The Detroit Lions' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
It's always a challenge to project what it means for a team to "win" free agency.
Ostensibly, the concept doesn't exist, because every team has a different idea of what it means. Spending the most money? The least? More turnover or less?
Some said the Philadelphia Eagles "won" free agency in 2011, when they seemingly signed top players at every position. Two disappointing years later, they got their coach fired, and most of the players signed that season have been released or are seemingly about to be. So "winning" free agency doesn't necessarily equate to "winning" anything else.
Especially in a year where the salary cap is a major concern, free agency isn't going to be about signing the best and brightest players at each position. It is a struggle to determine who should be targeted, for how much, and where the money to sign those players should come from.
The Lions have to be smart, frugal and savvy with not only new acquisitions, but also contract terms and their own free agents. Here is the rundown of how the Lions can claim a successful free-agency period.
Let Cliff Avril Walk
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It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that the first step to a successful Detroit Lions offseason is to, in fact, do nothing at all.
But Cliff Avril was not a high-impact player for the Lions last season, and with the amount of interest he is drawing from around the league (h/t Anwar S. Richardson of MLive.com), it doesn't look like he is going to be an easy player to keep. Because of other re-signings and franchise taggings, Avril is currently one of the top defensive free agents on the market.
That means that regardless of whether his play warrants it or not, he is going to get a lot of money. The Lions certainly have a target amount that they like for Avril, but at this point, that amount is almost guaranteed to be surpassed by a team in a spending frenzy.
Rather than try to outdo another team's spending frenzy, the Lions need to stick to their own evaluation. If some team is willing to offer Avril $12 million a year and the Lions only think he's worth $8 million, then why would it make sense for the Lions to offer him $13 million?
I single out Avril for this, but it applies to all Lions free agents (especially Gosder Cherilus). The Lions are not in a position to overspend just to tread water. If one of their free agents gets overvalued on the open market, the Lions have to let them go. That's the whole point of free agency.
Eventually, those decisions will come back around, and the Lions can reap the benefits when those other teams are in salary cap hell because of overpaid, middling players (see: New York Jets, 2013).
Find a Speed Back
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What comes to mind for most here is simply Reggie Bush, and that's not a bad idea.
The core reality is simply that the Lions need to find a speed element to put in their backfield. Blount and Bush are both more capable of breaking long runs than any Lions back was last year.
Blount is younger, but his contract will only be for a year, and he's not as effective as Bush in the passing game. However, his contract will cost about half of what Bush's will, and he could be had in a trade for as little as a fifth-round draft pick. The Lions won't be able to find a back in the draft that already (like Blount) has posted a 1,000-yard season in the NFL in the fifth round, so it seems like a reasonable deal.
Bush would be more expensive, and he's older. But he's also more established, and has better hands (and agility) as a receiving target. His contract would likely go for several years, which make him a potential long-term solution, but would also make him a liability if he experiences the age-30 dropoff that characterizes most running backs.
Regardless, the Lions need somebody to come in and fill the role, and with the devaluation of running backs in today's NFL, it makes more sense to find an established option in free agency than to continue using valuable draft picks, especially since the Lions are looking for a complement to their existing backs, not someone to replace Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell.
Target Leadership and Stability
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In 2010, the Lions targeted Kyle Vanden Bosch in the first minutes of free agency. His production was never really at an elite level, but he brought effort and leadership into a locker room still trying to recover from its 0-16 reputation.
Vanden Bosch is no longer with the team, but a playoff run and hard-nosed play have at least temporarily changed the perception of the Lions away from that of "perennial loser."
The problem is, they now have the reputation of an overrated loudmouth with no discipline. To an extent, that might reflect Vanden Bosch a little, since much of his career has consisted of high-motoring his way through his limited physical abilities. But Vanden Bosch wouldn't exactly condone the Lions' recent reputation of getting into trouble on and off the field.
Through the early stages of the Lions' rebuilding phase, they had a tendency to accept talent guys with some character concerns, with the assumption that the locker room would straighten them out.
That hasn't happened much, and the Lions have to realize that having a couple of high-character guys isn't enough to lead the entire group. They need to target these players so that the locker room is made up of mostly high-character people. Right now, it's a couple of leaders, a couple of trouble guys and a bunch of quiet people.
If the Lions want to change into an organization that can get the most out of talented-but-troubled players like Titus Young, they first have to establish themselves with consistent, respected veteran leadership. That means staying away from "me-first" players for the time being.
Keep Calm and Remember That Free Agency Lasts 6 Months
A lot of people think NFL free agency is something that happens in March.
In actuality, free agency is something that happens almost all year. It only restarts in March. If early signs are any indication, the Lions may not make a lot of noise in the first week of free agency (h/t The Oakland Press).
Sometimes the smartest approach for teams in free agency is the "wait and see" approach. Free agents only sign deals immediately if they find deals that fit exactly to their specifications. That means the Lions are unlikely to sign a lot of guys quickly, because they're not in a position to offer player-friendly deals.
Much of what the Lions want out of free agency is to find players who fail to earn the big-money deals they seek out of free agency. That's how they got Stephen Tulloch and Eric Wright in the fold. That's how they re-signed Chris Houston. That's how they will hope to get guys like Louis Delmas and Sammie Hill back as well.
Year after year, we see that the teams with the least patience in free agency are the ones with the most dead cap space a few years later.
Even the Lions made early moves in 2010 free agency for Nate Burleson and Kyle Vanden Bosch. While those were necessary moves made with the intention of transforming the culture in the locker room (which was successful), here we are in 2013, with Vanden Bosch released and Burleson taking a big pay cut to stay with the team.
I'm not saying those were bad moves, because they were more about bringing leadership to the team than straight production. But they fit the mold I'm talking about here. Free-agent deals made in the first few days of the signing period generally equal wasted money.
Find a Stable Veteran at Safety
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The Lions should definitely try to re-sign Louis Delmas at safety if they can, and yes, he is technically a veteran.
But between the sporadic health of Delmas and Amari Spievey (both free agents), and the sporadically effective play by inexperienced players like Ricardo Silva and Don Carey, one has to wonder: Where, exactly, is the veteran leadership or stability in this group?
Delmas, given both his age (25 years old) and games played (13 games missed in the last two seasons) still seems a lot more like a youngster than a veteran. Sure, he is a vocal locker-room leader, and he is apparently healthy enough to be drawing interest from a number of teams according to Anwar S. Richardson of MLive.com.
But what the Lions need at safety is stability. Even an average safety who plays 16 games is better than the mishmash the Lions have had to deal with to this point.
Gerald Sensabaugh (Cowboys), Chris Crocker (Bengals) and Adrian Wilson (Cardinals) are all players over age 30 who are not at the top of this free-agent class, but each can still play at a reasonable level. They could come cheap and give the Lions real stability at the safety position, but they're not likely to be long-term answers.
That's OK. The long-term answer for the Lions at safety could already be on the team, if Spievey or Silva develop into starting-quality players. But if they don't, it would be exceptionally useful for the Lions to have a fallback option that doesn't change every three weeks.
Keep the Talented Role Players
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Sammie Hill, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young could, conceivably, start for some teams. They might not all be very good right away, but they'd be better than some.
Regardless, there shouldn't be too many teams looking to come after them with a starter-like salary, given how sparingly they've seen the field in recent years. With any luck, that means the Lions should be able to retain them in their current roles with an appropriate salary.
Jackson and Young may even see their roles increase considerably, with Kyle Vanden Bosch off the team and the considerable likelihood that Cliff Avril will follow suit in a few days. Likewise, the potential loss of Corey Williams in free agency could increase Hill's role as well.
The Lions already moved to lock up safety Don Carey and linebacker/special teamer Ashlee Palmer, because they were affordable and played a valuable role while maintaining a little upside. More moves like this should be on the horizon.
Sometimes the best moves in free agency are the most subtle, and with well over 20 free agents on the market this year, the Lions are likely to need to pull off a lot of "subtlety" this offseason.