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What We've Learned About the Detroit Lions After the Start of Free Agency

Jeff RisdonContributor IMarch 13, 2014

What We've Learned About the Detroit Lions After the Start of Free Agency

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    After 48 hours of NFL free agency, the Detroit Lions have shown they have a definite plan moving forward.

    While they haven't been major players, general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand (pictured) have made a handful of savvy moves that took advantage of the market and their own salary-cap limitations.

    Detroit is a better football team after filling a couple of holes and building depth that is more suitable to new coach Jim Caldwell's desires. They did so with careful thought and fiscal restraint. 

    Here are a few things we've learned about the Lions after the first few days of free agency...

    All stats are courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise indicated.

     

     

     

Detroit Put a Premium on Wide Receiver

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Just in case there was any doubt, the Lions swiftly asserted that the number one priority of the offseason is upgrading the wide receiver position opposite Calvin Johnson.

    Signing former Seattle Seahawk Golden Tate to a relatively lucrative deal almost exactly 24 hours after free agency commenced takes care of the biggest hole on the roster.

    He did not come cheap, according to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun:

    Golden Tate five year deal $31 million, $13.25 million, $8 million bonus; salaries $1.5 million, $3.75M, $4.75M, $6M, $7M

    — Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) March 13, 2014

    Tate was clearly the Lions' primary target. He was the only big name to visit Detroit over the first two days of free agency, and the Lions did not let him leave town without signing.

    Detroit specifically zeroed in on Tate for the unique traits he brings to the team. He has strong playoff experience, including a Super Bowl ring. That's important for a team with one playoff berth in the last 15 years and one playoff win in more than 50 years.

    His on-field play is worthy of the investment too. Consider these nuggets from Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus:

    In the past 3 seasons, Golden Tate has forced 50 missed tackles on his receptions. That's 9 more than any other WR. #Lions

    — Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 12, 2014

    and

    Golden Tate has dropped 5 of 149 catchable passes in the last 3 seasons, lowest rate of any WR. Best hands in the NFL. #Lions

    — Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 12, 2014

    Those are two qualities that Detroit has sorely lacked in recent years. He instantly makes the entire offense better, and his presence should help ease the burden on Johnson.

     

Fiscal Prudence Ruled the Day

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    While many Lions fans clamored for bigger-ticket names and more free-spending ways, the Lions opted to heed the words of former President George H.W. Bush.

    "Wouldn't be prudent."

    With only a little under $11 million in cap room available when free agency started, the Lions faced an uphill battle if they wanted to enter the bidding frenzy for marquee free-agent names. 

    Sure, a premium safety like T.J. Ward or a top-flight corner such as Alterraun Verner would have produced some "wow" factor. It also would have wrecked the budget going forward.

    Detroit essentially sat out the first day of the signing period. The only moves were re-signing restricted free agent Joique Bell and reserve wideout Kevin Ogletree.

    How unconcerned were the Lions with joining the initial free-agent feeding frenzy? As Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press noted, Mayhew was in Los Angeles just hours before the signing period, scouting UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.

    The Lions clearly had a plan, and that plan was to exercise fiscal prudence. While other teams rushed to overpay players like Arthur Jones or Rodger Saffold, Detroit waited for the exorbitance to pass. 

    That's a prudent strategy. 

    One of the best ways to win in free agency is to not lose in free agency. The Lions might not be the biggest winners, but by exercising caution, they're not going to lose. President Bush would be proud.

Every Starting Spot Appears Set

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    With the impending signing of safety James Ihedigbo, it's entirely conceivable that the Lions already have all 22 projected starters on the roster before the draft.

    A former Ravens starter under new Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Ihedigbo will sign with the Lions in the near future, according to what he told MLive's Kyle Meinke:

    Ran into safety James Ihedigbo at the facility. Said he hopes to have a deal done soon.

    — Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) March 13, 2014

    Between he and holdover Don Carey, the starting safety spot opposite Glover Quin is now set.

    Tate will start as the No. 2 wide receiver along with the top dog, Calvin Johnson. 

    Assuming Joseph Fauria keeps the starting tight end gig he held impressively at the end of 2013, the only potential starting spot up for grabs is the No. 3 receiver or fullback spot, depending on the as-yet-undetermined base alignment.

    Ryan Broyles can lay claim to the slot receiver position if he's healthy, which is a big "if". The same can be said for the fullback role and Montell Owens.

    That doesn't mean a draft pick like Anthony Barr, Mike Evans, Taylor Lewan or Eric Ebron wouldn't swiftly climb the depth chart into a starting role. But the team doesn't necessarily need any rookie to immediately start.

    Having no glaring hole in the starting lineup affords Mayhew and his draft team the ability to truly select the best player available and not reach for a certain position of dire need. 

The Defensive Line Depth Is Subtly Upgraded

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    One of the more unheralded Lions needs was depth along the defensive line. Not anymore.

    With a flurry of lower-profile signings, the Lions replenished the depth at both tackle and end.

    In the last week the Lions have signed:

    • Defensive tackle Corvey Irvin
    • Defensive tackle Vaughn Martin
    • Defensive end Darryl Tapp

    These are the sort of signings that generally draw a collective yawn from fans. None of these players will start.

    In fact, Irvin and Martin are likely fighting for the same roster spot as the No. 4 defensive tackle in what was often a three-man rotation in recent years. 

    Yet these moves bring a veteran presence to the depth chart without busting the budget.

    If he's fully recovered from sports hernia surgery, Martin could be a useful reserve. As Kyle Meinke of MLive notes, Martin (pictured) was a productive starter in San Diego from 2011-12.

    Tapp essentially replaces Willie Young at end. It's a very fitting addition for Detroit:

    The player I most often compared Willie Young to was Darryl Tapp so its a fitting swap for the #Lions

    — Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) March 13, 2014

    Tapp has the same number of sacks (6) over the last four seasons as Young, who signed (h/t Chicago Tribune) with the rival Chicago Bears about 90 minutes prior to Tapp's inking in Detroit.

    While Tapp's contract details have yet to be released, it's safe to assume it's for far less than the three-year, $9 million that Young got in Chicago. 

    With a healthy Jason Jones and an emerging Devin Taylor, the Lions are in decent shape at the end position across from 2013 first-rounder Ezekiel Ansah.

    Tapp saves money and offers the same productivity as Young, and his experience in multiple defensive fronts during his journeyman career—the Lions are his fourth team in six years—gives Detroit more flexibility. 

    Building up the bottom of the roster with affordable deals to useful veterans goes in hand with Mayhew's strategy of attacking the draft with no major holes. These seemingly minor moves strengthen Detroit's ability to focus on best available player at every spot in the draft and not worry so much about position. 

Ndamukong Suh's Extension Can Wait

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Heading into the free-agency period, there was much consternation about Ndamukong Suh's need to extend his contract in order to free up precious salary-cap room.

    Articles from Bleacher Report to ESPN to the Lions' own website all trumpeted the need to get a deal done. 

    Suh carries a monstrous $22.4 million cap hit (per Spotrac), in 2014 under the terms of his current contract, which expires at the end of the 2014 season. 

    Signing an extension would allow the Lions to spread out his financial obligations and save millions in 2014 cap room.

    While it was anticipated that the Lions would work feverishly to get this accomplished, those thoughts proved incorrect.

    In fact, Joique Bell told reporters at his own press conference that Suh advised him that he and the Lions "really haven’t been negotiating now."

    A new deal for Suh could come quickly, and that would allow the Lions to go after a pricier free agent or two still on the market. Jared Allen and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie come to mind.

    Yet that would seem out of character with what the Lions have done this offseason. 

    The Lions proved they could bolster the roster without having to first rush through a negotiation with their star defensive tackle. There are still months to complete an extension, and it appears both sides are in no hurry.

    Consider this another development in the Lions progress from perennial laughingstock to legitimate contender. Good teams don't make panic moves, and the Lions seem perfectly willing to exercise patience. 

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