Plenty of roster questions surrounding the Lions heading into free agency



The Lions have a slew of roster questions that will need to be addressed within the next couple of weeks. Free Agency opens on March 12th in which Detroit will need to figure out what needs they want to address during the upcoming period.

Lions GM Martin Mayhew has said he’s targeted nine of his own free agents in hopes of re-signing them. And with the re-upping of tackle Corey Hilliard and line backer Deandre Levy it looks as though that list is down to seven. Lions fans though want Detroit to make a splash and get back to that 2011 success which doesn’t usually come with bringing back your own players after an unsuccessful 2012 campaign.

But it’s just not that easy.

Detroit has just under 10 million dollars in cap room with the new NFL salary cap going up to $123 million dollars. Mayhew is currently working with quarterback Matt Stafford’s agent trying to lock him up to a longer deal creating a little more room cap wise while showing a commitment to Stafford for the long haul. So far though negations have not gone well as the two sides seem far apart. But in business terms it doesn’t make sense for a 25-year-old Stafford to agree to a long term deal as his current deal takes him through the 2015 season which also puts him on pace to be paid very well. Agreeing to a new deal could see Stafford being underpaid in a few years and after Ravens QB Joe Flacco got 6 years at $120.6 million, Stafford’s agent Tom Condon is probably going to make sure his client gets paid.

But what about Tom Brady who took a three year extension at $27 million? I’m sure this got plenty of Lions fans excited. The problem with that is Brady has already made his money.

Even NFL Network analyst Albert Breer commented on Stafford saying he doesn’t expect a new deal anytime soon. This is not good news for Detroit either as the likely hood of Ndamukong Suh taking a pay cut is about 50/50. Suh like Stafford has no reason to take the cut as Suh is arguably the best defensive tackle in football, is healthy and in the prime of his career.

Basically the bottom line is Detroit is stuck.

Years of drafting in the top 10 has Detroit in a bad position. The Lions haven’t been able to take advantage of the new rookie salary cap with a ton of money committed to players who were drafted prior to the new rookie salary cap being put in place. Because of this Detroit is still two, maybe three years away from being in good salary shape which is why I’ve been so adamant about the team cutting veteran dollars.

Martin Mayhew may want to re-visit the idea of trading Suh. I was really intrigued by the idea at first, then said no only to flip flop again looking at the Lions’ salary commitments. It makes sense as Detroit would get an incredible player back and/or a pick in return. Currently Suh’s money is crippling Detroit and they can’t continue to operate like they have.

A viable trade option for Suh might be Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. But then again Suh’s play is worth every penny and I mention Revis only because he’s a free agent after this year and his cap hit would be similar to Suh’s. If Detroit didn’t have so much dead money from released players I wouldn’t mention trading him. Business wise it makes sense but as a football move I don’t like it.

So after Detroit takes care of their own free agents the Lions might have enough money to make a run at two positions. And judging by the draft, safety, offensive line and defensive end are all glaring holes Detroit should address in the draft while wide receiver, running back, corner back and line backer are needs that can be filled in free agency.

Corner back should be the first position Detroit looks at in free agency and here’s 3 guys I like.

  • Sean Smith (CB, Miami) – At 25 Smith is a big corner (6’3″, 220lbs) which is the new trend in the NFL. With that said wouldn’t it be nice for Detroit to be in on a new trend before it was fully figured out (i.e. the West Coast Offense, Tampa 2, Wide 9 Defense)? Smith will not impress with INT totals but he is physical and can take opposing wide receivers out of the game. He had 59 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 12 pass deflections. Furthermore I’d rather see Detroit sign him instead of bringing back Chris Houston.
  • Antoine Cason (CB, San Diego) – Cason is a play making machine and had little help around him with the Chargers. He’ll be 27 in July and had 73 tackles and 11 pass deflections with 2 forced fumbles in 2012. He has 12 picks in 5 seasons and hasn’t missed a game in that span.
  • Keenan Lewis (CB, Pittsburgh) – With 23 pass deflections 69 tackles Keenan Lewis has good size for a CB. And with his 6’0″, 210lb frame he doesn’t shy away from contact. Pittsburgh hopes to re-sign the 26-year old but like Detroit, the Steelers are against the cap. If Detroit was going to take a run at a CB, Lewis is a good target.

Defensive end is the next need and will need to be addressed in the Draft as well as free agency.

  • Michael Bennett (DE, Tampa Bay) –  The Bucs would like to keep him and have the cap space to do so but Da’Quan Bowers is pushing for playing time and Tampa Bay is loaded with young d-line talent. So using their cap space on secondary help, linebacker help and offensive line help might be what Tampa is thinking. The defensive front only gave up 82 yards a game on the ground but the back 7 got torched at a almost 300 yd per game clip. The good thing for Detroit is Bennett is a first year starter and would blossom next to Suh. The bad news is with Michael Johnson getting the Franchise tag the line for Bennett is longer and the price will be higher. Bennett still should be a better and cheaper option over Avril as Bennett is excels playing against the rush and pass.  Five years at $40 million might get it done, opposed to Avril’s 5 years, $60 million.

Other Needs:

  • Andy Levitre (G, Buffalo) – Offensive Line is deep in this year’s free agent crop with Andy Levitre being at the top of the heap when it comes to guards. For the Lions he could be a target but will eat most of the cap room. With a Levitre signing by Detroit and perhaps a low level free agent and the Lions’ shopping season is done. With that said Levitre and Reiff on the right side could generate a run game and move a pile putting an end to a huge problem.
  • Brian Hartline (WR, Miami) – Hartline is young and does a good job catching the football. But with Miami having money to burn word is the Fins want a name at wide receiver. Miami’s potential loss could be Detroit’s gain though as Hartline could prove to be Robin to Calvin’s Batman. Keep in mind too Lions fans Burleson is another year older and Broyles has now had two ACL surgeries. Bringing Hartline in would provide an opportunity for Broyles to heal then transition into Burleson’s spot when healthy.
  • Reggie Bush (RB, Miami) – I like Reggie, but does the bark match the bite? Two years is all I’d be willing to go for a back that’s about to be 28 years of age. His name is sexy and the argument for why Detroit needs Bush is either “speed back” or that “Detroit was 5-0 with Jahvid Best”. But lets be honest, committing 3 to 4 million dollars to a running back that has never lived up to the hype is irresponsible. The Lions have just fewer than 10 million to use and giving 40% of it to a role player is a move that the Lions would do. But the Lions’ front office needs a new game plan because what they’ve been doing isn’t working anymore especially with the defense being depleted.
  • Daryl Smith (LB, Jacksonville) – An underrated player his whole career, Smith has good size, is a good tackler, and covers a tight end better than anyone on the Lions’ roster. Smith should also be favorable money wise to Detroit.
  • Nick Barnett (LB, Buffalo) – Barnett is a solid veteran linebacker who was lost in Buffalo’s bad defense. Barnett is also one of a short list players I targeted for the Lions over 30 years of age. Line backer is a stop gap position for Detroit as they will fill it in the 2013 draft. Barnett tackles and should be a cheaper player than Levy or Durant while putting in better play. With Levy back the Lions could opt for Barnett over Durant giving them more veteran leadership at the position.

So who do I think the Lions will go out and get? My picks are Nick Barnett, Keenan Lewis, and Reggie Bush.

Like I said it in his above, Barnett gives the defense a voice and allows the Lions to sign one more player. Re-sign Delmas and I think it’s a game changer.

As much as I want Bennett at defensive end, the draft is where the Lions need to handle business for at end. Werner, Mingo or Ansah will be there for Detroit’s taking come April.

Keenan Lewis will bring that edge to the defensive backs plus a nose for the ball. Twenty three pass deflects is and eye popping stat and the hope is the Lions can steal him from the cash strapped Steelers especially with the high profile names already in the free agent pool. The Lions can then focus on the other safety position across from Delmas with a 2nd or 3rd round selection in the draft.

Now I cave and recognize the importance of Reggie Bush to the Lions’ offense. Add him and it gives Detroit a home run threat out of the backfield. I don’t think Bush see’s 1000 yards on the ground but I could see 1300 all purpose yards which in turn could affect Megatron’s total yardage. With that said though Calvin’s touchdown total could very well go up.

Ultimately though what these 3 free agent’s allow is Detroit to compete in 2013 and get the most out of the draft. In the 2nd round Detroit can target the best player of need whether its Barrett Jones (C/G out of Alabama), Arthur Brown (OLB out of KSU) or Eric Reid (S out of LSU). The Lions could continue the same trend in the 3rd round by taking a look at safety Phillip Thomas S or  OLB Khaseem Greene.  Someone will slip and it’s Detroit’s turn to clean up.

About Jason Bray

Detroit Sports Columist. Joined The Majors staff in 2012 covering the Detroit Lions.

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