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Detroit Lions' 10 Best & Worst Moves of the 2012 Offseason

Dean HoldenAnalyst IMay 20, 2012

Detroit Lions' 10 Best & Worst Moves of the 2012 Offseason

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    The Detroit Lions' offseason has been fraught with ups and downs.

    The exact balance of these things is debatable, but it's hard to find a reason to think things are worse than they have been.

    Still, there is perhaps no such thing as a "perfect" offseason, and so even though the Lions have done a good job completing their stated goals in 2012, there are still issues.

    These may not be the issues you think they are (hint: one of the worst moves is not "failing to take a cornerback in the second round"), and in many cases, they are relative speed bumps, not catastrophic failures.

    But for the sake of parity, I have chosen five of the best and five of the worst moves (or non-moves) of the Lions' 2012 offseason.

    You can make your own decisions regarding whether the good outweighs the bad, and I won't influence your decision on that.

    But just so you know, there is a right answer on this.

5th Worst: Very Little New Blood

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    Let me be clear about one thing. The Lions have exhibited the value of consistency on the roster, and most of the offseason has been devoted to keeping pieces in place, not bringing in new pieces.

    That, in large part, is a very good thing.

    But the Lions have also proven the value of outside competition, especially on the lower ends of the depth chart. Aside from a couple of relative unknowns (Jacob Lacey, James Bryant) and the draft, the Lions have done very little to bring in any serious competition at any position.

    Sure, plenty of positions have no imminent need for an upgrade, but that's never stopped the Lions from kicking the tires on a Quinn Pitcock or similar player.

    These types of moves are practically zero-risk, potentially high reward. And I know the Lions brought in a lot of UDFAs and that this isn't a team that believes in (or can afford) building through veteran free agents.

    But not every free agent is a veteran, and not all of them break the bank. None of them have to stick with the team if they don't prove themselves in training camp.

5th Best: Re-Signing Jeff Backus

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    It may not be the sexy choice, or at all popular.

    It may not even be seen as particularly necessary, now that the Detroit Lions' left tackle of the future (Riley Reiff) has arrived.

    But this was an important move for the Detroit Lions, for more than just sentimental reasons.

    Jeff Backus, for as often maligned as he is, is one of the Lions' offensive leaders, at a time when they need leaders to step up all over the field.

    He easily has more experience with the team than anybody not named Raiola or Hanson, but more importantly, his tank on the field is not empty.

    Backus can still play, and while he's never been an elite-caliber player, he will be an invaluable part of easing Reiff into his long-term role by serving as a mentor and by effectively manning left tackle until his final start finally comes.

4th Worst: Losing Eric Wright

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    While the Lions' secondary was much maligned in 2011, it was also under appreciated in some key ways.

    One of those ways is Eric Wright, an unsung hero who was nowhere near an All-Pro level, but was certainly better than the player likely to take his place in 2012.

    Wright isn't a perfect player, but he's a veteran with starting experience, and he would have been a good stopgap player to fill in while the Lions groomed one of their younger players (like talented-but-raw draft pick Bill Bentley) for the spot down the road.

    Instead, Wright is gone, and in his place will likely be an overwhelmed, or at best, under prepared young player.

    The game experience might be good for whichever player ends up starting in the long term, but in the meantime, the position is likely to take a step back.

    However, there is a caveat to this...

4th Best: Not Paying as Much as Tampa Bay for Eric Wright

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    So I like Wright and all, but there is simply no way he was worth an average of $7.5 million per year over five years.

    Not to the Lions, anyway, who had bigger fish to fry this offseason (more on that later).

    Wright is a decent, starting-quality corner who cashed in big on a contract with a team that was looking to spend money.

    But the money Wright made is a whole lot closer to elite status than his actual play, and the Lions have not built a young team poised for lasting success by paying marginal veteran role players top-tier money.

    They tend to leave that to the Jets and Cowboys. And apparently now the Bucs.

3rd Worst: Not Yet Re-Signing Jim Schwartz

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    About 12 games into the 2010 season, cries from short-sighted fans were starting to swell about firing head coach Jim Schwartz.

    The Lions are 14-7 with a playoff appearance since then. I don't think Schwartz's seat was ever any warmer than perfectly comfortable, but if it was, it should be sufficiently cooled down by now.

    The only question now is how much to pay the Lions' turnaround artists and for how long?

    And also, when can we expect this deal to get penned?

    The fact that the Lions haven't done it yet isn't exactly alarming, but it's much like Calvin Johnson's deal. We all know it's coming, it's just a matter of getting the terms on paper and putting our minds at ease.

    While Schwartz still has much to prove in the coming years (achieving success and maintaining success are completely different skill sets), he has done more than enough to be an absolute shoo-in for a contract extension.

    So the sooner team president Tom Lewand hammers out the details, the better.

3rd Best: Re-Signing Pretty Much All the Other Coaches

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    Simple equation: When the team is doing well, keep the people who made it that way.

    The Lions wasted no time this offseason in doing exactly that. Less than a week after their season ended in New Orleans, the Lions announced contract extensions for all three team coordinators.

    That means Scott Linehan back for the offense, Gunther Cunningham back for the defense, and even Danny Crossman back on special teams.

    This is perhaps an even more important move than almost any player signing, because it means the schemes, styles, expectations and communications that are committing themselves to long-term memory get to remain there.

    Players who have worked with these coaches in past years get to come in to this year's training camp with a good idea of what's going on and what coaches expect.

    The learning curve is all gone, which means players can focus on getting better at what they do, not just learning what to do all over again.

    Regardless of objections to any of these coaches individually, the fact is they have played a major role in the Lions' turnaround, and stopping progress after notable annual improvement is not the way to make a Super Bowl.

2nd Worst: Where Are All the Trades and Square Pegs?

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    This isn't really one of the "worst" moves of the offseason. More like it's a confusing non-move. Or a series of them.

    Martin Mayhew, in his first few years as general manager of the Lions, has astounded and amazed with his uncanny ability to pull value players out of midair.

    More to the point, he seems to convince other teams–particularly those in some sort of transition–to give up talented players for relatively little value in return.

    Take the case of Shaun Hill in 2010. The San Francisco 49ers, seemingly desperate to eliminate quarterback controversy surrounding Alex Smith, traded Hill to the Lions for a seventh-round draft pick.

    To anyone who thinks that's too much value for a backup quarterback, look around the league at how many backup quarterbacks in the league were drafted in the seventh round (or not at all).

    Hill actually is one of them, and is arguably still better than any quarterback on the 49ers' roster.

    Point being, that was a great move. Valuable player, practically nothing given up. Same story with left guard Rob Sims and reserve defensive end Lawrence Jackson.

    Mayhew's short history with the Lions is littered with great pickups like that. So my only question is, why haven't we seen any lately?

    Sure, it's more difficult to find castoffs to stick on a talented roster like Detroit's, and the lockout wrecked any chance of clever maneuvering in 2011, but you can't tell me all the Mayhew Magic has run dry.

2nd Best: Locking Up Stephen Tulloch

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    When you sign the top-rated interior linebacker in the free agent market to a one-year deal, and he leads your team in tackles, that's probably a good sign about the quality of said move.

    So when Martin Mayhew did just that with Stephen Tulloch in Detroit, it only made sense for him to re-up the deal.

    And so it was that Tulloch, the de facto leader of the defense on the field, will be a Detroit Lion for the next five years.

    For a team that has been in a state of flux with its linebackers for years, it is comforting to know that at least the MIKE position is taken care of.

    Now the team can start figuring out who mans the outside positions after this year.

Worst of 2012: Franchise Tagging (not Signing) Cliff Avril

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    Cliff Avril is not an elite defensive end. I'll admit that freely. That, frankly, is why his contract talks are going so slowly.

    What Avril is, however, is on the tier just below elite. And as a pass rusher, he's among the best. That's why the Lions cared enough to give him a very expensive franchise tag in a year when the salary cap was tight.

    So ultimately, the franchise tag this year was necessary. That doesn't make it good. It makes it a last resort that the Lions actually had to use.

    I understand that the Lions and Avril are far away on a contract, and I certainly don't want the Lions to give him the kind of unnecessarily large contract Eric Wright did in Tampa.

    But Wright was, while an effective player, ultimately expendable. I'm not so sure Avril is. In fact, it is in part Avril's presence that makes Wright expendable. The Lions can't afford to lose out on his pass-rushing ability, especially when they aim to be a dead-red pass-rushing team.

Best of 2012: Megatron 2020

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    I don't feel any obligation to justify Calvin Johnson's megadeal that made him the highest-paid wide receiver in football and locks him into a Detroit uniform until the year 2020.

    So instead, here's an amusing anecdote and statistics.

    Quarterback bust extraordinaire JaMarcus Russell was infamously taken by the Oakland Raiders with the first overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. That's one pick before Calvin Johnson.

    Rarely can you directly compare the statistics of a quarterback and wide receiver, but if you take Johnson's three best seasons (2008, 2010, 2011) and compare them against Russell's only three seasons (2007, 2008, 2009), you find the following:

    • Johnson has more receiving yards (4,132) than Russell has passing yards (4,083).
    • Johnson has more receiving touchdowns in any two seasons than Russell has in his career. 
    • Johnson's 16 TDs in 2011 falls just short of Russell's career mark (18).
    • Johnson caught a touchdown on 15.9 percent of his receptions. Russell threw a touchdown on 2.6 percent of his throws.
    • Russell does win out in one key area. He generated an average of 131.7 passing yards per game. Johnson only generated 87.9 receiving yards per game. So I guess there's that.

    Just some stuff I thought was interesting.

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