The Biggest Offseason Priorities for the Detroit Lions
Think there's a sense of urgency in Detroit?
General manager Martin Mayhew addressed the team's need for playmakers in early January, hinting there could be major changes to the roster. No playmakers have been added, but the Detroit Lions have begun the process of saving money and opening positions for younger and better talent.
The Lions have a long multi-step blueprint on how to get this franchise on track. One offseason won't complete Detroit's turnaround, but this is a pivotal year to recover.
Here are the top priorities of the Lions' 2013 offseason.
1. Salary-Cap Stability
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The Lions approached this offseason with very slim breathing room with their salary cap. With their latest team decision, they managed to find a little more wiggle room.
Detroit made a gutsy decision to cut (via Chris McCosky of The Detroit News) right guard Stephen Peterman and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. They were two aging players with expensive price tags the Lions could afford to get rid of. By releasing Peterman and Vanden Bosch, Detroit shaved about $8.5 million in cap space.
After these positive financial steps, are the Lions finished saving? Players like tackle Jeff Backus, center Dominic Raiola and receiver Nate Burleson could face the same fate as their former teammates soon.
Raiola is set for a $6.3 million cap hit this year. Backus is reaching the end of his career at 36 years old and in the last season of his contract. Burleson is coming off a season-ending leg injury and is owed over $13 million through the next two years.
Players like Backus are expendable at this point of his career with young tackles Riley Reiff and Jason Fox in the mix to start. Raiola and Burleson are more difficult decisions with the lack of depth at their position and veteran presence in the locker room. The Lions will have to decide their future with the franchise soon enough.
2. Player Development
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The Lions have plenty of unexperienced players who must develop next season. Instead of having a bunch of backups, Detroit must groom their young talent into serviceable role players or starters.
Winning franchises like Green Bay have turned players such as rookie cornerback Casey Hayward into a budding star. Hayward intercepted six passes in his first season as a Packer. Lions' cornerback Bill Bentley only managed to play in four games this season due to injuries and struggled to make strides as a starter.
Fellow rookie Jonte Green saw more action than expected this season due to a banged up secondary. He slowly progressed throughout the year, but was never a standout player for the Lions.
Bentley, Green and the rest of the 2012 draft class will likely see bigger roles with the Lions next season.
Defensive back Chris Greenwood, defensive lineman Ronnell Lewis and linebackers Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis each saw very limited action on the defense or missed significant time due to injury. They each must be incorporated into the defense come next season.
Tackle Riley Reiff will likely be a starter next season at one of the tackle positions.
With right guard Stephen Peterman gone and right tackle Gosder Cherilus likely leaving through free agency (via tweet from Dave Birkett of Detroit Free Press), young lineman like undrafted rookie Rodney Austin and former Dallas Cowboy Bill Nagy will have a chance to break into the rotation as well.
The Lions have also seen brief glimpses from 2011 draftees Nick Fairley and Mikel Leshoure. However, Fairley has dealt with a number of injuries since his rookie year, negating his ability to evolve. Leshoure also showed signs of impatience and issues with fumbling after losing three this past season.
Detroit has established their core players, but need their young talent to break through. Franchises build success through the NFL draft, and Martin Mayhew needs some of his mid-to-late round picks to pay off.
3. NFL Draft
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General manager Martin Mayhew has found success through easy draft picks like quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But outside those two, Mayhew doesn't have much to show on his resumé.
The Detroit Lions will select fifth in the 2013 NFL draft. There is plenty of first-round talent available, but not many sure players who unquestionably deserve to be drafted in the top five. This selection won't be easy for Mayhew and the Lions, but he must strike gold.
The Lions will stick with their best-available draft philosophy but still have needs at defensive end, cornerback, safety, wide receiver and offensive line.
Popular names that can address these needs are defensive end Bjoern Werner, cornerback Dee Milner or offensive tackle Eric Fisher. Detroit can also find mid-round talent with players like safety Eric Reid, linemen Barrett Jones and wide receiver Emory Blake.
4. Free Agency
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There aren't many attractive names the Lions should entertain in free agency. One player who might be worth pursuing this offseason is defensive end Michael Johnson, the 6'7" Cincinnati Bengal who finished 2012 with 11.5 sacks. His price of departure could be too expensive for the Lions' pocketbook, however.
Even if there were impressive free agents on the market, the Lions won't succeed this offseason, overspending in bidding wars. Franchises progress through the draft, not free agency. Ask the Philadelphia Eagles "Dream Team" for proof.
That brings the free-agent listing back to Detroit where there are 27 players in search of a contract next season. The most significant names on that list are safety Louis Delmas, defensive end Cliff Avril, cornerback Chris Houston and starting linebackers DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant.
Delmas and Houston are two of the best playmakers on Detroit's roster. However, Delmas' health is the ultimate factor in his option of returning to the Lions. Detroit plays at a higher motor and can take more gambles with Delmas in the lineup. Delmas is a prime candidate for the franchise tag, but the Lions have already stated they don't plan to use it.
Houston should get plenty of other offers around the league, but the Lions can't afford to let him go. He's not a shutdown cornerback, but Houston has picked off eight passes in three seasons with the Lions. In Atlanta, Houston only totaled three interceptions in three seasons as a Falcon.
With the low amount of depth at cornerback, the Lions need Houston back. Detroit can't afford to begin the season with Bill Bentley as their No. 1 cornerback.
Avril will still be in search of a long-term contract. However, I think now is a good time for the Lions and Avril to part ways. Detroit can upgrade at left defensive end, and Avril can chase his contract elsewhere with a different team.
Durant has expressed his interest to stay in Detroit, but he and/or Levy could be playing in different uniforms next season. Durant had a career-high 82 tackles this season, but wasn't much of a playmaker at linebacker. He and Levy always wound up making the right tackle after allowing the opposition to make a catch or advance upfield.
The Lions are better off saving money and allowing their young linebackers Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis to take over instead of bringing back Levy and Durant.