Like it, or not, the Detroit Lions defense will be in full rebuild mode in 2013. The salary cap crunch of 2012 will become the salary cap catastrophe of 2013. The Lions defense will have 15 prominent unrestricted free agents (UFAs) in 2013 with a current cap hit of $33.27M.
Per spotrac.com, the following players will be looking for more money on the open market. Their 2012 cap hit is in parentheses:
DE Cliff Avril ($10.605M)
DE Willie Young ($0.506M)
DE Lawrence Jackson ($1.015M)
DT Corey Williams ($5.5M)
DT Sammie Lee Hill ($1.26M)
LB Ashlee Palmer ($0.615M)
LB DeAndre Levy ($1.927M)
LB Justin Durant ($3.625M)
CB Chris Houston ($4.625M)
CB Jacob Lacey ($1.3M)
CB Drayton Florence ($1.5M)
SS Amari Spievey [IR] ($4.9M)
FS Louis Delmas ($1.727M)
SS Erik Coleman ($0.605M)
SS Ricardo Silva ($0.465M)
Then, there’s the “dead money” paid to players released or bought out that adds up to another $0.802M
Who Gets Pink Slips at Season’s End?
First, the underperforming Kyle Vanden Bosch ($4.611M) needs to be made a settlement offer and given a “Thanks for your service” adios. Give him a coaching gig, but get him off the player payroll.
Gutting The Defensive Line
Franchise-tagged DE Cliff Avril will seek employment elsewhere. There is absolutely zero chance that the Lions will franchise him again at 120 percent of his $10.605M 2012 franchise price tag.
DE Willie Young’s $0.506M rookie contract will expire and Lawrence Jackson ($1.015M) will be looking for his third NFL contract. The Lions cannot afford both. With the likely departure of Vanden Bosch the Lions will have to make an extension to Young a priority and look to the draft as high as their first-round pick for a plug-n-play DE.
The Lions will have 2012 undrafted DEs Ronnell Lewis and Kendrick Adams (currently on the practice squad) under contract. Even if Young is re-signed, the Lions will be extremely thin at DE unless R. Lewis has some sort of football gene spliced into his cerebral cortex. He’s that bad.
The news is not as dire at DT, where the Lions have Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley under contract, albeit at a whopping $8.27M between them in 2012 cap money.
The bad news is that 9-year veteran Corey Williams ($5.5M) will not be extended. Sammie Lee Hill ($1.26M) has deserved an extension that will have to be hammered out.
Depth on the D-line will be a major issue to address, but not nearly as severe as the eye of the salary cap storm.
The Crisis in the Linebacking Corps
The Lions' starting linebackers lead the defense in tackling. This is largely a function of the Lions' vision of the 4-3 scheme that features that wide-9 front. This compels the OLBs to fill gaps first, and transition into coverage when it’s often too late to make a play on the ball.
The bad news is that the LB corps has recorded only one sack and zero interceptions. This is perhaps the biggest flaw in the Lions' vision of the 4-3 defense: coverage.
At MLB, the Lions will have at least one player under contract, Stephen Tulloch. At no other LB position can that be said. Tulloch’s backup and short yardage specialist Ashlee Palmer ( $0.615M) will test the free-agency waters unless he’s extended for a year. Whether Palmer would agree to a contract extension is unknown, but to even a casual observer it seems necessary to have a backup MLB not named Carmen Messina.
OLBs DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant have been having good, if unspectacular, seasons. Levy’s improvement has been most noticeable in coverage, but with no meaningful contributions in pass defense the Lions have to take a hard look at the personnel and how they’re utilized.
The Lions, knowing that keeping Durant, Levy and Palmer would be a cap crusher, drafted two LBs in the 2012 draft: Ronnell Lewis (Round 5) and Tahir Whitehead (Round 7). They added UDFA LB Travis Lewis and have kept ILB Carmen Messina on the practice squad. Ronnell Lewis was converted to DE during OTAs where he has since disappeared.
I’ve got to tell you that none of the LBs added in 2012 will have a major impact as starters in 2013. In no other unit on the team was the talent drop-off more noticeable during training camp than the LB corps. If a player spends two years on the practice squad (Messina) without being claimed, his career path probably doesn’t include football.
The Lions Secondary: Health Concerns and the Youth Movement
Detroit’s defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham lobbied hard for bigger, more physical CBs for two years. GM Martin Mayhew tried to oblige him in 2011 by attempting to trade up in the draft for Patrick Peterson, and again in 2012 for CB Stephon Gilmore. Both attempts failed, but the need was so pressing that the Lions traded up in the third round and selected Bill Bentley out of fear that he would be unavailable a few picks later.
Detroit then added Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green in the fifth and sixth rounds respectively.
The Lions also picked up free-agent CBs Jacob Lacey and Drayton Florence (off waivers), the only free-agency “splash” that the team could afford. It’s been clear from the outset that both are one-year rentals.
Greenwood was lost during OTAs with a sports hernia that was surgically repaired. Green was a raw talent who would need lots of polish and seasoning. Or so we thought. Green actually turned out to be better than advertised when pressed into service after Bentley and Lacey were injured during the same game. Green made his share of rookie mistakes, but none cost the Lions a victory. Before his injury, Bentley was inconsistent but showed flashes of talent that were encouraging.
The Lions opened the season missing their best CB, Chris Houston, for the first two games. With Bentley on IR after shoulder surgery, Lacey missing three games with two mild concussions and Drayton Florence missing eight games with a broken arm, the Lions were desperate for depth and had to abandon their LCB/RCB scheme for a 1CB/2CB scheme.
It was during this time that Jonte Green stepped up to such an extraordinary extent that the Lions could return to their normal LCB/RCB scheme even though Cunningham abhors the use of rookies in the secondary.
In 2013, the Lions will likely lose CB Chris Houston; his level of performance will make him a hot commodity in free agency. Should the Lions slap the franchise tag on Houston? Surely, he won’t sign an extension.
Let’s leave this question open for now, as we still have to look at…..
The Impending Crisis at Safety
There is no doubt that the Lions defense as a whole is much more productive with the vocal and physical presence of FS Louis Delmas.
However, over his 60-game career, Delmas has missed 14 games. According to Pro Football Focus, in the games Delmas did play he missed 305 of 3,210 defensive snaps, or almost 10 percent.
Delmas will be a free agent and one has to wonder if his seemingly chronic knee problems will keep him from receiving a big contract offer. In Delmas’ case, the Lions might gamble that prospective future employers will take a pass on the dynamic, but too often injured athlete.
Health concerns will likely end the Lions career of SS Amari Spievey ($4.9M) and drive his market down as prospective suitors will shy away from multi-concussed players. The new reality of the NFL.
The picture deteriorates from there. Erik Coleman ($0.605M) and Ricardo Silva ($0.465M) were reasonably average depth players who will shop their services elsewhere.
Silva, who looked out-of-shape in camp seems to have come to the realization that this is a contract year where he needs a strong finish. Coleman will be a 10-year veteran with his best years behind him.
That leaves John Wendling as the only safety under contract. Not so hot, eh?
Blowing Up the Defense: The Inconvenient Truth
OK, we’ve looked at all of the defensive units. It’s clear that the Lions will have to clear salary cap space for a rookie crop that could cost between $4-5M. Please feel free to disagree, but here’s my best guess at who stays and who goes:
Players out: DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE Lawrence Jackson, DE Cliff Avril. DT Corey Williams, OLB Justin Durant, MLB Ashlee Palmer, CB Jacob Lacey, CB Drayton Florence, SS Amari Spievey and FS Eric Coleman.
It should be noted that there is a remote possibility that two or three of the above players will not receive an offer. The Lions can re-sign these players at a discount. One can only hope…
Players to offer extensions to: DE Willie Young, DT Sammie Lee Hill, OLB DeAndre Levy, FS Louis Delmas and SS Ricardo Silva.
It should be noted that none of the above are likely to sign an extension prior to testing free agency. Would you?
Franchise tag: CB Chris Houston. This will be expensive, but Houston has proven to be worthy of the price. Some would rather franchise FS Louis Delmas, and even OLB Justin Durant's name is mentioned.
How the Lions Draft Will Be Impacted
If the Lions retain the 4-3 defense, drafting a DE in the first round will be essential. There is also the likelihood that a second DE will be needed in rounds 4-6.
The need for a plug-n-play safety is the next most urgent need. To fill this need, the Lions must trade up, if necessary, to secure a stud in the second round, or even trade back up into the first round. Drafting a safety with a high draft pick will be essential no matter what defense the lions run in 2013.
Here’s where I usually make my pitch to transition the defense to a 3-4. If you are playing a wide-9 4-3 defense, the transition to a 3-4 defense would give the Lions more flexibility with Suh playing DE. Giving Suh the freedom to pick his gap would bring out the best in him. He might even enjoy the game for a change.
I know, I’ve heard it 100 times: Schwartz is a 4-3 head coach. Ain’t gonna happen. What could possibly prompt Schwartz to make such a transition?
Notre Dame’s dynamic ILB Manti Te’o. My pet cat.
This sideline-to-sideline playmaker is the closest thing to a can’t-miss prospect in the entire draft. Te’o isn’t a pass-rushing sack machine. What Te’o brings to the table is the ability to play at an All-Pro level at "Sam" LB in the 4-3, or at SILB alongside Stephen Tulloch in a 3-4. Te’o is the best cover LB since Mark Herzlich’s pre-cancer season.
Te’o, the Hawaiian Mormon at a Jesuit university, has the kind of presence that is contagious, much like the leadership qualities of Louis Delmas. Te’o is a community activist and represents the kind of 24-7-365 dedication that has been lacking on a team that has collectively stepped on a salary cap landmine.
Yes, the Lions defense will be blown up this offseason and free agency will not be an option for the cash-strapped team. Since this is the case, some reflection is in order as to coaching, schemes and players. All options should remain on the table for discussion. Perhaps a new vision will emerge that takes full advantage of the talent that survives the coming purge.
Next Up: Cutting the Fat From the Offense and Special Teams.