Louis Delmas is a player the Lions must keep.
This offseason is a pivotal one for the Detroit Lions. After the failure of 2012, the current regime is running out of time to build a winner. The team is at a crossroads and general manager Martin Mayhew must pull the right strings during free agency to turn them around.
Of course, success in free agency is the goal of every NFL franchise, but it's never easy. Surefire signings—like Mario Williams—often backfire and under-the-radar one's prove to be pivotal.
It's difficult to predict how a player will fit into a new team and a new system, yet that is Mayhew's task.
He'll need to focus on his own free agents first, though. The Lions have over 20 players, mostly on defense, with expiring contracts, and he needs to decide who to keep and who to let go while maintaining fiscal responsibility.
Sounds easy enough right?
It's as easy as putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle in the dark with mittens on.
Many of the Lions' free agents are veterans with key roles, so if they aren't re-signed, Mayhew better have a good plan for replacing them.
He doesn't need to replace all of them though.
Here are five players whom the Lions can't afford to lose.
Levy (54) and Durant wrap up the Rams' Steven Jackson.
Regardless of the Lions' troubles on defense last season, their linebackers were not to blame. In fact, aside from Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Detroit's starting linebackers were their most consistent defenders
Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are very similar in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Both are strong run-stoppers, but only adequate in coverage.
Then again, with today's ultra-athletic tight ends, name a linebacker that doesn't have trouble in coverage.
The fact is that the Lions have two very good linebackers in Durant and Levy. Realistically, they can only keep one of them, and there is no clear-cut advantage to keeping one over the other—in terms of their ability.
Durant's cap hit would be more—currently $3.6 million compared to Levy's $1.9 million—so Levy might be the favorite to stay (Spotrac.com). Especially since he's an original Mayhew draftee.
The important thing is that the Lions retain one of these guys.
Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis might be ready to see more time on defense, and Ashlee Palmer has proven to be a valuable rotation player. That doesn't mean any of them are ready to step into a starting role though.
It would be a huge gamble to let both of them walk. With Mayhew and Jim Schwartz's jobs on the line, gambling doesn't seem like the best course of action.
Hill manhandling a Viking offensive lineman.
Cory Williams is a veteran, a leader and a very good run-stopping defensive tackle for the Lions. This will be his last chance to land another big contract, probably a one-year deal, and the cash-strapped Lions don't have the cap space to retain him.
Sammie Lee Hill makes him expendable. Hill is younger, cheaper and is equally proficient at stopping the run. In fact, he's one of the more underrated tackles in the NFL.
He used to be one-dimensional, but he improved his pass rush significantly last season. According to rotoworld.com, Pro Football Focus gave him a, "very solid grade in pass-rush situations," and he totaled 17 quarterback hurries.
The Lions have Suh and Fairley who are pass-rushing studs, but Hill has proven to be a reliable depth guy who has improved each year he's played.
Houston celebrating the first of his two interceptions in 2012.
Since his arrival in 2010, Chris Houston has been the Lions best cornerback. He's not a shutdown corner, but he has excellent athleticism and a penchant for making big plays.
Lions' fans have made a habit of bemoaning their teams' ongoing issues in the secondary, and that's why he's an absolute must to re-sign.
He had a down year compared with 2011, but imagine if he wasn't here?
Without Houston, the Lions are left with Bill Bentley, basically a rookie, and Jonte Green, a former sixth-round pick forced into playing time last season due to injuries.
That's not to say either of those players are bad, but no one wants to start the year with them as starters.
Houston is a veteran who has consistently performed at a high level. He's not Darrelle Revis, but he's still very good, relatively young and worthy of a new deal.
The Lions can't afford to overpay, but without him, their secondary would be a disaster.
Delmas showing his run-stopping ability.
As frustrating as Louis Delmas' career with the Lions has been so far, they can't let him go just yet.
As any fan of the Lions knows, Delmas is the heart and soul of the defense. He plays with reckless abandon, and his attitude and energy are infectious. Anyone on the defensive side of the ball will tell you that they play better when he's on the field.
When healthy, Delmas is one of the best safeties in the NFL, but his ability isn't the only reason the Lions must keep him.
If Delmas walks, they don't have anyone to take his place. Unless they plan on signing a veteran safety like Dashon Goldson or LaRon Landry, Delmas is the guy. Amari Spievey is even less reliable, and Ricardo Silva, Tyrell Johnson and John Wendling are simply not NFL-caliber starters at this point.
The Lions can take another chance on Delmas with little consequence to the salary cap. The franchise tag amount for safeties is under $6 million (nfl.com).
That's a bargain, and if he proves he can stay healthy, they can look at a long-term deal next year.
Delmas is an original Mayhew draftee whom the Lions have invested a lot in. He's also a great teammate and locker-room presence who hasn't sucker-punched anyone and doesn't have a habit of making ill-advised tweets against his team.
For that, he deserves one more year.
Avril doing what he does best.
From a financial standpoint, it's hard to say that the Lions absolutely need to re-sign Cliff Avril. They've already invested so much in Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Suh that it seems ludicrous to pay another player $10 million or more a year.
That's what it will take to retain Avril. According to nfl.com, he already turned down the Lions' three-year $30 million offer last offseason and settled for the franchise tag worth $10.6 million.
Obviously, he wants more than that.
The financial implication of re-signing Avril is a big problem, but life without him would be an even bigger one—especially with the decline and release of Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Is Ronnell Lewis ready to assume that role? Maybe one day but not right now. Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson haven't proven to be anything more than good depth guys.
If the Lions lose Avril, they're going to have to sign a free agent to replace him, and they won't find anyone his age or talent level for much less than what he's asking for anyway.
They need to find a way to work out a deal and keep Avril around.
If not, they better start investing in an elite secondary because opposing quarterbacks will have all day to pick their defense apart.