Reshaping a Lions team that was in a tailspin for much of 2012 season falls on general manager Martin Mayhew, who must uncover some playmakers to help a woeful defense. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
This is it. This is the offseason we learn if Martin Mayhew is truly clever, or simply an Accidental GM. This is the most important juncture of Mayhew's career, which also makes it the most important of Jim Schwartz's career.
And the more you pick through the Lions' roster, while watching the NFL's best battle in the playoffs, the more daunting the task appears. The Lions have Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Beyond that? Beyond that, they have 22 unrestricted free agents, second most in the league, with modest to paltry credentials. The roster is fixable because broken teams get fixed all the time in the NFL, but it will be one profoundly difficult exercise.
We're five years removed from the Matt Millen pox, and the Lions' record is 22-42. If they don't make the playoffs next season, Mayhew and Schwartz should be gone. I have no idea if the Ford family concurs, but the level of disgust with this 4-12 pratfall practically rivals the 0-16 season.
As much as the Lions claim hope isn't a strategy, that's precisely what burned them. Mayhew hoped Jahvid Best would be healthy to make big plays on offense, and safety Louis Delmas would stay healthy to anchor the defense. Neither happened and neither is likely to happen, with Best's career almost assuredly over.
Mayhew must dump any quaint notion of loyalty, and begin ruthlessly redoing the roster. The defense was horrible at the end of the 10-6 playoff season, and incredibly, the Lions did virtually nothing to address it. Complacency? Foolishness? Salary-cap reality?
A bit of everything. They brought back 21 of 22 starters, then discovered continuity is the right approach only if the players are really good. Now the defense needs more work than can be accomplished in one offseason, but Mayhew and his staff have pushed the boundaries of patience, straight toward desperation.
"We need guys who can impact the game," Mayhew said in his postseason comments. "We've got a lot of good guys. They line up right and they know what their job is. But they don't impact the game."
The Lions have the best receiver in football, a potential star at quarterback and a couple of potentially dominant forces on the defensive line. They have a top. They have little in the middle and no bottom. They have no depth. And as Mayhew pointed out, they don't have nearly enough playmakers.
There's no guaranteed formula for making the playoffs. Some teams have superstar quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning), some have big-play running backs (Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster). But most have impact players on defense.
Green Bay was rocked by injuries, but Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson still make huge plays. Houston is a contender because of its defense, led by 20.5-sack man J.J. Watt. Seattle has a terrific secondary, San Francisco has six Pro Bowlers on defense and Baltimore has had one of the all-time talented groups, although it's down to Ray Lewis' last stand.
Of the 10 players with the most sacks in the NFL, eight are on playoff teams, led by Watt, the 49ers' Aldon Smith (19.5) and the Broncos' Von Miller (18.5). The Lions' leading sacker was Cliff Avril with 9.5 and he's a free agent again, and the team's decision will be much tougher. Eight defensive starters are free agents, and I have three pointed questions for Mayhew.
1. Can you again tie your defense, emotionally and tactically, to the oft-injured Delmas? I say no.
2. Can you get by with three linebackers that make tackles but not big plays? I say no, which means free agents DeAndre Levy or Justin Durant could be gone.
3. Must you try feverishly to keep Chris Houston, your only proven cornerback? Yep.
It's on Mayhew
There has been plenty of legitimate focus on Schwartz's shortcomings, and now it's Mayhew's turn. And I hope in the back rooms of the Allen Park facility, there's honest self-analysis going on. His mid-to-late-round drafting has been abysmal, with the only decent assets plucked from rounds 4-7 in four years being Sammie Hill and Willie Young.
Mayhew says he's sticking to the best-player-available approach, but I think he's just toying with semantics. It's the "best player available for the Lions roster," and that means it has to be a defensive player with the No. 5 pick, probably an end such as Florida State's Bjoern Werner, LSU's Barkevious Mingo or Texas A&M's Damontre Moore.
The Lions need someone who can knock the ball loose on a sack, or return an interception for a touchdown. They were the only team in the league without a return touchdown of any kind.
Without a healthy Delmas, and with all the cornerback injuries and ousters, the secondary was decimated. Maybe injured rookie Bill Bentley will emerge. Maybe on offense, someone besides Johnson will fill the big-play void. The running game wasn't remotely explosive or consistent, and the disappointment extended from Mikel Leshoure to an offensive line that has to be reworked.
The Lions should look a lot different this time next year, if they plan to be playing this time next year. This is on Mayhew, because to get impact guys, you need an impact guy to find them.