What's Next for the Detroit Lions After the 1st Wave of Free-Agent Signings?

Jeff RisdonContributor IMarch 23, 2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02:  Wide receiver Golden Tate #81 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates their 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions have already made several moves during the NFL free-agent signing period, but more moves are sure to come.

How will the Lions follow up the first wave of signings, headlined by wide receiver Golden Tate (pictured)?


A Man Named Suh

Before any other notable free-agent moves get done, the team has to reach a contract extension with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

General manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand have done a skillful job of manipulating relatively scant cap room to sign players like Brandon Pettigrew and Darryl Tapp. But that cap room is pretty much tapped out now if the Lions wish to sign anything more than a depth player or two.

Spotrac lists the Lions with just over $2 million in available cap room, but that figure does not include the late-week signing of prodigal Lion Andre Fluellen (h/t Detroit News). It also doesn't factor in upcoming rookie contracts. In short, the Lions have no real currency to go shopping.

Suh holds the key. 

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

His current cap number for 2014 is an astronomical $22.4 million. A new contract would alleviate that giant figure by spreading it out over more years.

Many expected this to be done already, but Suh's lengthy search for a new agent put a crimp on any swift activity. 

Both sides appear ready to deal now. As reported by Fox Sports Detroit, Suh's new representation and Lewand are scheduled to meet this week. 

Because both sides have powerful incentive to get a new deal done, talks should progress quickly. That would free up millions in '14 cap room for Detroit to continue shopping on the free-agent market, while ensuring Suh his place atop all defensive tackles in the ever-escalating salary arms race. 


The Safety Dance

Lions fans are tired of the daily teases at the safety position. Since free agency started, Detroit has hosted all of these available safeties:

  • James Ihedigbo
  • Chris Clemons
  • Thomas DeCoud

Yet none have left team offices in Allen Park with a contract. Thus, the glaring hole where Louis Delmas previously resided remains unfilled. 

If the season started today, either journeyman Don Carey or waiver-wire pickup Isa Abdul-Quddus would start next to one of last year's free-agent prizes, Glover Quin. 

DETROIT - DECEMBER 4:  A young fan holds up a sign to fire Matt Millen, President and CEO of the Detroit Lions, during the game between the Lions and Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field on December 4, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan. The Vikings won the game 21-16.
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

While it could be worse—the Matt Millen era proved that—it's far from optimal in a division with potent offensive weapons galore. 

All three recent visitors carry some appeal.

Clemons is the most intriguing option. As noted by Kyle Meinke of MLive:

He's started every game the past two years and made 93 tackles last season, along with eight passes defended and one interception. He ranked 19th among the league's safeties according to Pro Football Focus.

Signing Clemons would make it a de facto trade with the Dolphins, who signed Delmas to take his place in Miami. It would be a trade the Lions would win, as Delmas ranked 26th in Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rankings.

Ihedigbo was once considered a foregone conclusion. As early as March 13, the veteran safety and the Lions appeared ready to consummate a deal:

Free agent safety James Ihedigbo visited the Lions today and left without a contract but he could be back very soon. http://t.co/NrqDZkAF0m

— ESPN961.com (@espn961) March 13, 2014

Between an agent change and a new baby, Ihedigbo never signed and remains a free agent. He ranked 16th in '13 for PFF, though that is far and away his best season. He's 30 and has familiarity with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin from their days together in Baltimore

DeCoud comes off a rough campaign in Atlanta and is looking for a fresh start. He had a couple of relatively solid years before that, and his price tag is likely reasonable. 

The Lions figure to continue kicking tires on a replacement for Delmas, but the price must be right. 


Feeling Out Draft Options

This is the time of the draft season where teams are trying hard to ascertain what other teams are going to do with their picks. What players are likely to land with what teams?

For the Lions, this entails evaluating the potential trade partners for a highly rated player like Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins.

Mayhew and his fellow GMs do a lot of back-channel talks with purposeful ambiguity, feeling out if a team has an interest in moving from its draft slot and what the cost might be to make a move.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

As a hypothetical, let's say the Lions are hellbent on drafting Watkins. Mayhew knows he's not worried about Watkins going No. 1 overall to the Texans or No. 3 to the Jaguars. But what about No. 2 to St. Louis?

He might call his Rams counterpart to informally engage in preliminary discussions. What interest do you have in trading back to No. 10? What sort of compensation package would it take? 

Mayhew and his staff are furiously going over potential draft scenarios. Every move other teams make gets factored in.

They are trying to determine how much more likely Oakland's signing of quarterback Matt Schaub makes the Raiders apt to draft Watkins. Would Oakland be willing to deal the No. 5 pick to move back and instead get a different player along with an extra pick or two? Or is it a better option to deal with Cleveland at No. 4 to take the Raiders out of the equation?

These are the discussions going on behind tightly closed doors at Lions' headquarters in their 20+ hour days over the next six weeks heading into the 2014 NFL draft. 


The Backup Plan

Longtime backup quarterback Shaun Hill remains a free agent, and the door is open for a return to Detroit.

Lewand said Shaun Hill is in St. Louis tonight, but the Lions are maintaining contact with him.

— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) March 17, 2014

Hill proved his value when Matthew Stafford was hurt in 2010 and again in spot duty in the 2012-13 season. With Kellen Moore, who has never taken a regular-season snap and is the only other option on the roster right now, bringing Hill back would fill a vital role with more confidence and talent. 

Should the 34-year-old Maryland product sign elsewhere, the Lions will need to add at least one more quarterback to the roster between now and the end of the draft. 

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets stretches before the Jets take on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

One interesting option would be deposed Jets starter Mark Sanchez, who was released last week. The Sanchize was the fifth overall pick in the same draft where the Lions took Stafford with the No. 1 choice, and there were some who argued for the USC signal-caller at the time. 

Sanchez has scads of starting experience and led the Jets to two consecutive AFC Championship games before the bottom fell out. 

Of course, there are later-round draft options too. Among them, in order of preference:

  • Tom Savage of Pittsburgh
  • Jeff Mathews of Cornell
  • Keith Wenning of Ball State
  • Dustin Vaughn of West Texas A&M

If it does come to the draft before another quarterback joins the team, Moore would hold the top reserve spot entering training camp and likely for the entire 2014-15 season. 

The Lions will also continue to monitor the remaining pro days. Among the bigger ones on the calendar include North Carolina (March 25), Texas (March 26), South Carolina (April 2) and LSU (April 9).