Katzenstein: Where are the Lions' upgrades?

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Out of all the questions Lions management didn't answer this week, there's one I especially wanted answered.

Why do you, general manager Martin Mayhew, think this team is ready to have sustained success?

Because based on the Lions moves thus far in free agency, the team thinks it has enough pieces to contend for the NFC North again in 2015.

Nearly a week into free agency, the Lions have yet to noticeably upgrade a single position, unless you consider not re-signing some of their own free agents addition by subtraction — Travis Swanson replacing Dominic Raiola at center or Theo Riddick taking the receiving back role from Reggie Bush, for example.

Even using that logic, the Lions haven't improved any starting spots yet with known commodities, which means the front office thinks there is enough talent on the roster to make the playoffs for a second straight season.

This is perilous logic, of course, and recent history shows why. In 2011, the Lions went 10-6 and made the playoffs, but after the season, they didn't do much to upgrade the roster. Their biggest free-agent acquisitions was cornerback Jacob Lacey, who had one lackluster season in Detroit, and the team finished 4-12.

The Lions were counting on some of their young players having a bigger role, like 2011 draft picks defensive tackle Nick Fairley, wide receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure. Mayhew also admitted he counted too much on the potential return of running back Jahvid Best, who never played again after suffering another concussion in Week 6 of 2011.

Pressure on '14 picks

Looking ahead to next season, 2014 draft picks like tight end Eric Ebron, outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy and cornerback Nevin Lawson are among the players the Lions will rely on more, and while teams should put more on the plates of their draft picks as they get older, there's no guarantee that investment will produce the necessary return.

And during the 2012 offseason, the Lions didn't lose the kind of talent they did this year when Ndamukong Suh and Fairley signed with other teams.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the offense were great in 2011, and the Lions hoped the unit would continue to carry the team. Instead, the offense remained productive in yardage, but the Lions' scoring average dropped by more than 6 points per game.

In 2014, Stafford and the offense struggled, and now, the hope will be that the unit can take a step forward in the second year under coordinator Joe Lombardi. Last year, Lombardi and coach Jim Caldwell helped the Lions reduce turnovers to 20 from 34 in 2013, but next season the offense likely has to return to its 2011 productivity level to account for the losses on defense.

The expectation from the Lions was that, if Suh left, they would have enough cap space to improve multiple positions, finding upgrades at cornerback and the offensive line while adding suitable replacements for Suh and Fairley.

The Lions kind of did the last one, trading for five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata from the Ravens and signing pass-rushing tackle Tyrunn Walker from the Saints. But Ngata will cost the Lions $8.5 million in 2015, which was about half of the salary cap space they had before free agency began. As a result, the Lions didn't have much money to pursue other free agents.

But that's not entirely true. If the Lions had chosen to use the $26.9 million franchise tag on Suh, they would've needed Calvin Johnson or Matthew Stafford to restructure their contracts to free enough cap space. Those options were still available to the Lions in free agency, but they have so far balked at the idea of continuing to kick the can down the road, in part because that logic put them in the predicament that ultimately led to Suh's exodus.

Had the Lions restructured the deals of either Stafford or Johnson, they would've had enough cash to pursue cornerbacks like Antonio Cromartie or Byron Maxwell. They could've tried to strike a deal with guard Clint Boling, too.

Instead, the Lions chose to think long term at the risk of their short-term prospects. Yes, the changing thought process should help the Lions down the road as they try to sign extensions with linebacker DeAndre Levy, defensive end Ziggy Ansah and guard Larry Warford. But in the meantime, the Lions are in danger of having a similar fall as they did in 2012 because they haven't noticeably upgraded the roster.

Now, the Lions have about $4 million in cap space, including projections of what they'll need for their rookie class. Much of that money will likely go to signing a starting-caliber left guard. At this point, that guy could Justin Blalock, who visited Thursday, or Rob Sims, who held the position the last five years. Both players are 31, and there's no promise Blalock would be an upgrade over what Sims did last year.

The other glaring need is at cornerback, where Rashean Mathis is now one of the top free agents left. The Lions could re-sign Mathis, but he'll be 35 next season and adding him back wouldn't do anything to upgrade that position from 2014.

And as the Lions search for inexpensive value for the 2015 season, they won't receive anything from the fourth- or fifth-round picks they traded to the Ravens for Ngata and a seventh-round pick.

Mayhew said at the combine he learned from what happened to the Lions in 2012, but declined to provide specifics. The Lions will have to strike gold in the draft next month and win again in 2015 to prove he's actually taken anything from that painful lesson.