There was something about the Detroit Lions this year that we hadn’t seen in quite some time, expectation. With a Quarterback graded in the Top 15 and our top-rated receiver from 2011, those expectations are sure to rise even higher this season. At times the Lions looked like they could put up points for fun, but defensive struggles and a lack of discipline hurt them en route to a first round playoff defeat.
The Lions are in an interesting position in that they don’t have a lot of big needs, but they also don’t have a lot of money to spend to fill what needs they do have. That means they’ll likely have to find some bargains in the free agency market. Thankfully for them, here at Pro Football Focus we’ve looked deep into the class to find some players who could improve their roster without them having to spend big. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the Lions’ needs this offseason.
Primary Need: Middle Linebacker
Last year, Stephen Tulloch (+20.8) was a revelation for the Lions, finishing the regular season as our seventh-highest graded inside linebacker. He played so well that he’s our top-rated free agent at the position, and while that’s great news for Tulloch, it’s not so great for a Lions team that doesn’t have a lot of money to spend against the salary cap. Obviously they’d like to have him back in the fold, but who should they target if Tulloch is indeed out of their price range?
While no longer an every down player, E.J. Henderson (+5.6) could fit nicely in Detroit. He struggled in coverage, where he had a grade of -9.7, giving up receptions on 38 of the 46 plays he was targeted. However, against the run, only NaVorro Bowman and Derrick Johnson (both +19.4 against the run) graded out higher. He’s not the all-around player that Tulloch is, but Henderson would be a cheaper alternative if Tulloch get’s a big deal elsewhere.
Secondary Need: Cornerback
The Lions had mixed results from their cornerbacks last season. Chris Houston (+3.7) had an up-and-down year with an equal number of games with positive and negative grades. Giving up four touchdowns throughout the season, he managed to pick off five passes and broke up five more. Eric Wright (-14.1) had his moments, like an impressive performance against Minnesota in Week 14, but was largely disappointing. He gave up 79 receptions for 879 yards and five touchdowns through the regular season and the Wild Card playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.
As we stated earlier, the Lions don’t have too much money to spend which will likely keep them from making a run at the very best free agents available. However, someone like Tim Jennings (+7.4) would prove an upgrade without having to break the bank. Solid all round, Jennings was stellar against the run and missed just five tackles all year, good enough to be ranked No. 7 on our list of the most efficient tacklers at the position. In coverage, he didn’t allow a touchdown reception all season while allowing receptions on just 57.3% of passes thrown his way.
Tertiary Need: Wide Receiver
Detroit is fortunate in that they don’t have many glaring needs and with Calvin Johnson (+36.1), they have one the very best receivers in the league. However, outside of Johnson, Matt Stafford doesn’t have a receiver he can rely on. Nate Burleson (-10.4) and Titus Young (-8.7) both added big plays but combined for 17 drops. What the Lions’ offense would benefit from is a safe pair of hands and someone who can work the intermediate area of the field.
Jerricho Cotchery (+6.2) saw most of his playing time come late in the season in Pittsburgh, with 172 of his 312 snaps coming from Week 14 onward, and he made the most of that increased playing time with some solid performances to finish the season. He’s dropped just 18 passes since 2008, with 10 of them coming during a 2010 season where he played hurt. In a crowded group of free agent receivers, Cotchery could prove a real bargain.