What's especially crazy about Stafford is that he's still just a kid. Not only has he played in less than two seasons worth of games, but he's just barely 24 years old. That's younger than some of this year's draft prospects, younger than Andy Dalton, younger than most of the starting quarterbacks in the league.
Stafford is already shattering team records and coming close to some league records. And that's with an incomplete offense and inconsistent protection. Stafford is nowhere close to his prime, and neither is the offense he plays in.
That's a scary thing, and there's no telling where his numbers could end up. All I know is that they should end up in Detroit.
Never have I, as a Lions fan, had the opportunity to watch a guy who could truly be considered an elite quarterback. Not in Honolulu blue, anyway. I would watch Tom Brady during the playoffs and shake my head and marvel. This, I would say, is how the quarterback position is meant to be played.
But then I watched Stafford last season. And I saw pocket awareness. Smart reads. Accurate throws. Clutch comebacks capped by game-winning touchdowns. Receivers hit in stride running down the sidelines.
I saw a player in Honolulu blue playing the quarterback position the way it was meant to be played. So sue me if I want to see a lot more of it.