Since the first bargain free agent article I wrote has become largely irrelevant due to the signings of James Anderson, Quincy Black and Josh Wilson to deals with the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.
I have decided to make a new list with five more potential sleeper targets of the Lions. All these players are solid starters who will not break the bank and should have more than one or two good seasons left in them.
The criteria for selection are the same for the last list.
Sean Locklear is a very atypical right tackle who could flourish in the offense that the Detroit Lions seem to be trying to build. Unlike most of his peers, he is a below average run blocker but a top pass protector. Although this is not what is traditionally targeted on the right side of the offensive line, it may just work in Detroit.
The Seahawks are looking to implement a more run heavy offense in 2011 and with sophomore Russell Okung on the left side Locklear will never start there. Further sealing Locklear's fate, the Seahawks are in negotiations with Tyson Clabo, the Atlanta Falcons run grading right tackle. For these reasons, Locklear will not be dealt with immediately by his team, and that means he will listen to other offers.
The reason why this could be a great move is the issues with the Lions offensive line. I have written enough about this, but I believe that the Lions could do with two more good offensive tackles. While Jeff Backus can hold his own against lesser pass rushers, his recent injury makes improving the depth at tackle even more pressing. Also, on the right side, Gosder Cherlius has never really made good on his gifts, and would do with some real competition to force him to work harder. He could even make the move inside to right guard where he could get by better without great technique and rely on his physical gifts.
The Lions have a pass dominant offense and despite the drafting of Mikel Leshoure that is unlikely to change. This is true because of the return of Matthew Stafford and the plethora of receiving weapons that GM Martin Mayhew has amassed. This means that the Lions should target offensive linemen who are better at pass protection like Locklear.
Locklear was ranked the best right tackle in the league last year in pass protection and at 30 years old has a few good years left before his play starts to decline. His technique is decent, and he is very athletic and good at blocking in space. He also has enough length and strength to deal with long armed multi-dimensional pass rushers.
He is not a good run blocker, but this is mainly because of his bad technique which leaves him in a position of bad leverage most of the time. At 30 this is unlikely to improve much, but on a bad run blocking line it should not be as noticeable as on the Seahawks line. Also, he is not going to be much worse than Cherlius in this regard.
An extra wrinkle is Locklear's ability to cover and maybe even play left tackle. Before Seattle drafted Okung he played left tackle in 2009 and showed enough promise to indicate that he could replace Backus at left tackle if he performs in training camp.
With the Ravens best cornerback from last season already signed with Washington, the Lions should look to their other starting coverage specialist from last season to bolster their secondary. This man is Chris Carr.
Carr is more likely to stay in Baltimore now that Josh Wilson has jumped ship. Nevertheless, they still have young and more talented players like Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb which makes Carr's future with the Ravens anything but secure.
Carr does not have the same ability as Josh Wilson, and is probably about the equal of Chris Houston. If Houston is resigned then Carr may actually play as the number two corner. However, he is probably actually the better cover corner, and would be moved out of the number one position because of his smaller stature and lack of great speed.
Carr may only be 5'10" and 180 lbs. He also only ran a 4.61 40 in his 2005 pro day. Nevertheless, he still manages to cover wide receivers. He is one of the quickest, fluid and agile cornerbacks in free agency and also has a big vertical leap which allows him to compete with taller wide receivers. Also, he has a good understanding of route trees and jumping routes, which is another factor that allows him to make up for his speed and size limitations. He is not a top tackler but can do his job in that facet of the game.
Evan Mathis is a little known player who has always performed well when he has been let on the field. However, that has been a real challenge for him over his career. This is partly due to injuries and partly due to a lack of respect from his team. For this reason, I am sure that he will be moving during this free agency period and what better place to move than to the city of Detroit.
The Lions would certainly be able to find a place for Mathis to play. Although Rob Sims is cemented at left guard, the right guard spot will certainly be up for competition. When comparing Mathis to his likely competition (Stephen Peterman), Mathis would certainly be expected to win that battle. First, he is younger. Secondly, he is far more accomplished as a pass protector. Third, while in his prime Peterman is a better mauler, Peterman seems to have lost that form through injuries and age.
Mathis was a third round pick back in 2005, and since then has played well without earning much acclaim. He has great technique and length, yet still maintains great leverage which allows him to outmatch larger defensive players. Over his career with the Bengals he has allowed very few sacks and has stopped the pocket from collapsing, and has also shown himself to be a decent finesse run blocker who rarely overpowers defenders but manages to make lanes for runners.
The biggest worry with Mathis is his injury history. He has suffered multiple injuries over his career and often plays while nicked up. However, with modern medical techniques injuries are far less of an issue than they were 10 years ago and should not be a reason to not sign a player. He also lacks great athleticism and bulk but his great technique makes up for this against all but the best defensive tackles.
Mathis could be one of the greatest steals of free agency, and it would be a shame to see another team profit from his services.
On an offensive line as talented as the Baltimore Ravens, often solid starters can be lost in the reserve bench. These players often become real gems when free agency finally knocks on their door, and just like Evan Mathis, Chris Chester could be a real steal for a team looking to improve the middle of their offensive line.
Chester is a 28 year old lineman with the versatility to play all three positions of the interior offensive line. This would be great for the Lions, because if they cannot get a hold on Scott Mruczkowski then they should be looking to see if they can at least get a bigger center prospect who can man a number of positions in case he loses the battle with Dominic Raiola.
Chester could be a steal as big as Mathis, although he does not really have the same track record. As a converted tight end, he has supreme athleticism for his position, and also a lack of refinement in his technique. He also does not really have the aggressive street fighter mentality that you ideally want interior linemen to have. Nevertheless, he has filled in all over the Ravens offensive line and he is a good worker and smart player who is steadily improving on his weaknesses.
Chester is a better pass protector than run blocker, but his 315 lbs allows him to deal with nose tackles and open holes better than Lions incumbent Raiola can. Also, he is much more versatile than Raiola, and if the Lions do not sign another interior offensive lineman then he could replace Stephen Peterman at right guard just as easily as he could fill Raiola's roster spot.
Chester may not be as good as Mathis or Mruczkowski, but his versatility, relative youth and athleticism means he could have the highest ceiling. It really comes down to who is attracting interest and whether the Lions front office wants to go down the production path or potential road.
I realise that Manning may be stretching the boundary of a bargain free agent. After all, he expects more than $6 million a season. However, no one seems to be talking about him so far in free agency, which could be a sign that there is not as much interest in him as he and I expected.
Without a doubt, Manning would provide a huge boost to the Lions defense, especially defending the pass. He would be able to step into the free safety position and provide a serious boost over C.C. Brown or Amari Spievy. Also, his presence would allow Louis Delmas to adopt a playmaker role similar to the one Troy Polamalu plays. This would seem to suit his skill set to the ground and get the most out of him.
Acquiring Manning would also damage the pass defence of the Chicago Bears, who the Lions will play twice a year. This would make things much easier for the Lions offense to move the ball against what remains a stingy Bears defence. Although a minor consideration, it could be the difference between Detroit targeting Manning over another safety like Michael Huff.
On the field, Manning surpasses even Huff when playing the pass. He may be less athletic, but he still has elite speed and athleticism which has made him one of the most feared return men in the game. It also allows him to cover a lot of ground when playing as a deep safety. He is very good in zone defense and shows the ability to be a ball hawk. Although he is not a big player he is a very sure tackler in the open field, which is all that is really required of a last line of defense.
Despite his strengths, there are still flaws in his game. Primary among these is his size. At just 5'11 and 195 lbs he is undersized for a safety, and it shows when he starts playing the run near the line of scrimmage. He struggles getting off blocks. He is also not as good as one would be expected coming down to play man coverage against slot receivers. While he is not poor, he does not perform up to the level of his physical gifts.
All in all, Manning would not be as good an addition as Huff would. He does not have the same athleticism, struggles more in man coverage and will have less of an impact defending the run. Nevertheless, his presence would greatly improve the Lions secondary and would make life much easier for the cornerbacks knowing that they had a reliable safety blanket behind them.