After such a disastrous finish to the 2013 season, a tumultuous search for a new coach, and the passing of long-time owner William Clay Ford Sr., this has been a winter to forget for Lions fans.
However, with Spring right around the corner, hope springs eternal. The Draft is less than two months away, and Free Agency kicks off this week.
Everyone knows the narrative on the Lions: Lots of talent that failed to live up to its potential. The hope of course is that new coach Jim Caldwell will instill the professionalism and discipline necessary to translate that talent into results.
Already this offseason, the Lions have had to take a step back in order to take a step forward. They entered the offseason almost 10 million over the cap. They released WR Nate Burleson and S Louis Delmas, because of the large cap hits each carried, but with the potential for reuniting for a cheaper price.
Overpaid backup C/G Leroy Harris also got the axe. They brought back Dominic Raiola, who is coming off the best season of his career (rated by Pro Football Focus as the best center in the NFL last season). They also re-signed long-time long snapper Don Muhlbach, and gave a (in my opinion) pricey new deal to FB Montell Owens.
Now the Lions sit about 10 million under the cap. They will need more than that to sign some solid free agents and the draft class, but that relief will come in the form of a Ndamakong Suh contract extension that is on the horizon.
The Lions still have holes that need to be fixed if they want to be able to compete in the ultra-competitive NFC North this season … Here’s a closer look at the Lions, position by position, as we prepare for free agency.
QB – Backup QB Shaun Hill is considered one of the best back-ups in the NFL. While he is aging, and playing in a new system, I think the Lions will try to bring him back on a short term deal. He is the quintessential player for the role he provides.
RB – Joique Bell is a RFA that is sure to draw plenty of attention from teams. The Lions placed the 2nd round RFA tender on Bell, and that should dissuade most teams, but they still need to make moves to get Bell under contract long-term.
WR - This is priority No. 1 on offense. The Lions currently have MegaTron and a gang of backups out there. While Kris Durham and Jeremy Ross showed promise last season, neither should be relied on to start. I expect the Lions to hit this position in Free Agency and the Draft.
I’ve heard the Lions linked to free agents like Eric Decker and Hakeem Nicks, but I think that it is more likely they pursue more affordable options like Lance Moore or Jason Avant. I especially would keep my eye on Moore- he is familiar with OC Joe Lombardi from their days together in New Orleans.
If I had to guess, I’d say Plan A is Nicks, Plan B is Moore, and Plan C Avant and Plan D is bringing Burleson back. The quality of player they bring in via FA will likely correlate with how high of a pick they use in such a deep crop of WRs in the 2014 NFL Draft.
TE – I don’t see Brandon Pettigrew coming back, and with the emergence of 2nd year player Joseph Fauria, and the return of last year’s 7th rounder Michael Williams, I don’t expect this position to receive high priority. Look for a stop-gap veteran and/or the Lions to address it late in the Draft.
OL – The Lions return a strong unit. They could use some depth, but they can certainly wait as long as they want to address this area. Starting LG Rob Sims may need to watch himself, because his cap number is almost 3 mil, and if the Lions feel they can replace his production cheaply, and use that money elsewhere, that may happen.
DL – It will be very interesting to see what they do with DE Willie Young. On one hand, he is a very good young player, and arguably the Lions best pass rusher. On the other hand, if a team strikes out on one of the big name DE’s, Young may receive a healthy offer. I think the Lions will bring him back for the right price.
They have two solid young DEs already on the roster in 2nd year players Devin Taylor and Ezekiel Ansah. They may elect to keep those two and DE/DT Jason Jones , and just draft a pass rush specialist, in the mid-rounds (or trade up for stud LB Khalil Mack , but I’ll save that for the Draft Preview).
Speaking of Jones, his job may not be safe. It should be if new DC Teryl Austin ends up using the hybrid schemes he has coached under as the Lions will need some bigger bodies at end to play the 3-4 at times. But if they plan on being conventional, Jones may make too much money to back-up Suh and Nick Fairley, and isn’t a good enough pass rusher to play starter snaps at DE. I think we end up keeping Jones and he plays a role as a run-stopping base end, who kicks inside to give Suh and Fairley a breather, along with CJ Mosley.
LB – They could always upgrade on Ashlee Palmer, but they have a couple young guys ready to play on the bench in Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis. Would not expect them to do much more than a depth signing in FA.
DB – Many analysts seem to think the Lions are weak at corner, but if you watched the Lions last season, the secondary was actually decent. We were victimized mostly by a weak pass rush, but by season’s end, the young guys at corner were holding their own.
The Lions will look to upgrade, as they kicked the tires on CB Alterraun Verner already, but I doubt they will pony up the money he is seeking. The Lions could also sign a displace veteran as there are a plethora of them available: Antonio Cromartie, Charles Tillman, Asante Samuel and Champ Bailey are just a few of the aging corners that still may have enough left to help the Lions.
At safety, there is a big hole next to Glover Quin. The Lions could always bring back Raeshan Mathis and slide him over to the position. They also have a few in-house candidates waiting to play such as S Don Carey. However, I think they will go pursue a starter in free agency. They already inquired about TJ Ward, but he likely will get more money than we have to offer. It’s possible they bring Delmas back as well. But I think they will go in a different direction. Keep an eye on Donte Whitner.
Set at P, KR, PR, and LS.
The search continues on for Jason Hanson’s replacement.
Exciting times for Lions fans. Hopefully the Lions can Restore the Roar for ’14.
Next Edition: Free Agency Review / Draft Preview