The 5 Moves Detroit Lions Must Avoid in Free Agency
With free agency less than a week away, personnel departments for the 32 NFL teams are in overdrive trying to prioritize and value hundreds of potential players to sign.
While it's exciting to be able to go shopping on the free-agent market, teams that are smart in their spending fare a lot better than teams that go willy-nilly with an open checkbook.
One of the best ways to win in free agency is not to lose in free agency. Teams lose by overspending on misfit players—guys who were merely playing for a fat payday or players no longer able to produce what their contracts dictate they need to produce.
Here are five moves general manager Martin Mayhew and the Detroit Lions need to avoid making in free agency.
Don't Overpay for Familiarity
Detroit has two former starters who are free agents that figure to command decent interest on the free-agent market. Defensive end Willie Young (pictured) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew are both solid contributors whom the team has expressed interest in bringing back, per beat writers Kyle Meinke of MLive.com and Paula Pasche of The Oakland Press:
Caldwell named Willie Young among players he's excited to coach. Guess that means Lions will try to re-sign him?— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) January 15, 2014
While it would be nice to have both players back in the den, Detroit needs to be very careful not to overpay for the familiarity.
If Pettigrew wants Dennis Pitta money, Detroit needs to hang up the phone on his agent with zero regret. Pitta agreed to return to the Baltimore Ravens for five years and $32 million, per The Baltimore Sun.
The two players are fairly comparable over the last three seasons:
|Games||Receptions||Yards||TDs||Yards per Catch|
Pettigrew has been a little more prolific, but Pitta does better on yards per catch and converting catches into scores.
After Pettigrew got hurt, ironically playing Pitta's Ravens, rookie Joseph Fauria proved he could do more than the man he replaced for a lot less money. Detroit can add a cheaper player, be it in free agency or the draft, to provide the production of a No. 2 tight end.
Young falls into the same boat. He's a solid starter—nothing more. In his first season starting in Detroit, the former seventh-round pick bagged three sacks, batted down five passes and forced two fumbles.
He generally played well, but 2013 was the first season he ever played extensively. Most teams need more than three sacks from a starting defensive end, and the Lions are no exception.
If he wants to come back on an inexpensive "prove it" deal for a year or two, the Lions should have interest. But if Young and his agent believe he deserves to get paid like the man he replaced in Detroit, Cliff Avril, the Lions need to let someone else give him $13 million for two years, which is what Avril got from the Seattle Seahawks.
Don't Mortgage the Future on Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham is one of the top young receiving talents in the NFL today. The New Orleans Saints tight end has erupted into an offensive force, catching 270 balls and scoring 36 touchdowns over the last three seasons.
The Saints placed the franchise tag on him, but they did so with an interesting peculiarity. As Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported:
Saints slapped @TheJimmyGraham w NON-exclusive tag, creating more drama. Any team can sign Graham for 2 1st picks or Saints can match— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) March 1, 2014
That means the Lions, or any other team, can sign Graham to a free-agent contract and surrender two first-round picks to New Orleans for poaching its franchise player.
It will be very tempting to bring in the most prolific tight end in the game today, a player still trending upward in his young career. He has experience playing in new Detroit offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense in New Orleans, which makes him even more attractive.
Yet the price is very steep. Aside from the two first-round picks, including No. 10 this year, the Lions would also have to fork out yet another serious cap-eating contract to Graham.
Part of the issue here is that Graham likes to consider himself a wide receiver and not a tight end. As USA Today notes:
Tight end tags are projected to be around $6.8 million in 2014, the lowest of any position save kickers. Wideout tags will come in around $11.6 million, and Graham is expected to argue he spent most of his snaps split out as a receiver in 2013. Splitting the difference would mean a $9.2 million salary for 2014.
Graham's production is on par with wide receivers like Larry Fitzgerald or Mike Wallace. Fitzgerald is signed for seven years and $113 million in Arizona, while Wallace signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins last year for five years and $60 million.
Figure that Wallace's contract value is the negotiating floor for Graham on a long-term deal. With Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson already eating up an inordinate amount of Detroit's cap room, adding another mega-contract like Graham's would mean the Lions would have to round out the roster with a great deal of veteran minimum and street-free-agent deals.
Signing Graham would make the offense purr—but at the price of overall depth and roster balance. It's tempting but just not worth it.
Don't Trust Anyone over 30
The Woodstock generation used the slogan "don't trust anyone over 30" as a counterculture merit badge. While the hippies were more concerned with entrenched authority, their mantra has practical applications for the Detroit Lions in free agency.
Last season, the Lions learned this lesson the hard way. Free-agent kicker David Akers (pictured), all 38 years of him, was not worthy of the money spent bringing him in.
The problem with players of that certain age is that teams are almost always paying for past production on other teams, not what the players offer going forward.
Some of the more notable agents that are at least 30 years old include:
- Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher
- Defensive tackle Randy Starks
- Defensive end Jared Allen
- Wide receiver Santonio Holmes
- Linebacker Daryl Smith
- Tight end Kellen Winslow
All of those players are still useful to some degree, but their best football is in the rearview mirror and falling further behind with every hit.
The Lions need to heed the likes of Jack Weinberg (h/t The Berkeley Daily Planet) and embrace the promise of youth over the fading glory of the more established veterans.
No Guarantees to Character Risks
One of the ways to find free-agency bargains is to take risks on players with character issues, both on and off the field.
While the Lions have some needs that could indeed be filled by players carrying some degree of baggage, Mayhew and his staff need to exercise prudence here.
If they want to take a shot on an enigmatic talent like wide receiver Kenny Britt, the Lions need to make sure all the risk is on the player and not the team's balance sheet.
Britt could be the answer for the gaping hole opposite Calvin Johnson at outside wide receiver. The Tennessee Titans' 2009 first-rounder is just 25 and still tantalizes with game-breaking talent every so often.
Yet he's already been suspended for a series of off-field transgressions. The most recent of those came last summer, as chronicled by Dan Hanzus of NFL.com:
This becomes Britt's ninth known incident involving the police since he entered the NFL in 2009. He has made two separate visits to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss his off-the-field behavior.
Britt also suffered a serious knee injury in 2011. He has just 56 catches in the two seasons since, a combination of the lingering effects of the injury and falling in and out of favor with the now-deposed coaching regime in Tennessee.
There's nothing wrong with offering Britt a make-good deal to see if he can turn over a new leaf. The Lions should offer a one-year deal worth around $1 million—but with nothing more than the veteran minimum guaranteed. Add some incentives that can take the deal up to the $4 million range, and see how bad he wants it.
Similarly, cornerback Aqib Talib offers a lot of talent but also a lot of baggage. Talib would certainly upgrade the talent quotient, but it's not worth shelling out millions in guaranteed cash to a player with so many personal strikes already on the scoreboard.
Another wideout with potential to help is Sidney Rice, but he too must be offered very little guaranteed money. He's on the market because of a cavalcade of injuries.
Because Rice has already received a lucrative free-agent deal (five years for $41 million) in the past, he might be more willing to take a low-risk deal from Detroit. Still, the Lions need to exude caution and not overpay to entice him into the den.
Understand What the Player Offers the Team
Perhaps the biggest waste of money is when teams sign big-ticket free agents simply because they are attracted to the name value.
They're buying the sizzle, not the steak.
Mayhew, Caldwell and the Lions personnel people must know exactly what they want at each position and find players that offer those skills. The bigger name isn't always the better fit.
The poster child for this is Albert Haynesworth (pictured) and his monster deal with the Washington Redskins.
The Skins made a huge mistake, beyond looking past Haynesworth's mercurial personality and truculent attitude. They signed a 4-3 3-technique and tried to turn him into a 3-4 nose tackle. Aside from the personal issues, it was a bad football decision.
Detroit must be careful in projecting how players coming from different schemes will assimilate into what the Lions are trying to accomplish.
One example is linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. He's been a reliable cog in the middle of the Cleveland Browns' 3-4 defense for years, but the Lions run a 4-3. Jackson might help the Lions, but that would be projecting him to do things he hasn't done before.
That's risky business—and not the happy kind with Rebecca De Mornay on the train either.
The Lions must know exactly what the free agent offers and how he blends with what the team needs. Otherwise, Albert Haynesworth happens.