After finishing 4-12, the Detroit Lions enter the most important offseason of the Martin Mayhew/Jim Schwartz era. The general manager and coach have been given another season by the Ford family to get the Lions back on track, and if they hope to be around at this time next year they need a new strategy.
Their game plan was sound when they took over in 2009. At that time the Lions were so devoid of talent a reboot was needed. Mayhew got to work adding young talent via the draft and Schwartz started to change the culture inside the locker room.
Both were successful, and the Lions started winning. When they made the playoffs last year, many thought the turnaround was complete.
Mayhew and Schwartz were heroes then, but times have certainly changed.
In 2012 the Lions never looked like the same team. Players regressed, strengths became weaknesses and coaches choked games away.
The Lions are once again NFL doormats.
A new approach is needed to get back on track, and it starts this offseason.
New Veteran Leadership
The head coach is ultimately responsible for leading his team. Coaches teach and inspire players to be better, but they also dole out discipline, and they should always have control of their locker room.
The best coaches know they can't do it by themselves, though. They need respected veterans who buy into the game plan and who will keep everyone in line.
A big reason the Baltimore Ravens have had so much success is the presence of Ray Lewis. He is the ultimate leader. He's earned respect and players are terrified of making a mistake—on or off the field—because they know they would have to answer to him.
The Lions don't have a player like this, and it shows in their undisciplined approach to the game.
When Titus Young openly defied his assignments during a game, one of his teammates should have confronted him, and I'm not talking about after the game to reporters.
It didn't happen.
Nate Burleson and Kyle Vanden Bosch might be leaders, but the Lions obviously need something more.
Besides, who knows if they'll even be on the roster next year?
The Lions won't find leadership in the draft either. No rookie is going to walk into that locker room and take control. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson need to step up and take a more vocal role in leadership.
It's their team after all.
The Lions could also find a veteran in free agency capable of assuming a position of leadership.
Wherever they find it, they need to find it quickly. Players need to police themselves, and the Lions need a few new sheriffs in town.
Replace Jahvid Best's Big-Play Ability
Mayhew already admitted that one of his biggest mistakes was relying on Best's return this season. Obviously it never happened, and the Lions' running game lacked a home-run threat.
The Lions were at their best with Best in that change-of-pace role. Mayhew can't make the same mistake twice. He needs to find a speedy back that can fill the void.
In free agency, a player like Ted Ginn Jr. fits the bill. He's fast, elusive in space and is a skilled receiver.
In the draft, Denard Robinson is someone that could provide electricity out of the backfield and be a threat to break off a long run whenever he touched the ball.
Fans are split about his chances of success in the NFL, but if the Lions can get him in the fourth round it would be a steal.
If Best returns to play someday, it will be great news, and the Lions will welcome him back with open arms. They cannot sit idly and wait for that day to come, though. Mayhew needs to bring speed back to the Lions backfield, and he's got one offseason to do it.
Sign a Proven Pass-Rusher
Much of the Lions' defensive woes, despite all the hand-wringing about the secondary, started up front. The defensive line simply didn't get enough consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley had great years, so it is difficult to find them at fault. Rather, it is the defensive ends that struggled the most. Each of them had a worse season than last, and the Lions' sack numbers are a testament to their inadequacies.
According to ESPN, Detroit ranked 20th in the NFL with only 34 sacks on the year.
Now the Lions are facing the potential loss of Cliff Avril, their best pass-rusher the past two seasons, and Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young to free agency. Not to mention Kyle Vanden Bosch could be cut.
These are desperate times, and Mayhew doesn't just need to re-sign his current players, he needs to improve his pass rush.
Part of that is through the draft. They'll need to select the best DE available with the fifth pick.
Mayhew will also need to sign a veteran free agent. If that turns out to be Avril, then so be it. He's only 26 years old and has 20 sacks over his past two years. He's clearly someone the Lions want to hold onto, for the right price.
Solidify the Secondary for Once
Every year the Lions assemble their secondary on the cheap and every year it underperforms. If Mayhew hasn't realized this pattern by now, perhaps he doesn't deserve to keep his job.
It's time for a change. Instead of trusting that Louis Delmas will finally stay healthy. Mayhew needs to make sure there is someone on the roster capable of replacing him when he goes down—because he eventually will.
Delmas means a lot to the Lions defense. He's an on-field leader who sets the tone with his attitude and intensity. The Lions will be hard-pressed to find anyone that can replace that.
However, they can replace Delmas' hard-hitting, run-stuffing style of play. Dashon Goldson and LaRon Landry are the types of players capable of doing just that, and both of them are free agents.
As for the cornerback position, the Lions will need to re-sign Chris Houston, and they will have Bill Bentley and Chris Greenwood returning from injury.
Adding depth via the draft and/or free agency will be Mayhew's task, but he needs to find quality, not quantity. Other team's castoffs are not wanted.
Mayhew has his work cut out for him this offseason. How well he does this will ultimately determine if the Mayhew/Schwartz era in Detroit continues.
If the areas I described above are not a priority, chances are it won't.