Niyo: Lions' roster remains Quinn's biggest challenge

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Bob Quinn’s first major move as general manager of the Lions was to not make a move.

And undoubtedly that decision — officials announced Friday that Jim Caldwell would return as coach next season — will be viewed by many as taking the easy way out.

Whatever you think of that choice, though, now comes the hard part: Building a roster that’ll bring Caldwell back in 2017.

Because that’s the unspoken promise, or at least it should be, given what Quinn said at his introductory news conference Monday: “We’re not going to build it for the quick, we’re going to build it for the long haul.”

Now, you could argue Quinn bought himself some time by keeping Caldwell and his staff around, and that’s understandable, given he just walked into the building.

But the new general manager still needs to find a way to buy his franchise quarterback more time, investing heavily in reinforcements for an offensive line that was easily the biggest weakness for the Lions last fall. And while he’s busy running around tackling other chores as he pieces together his own staff, Quinn will have to find some players who can run and tackle to shore up an aging defense.

It’s easy for all of us to suggest this is a one-year audition for Caldwell & Co. But that can’t be the way Quinn views it as he reshapes the roster. If he was planning to hit the reset button anytime soon, he should’ve just done it now.

With 10 draft picks and plenty of salary-cap space, this offseason figures to shape the future of this franchise well beyond 2016. And since Quinn has decided to stay hitched to Caldwell, he’s also marrying some of his own future to that of this holdover staff.

Again, that’s not a surprise, especially given the overwhelming support Caldwell had in the Lions locker room and the underwhelming options available on the open market. But it is the reality now, and it’s not just up to the coaches to make it work.

More changes coming

Look, I said at Thanksgiving I thought this offseason would look more like the one former NFL executive Ernie Accorsi helped engineer a few years ago in Carolina than the one he did last winter in Chicago.

Unlike the Bears, who ran a two-track search to find a new general manager and coach, the Panthers hired Accorsi as a consultant in 2013 to find a new GM (Dave Gettleman) and then kept Ron Rivera, whose team rallied to finish 7-9 in his second season.

Now Quinn, hand-picked by Accorsi for the Ford family, has to hope this plays out more like it did with the Panthers, where Rivera’s team has won three straight division titles, than it did recently with the Jets, where ownership insisted a new GM (John Idzik) keep Rex Ryan as coach. Two years later, Idzik and Ryan were fired.

Win or lose next fall, that’s not likely to happen here. Quinn’s reported five-year contract length does give him some added security, and he wasted little time in getting started Friday, hiring his top lieutenant in Kyle O’Brien, the Jaguars director of college scouting. O’Brien, who spent a decade working alongside Quinn in New England, will be Detroit’s director of player personnel.

Sheldon White, who served as the interim general manager after Martin Mayhew was fired midseason, may stay on in his previous role as pro personnel director. And Lance Newmark, promoted to director of college scouting last spring, is sticking around, at least for now. Scouting department changes often don’t come until after the draft in May. But, Scott McEwen, who held that post before Newmark, is out after nearly 30 years as the longest-tenured Lions scout.

And you can expect more where that came from, on and off the field, as Caldwell’s staff gets revamped and the roster gets remade.

Lions still have issues

No franchise manages the salary cap better than the one Quinn just left in New England, though winning has a way of making life easier for everyone over time. Consider that the two most important pieces of Bill Belichick’s offense — Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski — are projected to carry a combined cap figure ($21.6 million) that’s less than that of either Matthew Stafford or Calvin Johnson next season.

But after years of paying for past mistakes, the Lions actually are positioned relatively well going forward, regardless of what Johnson decides to do. (To play or not to play?) Or what the team decides to do with his contract. (To pay or not to pay?)

The Lions have about $20 million in cap room, and some veteran contracts that certainly could be shed before the start of the new league year. (Releasing Stephen Tulloch, Brandon Pettigrew and Joique Bell could give the Lions an additional $11 million in cap space.)

That’s part of what made the Lions job attractive to Quinn, I’m sure. However stunted his growth might’ve been with the Patriots, at the age of 39, there certainly was no rush to jump from Camelot to cap hell.

Still, there are myriad issues in Detroit. The Lions have two-dozen pending free agents — most notably on the defensive line, as was the case a year ago — and a handful of young players coming up for extensions. (Darius Slay and Theo Riddick are at the top of that list.) Beyond the superstar mulling retirement — Caldwell’s return may clear one obstacle for Megatron — there are other big-ticket items that require attention.

Stafford needs a better left tackle than Riley Reiff, whose fifth-year option carries an $8 million cap hit, but can Quinn find one in free agency? That’s one of only a few steps needed to fix an offensive line that helped get a lot of people fired this fall. And even if DeAndre Levy is on track for a healthy return next season, the Lions’ defense needs a serious upgrade in athleticism.

“I think the most important evaluation of a football team,” Quinn said Monday, “is knowing your own team.”

Well, now we know this about the new Lions GM: He just hired his first coach, by default. And if Caldwell can’t get the job done next season, that’ll be on both of them.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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