Before Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew can start wooing potential free agents or even narrowing down potential draft picks, he needs to determine what to do with those Lions players currently signed as well as the restricted and exclusive-rights free agents.
So while the next season may be a long way off, the foundation for a successful 2014 campaign can be laid now. It's as simple as some younger guys deserve to make more money while some older players don't.
But the simplicity of the question doesn't mean the decision will be easy. So click through to see what Mayhew should do with the choices at hand.
No, it's not a current contract, but it fits the theme. Because the old contract gives the Lions the right to tender a qualifying offer.
For a more complete rundown of restricted free agency, click here. For our purposes, the Lions must extend Joique Bell a qualifying offer in order to claim a "right of first refusal," which means they could match any offer made to Bell by another team.
The catch is that the more the Lions offer, the higher compensation they can be rewarded if another team signs him. So Detroit must decide whether to offer more money to get a first-rounder back for Bell in the event he leaves.
The unequivocal answer here is yes. The difference between a first- or second-round offer is miniscule in terms of NFL pay (last year it was $856,000). Bell is a dynamic young back who complements Reggie Bush quite well.
If the Lions can't get a long-term deal worked out before the deadline to make the offer, they can't get cheap. Mayhew must make the first-round offer or risk losing him for a measly second-rounder.
The same qualifying-offer scenario involves Kris Durham, but the Lions must arrive at a different answer than for Bell.
In other words, it better be no.
At best, Durham has proven to be a solid injury stopgap for a few weeks. He isn't, however, a full-time starter or even a week-to-week contributor.
Durham wasn't reliable where it mattered most, dropping one out of every eight balls thrown his way. Plus, he possesses only an average ability to break tackles.
If Detroit wants to bring him back as a camp body who has to win a job on the active roster, that's great. But having him back under other any circumstance will mean having failed to take advantage of the open market.
Despite a dismal ending, the 2013 season had plenty of bright spots, and few were more exciting than a Jeremy Ross kick return.
Ross began the season in Green Bay before taking over for the lackluster Michael Spurlock in Week 12. And he made his Lions debut with a flourish, recording a 42-yard punt return.
Over the next month, he flashed speed and vision and notched two more return touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles.
There shouldn't be any issues getting Ross under contract, since he is an exclusive-rights free agent. He isn't allowed to sign elsewhere, and Detroit has no reason not to bring him back after his sterling performance.
Cornerback Chris Greenwood finds himself in the same predicament as Jeremy Ross, meaning he isn't free to sign with another team. But I wanted to make special mention of the talented second-year corner because Detroit might want to add more years than originally thought here.
Greenwood never got off the ground in his first year due to an abdominal tear and was placed on the practice squad this past season. He was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit brought him back after Dallas released him after a few games.
The Lions were dealing with injuries to Rashean Mathis, Chris Houston and Darius Slay so they brought in a player who at least knew their system. They were fighting for a playoff spot against the New York Giants, and while they ultimately fell short, Greenwood shined.
He earned a positive 2.6 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but even the most untrained eye could see something special. He's a tremendous athlete with good size (6'1", 190 pounds).
In eight targets this year, he allowed only nine yards after the catch. The Lions would be foolish not to at least debate whether to offer a two-year contract, since Greenwood might be the only player in the secondary who can consistently tackle.
The Lions extended Ndamukong Suh's contract last year in an effort to pick up quick cash for Reggie Bush and Glover Quin. It worked well, but now it's time to pay the pi—err, the defensive tackle.
Suh is slated to take up the most cap room in the entire NFL with a whopping $22.4-million hit next year. If the Lions are going to retain their young contributors or add anyone via free agency, this number will need to be reduced greatly.
Luckily, Detroit doesn't have a huge decision to make. The Lions must lock up the cornerstone of their defense for years to come so, while the contract numbers might be mind-numbing when released, just know there wasn't much Mayhew could do.
Suh holds all of the cards and he deserves to.
At least the Lions won't be facing any more of these ridiculous rookie contracts from a bygone era. Once Suh is done, the numbers will be much easier to handle.
Louis Delmas' contract is an interesting one.
He only made $1.215 million last year and is slated to count for $6.5 million against the cap this year. Quite frankly, his play doesn't merit such a huge raise.
He finished the season as the 25th-best safety, but he would be the ninth-highest paid at his position. That doesn't jibe with the fact that his cap hit as a cutting-day casualty would be only $500,000.
Delmas simply isn't making enough plays. He flies around the field with his head down and his arms at his side, more often causing collateral damage than blowing up opponents' plays.
It's unfortunate, but that's the business.
You knew it was coming, and it's just as awkward as you thought it would be.
Nate Burleson is a solid professional receiver. He just can't stay on the field.
Between the last two seasons, Burleson has missed 17 of a possible 32 games, and he isn't getting any younger. Obviously, if you can't make it to Sundays, there's no reason for a franchise to carry your $7.5 million cap hit.
Of that number, $5.5 million is base salary and can be negotiated. Burleson has expressed an interest in coming back at a cheaper cost.
Here's betting the Lions return the call.
Let's go with a curveball to finish: The Lions need to do whatever it takes to keep offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn.
Washburn took a line that was starting three new players on opening day and finished the season using three different right tackles, yet he still molded a group that gave up the second-fewest sacks (20) on the season.
And that wasn't all due to Matthew Stafford's quick trigger. Out of the 27 qualifying quarterbacks, Stafford was the third-least hurried quarterback, seeing pressure on only 28.9 percent of his dropbacks.
Washburn also developed two rookies into long-term starters. Successful franchises don't get rid of coaches who can develop talent and maintain a high level of play despite injuries to his unit.