With the kind of situation the Detroit Lions are in right now, every move in the offseason needs to be cost-effective.
But ultimately, the Lions need only be cost-effective in some areas so they can spend it in others.
This article is not going to be about that.
In fact, if the Lions do everything in this article, they'll be in big trouble in 2013; if it's possible for them to step back further than they did in 2012 (those of you who remember five years ago know it is).
So don't think of this as a roadmap to the 2013 offseason. It's more of a way for the Lions to save money in key areas without taking too much of a step back in talent in different areas of the team. But that is going to involve a lot of letting valuable veterans leave, and the Lions can't do that to everyone.
That would be akin to blowing up a big part of the operation, and the Lions are at least one more disappointing season from that point. Instead, these are some ideas of where the Lions can save some money, so they can spend it elsewhere to keep the valuable parts of the core together.
There has been so much talk and nitpicking of Matthew Stafford's mechanics in the last two years, it's easy to forget that in that two-year time frame, he's thrown for 10,005 yards and 61 touchdowns.
Stafford certainly had a down year in 2012, in every meaningful statistic. Wins, yardage, TD-INT ratio, QB rating, completion percentage, all down last season.
Even Stafford's budding reputation as a clutch performer in comeback situations has tapered off, as every comeback attempt for the Detroit Lions' offense seemed to be over in four downs in 2012.
So yeah, there are some issues. But when thinking about those issues, it's helpful to remember that the same guy was a cold-blooded assassin in 2011. Also, he's 24 years old.
If Stafford has another year like 2012, even with even further statistical regression, he will hold Lions franchise records in yardage, touchdown passes (maybe—he needs 38 TD passes), completions, and career QB rating at the age of 25.
All that being said, Stafford is certainly someone the Lions will want around in the future, provided he plays within himself and stops pressing.
But should the Lions really pay him $41 million in the next two years? Probably not. Pay him well for solid play and defer his bigger payments by restructuring his contract in consecutive years. Do this even though a few will complain if the Lions go all Calvin Johnson with him by signing him to a big deal and lowering his immediate cap hit.
There's no real downside to this, unless you happen to be a Stafford detractor. It will cost the Lions a lot of money in the long term, but they're going to end up paying that money, anyway, so why not do it when they can gain some cap space?
Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch have anchored the Detroit Lions' pass rush since 2010.
In 2010, the Lions notched 44 sacks. In 2011, they earned 41. In 2010, that number shrunk to 34.
That's not all on the defensive ends, of course, but when you sink some $16 million into your starting defensive ends, you tend to expect more than 13 sacks out of the two of them.
It's possible that one or both of these guys is worth the money they'll require next year, but this is not a league that favors the older, experienced free-agent pass rusher anymore. It's all about the young guys.
The top five sack leaders in the league this year do not include a player with more than four years of NFL experience. The top three (J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith, and Von Miller) are all former first-round draft picks in their second years. Each of the teams that those guys play on are playoff teams.
And not one of them is making as much as either Avril or Vanden Bosch.
Avril, the Lions' sack leader in 2012, is tied for 21st on that list, with less than half of the totals posted by either Watt or Smith.
With the fifth overall pick in the draft, the Lions could actually save money and increase production on the defensive line.
Chris Houston isn't a perfect cornerback. He won't threaten to knock Darrelle Revis off his island, or any All-Pro teams.
What he is, is effective in the Detroit Lions' scheme. The Lions don't have anyone on hand that can play anywhere close to Houston's level. The Lions can't just let Houston walk and not replace him. They have some promising rookies, but nobody is ready to step in and take on the opposing team's best year.
Even if the Lions spend their top pick on a shiny new cornerback, a rookie cornerback is not going to step in and lead the unit. They need a talented veteran, and talented veteran cornerbacks don't come cheap.
That's why the cheapest, most effective option may well be to pay Houston, assuming he comes cheaper than the elite options on the market (and he should).
Safety is a strange position. It seems like it should be the most important on the field, being the last line of defense and all.
But as it turns out, safety is one of the lowest-paid positions in football.
That means the Detroit Lions can find help at safety without paying too much. And they need it, since they have only one true starting quality safety in Louis Delmas, and even he may not be back.
The Lions couldn't keep any given safety configuration on the field for more than a couple of games this season, and it's time they figure out something concrete at the position. But how?
There's no one right answer to this question, but guys like Madieu Williams (Washington Redskins) Chris D. Clemons (Miami Dolphins) or James Ihedigbo (Baltimore Ravens) could provide the Lions with a needed veteran upgrade at safety without breaking the bank.
Nate Burleson is an incredibly likable guy, and it's hard to advocate getting rid of him, especially with how thin the Detroit Lions' wide receiver corps got last year.
But there's a very good chance that Burleson will end up making more in 2013 than his production justifies.
The Lions certainly stand to save some money if they throw their chips in behind Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, but can they really trust them? Between Broyles' bad knees and Young's bad attitude, Burleson is the most reliable receiver the Lions have outside their resident once-in-a-generation talent (Calvin Johnson).
This is one move that could work out and could save the Lions a lot of money, or it could backfire and reflect very poorly on the organization.
And the organization has had quite enough of things reflecting poorly on them, thanks very much. So this move is iffy at best.
The Detroit Lions' offensive line isn't a bad one. It's squarely average, and has been since Rob Sims stabilized the left guard position.
That said, the Lions have a lot of guys entering the final years of their contracts, and as such, they have a lot of guys making a lot of money.
Dominic Raiola is due for about $6.4 million next year, Stephen Peterman just under $2.9 million, Jeff Backus about $5 million, and Gosder Cherilus is a free agent.
That's a lot of money tied up in a line that gets referred to as "average" by people trying to defend it.
Each of these players has a long history with the Lions, and what they have done with the team should be respected (to varying degrees), but the Lions have young players like Riley Reiff, Jason Fox and Bill Nagy who are just waiting for their chance to take over.
Each of those young players represents significant salary relief if they start at the expense of the veteran they replace.
If any of those veterans made a significant impact on the team individually, I wouldn't advocate their replacement. But as it is, the Lions know they have to get both better and younger on the offensive line.
Increasingly, they have the pieces in place to make that happen. They just have to make the call.
Draft pick salaries aren't as much of an issue as they used to be, with the new CBA in place.
But still, there is relatively little to lose and a lot to gain by sliding down a few spots in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Detroit Lions currently pick fifth in the draft, that's significant. In the 2012 draft, every pick from two to seven was traded somewhere at some time. Now that teams aren't afraid of sky-high salaries in the top five, the top of the draft is prime trading position.
Some of those trades were relatively small, and some were blockbusters. For the Lions, a slide of about five to 10 spots in the draft would likely net them something like an extra third-round pick and still their choice of some very good players in the draft.
"But wait," you ask, "don't the Lions need to draft an elite talent to put themselves back in contention next season?"
Of course they do. But pictured here is J.J. Watt, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. In his second year in the league, he led the league in sacks with 20.5 and batted down 16 passes.
The moral: Elite talent is still there in the 10-15 range. It's a little harder to find, but it's there. The Lions can (and should) find a difference-maker close to the 10th of 15 pick as easily as they do at fifth.
The only difference is that they can get more value out of a trade and pay the player himself less this way. It's risky, but has a high potential payoff. And if it doesn't work, then maybe that says more about the Lions' front office than anything.