The Detroit Lions regressed in a significant way in 2012, and they have an incredibly tough offseason ahead of them in multiple ways. The Lions have gigantic free-agency issues with their own players. They have holes on their roster and areas where they have been depleted, and to get back into the mix, they need to make wise choices in every way possible.
This is going to be a pivotal offseason for general manager Martin Mayhew, as another poor season will signal the end for him as Lions general manager. There are tough decisions to be made in every area. They will have huge decisions in free agency and they must make the right picks in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Lions also have some coaching issues to tend to, as there are concerns over whether offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham are the right coordinators to lead the Lions at this point.
Let’s look at the moves the Lions need to make as they get ready for the 2013 NFL season.
The Detroit Lions have struggled with their offensive identity in 2012. They have tried to establish the run, but it has been a struggle and the offense has really suffered from the desire to run the ball. The Lions have not been built to run the ball with power, and any attempt to do so seems silly.
The Lions can throw the ball with the best teams in the NFL, but they seem to hamstring themselves by trying to run the ball on first down so much. They are constantly running the ball out of the shotgun, and it seems like they should go away from it, as it is completely ineffective.
The attempt to run the ball seems to get Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford out of sync and out of rhythm. The offense is better when they play quickly, in the hurry up, up-tempo game. The Lions have struggled with their tempo all year.
Another area of offensive struggle is in the red zone. They have kicked far too many field goals in 2012, and it seems that the plays that Linehan calls in the red zone are not creative enough. The Lions need to determine if Linehan is the coordinator that can help them fix their offensive issues.
The Lions may need to move on from Linehan to get their offense back on track.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is a very good coach, but it is time to look at the scheme the Lions run. They run a 4-3 defense, and they line up their defensive ends wider than a traditional 4-3 defense does. The defense is called the “Wide 9,” named for the gap the defensive end lines up over.
The scheme really calls for pressure from their defensive ends and the Lions have not gotten very good play from this position in 2012. When the Lions get strong play from their defensive line, they can cover for their deficiencies in the secondary.
Late in 2011 and in 2012, we have witnessed the Lions getting torched via the pass, and it happens because of the scheme and play of the defensive line. Head coach Jim Schwartz and Mayhew need to determine if a change in coordinator is needed, or if the scheme needs to be changed.
It seems like the Wide 9 is not working at this point, and the Lions may need to move on from the scheme, and perhaps the coach employing the scheme. The defense is less a concern then the offense at this point, and retaining Cunningham and altering the scheme seems like the best scenario.
The Detroit Lions realistically won’t be participating in the free-agency process as far as signing players who aren’t already on their team. They have significant issues with the free agents on their team, and very tough choices to make.
According to spotrac.com, the Lions have 30 players set to hit the market, 17 on the defensive side of the ball. Ten of these defensive free agents have played key roles for this defense in 2012, from defensive end Cliff Avril to cornerback Chris Houston. Safety Louis Delmas and critical backups like Corey Williams, Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson all have the opportunity to test the open market.
There are a few players they simply can’t lose. Cornerback Chris Houston, defensive tackles Corey Williams and Sammie Hill, and defensive ends Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson have to be priorities to return.
Linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy have played well this year, and the Lions should bring them back as long as the money makes sense.
There are players whom the Lions simply can’t bring back because of the money that will be required to make that happen. Defensive end Cliff Avril and kick/punt returner Stefan Logan are players the Lions will, and should, lose to free agency. They simply don’t have the money to pay Avril and Logan.
The Lions are going to have some very tough calls with a few of their own. The Lions have three tackles entering free agency: right tackle Gosder Cherilus and backups Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox.
The Lions need to keep their quarterback healthy, and any moves they make on the offensive line should be well thought out. Common sense says that the Lions are not getting great play from Cherilus, and if they can duplicate it from Hilliard or Fox, they should because the cost is less.
However, we don’t know what the Lions have in Hilliard or Fox, as they have been injured and unavailable. If the Lions can re-sign Cherilus to a reasonably priced deal, they should, as there is stability in that move.
Another really tough call will come with safety Louis Delmas. He is a very good player and it is obvious when he is on the field. He makes a difference with his presence, as the secondary is better with him on the field than off of it.
That is also the problem, as Delmas is constantly banged-up and missing games. The Lions need to keep Delmas, but offering him a long-term contract is something they really can’t afford to do. Delmas is a player that makes a difference, but he misses too much time.
They can’t sign him long-term and they can’t just let him walk. The solution might come in the form of the franchise tag. Sure, it is more money in 2013, but there is security in knowing there is no money set to go to him past 2013.
In hindsight, there are things that we can point to in terms of being able to see the step back.
For example, the Lions lost an incredible amount of talent to IR in 2012. They lost established players like Corey Williams, Jahvid Best and Nate Burleson. They also lost 2012 draft picks like Ryan Broyles, Bill Bentley and Chris Greenwood for the season.
In addition to the massive injury problems is the fact that the Lions haven’t added much talent over the last two draft classes.
In the 2011 NFL draft, they selected five players. Out of those five players, they are getting good production from Nick Fairley, a first-round pick. They are getting fairly average production from second-round pick Mikel Leshoure, a running back out of Illinois.
Gone from the 2011 class is wide receiver Titus Young, a second-round pick. They also got nothing from Doug Hogue, a fifth-round pick, and Johnny Culbreath, a seventh-round pick.
The Lions also got remarkably little from the 2012 draft class. They selected tackle Riley Reiff in Round 1. He has been a nice player they use in their jumbo package, but he hasn’t been a player who has made a difference. In Round 6, the Lions selected cornerback Jonte Green. He has played a lot later in the season, as the injuries have truly taken their toll.
That’s it. They either lost their other picks to IR, as described above, or the players they selected have made no impact, other than special teams.
The Lions unquestionably took impressive strides in 2009 and 2010 when they added a lot of talent through free agency and the draft, and it is no surprise that the team emerged in a big way.
However, they have not added players who have made a difference over the past two seasons, and it shouldn’t surprise that they have taken a step back.
The NFL is no longer a league where a team like the Lions can get virtually nothing from a draft class, not to mention back-to-back classes.
The Lions approach to the 2013 NFL draft should be to get productive players on the field using a blend of the “best player available” approach and targeting positions of need.
The Lions need upgrades on the offensive line, talent at the wide receiver position and speed on offense. On defense they need a defensive end and talent in the secondary. An elite cornerback and an upgrade at the safety position are warranted.
It remains to be determined what position the Lions will select from. It will range from third overall to ninth overall. Entering Week 17, the Lions are set to pick from the fifth spot overall.
The Lions will be drafting early, and there will be many different ways they can go to start the draft. What they can’t do is to take a player at No. 5 who won’t come in and play immediately. They must get a player who will come in and make a difference from the first day.
There are a few players that fit the “best player available” model while playing in a position of need. Alabama guard Chance Warmack is the best guard to enter the draft in years, and he is the kind of plug-and-play type the Lions really need early in the draft.
Another player that fits the bill is Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner. He is a big, mauling defensive end who can get to the quarterback as well as play the run. If the Lions lose Avril, they will need a defensive end like Werner.
They could get lucky and have Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel fall to them, and that would be a wonderful thing. Joeckel is a finesse player but perhaps the best left tackle to enter the draft since Joe Thomas.
The addition of Joeckel would allow 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff to move over to the right side where he can physically dominate defenders. It really upgrades the Lions offensive line with youth and talent.
The other spot they can look at in Round 1 is at cornerback. Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner is this draft’s best cornerback, but the selection of Milliner at No. 5 overall is a little high. It would be better to see the Lions trade out of their spot and move down to get an extra second-round pick.
In Round 2, the Lions selection will depend on what they did in Round 1. Assuming they go offensive or defensive line in Round 1, they should be looking at filling the safety position in Round 2. A player like LSU’s Eric Reid or Florida’s Matt Elam would certainly fill the need.
In filling out their draft, the Lions need to find a playmaker in the secondary like Tyrann Mathieu. He can play the slot-corner position for the Lions. In today’s NFL, the slot corner is on the field more than off of it, and it is a priority position. He also can return punts and help the Lions get a returner who plays another position on their 53-man roster.
The last target is speed that they can line up out of the backfield on offense. A player like Michigan’s Dennard Robinson is a player who could make defenses crazy with this speed, and he could be utilized the way the Minnesota Vikings use Percy Harvin in their offense.
The Lions must hit on a few of these picks in a big way, and the combination of adding talent and having talent return from IR should have them in a much better place to start the 2013 season than they are finishing the 2012 season.