Normally, a team on the rise, like the Detroit Lions, will have an uninterrupted opportunity to improve from one season to the next. Not so this year.
After their previous season has ended, coaches typically take a brief vacation and then begin to dive into preparations for the upcoming season.
A team’s initial focus will be on player evaluation, retention and acquisition. The first official event that occurs is the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, followed shortly thereafter by the beginning of free agency and trade periods.
Team minicamps are usually scheduled for early May, followed by several short organized team activity periods from May through mid-June. Training camps for most teams usually begin in late July.
The NFL preseason typically begins during the second week of August and the regular season begins during the second week of September.
The 2011 NFL Scouting Combine took place as scheduled, February 27-March 1. Teams sent representatives to college Pro Days and continue to host visits by prospective rookie players.
The NFL draft will still occur April 28-30.
Beyond that, everything is up in the air now. 2011 is anything but a normal year. Even though, as of now, no games have been missed as a result of the current labor situation, the season has already been disrupted in many important ways.
The monkey-wrench in the works
On March 11, 2011, after two Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) extensions during 16 days of negotiations facilitated by a federal mediator, the players union (NFLPA) broke off talks and decertified. The following day NFL owners imposed a player lockout.
Since then, teams have been prohibited from any contact with their players, and players have been denied access to team personnel and facilities. All trades and free agent acquisitions have been put on hold.
Unless the lockout is lifted, after the draft teams are prohibited from any contact with rookie players.
Dealing with uncertainty
No one knows when agreement on a new CBA will be reached, or what changes it will bring. As of right now, everything is in play, including when restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents and the continued existence of the NFL draft itself.
In the past, teams have been able to plug some roster holes before the draft, allowing them to narrow the focus of their draft acquisition targets.
This year, it’s entirely possible that the cart will remain in front of the horse and teams will have to upgrade their rosters through the draft before they are eventually able to make trades or acquire free agents.
On March 20, 2008, NFL owners voted unanimously to opt out of the CBA. When they did so, they knew that when the CBA expired on March 5, 2011 one of two scenarios was possible: either the NFLPA would agree to continue to bargain until a new CBA was agreed to or it would turn to the courts to attempt to increase player leverage.
Being pragmatic businessmen, and given the history of NFL labor negotiations, the owners began preparing for a lockout.
How well Martin Mayhew and the Lions organization negotiate these stormy waters will determine whether Detroit continues the momentum they built last year or whether the Lions will wallow in 2011.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Continuity and pre-lockout preparation will be the keys to a successful season in 2011. The teams that have best prepared for the impact of this labor dispute and can best adapt to uncertainty will have a distinct advantage this year.
From an operational perspective, good preparation meant minimizing coaching staff turnover. With the possibility of less time to prepare for competition before the first kick-off of the season, installing new schemes, philosophies and playbooks would be problematic at best.
From a team personnel perspective, sensible planning meant evaluating your roster early and re-signing key players to longer contracts before a possible lockout to minimize the disruption of free agency.
With the added uncertainty of not knowing if restricted free agents with three years of NFL experience would suddenly become unrestricted free agents under a new CBA, smart teams expanded their contract extension evaluations.
If teams aren’t permitted to trade players or acquire free agents before the draft, this will change team draft strategies enormously and make NFL franchises much more reliant on adequate or marginal veteran players than in a normal year.
Since during a lockout players would not have access to team facilities, medical staff or trainers, smart teams would also prepare for the possibility that player rehab and conditioning would suffer, which could lead to more injuries than normal once the season began.
The longer the lockout is in effect, the less likely it becomes that a rookie player can learn a team’s playbook, coordinate themselves with other players in offensive and defensive schemes, and be productive early in the season. In the short term, this makes many rookies less valuable to an organization.
How well have the Lions prepared for current circumstances?
For starters, the entire Detroit Lions coaching staff from 2010 has remained intact for the 2011 season. This is a big plus.
Before the lockout, the Lions re-signed cornerback Nathan Vasher, safety Erik Coleman and running back Matt Clapp to one year contracts.
Detroit also re-signed guard Rob Sims, tight end Tony Scheffler, and back-up quarterback Shaun Hill to three year contracts.
The Lions made cornerback Chris Houston a qualifying offer in the event that he remains a restricted free agent, which would give Detroit the right of first refusal if Houston receives an offer from another team.
In addition, Detroit made first and third round tender offers to fullback Jerome Felton defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, and defensive end Cliff Avril, as well as an exclusive rights tender to linebacker Zack Follett.
They also extended a tender offer to guard/center Dylan Gandy.
Here’s a list (primarily derived from WalterFootball.com) of Lions players with free agent status as of today:
Unrestricted Free Agents
QB Drew Stanton
LB Landon Johnson
DE Jared DeVries
CB C.C. Brown
RB Kevin Smith
Restricted Free Agents
DE Turk McBride
DE Cliff Avril
CB Chris Houston
S John Wending
PK Dave Rayner
WR Brian Clark
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
FB Jerome Felton
DT Andre Fluellen
LB Zack Follett
It’s pretty clear that given the unusual circumstances affecting the league this year, Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have done a good job of preparing the Lions to hit the ground running once the season begins.
Lions 2011 Draft Strategy
Every NFL fan knows that it’s impossible to predict the outcome of a draft with any degree of confidence even during normal circumstances. It will be an especially difficult task this year.
Lions fans know that Detroit definitely needs linebackers, cornerbacks and a third wide receiver. Beyond that, it’s hard to determine which direction the Lions will go in this draft, even if you assume that Martin Mayhew will adhere strictly to a “best player available regardless of position” policy.
Even if the lockout was lifted several days before the draft and the Lions executed a few trades and free agent acquisitions, it won’t be easy to predict what Detroit will do with the 13th overall pick of the draft.
The Lions have only six draft picks this year and there is an unusually high number of solid, less expensive mid-round players available in this draft. Trading down and acquiring additional picks would make a lot of sense.
On the other hand, given the unusual circumstances this year, it might be smart to trade up to secure a franchise-caliber linebacker like Von Miller or a cornerback like Patrick Peterson.
It might also be a good year to take a calculated gamble with the 13th pick and reach for a player like cornerback Jimmy Smith or even Brandon Harris.
The bottom line is that Lions fans should trust that Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz will steer the right course during this stormy season. They have both earned the benefit of doubt and are in a far better position to determine how best to continue building Detroit’s roster than Mel Kiper, Peter King or any fan.
Forward momentum is a terrible thing to waste and no one knows this better than the general manager and head coach of the only team in NFL history to go from 0-16 to 6-10 in a few short years.
This year, the biggest challenges for Lions management will occur before the first kick-off of the season. So far, the team is well positioned to continue to improve its record and there is no reason to doubt that after the draft, Detroit will be among the best prepared teams in the league to compete and win in 2011.