Lions contemplate how to take next step in 2015
With the East-West Shrine Game this week and the Senior Bowl next week, the offseason is in full swing for all but the four NFL teams remaining in the postseason.
Although the Lions finished 11-5 and earned their second postseason berth of the past 15 years, general manager Martin Mayhew made clear the roster needs upgrades before the 2015 season.
"We have to get better from a talent standpoint," he said last week. "We have to be a better football team. I think we're a good football team right now, but we're not a great football team."
Re-signing All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh would go a long way to ensuring long-term success, but the Lions also have to add pieces through free agency and the draft to give them a better chance to contend for the Super Bowl in 2015. The No. 2-ranked defense helped the Lions reach the postseason in 2014, but the No. 19 offense limited the team's ceiling. The Lions finished 13th in points differential; the Patriots, Seahawks and Packers were the top three and the Colts were sixth.
Mayhew said last week the Lions have made some personnel decisions for 2015, but they have yet to disclose any moves. He also acknowledged he can't make the same mistakes as in 2012 when the Lions stuck with some veterans whose play didn't match their earnings, which could mean some players will be expendable.
Ultimately, what happens with Suh's pending free agency — whether he leaves, signs a long-term deal or the team uses a $26.9 million franchise or transition tag — will largely determine just how many upgrades the team can make before 2015.
"It requires a certain type of cash commitment to get that deal done," Mayhew said. "It would slow other things down if we were uncertain about whether it would get done or not."
Here is an offseason primer for what lies ahead the next four months:
Free agents: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, OG Rob Sims, LB Ashlee Palmer, OT Corey Hilliard, DT C.J. Mosley, C Dominic Raiola, LS Don Muhlbach, CB Rashean Mathis, QB Dan Orlovsky, DE Darryl Tapp, K Matt Prater, CB Cassius Vaughn, DT Andre Fluellen, DE George Johnson, OL Garrett Reynolds, TE Kellen Davis, FB Jed Collins, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, CB Josh Thomas, QB Kellen Moore (restricted), LB Josh Bynes (restricted), WR Jeremy Ross (exclusive rights)
Top needs: DT, CB, WR, OL, QB, DE
Analysis: Bringing back Suh is obviously the top priority, and how much the Lions have to pay him will be a factor in how they handle the rest of free agency. That's why, as Mayhew said last week, there's been a consistent urgency to reach a deal with Suh.
If the Lions re-sign Suh, it's hard to imagine them shelling out to keep Fairley, but if his knee injury hurt his value, there's a chance they bring him back on a short-term deal to see if the defense can be as strong as it was last year. Of course, Mosley will be much cheaper, as he'll turn 32 next August, and he proved capable of starting when he replaced Fairley.
Besides trying to bring back some of the four free-agent defensive tackles, Mathis and Prater stand out as the other top priorities. Mathis will be 35 next season, but he's coming off a strong season, is one of the team's top veteran leaders and played a key role in the development of Darius Slay. Even if the Lions re-sign Mathis, they could use another veteran cornerback as a backup — whether that's Vaughn or someone else — as Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and Mohammed Seisay would be the top backups, and the first two are coming off season-ending injuries.
Prater provided confidence in the kicking game that had been lacking since Jason Hanson retired after the 2012 season. He wants to return, and the Lions should be interested in bringing him back, though he might face competition from a rookie in training camp.
As for the other needs, it makes financial sense to bring back Ross for a three-year deal at the minimum, which he would have to accept or test free agency, but the Lions would benefit from signing a proven veteran to an inexpensive deal. Ross and Corey Fuller weren't threats this season and didn't earn the trust of Matthew Stafford, and Ryan Broyles and rookie TJ Jones have yet to prove themselves in the NFL. Competition in camp would theoretically make the backup group stronger.
At offensive line, the Lions will likely sign a veteran tackle, Hilliard or someone else, and bring back Sims or Raiola. With Larry Warford (RG) and Travis Swanson (C/LG) slotted as starters, bringing both back would make little sense.
At quarterback, the Lions could bring back Orlovsky and/or Moore, but neither is a top-level backup. At defensive end, the Lions have starters Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones under contract and Devin Taylor and Larry Webster will be backups, but the unit thrived on its depth last year. Bringing back Johnson or Tapp or signing another veteran is necessary.
Potential cap-saving cuts: LB Stephen Tulloch ($3.2 million), DE Jason Jones ($3.15 million), RB Reggie Bush ($1.7 million)
Analysis: With the salary cap expected to increase by as much as $10 million, the Lions don't need to make any major cuts to franchise Suh, but they might need to make some tough decisions to clear space for other free agents. Any of the three could take a pay cut if the Lions offer, but if there's a cap crunch, Tulloch, Jones or Bush could become expendable.
The Lions could restructure the contracts of Stafford and Calvin Johnson to free space, too.
In terms of need and 2015 savings, Tulloch makes the most sense to be a cap casualty as Tahir Whitehead proved to be a capable starter in the middle in 2014, and the Lions expect 2014 second-round pick Kyle Van Noy to become a starter opposite DeAndre Levy.
However, Tulloch was playing at a higher level than Whitehead before the injury and rarely missed a play, unlike Whitehead, who shared time with Bynes. He's also a captain and has significantly more experience calling plays than anyone else, but whether he can return to a near-Pro Bowl level at age 30 after suffering a torn ACL could play a role in the decision.
Jones was a key cog in the Lions' top-ranked run defense, and even though he finished with five sacks in 2014, he has limits as a pass rusher. Plus, with Ezekiel Ansah flashing Pro Bowl potential, the Lions might choose to spend the savings elsewhere and trust their other young defensive ends and Van Noy.
Cutting Bush wouldn't save much money, and after recovering from an ankle injury, his did flash some of his trademark agility in the last few games. However, with Joique Bell as the feature back and Theo Riddick as a receiving option, there might not be room to pay Bush.
One other option might be tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was ineffective in 2014, but he still has three years left on his deal and would only save the Lions $800,000 in 2015.
Top needs: DT, RB, OL, WR, QB, DB
Analysis: Unless the Lions sign Suh and Fairley to long-term deals, which is highly unlikely, defensive tackle will be the most pressing future need. Currently, Caraun Reid, a fifth-round pick in 2014, is the only tackle signed for 2015, so the Lions will need to address that spot early in the draft. Whether they do so at No. 23 in the first round will be known in April.
According to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., the top options are Danny Shelton (Washington), Eddie Goldman (Florida State), Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington (Ohio State), Malcom Brown (Texas) and Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma).
Although Bell and Riddick flashed potential and Bush is still under contract, the Lions desperately need a long-term upgrade after averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Bell will be 29, Bush 30 and Riddick has yet to prove himself as a runner.
Fortunately for the Lions, the 2015 running back class resembles the 2014 receiver class, as it's loaded with talent. According to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, as many as 12 running backs could go in the first three or four rounds — Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Todd Gurley (Georgia), Jay Ajayi (Boise State), Tevin Coleman (Indiana), David Cobb (Minnesota), Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), Duke Johnson (Miami), Cameron Artis-Payne (Auburn), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), Mike Davis (South Carolina), Jeremy Langford (Michigan State) and Matt Jones (Florida).
McShay also said the Lions will be right in the "sweet spot" for a top offensive lineman at No. 23. Riley Reiff is a fine left tackle, but the Lions have had a revolving door at right tackle the past two years, which makes that a potential need. Even if Raiola and/or Sims returns, the Lions will need a future interior player, which was the plan when they drafted Swanson in the third round last year. Some options, per McShay, are tackles Brandon Scherff (Iowa), Ereck Flowers (Miami), T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh) La'el Collins (LSU) and Andrus Peat (Stanford) and guard A.J. Cann (South Carolina).
Wide receiver is a long-term need based on how little Fuller and Ross provided in the pass game last year. The Lions could see increased production from Fuller or development from Broyles or Jones, but with Calvin Johnson turning 30 next year, a long-term solution would be wise. Some top prospects are Amari Cooper (Alabama), DeVante Parker (Louisville), Dorial Green-Beckham (Oklahoma), Jaelen Strong (Arizona State), Kevin White (West Virginia), Devin Funchess (Michigan), Sammie Coates (Auburn) and Nelson Agholor (USC).
The Lions considered drafting a quarterback last year, but were content with Orlovsky and Moore. It'd make sense to develop a backup.
Cornerback and safety long been a top needd for the Lions, but the Lions should have their starters in place and could push that need to 2016 if they choose.