With the NFL Scouting Combine recently completed, all the current talk in the NFL is focused on the upcoming draft. But there's an equally important, much closer event approaching.
On March 12, the Lions will join 31 other teams in the league's annual money-slinging free-agency cycle. Some teams will stay quiet, while some make huge splashes with big contracts only to regret them in two years.
The Lions have some of the biggest decisions to make yet in the Mayhew/Schwartz administration. Some of their earliest decisions and draft picks are coming back around, and they have to decide whether to renew contracts or admit those picks weren't good enough for new contracts.
Likewise, there are players on the market currently that the Lions have (or could have) interest in. With the salary cap becoming a major issue, any decisions they make are going to have a lot to do with the kind of money involved.
That said, the Lions have already stated an interest in getting involved in free agency, and that doesn't just mean re-signing players and looking for table scraps on one-year deals.
So if the Lions are going to be active in free agency, they're going to have to avoid the pitfalls that come with it. These are some of the biggest "don'ts" for them in 2013.
Guys like Cliff Avril, Chris Houston, Gosder Cherilus and Louis Delmas have been core pieces for the Lions for the past several years. There is little doubt the Lions would like to keep each of them under team-friendly terms.
But free agency isn't about team-friendly terms, it's about teams fighting with each other to lure people with the most player-friendly contracts.
Herein lies the problem with free agency (and the reason most successful teams tend to stay out of it). The Lions are looking at a whole bunch of players who have been (and could continue to be) impact players, but those same players could also make impacts with other teams. And so free agency begins.
What the Lions need to watch out for is overpayment, and that really holds true for the entire offseason. Last season, (some) Lions fans lamented the loss of Eric Wright, who landed a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the Lions were never going to pay that much for Wright, so they let him go.
This year, the Lions stand to lose much bigger, longer-term, arguably more important starters. And there may be a team out there—as in the case with Wright—willing to pay way more for one of them than what the Lions have in mind. In that case, the wrong thing for the Lions to do is to go all out to keep that player.
The Lions know, more than anyone else, what their impending free agents are worth. If another team is willing to pay more than that, the Lions' loss of a player will pale in comparison to the other team's overcommitment of cash.
The Lions would surely like to keep some of their impact starters, if only to stay on the right side of the "transition/rebuilding" line. Ultimately, they need to remember that their goal this offseason is not to retain their own players; it's to sign the most effective players for the most reasonable money.
Okay, so I just said the Lions would like to keep some of their starters. What I didn't say is that they need to aim for a replay of 2012, in which they sunk all their resources into keeping the same team.
Change is good, and necessary, for any NFL team. The Lions tried to keep basically the same team between 2011 and 2012, and the result was a six-game regression.
They may like their players, but they also have to recognize that the group as assembled wasn't getting the job done in 2012. Now, that's no reason to dump the whole team and start over, so the Lions instead need to find a middle ground.
That middle ground is making those tough decisions on which players are worth keeping, and which should be replaced. It won't be all one or the other, and money will be a big factor. In some cases, the Lions have to be willing to decide that last year's starter may not be worth bringing back, affordable or not.
Whether that means they'll sign a different player to fill the role, or rely on young developmental projects taking the next step, only the Lions know. But the team won't get anywhere unless they get at least that far.
With Stephen Peterman off the team and Gosder Cherilus headed for free agency, the Detroit Lions have developed some needs on the offensive line.
Now, there are plenty of calls for the Lions to sign an elite-tier guard like Buffalo's Andy Levitre, or to draft one like Alabama's Chance Warmack. I'm fine with either idea, assuming the Lions are willing to spend the resources to make it happen.
The other option the Lions have is to fill their impending openings internally with players like Bill Nagy or Rodney Austin. It's also fine if they want to spend a late draft pick on a developmental project lineman.
That's like spending money to slow team development. If the Lions are willing to move forward with iffy line play, the least they can do is develop and play the guys they have on the roster. It'll be cheaper and will give the Lions an opportunity to find some diamonds in the rough.
The Lions have a whole bunch of money committed to a few players, and about a couple-dozen free agents to take care of.
How does it happen that the Lions have so many players slated for free agency this year? Simple. In the last two years, the Lions have rarely signed a player to more than a one- or two-year deal.
Now, to the team's credit, that's not a one-sided decision. Several players, like the aforementioned Eric Wright, have signed short-term "stock-boosting" deals with the Lions in the interest of giving free agency another go after putting some more solid tape on file. They likely wouldn't have signed multi-year deals at the same rate.
Also, part of the reason the Lions' front office made these calls in the first place is because they knew salary-cap trouble was in their future, so they wanted to stay versatile. Better to have players go into free agency after a couple of years than be $30 million over the salary cap and have to cut players out of long-term contracts (which results in wasted, or "dead" cap money).
Still, this is a problem that perpetuates itself. The easiest way for the Lions to refill their roster is sign a bunch more one-year contracts at bargain prices. But then next year they return to this exact spot. Worse yet, the players that actually played well on their one-year deals are free to go sign megadeals somewhere else, leaving only the mediocre and awful players behind.
Free agency is always a gamble, and the Lions have attempted to mitigate those gambles with short contracts. This year, they need to hand out more deals of three to five years in length and trust that their personnel department has identified players that are worth it.
The Green Bay Packers released 36-year-old Charles Woodson, and eyebrows in Detroit went straight up.
He could help, right? How could a future Hall of Famer possibly be any worse than the guys in the Lions' secondary right now?
Simple. He could cost as much as the entire secondary unit combined, and be a 36-year-old cornerback/safety. Sure, maybe he can still get it done, but future Hall of Famers don't come cheap to a team that went 4-12 last year. Bringing him to Detroit would only be good for paying a lot of money to see a great talent bottom out.
The same is true (though to a lesser extent) of other players whose names are bigger than their current level of play. Dwight Freeney will get paid good money this year, despite being 33 and coming off an injury-plagued year. He could also be off the map by age 35.
Now, I'm all for bringing veteran experience onto a team, but it has to be done intelligently. Picking up guys with All-Star reputations in the twilight of their careers works very rarely, and almost always costs too much.
Hey, did you hear? Randy Moss and Pacman Jones are free agents this year. Maybe they could ...
Theoretically, these are both players that fit within the Lions' needs. They need a downfield receiver (granted, Moss isn't one of these anymore) and a solid cover cornerback. They've both been relatively quiet in terms of off-field distractions or issues recently, and could be cheap pickups.
And yet, are the Lions really the kind of team that wants to make headlines for signing Pacman Jones? Or even Aqib Talib? For two years now, the Lions have been the team most talked about in terms of undisciplined players, both on and off the field.
If this was only a media talking point, that would be one thing. But it is coming to the point of distraction. The "dirty play" and off-field issues are the first storyline attached to the Lions in the national media. This is to the point that Ndamukong Suh sparked a month-long debate by falling over another lineman.
The Lions no longer get the benefit of the doubt on or off the field, and the Lions signing guys with checkered pasts or personality flaws would be tantamount to admitting to and accepting the team's perceived attitude problem.
Even if guys like Jones and Talib are reformed and ready to move forward with their football lives, they're still not what the Lions need. The Lions need veteran leaders in the locker room, not guys who just barely might avoid tearing it to pieces.
We haven't seen a whole lot of Shaun Hill in recent years, and that's a good thing.
Matthew Stafford has managed to stay healthy enough to start 32 straight games despite a rocky start to his pro career and numerous injuries in 2011 and 2012.
Because Stafford has played so consistently, it is tempting to look at his salary-cap figure (just over $3 million in 2013) and wonder if the Lions might not be better able to use that money elsewhere. Better yet, perhaps the Lions could even pick up a draft pick in compensation for Hill.
Perish the thought, here and now. While it's true that the best-case scenario for the Lions is paying Hill to sit the bench, that doesn't mean he represents millions in wasted money.
What Hill represents is something the Lions have lacked for decades: quarterback stability. Hill isn't a franchise quarterback by any stretch (which is a big reason why he's not worth trading), but he has proven, year after year, that he can get the job done when his number is called.
Having Hill on the team means if the Lions are 6-5, and Stafford misses a game or three with injury, the Lions don't have to hang up their season. That happens sometimes, you know.
Ultimately, Hill is the perfect kind of backup quarterback. He plays well when needed, and doesn't threaten the starter otherwise. It's stable and effective. No controversy, no distractions, no question marks.
No reason to make a change.