Detroit Lions: A Position-by-Position Primer for Free Agency
The Detroit Lions are coming off a disappointing 2013 season and should be looking to the offseason with a sense of urgency. Obviously, besides the draft, the best way the Lions can improve would be through free agency.
The market is set to officially begin on March 11 with teams being able to communicate with free agents starting March 8. So while there's still time to research the finer points of each prospect, it's probably best to get the process started.
That's where I come in.
When flipping through this free-agency primer, remember that the Lions started out 6-3. There are good players on this team, so you won't find many outlandish splurges predicted for a team that is currently projected at $1.2 over the cap.
Nobody would argue with the Lions bringing Shaun Hill back. He's a reliable backup in an unpredictable league where second-stringers are often called upon to keep seasons afloat.
There shouldn't be any hiccups on the road to re-signing so long as Hill still wants to come back. But crazier things have happened.
If Hill ditches Detroit, there are plenty of seasoned veterans the Lions could look into. Three names that come to mind are Josh McCown, Matt Flynn and Chad Henne. Hill remains the best option, but any of these guys could fill in serviceably.
Plenty of teams have talent, but they lack depth. Injuries are an all-too-often thing in today's transitioning NFL and having top-tier talent, but no one behind it can cripple a team over the course of a 16-game season.
You've seen it up close with the Calvin Johnson. When he couldn't play because of lingering knee issues, the passing offense crumbled.
That's why locking up Joique Bell to a multiyear deal is key. Reggie Bush has only completed two full seasons in eight years and will be 29 before next season's opener.
Bell has proven to be a perfect complement to Bush and, more importantly, can carry the load as the lead back of a high-octane offense. He rushed for eight touchdowns last season to pair with his impressive 10.3-yard receiving average.
Bell is a restricted free agent, meaning the Lions have a right to match any contract offer and can protect their investment by requiring either a first- or second-round pick as compensation if another team signs him. (That's a simple description. For more info, click here.)
Other interesting free agents if Bell isn't brought back include Donald Brown, LeGarrette Blount and Rashad Jennings, although the price tag can't be too outrageous considering the Lions' other needs.
The Lions will be shedding at least two or three members of their disappointing wide receiving corps. For my money, Kevin Ogletree will be retained over Kris Durham and Michael Spurlock. Ogletree settled in with Detroit, only dropping one pass and averaging 4.6 yards after the catch.
The Lions will have difficulty adding any impact players via free agency, especially at wide receiver since it's likely to be a seller's market. Guys who put on spectacular shows like Riley Cooper, Golden Tate and Eric Decker will name their own price and gorge themselves on teams with plenty of available cash looking for proven playmakers.
Detroit's 10th overall draft position will probably offer better, cheaper options with more of the explosive element the Lions seek. However, if the market breaks just right, the Lions could bring in sure-handed Jacoby Jones (one drop with 37 receptions), who has some familiarity with head coach Jim Caldwell from their time together in Baltimore.
The Lions' approach to the tight end market will depend on general manager Martin Mayhew's decision on Brandon Pettigrew. He carried a $3.4 million cap hit and shouldn't command much of a raise considering his lackluster 2013 season (finished 55th out of 64 qualifying tight ends).
Detroit doesn't necessarily need to bring in a starting tight end. Joseph Fauria has flashed plenty of talent in the passing game and graded out as the 11th-best run-block tight end last year.
Williams has the potential to be the third tackle with his physicality and solid blocking technique. His soft hands make him a valuable last-resort target, but he isn't going to leave a linebacker in the dust with a devastating cut, meaning he won't work himself open.
There aren't any cost-effective free agents who would be an upgrade over Pettigrew. If the Lions bring him back, he would probably need to accept a secondary role to budding star Fauria.
Also, I saw someone post the idea of Fred Davis coming to Detroit in the comments section of a recent article. It's an interesting idea. If Davis is open to a minimal deal, the 28-year-old could turn back the clock to 2011 when he went off for 59 catches for 796 yards.
It's unlikely the Lions will need anything other than depth along the offensive line. The only starter from last year's stellar squad not under contract for 2014 is center Dominic Raiola. Considering his enthusiasm for returning to Detroit and his high level of play last year, a deal should be coming quickly.
Bleacher Report's Jeff Risdon floated the idea of Alex Mack as a possible replacement for Raiola. While Mack would be a great addition, it's unlikely his price tag would fit within the Lions' budget.
Don't expect Caldwell to reach out to former Raven Michael Oher. He has regressed each year since his dazzling debut. But if Oher could accept a reserve role and a small payday, he'd provide a big body in case of injury.
First and foremost, the entire offseason will center around Ndamukong Suh's probable extension. The All-Pro defensive tackle is slated to count for $22.4 million against the cap, obviously severely limiting Detroit's ability to sign free agents.
Assuming the deal is done, the Lions will need to address depth issues as well as possibly find a starting defensive end. Current starter Willie Young is set to hit the free-agent market after a career year that included 48 quarterback hurries. Detroit will undoubtedly try to keep him, but the demand for young pass-rushers could drive his salary demands through the roof.
Mayhew has demonstrated his desire to draft defensive linemen and sprinkle in a few quality veterans. Every year we see aging veteran defensive ends take less money than they intended to. They would be long shots, but there isn't a downside to giving Jared Allen's and Justin Tuck's agents a call.
The Lions won't be looking to make any changes with DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch holding down the two main linebacking spots. The last regime loved to use the nickel package, meaning they only needed those two linebackers when they brought in an extra defensive back.
New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will be sticking with the 4-3 defense, but there's no way to tell how often he'll use the nickel. If he decides to run more three-linebacker sets, the Lions might look to upgrade the spot currently occupied by Ashlee Palmer.
Palmer was pretty average last season, never making a huge play or getting exposed, and finished with a negative-1.5 PFF grade (average is 0.0). However, there isn't anybody currently on the market who would be a marked improvement. Unless the Lions find someone through the draft, expect Palmer and his meager $1.5 million salary to stay in the starting lineup for 2014.
The Lions struggled to stop opposing passing attacks in 2013, allowing almost 247 yards a game. But there won't be too many options at the cornerback position besides the guys already on the roster.
Chris Houston struggled mightily and fought through numerous injuries. Despite his poor performance, his $5.2 million cap hit if cut is greater than his $4.8 million 2013 cap number under normal circumstances, so he'll stay entrenched in one starting spot.
With young guys like Darius Slay and Chris Greenwood showing some potential last season, Detroit won't look to add any top talent via a costly free-agent deal. The Lions can't afford it, and it would be a mistake not to give the pups a chance to mature.
More than likely, Mayhew will look to bring Rashean Mathis back on a team-friendly deal. He played well in 2013, but not so well that he'll garner competitive offers because of his advanced age (33).
One guy to keep an eye on is San Francisco 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. He just wrapped up a contract that paid him an average of $3 million a year and had a nice season, finishing as the 32nd-best cornerback in the league. After the initial burst of cash thrown at the top guys in the class (Aqib Talib, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Alterraun Verner, etc.), the Lions could swoop in and grab Brown with a prudent deal.
After finishing the Suh extension, Mayhew would be wise to bring in Louis Delmas for a chat. Delmas must either accept a pay cut or will be handed his walking papers.
Simply put, Delmas is set to account for $6.5 million against the cap in 2014. After an average year with some costly gaffes, his salary should be closer to the half-million cap hit the Lions would take if they cut him.
One option if the Lions part ways with Delmas would be Charles Woodson. The former Michigan Wolverine finished with a grade only 0.2 points lower than Delmas, yet he made only $1.8 with the Raiders.