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Projecting Detroit Lions' NFL Free-Agent Targets

Chris MaddenAnalyst IIMarch 6, 2013

Projecting Detroit Lions' NFL Free-Agent Targets

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    The NFL's free-agency period for 2013 is just around the corner, and if general manager Martin Mayhew speaks the truth, the Detroit Lions will be major players for a change.

    In early February, he told Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com this:

    We were non-players in free agency last year. We need to make some changes. Obviously, things aren't going in the right direction. I don't think they went in the right direction last year. We've got to make some changes and have to improve our roster, and we'll definitely make some moves in that direction.

    To quote the great Sam Cooke, "It's been a long, a long time comin, but I know a change is gonna come."

    Fans of the Lions will be singing that chorus all offseason if Mayhew is active in free agency. They suffered through 2012, an inexplicable failure, and are fed up with the status quo and promises of more.

    The Lions need to win now, not only because NFL windows close quickly, but because if they don't win, Mayhew and Jim Schwartz will likely lose their jobs.

    If that happens, it's back to square one and no one wants that.

    It all starts on March 12, the beginning of free agency. The Lions will re-sign some of their own, Mayhew's shooting for nine, according to Twentyman, but they'll look elsewhere too. Fans will want to see the big-name signings, but the Lions will do well if they simply add players who offer solid depth at a reasonable price. 

    Given Detroit's salary-cap situation, that's really all the team can do at this point.

    It shapes up to be an exciting time as the Lions could add several new faces as they gear up for an improved season in 2013.

    Here are 10 projected free-agent targets that represent the biggest positions of need for the Lions.

    * All stats are courtesy ESPN.

7. Sebastian Vollmer, OT

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    I'll start off with a guy that I mentioned last December in this article. Sebastian Vollmer is a relatively young tackle, 28, who bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 campaign and had a very solid 2012 season.

    In fact, he was better than solid. His performance led NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal to rank him the No. 2 free agent this offseason, trailing only Mike Wallace.

    The Patriots will likely use some of that cap space created by Tom Brady's restructured deal to sign Vollmer, but there's no guarantee. It would be a coup if the Lions stole him away from Hoodie and the Patriots. They could certainly use a rock-solid right tackle like him.

    Especially since last season's starter, Gosder Cherilus, could be on his way out the door. It might surprise Lions fans but "The Gos" had himself a pretty good year. That means he might be looking for a substantial payday, and he won't get that in Detroit.

    Vollmer could step right in and start for him which would allow Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round pick last year, to start next to him at right guard.

    Signing Vollmer would also make drafting a tackle this year irrelevant, but there's a good chance Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher will be off the board before the Lions select anyway.

    Vollmer fits a need, and he's the best tackle available on the open market. If the Lions can create enough cap space by restructuring Matthew Stafford's deal, they might actually have a chance to sign him.

6. Martellus Bennett, TE

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    Lions TE Will Heller is as blue collar as they come. He does the dirty work, does it well and doesn't expect a lot of fan fare. He's also a free agent, and as valuable as he's been to the Lions, they could upgrade his position.

    He's limited offensively, and his 92 receptions and 12 touchdowns in 10 years is testament to that.

    Martellus Bennett could be the upgrade the Lions are looking for, and the New York Giants appear to be content with letting him walk. At least according to Bennett, who took to Twitter and wrote this (from NFL.com):

    I've come to the conclusion that we are just temporary investments to the owners, they have other priorities that come before little ole me. I'm just a small piece of what they're trying to do there.

    Bennett is coming off his best season—55 receptions, 626 yards and five touchdowns—but he's not elite. Regardless, the Giants would be crazy to let him go.

    He's an effective blocker and he proved last season that with the right quarterback he can be an effective offensive weapon as well. He's a big body with above-average athleticism, and he could give the Lions the red-zone threat they so desperately need—since Brandon Pettigrew seems incapable of filling that role.

    The Lions might be able to get him for only slightly more than his current $2.5 million, one-year salary, and that's not bad for a guy who could emerge as a primary target. 

5. Kenny Phillips, S

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    Anyone who's paid attention to the Lions during the Mayhew/Schwartz era knows they've had bad luck with injuries. Several of their draftees have been significantly impacted by injuries, and it's effected the Lions' success on the field.  

    For that reason, most fans hope the Lions avoid any player with an injury history like the plague.

    Then again, this is the NFL. A player without an injury history is like a golden ticket in a Willie Wonka chocolate bar—rare and extremely valuable.

    That's why the Lions should take a chance on Kenny Phillips. He's only 26 years old and he's a very good safety, when he's on the field. In 2011, he racked up 82 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble.

    The drawback is that he's missed 24 games in five seasons, primarily in 2009 and 2012, due to knee issues.

    Sounds familiar doesn't it?

    Suggesting the Lions target another unreliable safety given their history with Louis Delmas gives me heartburn, but facts are facts. They don't have the resources to make any big-splash signings, so Phillips is the type of player they will have to target.

    His injury problems will drive down his price, and the Lions will get a steal. Of course it's a risk, but Phillips has a history of bouncing back.

    In 2009, he missed all but two games and had to undergo microfracture surgery on his knee. He came back and put together two excellent years in 2010 and 2011. He missed nine games last year, so maybe he's due for another healthy stretch. Now would be the perfect time for the Lions to bring him aboard.

4. Keenan Lewis, CB

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    The Lions defensive backfield is once again in flux, so targeting a quality cornerback via free agency this offseason is a must.

    The biggest question is Chris Houston. He's hands down the best corner the Lions have, but he's a free agent. He should be a priority signing for them, but if another team is willing to break the bank for him, Detroit won't match it.

    He's not an elite cover man and the Lions can't afford to pay him like one.

    His absence would hurt, though. Without him, they'd be forced to rely on a handful of marginal pros and three second-year players. Two of which, Bill Bentley and Chris Greenwood, have only played in a combined four NFL games.

    Keenan Lewis is 26 years old and has improved each year he's been in the NFL. Last season was his best, and he was arguably the Steelers best defensive back. He didn't record a single interception, but that was just bad luck.

    He had 23 pass defends, which was second only to Richard Sherman of the Seahawks

    Lewis added 56 tackles as well, and at 6'0" and 208 lbs, he has the big frame the Lions are looking for. His best is yet to come, and he's already proven he can play.

    Why roll the dice on an unproven cornerback in the draft? The Lions should solidify their secondary with proven talent so that they can better defend themselves against the likes of Aaron Rogers and Jay Cutler

3. Andy Levitre, OG

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    Andy Levitre is another guy I targeted for Detroit last December. He's smart, starts every game, has played every position on the line, is never hurt and works his tail off.

    Basically, he's consistently very good, but not great and clearly not elite. 

    Yet he's going to look for an elite-type of payday this offseason, and his ability to get that will impact the Lions' chances of landing him. 

    The Bills don't appear to be in a hurry to sign him, and that fact has left Levitre guessing about his future. He recently told Tim Graham of The Buffalo News the following:

    I'm in limbo right now. I don't know what their plan is...there's a week and a half for them to work a deal out with me. But I haven't been offered anything yet. We're waiting around to see if something will pop up. It would be in the Bills' best interests to at least throw me an offer to see if we can get this thing rolling. There's a lot of unknown for me

    That doesn't sound like a happy camper, and his situation could be a good omen for the Lions and every other team in need of offensive line help. 

    With Levitre, the Lions would add a sure-fire starter for years, and his versatility would give them tremendous flexibility on the offensive line.

2. Michael Bennett, DE

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    The Lions announced Wednesday that they signed one of their key free agents on defense: linebacker DeAndre Levy (ESPN). That's certainly good news, but as good as Levy is, he's probably the least significant of the Lions' free agents.

    Cliff Avril, on the other hand, is the most significant. Detroit's defense struggled to get consistent pressure with him on the field last season. Without him, they'll be lucky to be 2013's version of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    I've already suggested the Lions take a look at Martellus Bennett to upgrade tight end, so why not check out his brother Michael for defensive end help? He's actually one year older than Avril, although he's been in the NFL one year less, and he's coming off the best season of his career.

    He recorded nine sacks, forced three fumbles and added 41 tackles. If that sounds eerily familiar it's because it's nearly identical to Avril's stat line last year.

    Avril's done it for three straight years, and that apparently entitles him to a substantial payday. Bennett hasn't reached that level yet. His emergence has flown under the radar, and that means the Lions could get him for less than Avril's $10 million price tag last year.

    Bennett's not the big name fans probably want, but the truth is he's what the cash-strapped Lions can afford right now. Plus he's only 27, and his best years are still ahead of him.

    He makes significantly more sense than signing an aging veteran well past his prime like Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora.

1. Reggie Bush, RB

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    The Lions need to find speed out of the backfield. It's the biggest factor impacting their ability to get back into the playoffs next season, and Reggie Bush is seemingly the perfect fit.

    He's no spring chicken, but he's still fast and he could give the Lions the home run threat they've lacked since Jahvid Best went down in 2011.

    Bush would be a great fit, but there's no guarantee he'd sign with Detroit. Why would a SoCal guy playing in Miami want to brave the frigid grayness of Detroit? He probably wouldn't, and that's why I'm not getting my hopes up about him coming to town.

    Here's more bad news. There's not another running back available in free agency that fits what the Lions need. They already have two traditional rushers in Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell, but they need a change-of-pace back. Bush is the only one available.

    If the Lions can't sign him, they'll have to get a burner in the draft unless they think Leshoure will regain some of that speed he lost following his Achilles injury.

    Keep in mind, the Lions' cap scenario is tenuous. A deal worth $4 million per year is probably their ceiling for Bush. He's bound to get more elsewhere.

    With that said, if there's any magic left in Martin Mayhew's wand, he should use it to sign Bush.

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