One of the key components to the NFL offseason is success in free agency. Unlike the draft, free agency offers the opportunity to bring in more proven talent.
The Detroit Lions have imported several key players via free agency in recent years. Reggie Bush, Stephen Tulloch, Glover Quin and Nate Burleson are all 2013 starters who were acquired on the open market. So was Jason Jones, who started at defensive end before heading to injured reserve early in the season.
Unfortunately, the Lions do not have much salary-cap room to work with this offseason.
Recently, the NFL released the projected salary cap for 2014 at $126.3 million, per Tom Pelissero of USA Today.
Currently, Detroit has committed a little over $124.4 million to just 38 players. As Over the Cap breaks down the contracts, the Lions will have a lot of work to do to get under the projected cap.
That does not account for renegotiation with some players (Ndamukong Suh, Nate Burleson, Chris Houston) and potential cap casualties (Jason Jones, Corey Hilliard, Ashlee Palmer). Those decisions could free up enough cap room to address a handful of needs with some second-tier talents.
It's nice to dream about the really big fish, like tight end Jimmy Graham or defensive end Greg Hardy. But they are on the top shelf, and the Lions are forced to drink from the lower realms, if not the well.
For a nice listing of the impending free agents, check out Alessandro Miglio's informative piece from Bleacher Report.
Here are five realistic free agents the Lions should target.
One of the most pressing needs for Detroit is upgrading the pass coverage. There is some promising young talent in Darius Slay and Bill Bentley, but the Lions sure could use a more established playmaker at cornerback.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie fits the bill.
He's bounced around a bit; the Lions would be his fourth team in five seasons. His journeyman profile belies his on-field talent.
DRC, as he's often known, is an aggressive corner with great length and ball skills. Note the picture above, where he's high-pointing the ball over star receiver Andre Johnson. He has 19 career interceptions in six seasons, and he's returned five of those to the house for scores.
He's never been noted for his run defense, which is one of the reasons he's never lasted long in any location. It's also why he might be a little more affordable than anticipated. Detroit can live with middling run support if DRC can take over one of the starting corner roles and dramatically upgrade the coverage.
Carolina Panthers wideout Ted Ginn Jr. is another younger player who has attained journeyman status despite having some real talent. The Dolphins' first-round pick in 2007 out of Ohio State, Ginn has always been one of the fastest players in the entire league.
Unfortunately, that's pretty much all he had in his list of assets early in his career. After flopping in Miami and failing to impress in San Francisco, Ginn finally made good on his pre-draft promise.
As the third receiver in Carolina, Ginn stepped up his game. He has finally learned how to vary his speeds to create some deception. He's also figured out the concept of a double move, as noted by Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
Ginn would provide the Lions with a legit field-stretching outside target to keep safeties from rolling to Calvin Johnson so readily. His 15.4 yards-per-catch average blows away Kris Durham's 12.8 average in that role in 2013.
When teams don't have a lot of cap room to play with, they have to take chances on risky players. Those players have one flaw or another that puts them on the market with an affordable price tag.
The signing team has to hope the issues get worked out and they find a bargain gem.
Washington tight end Fred Davis certainly fits the profile of flawed talent.
When he's been healthy and kept his head in the game, Davis has proven to be one of the more electrifying tight ends in the league. He's fast, presents himself as a target well and can create after the catch. He had two strong seasons in Washington.
Then there's the "but"...
In 2011, Davis was suspended for marijuana usage, per Redskins101. After returning to Washington in 2012, he tore his Achilles tendon halfway through the season.
He's coming off something of a lost season in 2013, catching just seven passes as Washington imploded. Davis had an ankle injury which limited him, but per Pro Football Talk, he had already fallen out of favor.
Davis figures to be a low-priced reclamation project. The Lions happen to need a speedy tight end. They could offer the Toledo native an incentive-laden deal to make good on his considerable talent.
The name "Evan Dietrich-Smith" conjures up a lot of negative emotions for Lions fans.
He's most notable for being on the business end of the infamous "Suh Stomp," as seen here on sportsgrid.com. That 2011 incident cost Suh two games.
However, Dietrich-Smith is one of the best centers on the free-agent market. PFF rated him eighth among all centers in 2013. What makes that more impressive is that he had been a guard up to that point in his career.
In addition, poaching him away from a division rival helps wound the Packers while keeping the Detroit offensive line solid. His ability to play multiple positions gives the Lions options in the draft as well.
Earlier this week, I professed my desire for signing the current kicker for the Carolina Panthers. Graham Gano could be the answer at place-kicker for the next decade.
He's the top young kicker on the market. The Lions need to move on from the David Akers experiment and take care of a critical position while they can.
Because the going rate for kickers is more affordable than other positions, this is the best spot to chase after a premium free agent.