Given the state of some uncertain contract situations (a potential extension for Calvin Johnson, anyone?) and the need to re-sign a few of their own free agents, nobody should expect the Detroit Lions to make a gigantic splash on the free agency market this year. Still, that hardly mean the team cannot be aggressive towards upgrading their roster in small ways. Just like in the past few years, expect the Lions to use the draft as their central building block this offseason.
However, there is plenty of time for draft discussions at a later date, and we'll delve into the specifics of that in the coming months. In the meantime, here's a rundown of five moves the Lions need to explore this offseason that will help them take the all-important "next step" in 2012.
1. Acquire depth for the defensive backfield. Though the Lions' defense had their problems in 2011 with getting off the field and giving up points, there were also some bright spots, especially in the secondary. Forcing interceptions was hardly an issue, but coverage and depth often was. More bodies will solve this problem, so getting a few upgrades in the defensive backfield will be very important in the offseason, regardless of how it's done. Might Detroit try and lure Cortland Finnegan away from Tennessee? He's the prize of the free agent cornerback crop this offseason. As everyone knows, Finnegan's old boss Jim Schwartz helped develop him with the Titans. Other free agency options could include Carlos Rogers (San Francisco) and Brandon Grimes (Atlanta). At safety, Erik Coleman and Chris Harris are free agents, so the Lions will likely need to add some bodies there as well. Michael Griffin (Titans) and Jim Leonhard (Jets) are a few reasonable names that stand out. Funds could be an issue, so expect the Lions to sign a few lower tier free agents and spend a draft pick or two on the defensive backfield. With some of the talented young pieces they already have in place, that's hardly a problem.
2. Add a veteran running back. Jahvid Best is coming off more concussion problems, and Mikel Leshoure is recovering from a tough knee injury sustained during training camp. Though Best has shown he can be electrifying and hopes are high for Leshoure, the Lions cannot risk a repeat of this season, where "running back by committee" and problems rushing the football became the norm. For an insurance policy, the Lions need to sign a veteran running back who perhaps doesn't have to play a lead role, but has more to offer than Maurice Morris, Keiland Williams or Kevin Smith provided in 2011. A player like Peyton Hillis or Michael Bush comes to mind, who will both be free agents. Either player could add some much needed stability to the team at an uncertain position. As New Orleans has proven, having several good running backs is hardly a problem, and can help diversify the Lions' offense even further.
3. Develop some young offensive linemen. As good as the Lions' offensive line was in 2011, some depth needs to be built there as well. Far and away, the best way to do that is through this year's draft. The Lions still have Jason Fox in the fold, and Jim Schwartz sounded bullish on what Fox can provide moving forward when not injured. Inside at guard, the Lions should do what they did when they drafted Fox, and begin to develop a bit of young depth on the interior. Age catches up to everybody eventually, and the Lions cannot afford to be unprepared if any of their steady linemen begin to lose a step in the next few seasons.
4. Figure out what to do with Calvin Johnson. There is no doubt that Johnson is the most skilled wide receiver in the game, and as such, he's likely going to want a more lucrative contract than Larry Fitzgerald recently received. Many fans will simply say Martin Mayhew should break down and pay the man whatever he wants. Despite this, the question remains, can Detroit really afford to simply "pay the man" in a salary cap world with other sizeable contracts on the books? Though talents like Johnson don't come around every day, wide receiver is one of the true interchangeable part positions in the NFL. After all, Tom Brady has helped make Wes Welker and Deon Branch into stars and Drew Brees has been making history with his unheralded group of speedster wide outs for years. If teams have their quarterback (which the Lions do) it is often easiest to invest heavily in him and sparingly on skill positions like wide receiver. This offseason, Mayhew must make that decision. He should either get an extension done with Johnson quickly, or simply let things play out into the season.
5. Upgrade special teams. A common thread between the NFL's playoff "final four" is the strong play of their special teams. Every one of the teams that will play for a shot at the Super Bowl has a quality kicking game, excellent tackling, good returners and a fantastic punter. During the 2011 season, special teams were often the downfall of the Lions, as they gave up sizeable returns to the opposition, didn't get many big returns out of Stefan Logan and struggled in the punting game. There was plenty of "hidden yards" and lost points given up as a result of this. Punter Ryan Donahue was injured, but prior to his injury, Donahue was also having problems with consistency and his replacement Ben Graham wasn't fantastic either. The bionic man Jason Hanson is still a reliable kicker, but the reality is, he's not going to kick forever. This offseason, the Lions should take a hard look at their special teams and make some upgrades. Maybe it doesn't mean replacing Hanson this year, but scrutinizing Donahue, Logan and some of the schemes and other special teams contributors should not be out of the question in order to get better.
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