One of the key ingredients to improving a NFL team is to fill roster holes via free agency.
Last year, Detroit imported several free agents:
- Reggie Bush
- Glover Quin
- Jason Jones
- David Akers
- Israel Idonije
All of those players had clear roles on the team. Some were obviously better examples of prudent spending than others, but that's part of the risk in chasing after players who are left to the open market by their former teams.
In addition, the Lions also added a pair of low-cost free agents who made a surprising impact.
Cornerback Rashean Mathis signed with little fanfare during the preseason for one year at just under $1 million. All the veteran did was wind up with the best pass coverage rating of any Lions cornerback, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Also providing considerable bang for not a lot of bucks was defensive tackle C.J. Mosley. He took over the third tackle role behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and played quite well. His PFF rating was the third-highest of any Detroit defender despite playing less than one-third of the snaps.
There are bargains to be had in free agency. That's good, because the Lions do not figure to have a lot of salary-cap dollars to go shopping with.
MLive's Justin Rogers recently provided an excellent, detailed breakdown of how the Lions can free up some cap room. Still, this is more of a thrift-store free-agency season than an opulent drive down Rodeo Boulevard.
Here are several free agents the Lions should consider who will realistically be affordable for the cap-strapped team.
That's right, the first name that comes to mind as a bargain free agent is one of Detroit's own. Veteran corner Rashean Mathis turned in a very strong season for the Lions despite not signing until well into the preseason.
His one-year deal served as an impressive audition tape. Mathis will be 34 in August, but he showed he still has the legs and eyes to handle a starting role at cornerback.
Because of his age and the fact he knows his role in Detroit, he should come reasonably affordable. Per Spotrac, he has already earned over $34 million in his NFL career, so he's not likely to demand a bank-breaking deal.
Moreover, he provided sound veteran leadership to youngsters Darius Slay and Chris Greenwood, who figure to see increased playing time in 2014. Keeping around a trusted mentor is worth two years and a front-loaded $3 million in a deal that should lock up Mathis.
Wide receiver Damian Williams spent the first four years of his career in Tennessee, where he was an occasional starter.
His best season was his second one in 2011. In that year, he set career highs in receptions (45), yards (592) and touchdowns (five).
A variety of circumstances kept him from taking the proverbial next step from there. He merely matched those 45 receptions over the next two seasons combined, and those five scores remain the only times he's seen the end zone.
A 6'1" former third-round pick out of USC, Williams was noted for his crisp routes and soft hands in his official Titans biography. He missed some time in 2013 with a quadriceps injury but otherwise has been pretty healthy.
He's a great candidate for a low-risk, incentive-laden deal for a year or two to prove he belongs. He would figure to stand a good chance of blowing past Kris Durham on the depth chart. Signing a veteran free agent to be the third or fourth wideout mitigates the need to devote extra draft resources to the position, too.
With longtime starter Brandon Pettigrew being an unrestricted free agent, one of the ways the Lions can save some money is to replace him with someone who figures to come cheaper.
Here is a comparison of Scott Chandler and Pettigrew over the last two seasons:
|Receptions||Targets||Yards Per Catch||TDs|
Chandler has been a more productive and efficient receiving option despite playing with a cavalcade of inferior quarterbacks in Buffalo. He's bigger than Pettigrew at 6'7" and 265 pounds, and his light usage over his early career means his arc is still ascending.
If blocking is a concern, Chandler's run-blocking score in 2013 was minus-1.2, while Pettigrew's was minus-9.1, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
His lower profile plays into Detroit's hands. While Chandler won't be a blue-light special, he's unlikely to command a budget-breaking deal. He's almost certain to come cheaper than Pettigrew.
The Lions recently acquired former Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, as noted by Pro Football Talk. He provides a likely replacement for free agent John Wendling as the fourth safety and special teams stalwart.
If the Lions want to add someone higher up the depth chart at safety, one relatively budget-friendly option is former Baltimore Ravens starter James Ihedigbo.
With new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin coming from Baltimore as his position coach, Ihedigbo would instantly know the defensive system. He's coming off his best season, registering 100 combined tackles and deflecting 11 passes, with three interceptions to boot.
New coaching staffs are always keen on bringing in players from their prior employers to help ease the transition and sell the new system to the team. Ihedigbo fits the bill, and his price tag will be well below bigger names like T.J. Ward, Antoine Bethea and Donte Whitner.
In keeping with the spirit of shopping from coach Jim Caldwell's old locale, another ex-Raven for the Lions to consider is cornerback Corey Graham.
He's been a spot starter for most of his seven-year career and player who tantalizes with potential but has never consistently put it all together. Still, he played his best football in the last two years in Baltimore under coach Austin.
A former fifth-round pick of the Bears, Graham was the 34th-rated corner per PFF in 2013. With his 6'1" frame and understanding of the system, he could sate the seemingly unquenchable thirst for cornerbacks that permeates Detroit.
He will likely command a mid-level contract, although he'll aspire to sign for more than that. He's coming off a two-year deal that paid him just under $4 million, and he's earned less than $6 million in his career.
The Lions would have to sell Graham on reuniting with the coaches who helped him earn his free-agent payday.
One of the ways to save money in free agency is to take low-risk gambles on players who have, for one reason or another, just not lived up to expectations.
He's played a limited role as a reserve in recent seasons, picking up four sacks in the last three campaigns. Even though he hasn't played a lot, the burst is still there in his legs.
That's exactly what the Lions need at defensive end: a veteran with some pass-rushing ability to play between five and 15 snaps per game.
Tapp is an ideal candidate for a one-year deal laden with incentives. It would give him an opportunity to prove he is worthy of one more payday and offer the chance for the team to get lucky and extract a career year out of an unexpected source.