Coming off an 11-win season and a first round exit in the playoffs, the Detroit Lions have a variety of needs heading into another crucial offseason. Can they acquire talent, build on last season and become a great team? Or will they fail to upgrade and slip back into mediocrity as they have for years? Let’s take a comprehensive look at their most glaring positional needs heading into free agency (FA begins March 10).
1) Defensive Line
Nearly the entire defensive line will see their contract expire. Starting defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, along with key backup linemen C.J. Mosley, George Johnson, Andre Fluellen and Darryl Tapp will all be free agents.
Suh is the best player on this team (see film review) and the driving force behind the number one rush defense. He is the key to the offseason and the top priority on GM Martin Mayhew’s to-do list. With the salary cap expected to increase by as much as $10 million, signing Suh to a large contract will not cripple the team’s cap as it might have just a few years ago. Once they figure out what they’re doing with Suh, the rest of the offseason will fall into place.
Fairley seems unlikely to be back after his absence had little impact on the unit’s performance. Journeymen Mosley and Johnson played well and would again provide much-needed depth if re-signed. Johnson is the most likely to be retained of this group after he flourished as a pass rusher and notched six sacks.
2) Offensive Line
The offensive line was ravaged by injuries a year after showing promise with a surprisingly solid 2013 performance.
By the end of the 2014 season, both spots on the right side were manned by backups. LaAdrian Waddle could not stay healthy and was lost for the year and Larry Warford battled injuries and inconsistency, which forced undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas into action. Veterans Corey Hilliard and Garrett Reynolds are both free agents.
The Lions are set with Riley Reiff at left tackle and Warford at right guard, where he made the pro-bowl as a rookie. Last year’s third-round pick Travis Swanson likely will take over at center with 14-year Lions veteran Dominic Raiola looking like he’s done in Detroit after a poor season. That leaves left guard (Rob Sims is a free agent) and right tackle open for competition. The Lions have a nice young nucleus with Reiff, Warford and Swanson, but they must solidify the final two spots and acquire depth.
Darius Slay made strides in his second year, but the Lions are riddled with question marks after him. Veteran Rashean Mathis had a nice season but is a free agent and will be 35 at the start of next season. 2012 third-round pick Bill Bentley and rookie fourth-rounder Nevin Lawson were both lost for the season by the end of week two, forcing veterans Cassius Vaughn and Don Carey–a safety by trade–into action in the nickel packages. Vaughn is set to be a free agent after turning in a choppy season. Undrafted rookie Mohammad Seisay even played 10 snaps in the playoff loss after an injury to Mathis.
The Lions need to draft and develop a guy who can be a quality starter opposite Slay. Signing Mathis to a short-term deal would provide stability until they find a long-term player. If they move on from Mathis, they could go the more expensive route and dip into the pool of young talent on the free agent market. Either way, cornerback needs to be a priority when you face Green Bay and Chicago twice a year.
4) Running Back
Joique Bell did what he could behind that offensive line, running for 860 yards and seven TDs on a 3.9 yards-per-carry average. He is a powerful back with decent receiving skills, but with his average speed and agility, he is not a consistent threat to make a huge play. He took a lot of body blows this season and will turn 29 in training camp. He’s never had a 100-yard rushing game in his career. I’m not sure that the Lions view him as anything more than a reliable number two back who can gain tough yardage.
Reggie Bush is injury-prone and will be 30 in March. That is the dreaded age for a running back. His cap hit for 2015 is 5.3 M according to Over The Cap. Cutting him prior to June 1 would not be the prudent move but the Lions could cut him loose after June 1 and save 3.5 M.
Theo Riddick is a pass catching back, similar to how Bush was viewed in the early half of his career. He can basically do everything Bush can do at this point in Bush’s career, except Riddick is a far cheaper option. The coaches didn’t trust Riddick as a runner though, and when your position is ‘running back,’ that’s an issue. It’s unlikely he’s in the long-term plans to start.
There are a few intriguing options in free agency, headlined by DeMarco Murray and Mark Ingram. But would it be smart to invest in guys looking to get paid? The Lions should dip into the gluttony of talent in this draft to find a cheaper option that they think can carry the load and be a potential star. Whether that’s on day one or two, or in the mid-to-late rounds, the Lions need to upgrade and find an explosive every down back who can be the focal point of the offense and take pressure off the quarterback.
Based off of last season, it’s clear that Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi are trying to corral Matthew Stafford the gunslinger. Their philosophy is different than the previous coaching staff’s. They reduced Stafford’s pass attempts, increased his completion percentage and cut down his turnovers, which played a vital role in the team’s success. They should take note of what a powerful running game did for the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Romo’s career. The Cowboys formula should be the blueprint.
5) Wide Receiver
The Lions are set with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. But after that, they have too many question marks. Corey Fuller is young, has speed and showed some promise, but he was not open enough. Fan-favorite Ryan Broyles couldn’t beat out Jeremy Ross, which is concerning, and sixth-round pick T.J. Jones had offseason surgery and did not see the field. Ross is an exclusive-rights free agent (he is not under contract, but has only two years of NFL experience), meaning he can only negotiate with the Lions.
Watching Packers rookie receiver Davante Adams shred the Cowboys secondary yesterday should raise an eyebrow. Green Bay already has two star receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, but they continued to bolster their receiving corps by adding Adams in the second-round last year.
With Johnson aging and having missed five games over the past two seasons, the Lions desperately need to develop depth here.
After signing on in early October, Matt Prater solidified a disastrous early season kicking game by making 21-of-26 field goals. Prater’s previous substance-abuse issues had him suspended and booted off the Denver Broncos, but he had no off-field issues in Detroit. Prater is a free agent and made it clear that he wants to be back. Of all the free agents, he is probably the most likely to return.
Starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch suffered a now infamous season-ending knee injury while celebrating a sack in week three against the Packers. Yet the line-backing crew held up well without the services of Tulloch, who has the fourth-highest cap number on the team in 2015 at 5.8 M according to OTC. Tulloch has been a key component in the middle of the defense and only just turned 30. Will the Lions ask him to take a pay cut following a major knee injury? They would save 3.2 M per OTC if they released him before June 1 (they would actually save 4.5 M if they waited to cut him until after June 1 but that wouldn’t help them allocate the money to March’s free agency). Outright releasing the well-liked veteran seems unlikely. Perhaps they cut him and sign him to a cheaper deal.
DeAndre Levy led the league with 117 solo tackles and is one of the best ‘backers in the league. Third-year player Tahir Whitehead started 15 games and showed he can play. Josh Bynes proved to be capable in limited action and is just 25, but he and veteran Ashlee Palmer will be free agents. Bynes is a restricted free agent, meaning the Lions can make him a qualifying offer and thus match any offer he receives on the open market.
Second-round pick Kyle Van Noy missed the first half of the season due to injury but was mostly invisible in limited action down the stretch. It will be interesting to see what the Lions do with Tulloch and what that says about how they view Van Noy in terms of depth.