The Detroit Lions may not be in quite as bad a salary cap situation as some teams, but they are unique in that they have both salary cap concerns, and concerns about a sheer plethora of free agents.
The Lions are losing a bunch of players to free agency, and it's difficult to say which of them they'll move to keep and which they'll try to replace.
Of course, that won't stop me from trying.
Of course, the big problem here is that it's impossible to tell which bottom-tier free agents the Lions might be interested in signing to one-year deals for depth purposes, and that is likely to be a major part of what the Lions do in free agency.
But even in 2012, when the Lions were total non-players in free agency, they managed to sign Stephen Tulloch to a long-term deal. This year, they have much more to fix and not an awful lot of money to do it. It's going to be difficult, and it's likely going to require more salary cap space than the Lions currently have.
Therefore, any contracts predicted herein will consist of at least two years or more and will assume that the Lions are able to find more money under the salary cap, be that by restructuring, cuts or whatever else they need to do.
With that all out of the way, here are the most likely free-agent targets for Detroit from both on and off the 2012 Lions squad. And just to start off, we can go ahead and strike Gosder Cherilus off that list with the recent re-signing of Corey Hilliard.
While perhaps not the flashiest or biggest impact signing the Lions have on the docket this offseason, Justin Durant is perhaps one of the most likely players to make it back to Detroit.
Neither Durant nor DeAndre Levy are likely future Pro Bowlers in any sense, but both are solid, consistent starters in a unit full of hots and colds. The difference between the two is that Durant has consistently taken to the media to express his dislike of free agency and his desire to remain a Detroit Lion. That generally means team-friendly contract terms.
The Lions should want to keep Durant in the fold, unless they have their eyes elsewhere or are willing to take a leap of faith with second-year players Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis.
Durant just finished a two-year, $5.5 million contract, and he neither underperformed nor outperformed that deal. If the Lions can get him back under similar terms, they likely will.
Projected Contract: 3 years, $8 million
Everyone knows the decision the Lions have to make on Louis Delmas. It's either let his immense athleticism and potential go to a different team, or bet on him being healthy enough to realize them.
The franchise tag seems like the ideal way to keep Delmas around in a low-risk situation while they wait to see if he can put a healthy season together. But the franchise tag is really expensive, and ultimately, is Delmas really worth it?
Yes, Delmas plays well when he physically can. But what has he done to make him franchise-worthy? Put differently, would any other team pay just under $7 million for Delmas? Has he made Pro Bowls? Led the team in interceptions or tackles? Played more than a handful of games in a row?
Teams don't pay out big money in free agency for potential; they pay for proven talent. Delmas isn't that yet, because part of talent is being physically capable of showing it. Delmas isn't so far gone that the Lions should give up on him, but he hasn't shown enough yet for them to overpay to keep him. Short-term and affordable should work for both player and team here.
Projected Contract: 2 years, $6 million
You have to kind of feel for Reggie Bush.
He thought he was taking bottom dollar to prove himself on a two-year deal in Miami, and after putting up a pair of career years, he's looking to go back on the market and earn himself a raise from his $4.5 million base salary in 2012.
Yet because of the tumbling market for running backs, Bush may still be looking at a pay cut, through no fault of his own.
The day of the franchise running back is mostly over. Talents like Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster, who touch the ball 30 times a game and change the complexion of the offense, are simply too hard to find. Consequently, teams are increasingly looking for backs with one skill and using them for specific situations.
The "every-down back" is largely a thing of the past, and despite two solid seasons acting as one in Miami, it's unlikely that anyone dishes out more than $6 million a year to the 28-year-old Bush on a long-term contract.
In fact, Bush will likely have a lot more longevity in the league if he returns to the role he had in New Orleans. That's what is waiting for him in Detroit, should he make that call.
That said, there will be a market for Bush's services, and the Lions aren't going to be able to bid him up very much. The Lions have already said they're interested, and his skill set fits what the Lions need perfectly. The only question is price.
Given how close Bush is to the 30-year-old threshold, after which running backs magically stop being useful, the Lions could try to give him a lower base salary with more years in an attempt to lure him in with security. This is likely to be the last truly lucrative contract Bush signs in the NFL, after all.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $19 million
The Lions have few needs this offseason more pressing than those in the secondary, and Chris Houston sits at the top of that pile of questions.
Many say that the veteran is a good No. 2 cornerback, but can't keep up with the league's elite receivers.
Well yeah, sure. Most corners can't, regardless of where they fall on the depth chart. The true "shutdown" corner is about as rare a breed as the "feature" running back. It's lucky if there's even one shutdown cornerback to be had in a given draft.
As a result, cover corners get paid. For work that even approaches general competence, teams line up to dish out cash. Chris Houston has held his own as a top corner for three years in Detroit, improving each year. Now he's a free agent in his late 20s, and he'll be (rightfully) looking to cash in.
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor's base salary in 2013 is set to be about $6 million according to rotoworld.com, and he matches up fairly well with Houston. Both play as top corners, but neither is really respected as such. They're good, and they quietly get their jobs done, but they don't play with a lot of flash.
But this is the nature of today's NFL. In a passing league, competent corners are a highly valuable asset. If the Lions don't pay up, somebody else will, and then the Lions will end up sinking an equal amount of money into a lesser replacement.
This deal will sting the Lions in the cap department, but it will ultimately be a sound long-term investment, giving the Lions the ability to develop their future starter(s) from the pool of Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green.
Projected Contract: 5 Years, $34 million
This is a veritable fan-favorite pickup this offseason, so I would be remiss not to mention him. There is no doubt that Levitre would represent a major, immediate upgrade to the Lions' offensive line.
There is even less doubt that he would cost more than almost any of the Lions' other free-agent targets, despite playing a position of relatively little significance.
I like Levitre the player, and he would be great in Detroit, but the money situation, Bill Nagy's presence on the roster and a 2013 draft chock full of interior line talent seem to point to this not happening.
That being said, none of this will stop the Lions from kicking the tires. There's absolutely no harm in knocking on the door and making an offer, and considering the Lions have a major gap at right guard right now, any attempt they make at a star guard will be a welcome one.
However, the Lions' ability to get Levitre in the fold likely depends on their ability to hook him with a relatively modest deal. Another team with more to spend is likely to outbid them (think Tampa Bay and Carl Nicks in 2012).
If the Lions could reasonably hook Levitre, the deal would probably look something like this:
Projected Contract: 4 years, $27 million
The Lions are not in what you would call a "comfortable" situation with their defensive ends. More like a post-apocalyptic state.
Literally, there is one defensive end under contract right now: Ronnell Lewis, who played one (!) snap with the defense in his rookie season.
Kyle Vanden Bosch is already off the team, which puts the Lions down one starter. Cliff Avril, meanwhile, is likely to feast on the open market, which should be hungry for pass-rushers now that the Bengals have reportedly removed Michael Johnson from bidding considerations.
Keeping Lawrence Jackson is a safety-valve move and literally the least the Lions could do for their defensive end situation. Jackson has been a decent rotational lineman for the Lions, and it could be that they'll rely on him to take on a starter's role this year. It remains to be seen whether he can handle the role, but at least he'll be affordable in it.
Projected Contract: 2 years, $5 million
One of the Lions' most under-the-radar (and yet perhaps most important) free agents is Sammie Hill, the quietly solid defensive tackle.
While Hill lacks the explosive athleticism of Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley, he provides a space-eating alternative to both players and arguably a much stronger force in the run game.
Since the Lions' defensive scheme relies on the ability to swap bodies up front with little drop-off in talent, Hill's significance to the team is far more than your average reserve lineman. The Lions currently have both Hill and Corey Williams headed for free agency.
Between the two, Hill is six years younger and likely a lot cheaper. That makes him the most likely target for the Lions. Much of what the Lions pay Hill will be predicated on what other teams see in him. It's possible that some DT-strapped team could see a fringe starter in Hill, which will make this process much more difficult.
Projected Contract: 3 years, $8 million
Of the players on this list, this is one of the most speculative.
There has been little out of the Lions' camp to indicate that they are interested in Massaquoi, but he does fit the profile of what the Lions would look for in a free agent.
The Lions need a wide receiver—one with size and downfield ability. Massaquoi has that, but has been inconsistent over his career. The Lions could take a chance on him for relatively cheap as a potential "square peg," and they wouldn't need to rely on him to produce to have a successful offense.
Massaquoi is one of those guys who obviously has talent—he just hasn't put it all together yet. Being 26 years old and having spent his entire NFL career catching passes from the like of Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace, he may get the benefit of the doubt this offseason,
Still, it makes more sense for Massaquoi to take a short-term deal with a different team (read: anyone other than Cleveland) to establish himself, then look for another team to make his fortune with. And if you're a free-agent wide receiver looking for an opportunity to establish yourself with statistics, why not try to land on a team that has thrown for 10,000 yards in the last two years, and has the best receiver in football pulling all the coverage?
It makes sense for Massaquoi to try breathing some life into his career in this situation, and it makes sense for the Lions to give him the opportunity.
Projected Contract: 2 years, $6 million