With the lockout still in place two things are not happening: free agency and rookies getting the benefit of an offseason workout program with the coaches. Since both need to happen by no later than the end of July in order to minimize the ripple effect of the lockout, my fingers are crossed that we all hear great news within the next couple of days.
Who knows, Tuesday could even be the day the lockout ends.
Free agency needs to happen this year regardless of when the newly acquired draftees get their real practice time in.
The Detroit Lions have done an excellent job of holding workouts for the players but the rookies can still only learn so much without the coaches. This is not an issue that only effects the Lions, of course, but because of the upward note they left the 2010 season on, it will be even more important to keep this momentum going into 2011.
One proven formula to keep playing at a high level is to keep as many players from last season as possible for continuity and to fill holes with the right veteran free agents who know the 4-3 scheme and can play immediately. This will give the rookies time to learn and ease into the games when they have a better feel for how it's played in Detroit.
I have no doubt that the Lions top tier rookies will find their way but accurate route running but the offensive and defensive schemes specific to the Lions, takes a lot of time studying and months of practice to learn. Of course, with that said, last year's top pick rookies (Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best) did very well right from the beginning.
Regardless how this years rookie class will fair, the Lions have to focus on certain key players as soon as free agency opens. For now, we'll look at the biggest needs on defense.
Here is a list of players who could fill the holes in Detroit and should be in the cross-hairs of the Lions free agency plan.
Note: This article is looking at free agents only and is not considering other possible trade scenarios.
The Lions secondary has been under a ton of scrutiny this year. Though they have players like Aaron Berry and Alphonso Smith at cornerback who could step it up and make a major impact on how well the last line of defense looks this year, the Lions still need to address this position. They brought in Nathan Vasher who could also be an impact player but the team could lose their current number one corner, Chris Houston, to free agency.
The Lions tendered Houston but it would appear that he would like to test out what he could get in free agency. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Houston, as far as I know, did not show up to any of the player run workouts while other tendered players did.
Cliff Avril and Drew Stanton could make a case for not working out with the Lions since their futures are as unknown as Houston's, but they showed up anyway. They want to stay with the organization. Does Houston?
That appears uncertain.
One thing that is certain is that Martin Mayhew, Lions GM, believes "... it’s always important to build your offensive and defensive lines. I think you can never really let your guard down in those areas. You always want to continue to build that depth and have young guys in the pipeline that can play.
You’ll see us continue to address those areas.”
The coaching staff like Houston and would like it if he chose to stay. However, if he does not return or show major improvement during the off season practices, I would not be surprised to see the Lions find a way to let him go and pick up none other than Nndamdi Asomugha.
I know, I was the last person to think the Lions would be interested in Asomugha because of the expense factor but after further review, it could make sense for them to at least try to pursue him.
It's already known that that he will carry a huge price tag. However, since he was not allowed to be franchised and his contract became void, he does not bring the additional cost of giving away future draft picks.
Johnathan Joseph, another potential target, already plays in a 4-3 scheme and is a top tier corner in the league. One issue of concern with Joseph has been his long list of injuries. But the bigger issue for Joseph is that the Lions would have to give up both first and third round picks to the Bengals in order to get Joseph. This is above and beyond what they would have to pay him as at top tier corner per year.
This is not an issue that is specific to Joseph. Any tendered free agents that the Lions look at will come with the cost of coughing up more future draft picks. They were thin at picks this year which can be detrimental to getting the top youth you need to build a future on.
That brings up another name that could be well worth a look by the Lions and would come without the heavy price tag or the conditions of a tendered player. Seattle Seahawks CB, Kelly Jennings was recently proposed as a possible option in the Detroit News Lions web blog. As Chris McCosky stated, this is not a "sexy" name but could be a good fit in Detroit, especially if Houston is traded.
This would not be a serious upgrade like Asomugha would be, however, according to Rotoworld, Pro Football Focus rated Jennings as "slightly below average" which unfortunately does qualify as an upgrade at this position for the Lions.
Ultimately, I believe that the Lions will stick with who they have or go for a lesser known name (like Jennings). Given that the entire 2011 Lions team salary is 113.8 million it's difficult to believe that Asomugha will be pursued if he commands anywhere near the upwards of the potential 19 million a year he could be offered. However, if they were going to spend top dollar for a corner, it would likely be Asomugha over Joseph.
When the Baltimore Ravens drafted another DB (Jimmy Smith) in the first round it made it even more probable that the unrestricted free agent, Chris Carr, may be playing for another team this season. He is only 28 years old and has a lot left in the tank. This could very well be the player that the Detroit Lions pursue, especially if Chris Houston tests the free agency waters and goes with another team.
Carr would bring a serious upgrade to the corner position (according to ProFootballFocus stats and rankings of 2010) and Schwartz has shown interest in him before. He started every single game for the Ravens last year and posted 61 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defended, and 3 forced fumbles.
Carr also played one season for the Tennessee Titans in 2008.
Final projection of the CB position: Alphonso Smith, Nathan Vasher and Aaron Berry are locked in to be the Lions corners this season. Jack Williams and Prince Miller will be the back-ups. Having depth at this position is key. Williams was expected to compete for a starting or back-up job last season but sustained a torn ligament in his knee that put him in the PUP list. After two surgeries, he is back to 100% and is hoping to be a name no one forgets about anymore.
If Houston returns, he will be a starter. However, if he does not return, then Carr will be the corner the Lions target in the off season.
Schwartz and Mayhew have worked out several CB's in the past two years and most ended up being cut, used as backups to the backups or put on the practice squad. All with the exception of the remaining guys listed.
The fact that the they didn't go after a corner in the draft suggests they believe Houston will be resigned. Knowing how well thought out this position has to be, if Houston does not resign then I would be surprised if they didn't heavily pursue, and pick up, Chris Carr.
The biggest positional weaknesses on the Detroit Lions have been at CB and OLB. However, the OLB position is where the Lions have the most holes in the roster. The only players that are certain to be available are DeAndre Levy, Jordan Dizon, Zack Follett, and Isaiah Ekejiuba. The Lions also drafted OLB, Doug Hogue, in the fifth round.
The core of the linebackers from last season, Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer,, , are all free agents.
Realistically, Levy is the only player to have secured a starting position. Dizon, as reported by the Pride of Detroit, is not likely to be brought back and Ekejiuba is not expected to be competing for a starting job on the defensive line as he is mostly used on special teams. Zack Follett has signed his contract and was cleared to play again by his doctors after a severe neck injury but it is uncertain if he will be able to be a starter.
The Lions would need to resign all or most of their free agents just to have any players secured at the linebacker position, aside from Levy. This is not a very comfortable place to be in when heading into what could easily be a very promising season for the Lions.
Detroit showed that they were a team on the rise at the end of the season with four consecutive wins against difficult teams and throughout the season with several close games. This kind of momentum gave hope to long-standing, and some would say, suffering, Lions fans.
As a result, many of the Lions faithful want Jim Schwartz (head coach) and Martin Mayhew (GM) to go out and get who they perceive to be the best free agents out there. Hence names likes Asomugha and Stephen Tulloch (even though, technically the MLB position is not listed as a position of need).
However, the precedence of Schwartz and Mayhew has been to bring in just a couple of big names (DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and WR Nate Burleson) but mostly they have focused on very good players who did not command as much in salary (CB Nathan Vasher, and S Erik Coleman). In some cases they even signed players who were not well known at all (LB Isaiah Ekejiuba, WR Brian Clark and CB Kevin Hobbs.)
Several Lions fans have been clamoring all over Stephen Tulloch as a player Detroit should target this off season. The primary issue with signing Tulloch is that he could force current MLB (Mike) Levy back into the OLB position. In the 11 games he played in last season (and not at 100% healthy), Levy posted 72 tackles, 2 interceptions, (one brought back for a TD), 2 fumble recoveries and had 4 passes defended. This was his second season in the NFL and his first at the MLB position, where the Lions coaching staff feel he is better suited than OLB.
Tulloch (MLB) posted outstanding numbers last year for the Tennessee Titans (his fifth season) and is considered one of the best MLB's in the league. He started in all 16 regular season games and posted 160 tackles, 1 interception, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, and 6 passes defended. Where he definitely shines is in his ability to finish a tackle. I can absolutely see why he is attractive to Lions fans.
I am not convinced, however, that Schwartz would put his young MLB back outside just to make room for Tulloch. It would be essentially wasting the talents of the future of the Lions best MLB. This Lions front office are not about winning one season or patching together a team who could make a one year run for the Super Bowl. They are about building a team that will last for years and turning a losing legacy into a winning legacy. That doesn't happen with a "plug and play" mentality.
It is possible that they would bring Tulloch in to use to help keep Levy's legs fresh, just as they plan to do with DT Nick Fairley for Ndamukong Suh. It's an excellent idea that suggests the Lions have faith in the direction the team is going. So much so that they have to protect their most valuable assets from injury and fatigue.
Yes, I know that this brings up our QB situation and an issue that many have expressed concerns about: protecting Stafford. We'll get there, but not quite yet...this article is looking at the defensive line and there are other players at the OLB position who deserve consideration.
Keith Bullock playing the ball like a cornerback
Is it just me or does it seem that once a Titan becomes available they start looking to rejoin their former defensive coordinator turned Detroit Lions head coach, Jim Schwartz?
Keith Bulluck may be happy that the New York Giants gave him a chance last year but he played most of his years in Tennessee with the Titans. This next season he would love to have the opportunity to play for the Detroit Lions. Why? Because he believes in what Schwartz is building in Detroit.
When asked about where he would like to land, Bulluck listed the Giants, the Lions, and the Patriot's but he had the most to say about the Lions.
Now they have two big first-rounders (Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley), and with Kyle (Vanden Bosch) up front, I know his veteran leadership is definitely going to have his D-line in order. For them to be taking up double teams and have the linebackers run sideline to sideline, I think that’s very important.
Bulluck is right in saying that the Lions need effective sideline to sideline linebackers. But is he the right fit for the Lions?
Schwartz did reportedly consider picking Bulluck up last season but reconsidered after Bulluck tore his ACL. There have been questions about whether he will be able to but up the numbers he once did after sustaining this injury. If last season is any indication of things to come, Bulluck's best days may be behind him. He posted just 31 tackles with the Giants instead of his 100+ tackles he was able to put down with the Titans during six separate seasons.
He is also 34 years old and where I love the guy for the kind of production he has had and for his passion about the game to this day, he would likely not be a long term fix for the Lions.
Projection: They will look for someone younger to lead the Lions on the outside but who also has the flexibility to move around as needed. These next players fit that description.
Okay, how awesome would it be to have a player like Stephen Nicholas on the Detroit Lions team? If you are a Lions fan you know why I had to put this photo up of Nicholas taking Green Bay Packer, Greg Jennings, out of play. The Lions played well against the Packers last season but need to be even better this year to knock them (and the Chicago Bears) out of the Division title race.
Nicholas is already a 4-3 linebacker who is best at blitzing the QB and blocking against the running game. Could the Lions use this skill set? Absolutely. The Lions line is already effective at getting to the QB but needs help against defending the run and short or slot passes. Nicholas has stated that he is likely to resign with the Atlanta Falcons but we all know that in the end, money talks. It wouldn't hurt for the Lions to send Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh to discuss the situation with Nicholas either.
Next up would be James Anderson, currently a free agent with the Carolina Panthers. He is another 4-3 linebacker who could make an instant impact on the Lions defensive line. Anderson is high on my personal list of players the Lions should do everything they can do to get. He's a great tackler and is effective at stopping both the running and passing game of any offense. Anderson plays on the strong side and would bring a much needed dominating outside presence.
Finally, it has recently been reported that the Lions are very interested in the Jacksonville Jaguar linebacker, Justin Durant. Durant missed out on a lot of playing time last season due to groin and ankle injuries. Hopefully these injuries will be resolved and not become the kind that plague him for the rest of his career. He has great speed and, importantly, brings versatility to the line. Durant could float back and forth from strong- to weak- side which is a highly valued skill set in the minds of Schwartz and Mayhew.
Final projection of the OLB position: It is likely that Detroit will pick up two linebackers during free agency. The Lions need both starters and depth at this position. Bobby Carpenter and Ashlee Palmer will be resigned because they played well enough to keep on the team and ensure consistency. Schwartz will also pursue Durant due to his versatility and possibly Nicholas or Anderson.
This is an area where Schwartz and Mayhew will also dig into the undrafted free agents and pick up someone like Mark Herzlich or even a local player like Eric Gordon who was overshadowed by his teammate Greg Jones on the Michigan State University defensive line.
Final projection for the Detroit Lions team:
With a healthy starting QB in Matthew Stafford and the CB and OLB positions filled, the Detroit Lions will be a dominating force in the NFL and begin writing a new story of how a struggling team for over 50 years became one of the best teams in NFL history.