The Detroit Lions need to start thinking about the future, and they need to move quickly.
Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have been so methodical, so balanced, so incremental in their continued improvement of the Detroit Lions roster, that many fans have become cynical about some of the moves left undone.
Why is a team built around Matthew Stafford protecting him with a left tackle fans perceive as less-than-ideal? Why is Calvin Johnson—due $14 million in 2012 and free agency in 2013—left hanging in the wind as this team finally has a ray of hope? Why is Dominic Raiola still in the NFL?
All of these questions and more need to be answered as soon as possible if the Lions are going to have continued success.
Everyone loves Kyle Vanden Bosch, and this columnist is no exception.
However, the talented defensive end is 32 and is owed $5 million in each of the next two years and may or may not be worth that in the immediate future.
Don't get the wrong impression, KVB has a ton of football left and all signs point to him retiring in a Detroit Lions jersey. The question is, does he have starter's minutes coming to him and if not, should he have starter's money?
Defensive tackle, Corey Williams is in the exact same situation—on the wrong side of 30 and younger players fighting for his starting position. He is due $4.9 million over the next two.
Will both players take pay cuts to allow for roster flexibility and long-term financial gain? Will both players step aside gracefully and allow Lawrence Jackson and Nick Fairley to share the spotlight?
Right now, all signs point to yes. Kyle Vanden Bosch is a leader of this team and has never been anything if not a mentor for the younger players. Corey Williams has been a model citizen during his time in Honolulu Blue.
Nothing is set until the pen is put to the paper.
Know this: Jim Schwartz values defensive linemen more than any other position—that much should be crystal clear—but he also values a deep rotation and that means not paying ever lineman as much as the market might allow. Just ask John Thornton, Jevon Kerse and Antwan Odom, all who earned big paychecks in Tennessee, but collected them elsewhere.
With a finite amount of money to go around, it should be headed toward Jackson, Fairley, Avril and any future rotational fixtures for this team.
This isn't the most immediate question to be answered on this list, but it might be the most important.
Fans have a very hard time giving Jeff Backus the benefit of the doubt.
Anytime Matt Stafford (or any other quarterback on the roster) goes to the ground, it is automatically assumed that Backus—the left tackle—was at fault.
Sometimes he is.
Most of the time, he is not.
An honest observer has to admit that Backus is the only option for the Detroit Lions at left tackle in the immediate future and that isn't the most horrible thought ever.
Yet, next year, Backus will be 34 years old and a free agent. Undoubtedly the Lions will do their best to bring him back, and Backus—a Midland, MI, native and graduate of the University of Michigan—won't do much looking elsewhere (unless he receives heavy interest from a Super Bowl contender.)
What is the offensive tackle position going to look like in 2012 and beyond?
The Lions can start answering that question by lowering Backus' cap number and making him a Lion for life.
At the same time, Jason Fox needs to be given ample time against top completion—both in practices and preseason games—now that he's healthy. Gosder Cherlius needs to be showcased on the left side as well.
Most importantly, the Lions need to do their best to scout every available left tackle prospect in 2012 free agency and in the 2012 NFL Draft.
With Stafford under center, he needs the best possible blindside protector.
Right now that—for better or for worse—is Jeff Backus, the Lions need to find out what that answer will be in the future, sooner rather than later.
Listening to teammates and coaches talk about center, Dominic Raiola, is part Greek epic and part Tent-church Testimonial.
Raiola is, somehow, both the most intelligent and virtuous man on the face of the planet and also perfectly-suited to rip the heads clean off of any defensive tackle standing the the path of righteousness.
Listening to fans talk about Raiola is more like a George Carlin set—lots of swearing and little doubt left about how the person feels regarding Detroit's little verbal punching bag.
The truth is somewhere in between.
Raiola was horrible in 2010 after a mediocre 2009. He appears to be backsliding quickly into exactly what everyone already thought about him—he's too small to deal with bigger 1-techniques and not a great enough athlete to deal with quicker 3-techniques.
Many believe the Lions made a huge mistake in 2009, drafting Brandon Pettigrew over Alex Mack. Leaving that discussion for the comment section, the past is prologue and this is now.
What can be done at the center position?
Raiola is 32 and is owed $3.4 million next year and $4 million the year after that. Already struggling, it is hard to picture Raiola playing at a high level until he is 35. His immediate backup, Dylan Gandy is both more talented and older (29) than people realize. He isn't a long term solution.
The Lions need to let this year play out. Raiola has no excuses between Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman and should be playing at a higher level. If he struggles, it may be time to cut bait with a guy who has been a Lion his entire career.
Either way, the Lions need a long-term solution and, depending on where they fall in the 2012 draft order, they may be in a perfect position to make up to fans still wishing for Mack.
Is Cliff Avril Mr. Right, or Mr. Right Now?
The Lions left defensive end just signed a one-year, $2.6 million deal and will likely be approached about a long-term offer once the season is underway.
However, is he worth it? To the Lions?
A few slides back, it was discussed that the Lions are more about having seven-eight quality defensive linemen than four elite ones. With the money owed to Ndamukong Suh and (likely) Nick Fairley in the coming years, are the Lions ready to open up the checkbook for Avril?
They should be.
If Avril can come close to duplicating his play from last season, he should be viewed—along with Suh and Fairley—as a long-term foundational piece of the defense.
Perhaps the bigger question is whether or not the Lions can afford Avril.
If Avril has another great season in Detroit, he could be in line to be paid as one of the top defensive ends in all of football. The Lions might want to pay Avril that, but moves need to be made now to ensure they can.
The irony of the Lions is that their coach believes teams are built from the inside out, and Detroit's best player is a wide receiver who does his best work on the perimeter.
While any coach would be head over heels for a player like Calvin Johnson, don't think for a minute that Jim Schwartz wouldn't trade him for two-top interior lineman and a running back of a similar caliber.
It is a question of theory versus reality and it's a question that needs to be answered as soon as possible.
Don't doubt for a moment that the Lions want to pay Johnson and pay him handsomely.
Johnson is due $14 million in the coming year and that will likely make a case to replace Andre Johnson as the highest paid wide receiver in the following year.
Calvin Johnson is certainly worth it, but are the Lions ready, willing and able to pay a wide receiver that kind of money when a defensive end, center and left tackle all have long-term money issues as well?
The Lions need to bite the bullet and keep their best player in the Motor City, and they should do so sooner rather than later.
Restructuring Johnson's contract should be goal number one for Tom Lewand and the financial department this offseason. Not only will it reduce his cap number and create roster flexibility, but it will show free agents that the team is serious about acquiring and keeping talent in Detroit.
Michael Schottey is an on-call editor for the Bleacher Report College Writing Internship, as well as an NFL Featured Columnist and an NFL Labor/Draft Expert. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, he has professionally covered the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the Scouting Combine and the Senior Bowl. Follow him on Twitter.