The Definitive Blueprint to Detroit's Perfect Offseason
The offseason is now the present for the Detroit Lions. With the firing of coach Jim Schwartz, this is a great opportunity to remake the Lions into a better overall team.
With so many options available and so many unknowns, it's fascinating to conjure up the possibilities. Looking forward helps erase the bitter memories of such a disappointing season.
The Lions could go in any number of directions with so many choices. There are coaches to hire, draft picks to select, free agents to sign and decisions on current players to be pondered.
Here is one early plan of attack to restore the roar in Detroit.
Hire Brian Billick as Head Coach
He's likely not the most popular name of the coaching candidates, but Brian Billick represents the ideal choice to take the Detroit Lions to the next level.
Offensive credentials? Check. He only masterminded the most prolific offense in NFL history in Minnesota in the late 1990s. His 1998 offense set the NFL record (since surpassed) for points in a season with a roster quite similar to what Detroit already has in place.
While Randall Cunningham was certainly more mobile at quarterback than Matthew Stafford, the downfield cannon and confidence to make tough throws are definitely familiar.
Randy Moss was the preeminent receiving weapon in the game for those Vikings, just as Calvin Johnson is now for Detroit. Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard were a similar productive and versatile running back tandem like Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.
Both had solid offensive lines and productive red-zone tight ends. The one difference was that his Vikings had a strong second, and third, wide receiver. These Lions lack Cris Carter or even Jake Reed, but that's what the draft and free agency are all about.
Defensive credentials? Check. Billick moved from Minnesota to being the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Under his guidance, they quickly won a Super Bowl behind Ray Lewis and a dominating defense.
The 2000 Ravens had a meek offense, but Billick found a way to win that defied the reigning narrative of his style.
That demonstrates the third box that Billick checks off: ability to adapt to the situation. He is smart enough to recognize there is more than one way to win.
Billick has a definite swagger, offering a "smartest guy in the room" vibe. He's confident and has proven he can win multiple playoff games in a row. That has major appeal for a team that has one playoff win in the Super Bowl era.
Draft Marqise Lee in the First Round
There is little doubt that one of the primary necessities for Detroit is upgrading the talent around Calvin Johnson at wide receiver.
Using the 10th overall pick on USC wideout Marqise Lee would give the Lions an ideal complement to Megatron.
Lee might not be the highest-rated receiver, but his stock has taken unnecessary hits because he played hurt in much of 2013.
As Bleacher Report featured columnist Garrett Baker notes, Lee belongs as a legitimate top-10 talent in this draft. His blend of speed, hands and polished routes make him extremely tantalizing.
Lee can play out of the slot or flanked wide, just as the Lions have used Johnson. He would bring immediate balance to the passing game, giving Matthew Stafford a viable second target that can impact the defense.
Last year, Keenan Allen of California slid in many talent evaluators' eyes thanks in part to being slowed by an injury, just like Lee. Allen fell all the way to the third round, where the San Diego Chargers snapped him up.
Now Allen is a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, as noted by Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report.
Lee has that same kind of potential.
Give Joique Bell a First-Round Tender
Running back Joique Bell is a restricted free agent, which means the Lions have the ability to place a tender value on him.
As explained by NFL.com:
If he has received a "qualifying offer" (a salary tender predetermined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players) from his old club. He can negotiate with any club through April 19.
The date here is not important, as this pertains to 2013, but the concept remains intact. In addition:
If the Restricted Free Agent signs an offer sheet with a new club, his old club can match the offer and retain him because the qualifying offer entitles it to a "right of first refusal" on any offer sheet the player signs. If the old club does not match the offer, it may receive draft choice compensation depending on the amount of its qualifying offer.
The Lions need to assign a first-round tender value on Bell, who established himself as the emotional spark plug of the team.
Bell churned out a highly productive season while sharing the running back load with Reggie Bush.
His versatility makes him an ideal second back, and he has demonstrated enough ability to handle the load as a starter.
Tendering him with the highest qualifying offer provides excellent insurance. Some other team might consider Bell worthy of parting with a first-round pick. After all, the Colts surrendered that cost for the less productive Trent Richardson.
While it would be ideal to bring Bell back, having the flexibility to acquire a first-round pick if he departs is a smart move.
Let Brandon Pettigrew Depart
Starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew will be an unrestricted free agent once that period begins. While he's been good enough to merit a return, the Lions need to let him chew the greener grass in another pasture.
Pettigrew is coming off of his rookie contract signed as the team's first-round pick in 2009. He signed for $12.8 million over five years, per Spotrac.
Over the past two seasons, Pettigrew has exactly 100 receptions for 983 yards and five touchdowns. He's been a decent, though inconsistent, presence as a blocker. He also has five fumbles over that time.
Other than a strong stretch in the middle of 2013, he's been nothing better than an average tight end. The game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) don't even view him that highly; Pettigrew scored a minus-8.0 in 2013 and finished with a positive grade for just one game.
With Joseph Fauria proving he can capably handle the starting job when he filled in for an injured Pettigrew for the last two games, there is no reason to pay to keep the former first-rounder. Don't forget, the team has 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Williams, a blocking specialist, coming back.
There are better uses for Detroit's precious salary-cap dollars than paying starting tight end money for a player who isn't better than the returning starter in Joseph Fauria.
Sign Free Agent Kicker Graham Gano
With aging veteran kicker David Akers unimpressive in his first season in Detroit, the Lions need to seek out a younger, better replacement.
Current Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano will be one of the top kickers on the free-agent market. More importantly, he's the youngest of the more prominent names available.
Gano is just 26 and coming off of his most successful NFL season. After washing out of Washington, he found his bearings in Charlotte. The Florida State product made 24 of 27 field goals in 2013.
He was a perfect 6-of-6 on kicks of 50-plus yards.
For a team with an amazing tradition of stability at placekicker, Gano could represent the next in line to Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson. His big leg and proven NFL experience make him a better option than drafting a kicker.
Hire Karl Dorrell as Quarterback Coach
One of the big keys to success moving forward is to bring in a coach to help coax consistent greatness out of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Karl Dorrell is a man who can get that done.
Dorrell spent the past two seasons as the quarterback coach of the Houston Texans. He helped guide Matt Schaub to Pro Bowl honors in 2012 and oversaw the development of undrafted free agent Case Keenum.
Obviously 2013 did not go well for anyone in Houston, particularly Schaub. But Dorrell has enough of a track record to merit climbing back up the coaching ladder.
He also served one season in Miami as quarterbacks coach, where he molded Matt Moore into one of the most proficient and prolific passers in the AFC in 2011. That's mighty impressive.
While technically still employed by the Texans, it is expected that new Houston head coach Bill O'Brien will bring in his own coaching staff. That would free Dorrell to move to Detroit and take on the task of helping Stafford rise to his considerably high ceiling.
Sign Free Agent Wide Receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
Even if the Lions draft a wide receiver in the first round, there is still a pressing need to add another veteran contributor as well.
Unfortunately, Detroit will not have the cap room to chase after the more prominent and established names like Eric Decker, James Jones or Emmanuel Sanders. They must unearth an undervalued wideout who can blossom.
The buds are already starting to flower for Ted Ginn Jr. in Carolina. After achieving first-round bust status in Miami and doing little to redeem himself in a stint with San Francisco, the Panthers signed Ginn to a low-risk deal.
They were rewarded with a strong performance by their third wideout. Ginn caught 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns.
He's always had world-class speed, but this season Ginn looked much better running routes. As Marc Sessler of NFL.com noted recently, Ginn finally developed a double move that he used to beat stud cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Ginn has fought hard to establish himself in the league. It took some time, but he finally appears poised to blossom into the potential that led the Dolphins to take him in the first round back in 2007.
The Lions should have enough money to attract Ginn and install him as the downfield threat to help ease safety pressure on Johnson. He would represent a monumental upgrade over Kris Durham, who would be pushed back to a possession-receiver role for which he's better suited. That's free-agent money well spent.
Draft Weston Richburg in the Third Round
OK, it's not exactly a sexy pick to select an interior offensive lineman in the first two days of the NFL draft. It can be a tough sell for a team that needs help at cornerback, wide receiver and defensive tackle.
Yet Lions fans understand the value of investing a third-round pick on the interior line. Can you say Larry Warford?
A year after nabbing one of the best guards in the league—not just rookies but overall—with its third-round pick in Warford, Detroit can do the same with the center position in 2014.
Colorado State center Weston Richburg would make an excellent pairing inside with Warford.
He put on a heck of a show in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl in December. As noted by offensive line guru Duke Manyweather:
Richburg has put the WSU NT on the ground 4 times on this drive and showed how stout he is in pass pro.— Duke Manyweather (@bigduke50) December 21, 2013
With Dominic Raiola almost certainly moving on and the rest of the offensive line in pretty good shape, this is the time to splurge with an early pick on a center. Richburg doesn't quite have Warford's high-end potential, but he could step right in at center and more than hold his own.