The Detroit Lions finished the 2011 NFL regular season 10-6, but fell short in the opening round of the playoffs. Though the abrupt conclusion to the Lions’ season left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, the atmosphere around the city is much more optimistic entering the off-season than in years past.
The calendar for making moves that could improve the Lions looks like this: free agency begins March 12, the NFL Draft runs from April 26-28 and college Pro Days span the next month or so. This will give the Lions’ front office ample time to assess the talent coming into the NFL as well as add veteran talent through free agency.
The first step toward achieving this goal is keeping current talent in Detroit. The Lions have four significant free agents that need to be brought back: defensive end Cliff Avril, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, left tackle Jeff Backus and cornerback Eric Wright.
A Lions defense that was ranked in the bottom third in the NFL cannot afford to lose one of its more consistent pieces, let alone three. Reports have come out that Avril might demand as much as $12 million per year with a multi-year deal. What did the Lions do to counter this? They slapped the franchise tag on the ten-sack man worth $10.6 million.
The tag is a win-win for both parties, because it makes Avril one of the top five-paid ends in the NFL while giving the Lions another year to assess his consistency past one successful season. The tag will also give the Lions time to negotiate a long-term deal with Avril until the deadline to sign the franchise tag tender ends March 13.
Tulloch and Wright are a little trickier. Both players played better than their contracts suggested during 2011, and they are going to want a raise. Eric Wright is a number two corner on good teams and a number one corner on bad ones. Tulloch could be a starter on any team in need of a good rushing linebacker. If the Lions can keep both players for under $9 million
combined, it would be a steal.
Because the Lions have an impressive offense with two running backs getting healthy, the defense will be the top priority in the off-season. Locking up Avril long-term, plus Tulloch and Wright, are the keys to keeping continuity in the starting lineup.
The two problem positions on defense right now are depth at linebacker and the secondary as a whole. Adding top talent at defensive back could be possible, but Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan or San Francisco’s Carlos Rogers will likely be expensive additions. Going through the draft will be cheaper and better in terms of value, given the depth at defensive back in this year’s draft class.
The Lions have the number 23 overall pick and should be in line to take Alabama’s Dre’ Kirkpatrick or Northern Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins if they wanted to pursue a cornerback. Both players are top-notch cover corners who played stiff competition during their collegiate careers.
Detroit needs to take the best defensive player available in the first and second round, no matter the position. This year’s defensive class is especially deep at defensive back and defensive end. Defensive end isn’t necessarily a problem position for the Lions with Cliff Avril. However, drafting Syracuse’s Chandler Jones or USC’s Nick Perry would give General Manager Martin Mayhew an excuse to let Cliff Avril go after a year without the outrageous paychecks he demands for 2013 and beyond.
The most interesting part of the off-season besides the draft is the first 24 hours of free agency.
If the Lions decide to go the route of overpaying for veteran talent, it will open up options for the draft. If Martin Mayhew decides to tread conservatively through free agency, the draft will be the cornerstone for improvement in Detroit.
With the depth in this year’s draft and salary constraints, it might be prudent to roll pass on blue chip free agents.