The Detroit Lions will probably not be big players in free agency this season due to their tight fit with the salary cap. Apart from returning some key players and trying to bring in Reggie Bush, there has been little talk about their targets this off season and less talks about players that the Lions could realistically target, instead focusing on pipe dreams like Andy Levitre and Kenny Phillips.
However, in this article I hope to bring to attention four cheap players whom the Lions should be able to sign without breaking the bank, and who have the skills to be very good players for Detroit.
Michael Bennett is the biggest diamond in the rough in this year's crop of free agents. He has never drawn a lot of attention for his play and seems to not be valued that highly by his or other teams around the league. Despite this, for three seasons he has been one of the very best run stopping defensive ends in the NFL, and has shown flashes of special pass rushing talent that, if realized, would make him a top five all-around defensive end, without a doubt.
Bennett is still young at 27 years old, and has developed a very good feel for the game—a great technique to overcome his slightly limited athleticism. This was the reason why he was not a high draft pick coming out of college, but the all-around game that he has developed is worthy of a good salary—although it will probably not be over the top like many defensive ends (including Cliff Avril) will be getting.
Bennett's skill set would also be very valuable for the Lions defensive line. The Wide 9 focuses on getting the defensive ends outside the offensive tackle, and this means that they need to be good run defenders to be able to fight back inside on off-tackle runs, or to shed the block and stop outside carries. This was a big Achilles' heel of the 2012 Detroit defense, and Michael Bennett's elite run defense should really help this.
Also, putting him in a Wide 9 defense might help him become a more consistent pass rusher. As of yet, he has failed to dominate really good offensive tackles, but giving him training from a guru like Jim Washburn and perching him beside a defensive tackle tandem like Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley should really help his development into an every-down dominator.
Contract Prediction: Five years, $27 million
The Lions are already looking for a replacement scatback for Jahvid Best, but they could also do with another runner to share the load and take some of Mikel Leshoure's carries. He was very unproductive last season, and the only other running back with any experience currently on the roster is Joique Bell. While impressive in 2012, he lacks the pedigree to be a sure thing just yet. Therefore, the Lions would do well to snap up a young and relatively unused power back who could become the best pure runner on their team.
Chris Ivory has spent a lot of time in New Orleans behind a bevy of heralded running backs like Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. As such, he was limited to just 68 snaps last season. Despite his lack of playing time, he has been a real nightmare for defenses whenever he has touched the ball. For his career he averages five yards per carry and, according to Pro Football Focus, he has forced more missed tackles per carry than Adrian Peterson. Why then, is he a low-interest free agent? Because he is one dimensional. He is a bad pass protector and also lacks the skills to operate as a receiver. However, put the ball in his hands and he is one of the most powerful runners in the league who reminds me of Marshawn Lynch.
Chris Ivory will not pull a large price tag, which means that the Lions would be able to add him to their running back rotation. This would help cover his limitations in the passing game, give the Lions a big, physical between-the-tackles ball carrier with no fumbling issues and a track record for wearing down defenses and breaking tackles. He could go a long way to giving Matthew Stafford a running game.
Contract Prediction: Two years, $4 million
Adam Jones has reformed his image and also his game, and is now a very solid cornerback and return man—both are positions the Lions are looking to fill this offseason. The Lions have a lot of young talent at the CB position, but lack a viable NFL starter for the here-and-now to play opposite Chris Houston, and this is something that the 29-year-old Jones can provide. Also, the Lions should be looking to move on from Stefan Logan this offseason, and Jones' ability to return kicks at a good level would be an added bonus.
Jones is well known for his character issues when with Tennessee, but for the Bengals he has been nothing but a model citizen. This in itself could be a valuable asset for a Lions roster that seems to be full of young men who are not making great decisions. Jones has the life experience to set them straight.
However, the main reason to sign Adam Jones is his coverage ability. Last season he was one of the better corners in the NFL, and his combination of athleticism and technique makes him a hard man to beat. Jones is great in press coverage, which is something that the Lions like to use to take advantage of their pass rush, and he also has the versatility to cover slot receivers due to his quickness. He is not a great tackler and his ball skills are not great, but he will stick to his man and can generally stop receivers from taking over a game. What's more, as a number two cornerback he should generally be able to win his match ups. To me he is a no-brainer addition.
Predicted Contract: Three years, $10 million
Geoff Schwartz has always been a favorite of mine, which stems from his quality play in 2011 for the Carolina Panthers as both right guard and right tackle, which earned him a plus 12.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. However, his last two seasons have seen him not see the field for any significant snaps because of injuries and roster battles. However, if given the starting gig, he is young enough and skilled enough to reassert himself as a great player.
Schwartz has earned his paycheck as a pass protector in the NFL. Despite a huge 330 pound frame, he has yet to develop into a consistent run blocker. However, in pass protection he has shown the power and quickness to deal with both edge rushers and defensive tackles. While he has yet to consistently play well in the run game, he was dominant in that facet in college and has shown flashes of this at the NFL level that suggests that he may be able to develop this way in time, although his tall frame would suggest he will never be a road grading offensive guard, if that became his position.
The Lions are also in dire need of depth and youth on the offensive line. They have already cut Stephen Peterman, who was the incumbent right guard last season, and it remains to be seen if they will bring back their former right tackle, Gosder Cherilus. Seeing as Schwartz can play both of those positions, if nothing else, he would be a great depth lineman who can cover a multitude of positions on the line ably. However, his ability to be a good offensive guard means that he would likely be a great value starter on the line who would help keep Matthew Stafford upright and the passing game flowing.
Schwartz was my dream free agent last year, and a year in Minnesota has not cooled my opinion of him. He simply has to be a target for the front office this season when getting value, for money is at a premium.
Predicted Contract: Two years, $5 million