The Detroit Lions have already made a splash in free agency, bolstering their secondary and running back stocks. They have no doubt spent most of the money that they have to spend while still keeping future cap space for young studs like Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh.
However, they can still make some moves before the NFL Draft to strengthen their roster in preparation for the upcoming season. Below I will mention four players who have the skills to improve the Lions team and the low price tag to let them be signed reasonably.
1. Darrius Heyward-Bey (WR): Oakland Raiders
Heyward-Bey is well known around the NFL as a typical first-round bust by the Oakland Raiders. After blowing up the combine with his size and speed combination, he was consequently the first wide receiver taken in the 2009 NFL Draft. However, he always disappointed for his price tag in Oakland, even when his game improved over the last two years.
Early in his career, DHB lacked the hands and refinement to make an impact, despite his physical advantages. Though contrary to popular belief, he started to turn his career around—albeit, in a slow fashion—in 2011. He started catching 60 percent of the passes thrown his way rather than 40 percent, according to Pro Football Focus, and improved his hands to a very acceptable level. His route running is still very raw, but he was now a good wide receiver, enough so that he received a positive PFF grade two years running when catching passes from Jason Campbell and Carson Palmer.
In the Lions offense, Heyward-Bey could be very, very dangerous. Calvin Johnson naturally attracts most of the defenses attention, and facing mostly single coverage with safeties shifted toward Megatron would let a player with the explosive speed of DHB to become a lethal deep threat. With Johnson working all over the field and Ryan Broyles running underneath routes, Heyward-Bey would be free to do what he does best, run deep downfield and stretch defenses.
Additionally, while he was never worth the cap space on his big rookie deal, he will not be a big time target on the open market, and therefore should come with a very manageable, short-term contract. He could be easily dropped if he fails to impact the offense.
If the Lions can get him, he would be great.
2. Brandon Lloyd (WR): New England Patriots
Another cap casualty, the Patriots cut Lloyd despite his performing very well over the year.
While he is no longer a young receiver and is now on the wrong side of 30, he remains very effective due to the subtly of his route running and his spectacular hands which are some of the best in the business. He rode this on the way to a +12.9 grade from PFF last year, and this was in a Patriots offense that rarely looked his way.
Lloyd would also fit in the Lions offense so well because he is simply an upgrade on what Nate Burleson offered. He is a veteran wide receiver with the same skills to get open all over the field, just with better hands but worse open-field running skills.
However, opposite Calvin Johnson he would have a lot of space and worse corners to deal with, and if teams tried too hard to shut down Megatron Lloyd would be able to do what Titus Young failed to last year and take over games.
The issue with Lloyd is that as a 31 year old who has not been a part of a championship team and who is the best remaining wide receiver on the market, he is probably looking for either a large salary or a contender. While the Lions are much more talented than their 2012 record would suggest, they do not have the same draw of a team like the San Francisco 49ers or the Seattle Seahawks, who look to be great for the next five years.
However, if the Lions can get Lloyd in for a reasonable deal he would add another dimension to their offense.
Jones was a favorite of mine before free agency began, and given the lack of big contracts for cornerbacks and the fact that he has yet to sign a contract, he would seems to be even more of a bargain than I thought. Although 29, he is still a good athlete and his skill set fits perfectly into the bump and run scheme that the Lions have used the last few seasons.
Jones is a good cornerback who can play in the slot as well as outside, and he earned a +11.1 rating from PFF for his play last season. He is also a great return man, and if signed he would combine with Reggie Bush to give the Lions the ability to cut Stefan Logan and still improve their pedestrian return game.
In short, he is a great cornerback who has finally delivered on the potential that made him such a high draft pick out of college.
Jones is also, by all accounts, no longer a team cancer, and his life story that he shared at the Rookie Symposium this year would be a perfect message for a Lions team with more than a handful of young players who have made questionable off-field decisions in their careers. I believe that Jones would be able to help them keep their noses clean by showing them what not to do.
Finally, if his contract is kept short(ish) at about two or three years, then he could provide the perfect stopgap while the team waits for their young cornerbacks like Bill Bentley and Jonte Green to develop. His versatility to play in the slot also gives him a role that is becoming increasingly important even if he is overtaken by some of the young talent. If he can be signed for less than $3 million a year, the Lions simply have to take a shot.
4. Israel Idonije (DE): Chicago Bears
Idonije is the perfect player to add to the roster on a one-year deal and ensure that the Lions will have some bodies to throw at the defensive end position next season. While at 32 he is no spring chicken and his performance could fall off the cliff at any moment, he has—to this point in his career—been a good pass-rusher who turned in a career year in 2012 against the run. He graded +17.8 according to Pro Football Focus.
Idonije has always been able to rush the passer and also plays a heavy workload of snaps without wearing out. This in itself will be very attractive to a Lions defense that only has two defensive ends on the roster with any playing experience, and none who have handled a heavy workload yet in their careers. Therefore, even a body with as much wear on it as Idonije would be a welcome addition.
Also, the Lions have always placed a premium on their defensive ends being able to rush the passer, and this is something that Idonije has always been able to do. He is a big player with enough quickness to at least threaten the edge and the power and technique to beat offensive tackles for pressure.
Last year he also was good against the run, and if he can continue to play at this level he would probably be the best defensive end on the Lions roster. He is also a versatile player who can play defensive tackle on pass-rushing downs, although with the Lions depth at defensive tackle this would probably not be needed.
Despite his consistent performances and great year last year, his age makes him a risky proposition, especially for a multi-year contract. However, if the Lions can pick him up for one year while they rebuild their depth at defensive end, he could reward them handsomely for it. As a bonus, he was only paid $2.5 million for the 2012 season, so a one-year, $2 million contract could reel him in.
That sounds like great value to me.