Detroit Lions: Grading Each Offseason Move
At one point, discussions about "the Detroit Lions' offseason" had nothing to do with the latest Lion to get arrested in a traffic stop.
They were about things like free agency, the draft and the salary cap. Those were the days.
Despite some more recent trouble with the law, I'm going to try to ease that fatigue and talk about the offseason in terms other than arrests.
Are offseason grades prior to training camp a bit premature? Of course they are. In the same way draft grades five seconds after the pick are.
But incidentally, the Lions have actually had a very good offseason in terms of personnel moves and positioning for 2012, and that's a lot more fun to talk about than the layout of your "Lions DUI Bingo" card.
Of course, when I say "talking about the offseason," I have a relatively limited scope of what that means...Why? Because I've already written draft grades, and I've already projected key members of the UDFA class—twice, in a way. Why would I do those again?
Instead, I'll cover key signings and re-signings, as well as some organizational moves (that don't involve post-arrest press releases) from this offseason.
You'll notice that some moves get their own slide, while some get lumped in together.
That's because the Lions have signed a number of players who are absolute question marks. It's difficult to analyze and grade a third-year player who rarely saw the field with his former team. And quite frankly, I simply don't have as much to say about James Bryant as I do Cliff Avril.
But grading each move is grading each move. No cop-outs (other than the draft one).
Ready then? Let's do this.
Re-Signing Calvin Johnson
Forget about the money. It doesn't matter to the Lions, and shouldn't matter to anyone else, how many bajillions of dollars the Lions spent to keep Calvin Johnson under contract into his mid-30s.
What matters is that a humble, team-first, face-of-the-franchise wide receiver on a Hall-of-Fame pace is going to be a Detroit Lion into his mid-30s.
Not only that, but the Lions were somehow able to both sign Johnson to a record contract and save money in a year when the salary cap was choking the life out of the team.
Explain to me how the Lions could have done anything better than this.
What do you mean? That's not a real grade? Hey, I'm being conservative with my plus count, OK? This move is that good.
Re-Signing Stephen Tulloch
In one year, Stephen Tulloch managed to establish himself as the leader of the Detroit Lions' defense.
In 2011, Tulloch signed a one-year deal that was below his expectations to come to Detroit and prove himself. He did, leading the team in tackles and securing a position that had seen a different starter for four consecutive years (Paris Lenon, Larry Foote and DeAndre Levy preceded him).
His re-signing with the Lions means there won't be a fifth.
Tulloch is an undersized, but underrated, player in the middle who makes up for his lack of size with pure speed, solid tackling and shrewd play-reading ability. He was easily the second-most important player for the Lions in free agency this year, and the Lions were able to reel him back in for about $5 million a year.
That's a bargain for the Lions, considering both Tulloch's ability and the dearth of options they had to replace him.
Franchise Tagging Cliff Avril
This one is complicated.
It's good that the Lions didn't let Cliff Avril walk. There's no denying that—no matter how high you are on Willie Young.
Yet, here we are. Avril and the Lions continue to hash out contract details, and all the while, Lions fans are left to wonder if he's worth the money.
Now, I greatly appreciate the fact that Avril will be around, creating fumbles and sacks and all sorts of backfield chaos in 2012. But the franchise tag doesn't do anything but eat up a lot of cap space this year and create the same level of uncertainty next year.
Avril is a good player, and at age 26, there's still room to improve. He's an integral part of the Lions' defensive line and easily the best pass-rusher on the team. There's no way to quantify this, but it's possible Avril's presence this year is worth one extra win this season.
It's just that the franchise tag bothers me—and everyone. If they can get a deal done sometime in the next two to three weeks, this grade goes way up.
Re-Signing Jeff Backus
When the Lions dropped $10 million on bringing back veteran left tackle and Michigan lifer Jeff Backus, I'm guessing they weren't figuring on Riley Reiff falling into their laps in the draft.
Now, I don't imagine the Lions would have rather plugged Reiff in as a rookie left tackle instead of Backus, given the option, so I'm not saying that Reiff's presence makes this a bad signing.
It just complicates things a little. OK, a lot.
On the bright side, the Lions now have the luxury of giving Reiff a great mentor and easing him into the all-important blind-side role, when he's ready, rather than putting his feet to the fire.
But they also face a serious problem. Where does Reiff play in the meantime?
There's precedent for first-round linemen to sit for a while in their rookie years. Gosder Cherilus (admittedly under a different regime) sat for a big chunk of his rookie season in favor of George "False Start" Foster.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Reiff do the same, and Backus re-signing with the team is basically why. But there's still a good chance this works out for the best in the long run, so I can't grade it too harshly.
Re-Signing Kevin Smith
When the Detroit Lions re-signed Kevin Smith, I thought it was a good idea.
Now that the Lions are going to be playing without Mikel Leshoure for at least the first two games of the season, it's an even better idea.
Nobody is sure quite yet what to expect from Smith this year. When healthy, he's incredibly productive, but he's rarely healthy. But considering his primary role is likely that of a reserve back, the limited number of carries could help him hold up over the course of the season.
Better yet, Smith's contract is barely costing the Lions anything. This is a zero-risk, potentially moderate-to-high reward deal.
Re-Signing Shaun Hill
Here we have one of the most underrated moves of the offseason.
Depending on your take on the value of the backup quarterback, this could be a great move or a negligible one.
But two aspects give this move added value.
First, as good as Matthew Stafford is, he's only one year removed from a series of serious injuries. Sure, those injuries were fluky, but you can never predict injuries.
Second, Drew Stanton is an Indianapolis Colt now. No longer do the Lions have two backup quarterbacks roughly equivalent in value. There's a steep dropoff between Hill and young Kellen Moore.
Hill is basically the prototypical backup quarterback. He's not an incredible player, and he won't put the team on his back as Stafford did so often last year. But he's good enough to manage the game and keep his team in it while the playmakers do their thing.
Oh, he also had a QB rating of 103.5 last year. That's what happens when you go 2-of-3 for 33 yards passing on the season. That's also why the QB rating only works for full-time quarterbacks.
A quick recap of the role players who have re-signed one-year deals with the Lions for 2012.
Valuable and versatile, Heller has been with the team since 2009, and while he doesn't catch a lot of passes, he's a good blocker to have at H-back. He also scored the Lions' first playoff touchdown since January 2000.
Every year I say this is the year Fluellen will be released and go to play DE in a 3-4 scheme, and every year the Lions bring him back on a one-year contract.
Clearly, despite being miscast as a DT/DE tweener in a 4-3, he's bringing enough value to the team for him to be back—again.
But seriously, is there not a big-bodied UDFA the Lions would rather take a chance on at this point? The DT rotation is doing just fine at this point.
Palmer's situation was looking up before the draft. He and Doug Hogue were the only notable reserve linebackers on the team, and with the Lions not adding any depth in free agency, it looked like Palmer might get a shot with the defense, rather than just as a special teamer.
Then, the draft happened, and it looks like rookies Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis are set to leapfrog him on the depth chart. That's OK, as Palmer is primarily a special teamer anyway. He's worth keeping around for that reason and as emergency linebacker depth.
Amari Spievey is an unknown quantity at safety who could be facing a make-or-break year in 2012. It only makes sense to put a quality veteran on the team as insurance
Coleman played sparingly last season due to injury, but he would have been good to have last year in the wake of a rash of other secondary injuries.
The Lions are banking on him staying healthy this season to either push Spievey along or push him out. Which of the two it is depends on Spievey himself.
Stovall has Calvin Johnson-like size, but that's where the comparisons end.
Stovall might not be a breakout player at wide receiver as I once projected, but he can catch, and he can use his body to shield defenders from the ball.
More importantly, he plays a mean game on special teams and has used his long arms on more than one occasion to trip up return men. He might be the Lions' second-best return coverage man after John Wendling. He should battle impressive undrafted free agent Patrick Edwards for a roster spot.
I still think Ryan Donahue is the guy to beat at punter, but Graham performed exceptionally well for the Lions last season, so the contract makes sense.
Donahue is only a second-year player, and it was mostly his salary that earned him the job over Nick Harris last season. So why not make him earn his job again this season? He didn't play enough to prove himself in 2011.
People only know the name of the long snapper when he screws up. Muhlbach has been virtually a ghost in Detroit since 2004.
The only thing that keeps this from an A+ grade is that it's only a one-year deal.
Signing Jacob Lacey
I don't know if this deal really excites anyone—least of all me.
But when "Cortland Finnegan" was all anyone could say leading up to free agency, and "first-round cornerback" was all anyone would say leading up to the draft, maybe disappointment was just a given.
After all, it's tough to envision a cornerback from the one of the worst defenses in football last year shoring up the Lions' secondary.
Sure, the Colts were technically 15th in the league in passing yards allowed per game, but how much of that was because opponents jumped ahead quickly and started running the ball to control the clock?
Still, Lacey is a very Lions-like pickup. He has excellent physical skills, is entering his fourth year in the league, and at age 25, still figures to have lots of upside. The Lions acquired Chris Houston under similar circumstances, and he's an above-average player now.
Lacey may or may not develop to the same level as Houston, but on a one-year contract worth $1.3 million, it's certainly worth kicking the tires to find out, especially considering the number of rookies on the roster right now.
Other Free-Agent Signings
A rundown of players the Lions have signed who weren't with the team last year.
There's a general feeling of optimism that Brown could be another famed "square peg" for the Lions. He seems to be loaded down with natural talent and is just looking for the right situation to unleash his ability.
Detroit could provide that situation, but there's an established four-man rotation at DE and a fourth-round pick standing between him and making the roster. He'll have to impress to get a shot.
He's certainly athletic enough, and he's comfortable with his role as a blocking fullback.
But didn't the Lions just decide to move on without a true fullback? Isn't this why Will Heller is on the team as an H-back?
There's no harm in bringing in a guy like Bryant just to see what happens, of course, but even if Bryant plays exceptionally well, I have to wonder if he even plays a position the Lions want to employ.
Don't let the Lions tell you they're not concerned about their secondary. Why else would they have gone out and signed a veteran, starting-quality safety in late June?
I've been saying that if the Lions wanted to shore up the safety position, they needed to do it with veterans, not young players. Jones fits the bill brilliantly and possibly leapfrogs Erik Coleman in the race to push/outperform Amari Spievey.
Restructuring the Deals of Stafford, Suh and Burleson
It's worth noting that none of the good stuff that happened to the Lions this offseason (see, there was good stuff) would have been possible without some personal sacrifices by Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Nate Burleson.
With the Lions' backs against the salary cap wall, each of those three players agreed to reduce their salary for the 2012 season, which, in addition to Calvin Johnson's contract extension, gave the Lions the flexibility to make other key moves, most notably re-signing Stephen Tulloch.
It's important to understand, of course, that these guys are not technically taking a pay cut for the good of the team. Rather, they are backloading their contracts to give the Lions room to maneuver here and now. It helps a lot for 2012 but will balloon their cap hits (and convert it to guaranteed money) for the rest of the contract.
But even still, I give particular credit to Stafford, who has restructured now for the second consecutive year. I know he made a lot of money over his first two (mostly injured) seasons, and he has lots of money left to make.
Regardless, it must be difficult for a 23-year-old kid to be faced with a $12 million paycheck and say, "No thanks, you can pay me next year," only to turn around and say the same thing to a $17 million paycheck a year later. But that's exactly what Stafford is doing for the good of the team.
Sure, his cap number will probably swell to over $20 million for 2013, and by that point, the Lions will likely have no choice but to pay it (unless they're interested in paying one player about $40 million in 2014).
Suh's and Burleson's will increase as well, which means we're probably looking at a replay of this next year.
But Tulloch and Jeff Backus aren't free agents next year, are they?
Re-Signing Jim Schwartz (and All the Coordinators)
I don't need to know all the details to know this is a good move.
The Lions announced a contract extension for head coach Jim Schwartz on Friday, though they refrained from listing any details, like contract length or value.
Whatever. That stuff is irrelevant right now. The undeniable fact is that Schwartz took over an 0-16 team with general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand and improved it each year for three years.
The improvement culminated in a playoff berth last season, and if the trend continues, there's no telling where the team ends up in 2012.
The timing for this announcement could be better, as Schwartz is taking some heat for the Lions' offseason arrests (whether fair or not).
But Schwartz isn't telling his guys to smoke (or eat) weed and that designated drivers are for punks. He's no more "responsible" for these incidents over the summer than a teacher is responsible for a student getting at trouble with his parents at home. Perhaps even less so, since Schwartz is dealing with grown men.
At any rate, Schwartz is, after three years, likely already one of the top five head coaches in Detroit Lions history, and his accomplishments with the team are far from over.
Regardless of terms, this is instantly the Lions' second-best move of the offseason (next to re-signing Calvin Johnson).
Coaching and scheme consistency is one of the more underrated elements of success in the NFL, and by keeping Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and even special teams coordinator Danny Crossman on board, the Lions have ensured that consistency for years to come.