Though the consensus throughout the NFL is that bad teams like the Detroit Lions need to rebuild through the draft, free agency has been an integral part in building the 2010 Lions' roster.
Never was this more apparent than when the Lions struck first in the 2010 free-agent market by signing Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson before some GMs had even woken up.
Jim Schwartz showed up on Vanden Bosch's doorstep at about 12:05 am of the first day of signing, and had him convinced to come to Detroit by sunrise.
Of course, after that initial rush, the Lions went into a bit of a shell, making shrewd, subtle moves that flew under the radar.
Nobody knows how the Lions' body of offseason work will turn out this year. But after training camp and a few preseason games, we can make some educated guesses, and maybe even slap some grades on after a month's worth of work in pads.
Kyle Vanden Bosch
Acquired: Free Agent
Vanden Bosch has performed well in the preseason, bringing exactly the high motor the Lions expected from him. But as nice as his stats may be, his greatest contribution has been as a leader. His work ethic has already rubbed off on a handful of his defensive teammates, and Lions running backs are finishing their runs harder for fear of being chased down from behind by No. 93.
Lions safety Louis Delmas on Vanden Bosch, according to a piece on DetroitLions.com: "Vanden Bosch—he has no sense at all. All he wants to do is scream and tackle people."
Finally. How long have Lions fans waited for a defensive enforcer like that?
Acquired: Free Agent
Ironically, the team famous for picking wide receivers in the first round over the last decade has found itself in dire need of wide receivers.
Guess that happens when all your draft picks bust, are traded, or both.
So the Lions needed to give some support to receiving stud Calvin Johnson (the only one of those first-rounders to stick). That support was Nate Burleson.
Burleson insists he's more than a possession receiver, that he is still a deep threat. The Lions will need him to be, since they already have a stable of tight ends poised to play the possession game.
But so far, I haven't seen it. Burleson has proven to be a highly capable receiver, no doubt. But a deep threat? Maybe he's saving it for the regular season.
Still, even if Burleson does end up pigeon-holed as a "possession" guy, he's a far cry better than any non-81-wearing receiver the Lions had last year.
Acquired: Trade with Cleveland Browns, Lions give 2010 fifth-round pick, get Browns' 2010 seventh-round pick
At the time of the trade, I thought bringing Corey Williams in was a fantastic idea. And believe me, I still do. But expectations have waned a bit on Williams based on his preseason performance.
After some speculation that Williams could be the Lions' biggest impact defensive lineman on a line featuring Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Cliff Avril, it's now very possible that Sammie Hill, who had a phenomenal preseason and training camp, could displace him in the starter's role by season's end.
Of course, given that the Lions' defensive scheme involves rotating fresh linemen in at all times, there isn't likely to be much difference in playing time between the second starter and the first guy off the bench, so that's not a huge deal.
Still, considering that Suh has pulled all double teams his way, Williams' inability to fight over one-on-one matchups thus far has to be considered disappointing. Williams hasn't necessarily looked bad thus far, he's just been a bit invisible.
Not what you want from a guy who likes to attack and get into the backfield. Especially when that's what his scheme calls for.
Acquired: Trade with Atlanta Falcons, Lions give 2010 sixth-round pick, teams swap 2010 fifth-round picks
I'm going to warn you right now, this is the first of several entries in which I am going to use the words "ball skills," in conjunction with a negative modifier like "exhibits no," "lacks," or "has never heard of."
With that being said, Chris Houston seems to have the top-end speed necessary to run with even the quickest of receivers. And yet, I get the feeling we're going to see him get beat deep a lot this year.
Why? Two reasons. One, he makes too many mental mistakes playing man coverage, and two (I might have foreshadowed this), he lacks ball skills.
He might be step-for-step with his receiver 40 yards downfield, but if the quarterback launches the pass anyway, Houston needs to be able to knock it down. As it stands now, the receiver is more likely to make the catch over Houston's shoulder as he flails around.
It's true that these are coachable errors, that his main attributes of speed and agility make him valuable and a potential elite corner. But if Houston's weaknesses are coachable, why has nobody coached them away yet?
You have to wonder if Houston, who is entering his fourth professional year, will find his comfort zone soon. NFL teams don't wait 10 years to see if a player is going to reach his potential.
Acquired: Free Agent
Jonathan Wade was picked up to fill a spot on special teams. In fact, the press release about his signing listed him as a cornerback/special teams specialist.
And why not? The only reason he was still on the St. Louis Rams' roster is because of his special teams. There was nothing wrong with that. The Lions' special teams needed help, frankly. But Wade wasn't content with that. He wanted to let everyone know he could play defense, too, and he was going to let everybody know.
We smiled politely and said, "Sure, kid, whatever you say."
Fast forward to today. After training camp and preseason, Wade has looked like the best cornerback on the Lions' roster (for whatever that's worth), and is likely to start the season across from Chris Houston, albeit as the No. 2 cornerback.
The problem with Wade is that he hasn't been healthy for most of the preseason, so it has been difficult to gauge his performance in an actual game situation.
When the season starts, we will learn a great deal about Wade's viability as a long-term solution at cornerback. He shows promise, but it could go either way.
Regardless, Wade has already exceeded the expectations set for his when he was signed in March, which makes him a quality signing.
Acquired: Trade with San Francisco 49ers, Lions give 2011 seventh-round pick
And just like that, the Lions' backup quarterback is more talented than most of the Lions' starters over the last decade.
Shaun Hill started eight games for the 49ers last year, and with some success. In the preseason, he has looked more than competent as a game manager, exactly as the Lions want him to be as a quality backup quarterback.
Best of all, he creates no quarterback controversy. That's more due to Stafford's progression than a lack of talent on Hill's part, but still...had the Lions pulled someone like Matt Leinart in to back Stafford up, there might be a murmur of doubt here and there.
Hill brings exactly the stability the Lions' depth chart needed at the quarterback position, and he brings it cheap. San Francisco was obviously selling him out of the bargain bin, because there's no way the Lions could have hoped to pull a quarterback with Hill's abilities out of the seventh round this year.
Especially since that pick is for next year's draft.
Acquired: Trade with Seattle Seahawks, Lions give DE Robert Henderson and 2010 fifth-round pick, get Seahawks' 2010 seventh-round pick
The Lions could have brought in any warm body from anywhere in the NFL, stuck him on the field for 16 games, and probably been better off than the situation they had at left guard in 2009.
Last year's left guard position was a revolving door, in more ways than one. Not only were starters being changed every week, but defenders treated those starters very much like a revolving door on the way to the quarterback.
Enter Rob Sims, the man intended to take that revolving door and turn it into a steel door with keypad entry.
So far, he has succeeded in solidifying his entire side of the line. He has actually succeeded in making his neighbor on the line, Jeff Backus, better and more consistent. There seems to be more trust and coherence between Backus and Sims than there was between Backus and any guard he's played with in the last several years.
Of course, Sims has yet to face up to any really dangerous defensive line as a Lion. Facing the Minnesota Vikings' Williams Wall should be a good test early on.
But for now, he seems like one of the better moves of the offseason.
Acquired: Three-team trade, Lions give LB Ernie Sims to Philadelphia Eagles, Eagles give 2010 fifth-round pick to Denver Broncos, Broncos give Scheffler and 2010 seventh-round pick to Detroit
This really seemed like a good idea at the time. Sims had not really fit in the Lions' new defense, and had mostly failed to live up to his potential in the Lions' previous defense. He still had talent, it was just time for him to move on.
Scheffler, meanwhile, was a young, still-promising tight end, coming into an offense that might use tight ends just as often as wide receivers.
The issue here is not Scheffler, because it seems like he will be exactly what the Lions expect him to be, though it does not appear he will surpass Brandon Pettigrew on the depth chart. The issue is that the tight end position is now the deepest on the team, if not in all of football, and linebacker is...not.
Zack Follett, for as much of a fan favorite as he is, has struggled at the weak side, especially when called upon in coverage, and the best the Lions have to replace him is Landon Johnson.
The Lions' tight ends will be a strength this year, and linebackers will not. Even if Sims wasn't the best fit for the Lions, he would have been less of an exploitable weakness. Hopefully Scheffler is worth it.
Acquired: Free Agent
Brown was all but handed a starting job when he signed with the Lions, because hey, who else was going to play it?
Well, that was then. Since then, third-round draft pick Amari Spievey has made the shift to safety, and Randy Phillips came in and made all other non-Delmas safeties obsolete.
Brown made the roster, but he has found himself on the wrong end of a battle with a couple of young rookies, and is now likely looking at the bottom of the depth chart as his next likely destination, rather than a starting job.
He may start the season as a first-stringer, because he hasn't really done anything wrong this preseason, but he will likely be displaced by season's end.
Regardless, Brown hasn't been a bad signing, the Lions just made better ones later. Brown should still provide quality depth and a starting-caliber player, should the need arise.
Acquired: Free Agent
I think we all expected this one to turn out a bit differently.
The return of the Detroit Lions' last Pro Bowl cornerback was a big story when it happened (especially considering the conditions surrounding his departure), and while it was obvious he had lost a step from his Pro Bowl days, most expected him to compete for a starting job, or at least be the top bench player.
But after a silent preseason, in which an interception off a tipped pass was the only time we heard his name, the Lions determined he was expendable, and he finds himself once again looking for work.
Credit to the Lions for not feeling handcuffed to a player who doesn't perform, regardless of who it is.
But maybe they should try not dishing out two-year contracts to guys who only stick around for two months.
Acquired: Undrafted Free Agent (Miami)
I wasn't going to mention Phillips, but with the way he has performed, how could I not?
In a few months, Phillips has gone from missing the combine and failing physicals with an injury to signing and playing to within a stone's throw of a starting job.
Not bad for a guy on nobody's draft board.
Of course, the best part is that he is one of the Lions' best products from the draft, and they didn't even have to use a draft pick. Finding value where it appears there is none is what good teams do, which is why it comes as such a surprise that the Lions have been doing just that recently.
Acquired: Trade with Seattle Seahawks, Lions give 2011 sixth-round pick
Jackson has not shown very much in what little he has played in the preseason, but he was a first-round pick in 2008, and the Lions got him for a sixth-round pick, so it isn't as though he has terribly high expectations awaiting him in Detroit.
Jackson is a depth pickup, meant to soften the blow of losing Jared DeVries for another season. If he performs at even an average level (which his first-round draft status would seem to indicate), then he's a good pick.
Vanden Bosch and Avril are still the starters, so acquiring Jackson is a low-risk, moderate-reward move. The Lions were not likely to find a better player in the sixth round of next year's draft, anyway.
Acquired: Trade with Denver Broncos, Lions give TE Dan Gronkowski
You can't say much about Smith, because he hasn't yet played with the Lions in a game situation. He was just brought in from the Broncos on cut day.
But here's what we do know about this move. Gronkowski was the second-to-last pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, and might have made the roster if not for the exceptional depth the Lions have at tight end.
Smith, on the other hand, was the fifth selection on the second round in the same draft, and the Seahawks traded away their 2010 first-round pick to move up to get him. It took all of one season for the Broncos to give up on what was effectively a first-round pick for them, and now he gets a chance to succeed in Detroit.
So if you want to analyze the move by its direct value, think of it this way. The Lions traded the 255th pick of the 2009 draft to the Broncos for the 37th pick of the 2009 draft.
Sounds good to me.