2013 Team Needs: Detroit Lions
This offseason may be the biggest challenge GM Martin Mayhew ever faces in his career. It has been reported that the Lions are currently over the cap and they have been proactive lettings some look elsewhere already. The big problem is that current number doesn’t include any rookies, or the team’s 29 impending free agents — check out the full list. The Lions could be hit hard, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Among those impending free agents are six starters on defense (Chris Houston, Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy, Justin Durant, Cliff Avril, and Jacob Lacey) and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
Mayhew is going to have to target the Detroit free agents that are indispensable, but I would guess at least a couple of those starters are going to be let go. After all, Detroit’s main problem last year was its defense, which ranked 26th in PFF’s overall rankings, and so retaining the same players doesn’t make much sense.
After going 4-12 a year ago the Lions will have the fifth overall pick in the draft. That will be a good jumping off point when addressing need this offseason, but free agents will have to be brought in, or re-signed, as well to make up for all they will lose. Here are the positions that will need attention.
Defensive end is the most intriguing position on the Lions’ roster. Detroit has one of the best defensive tackle combos in the league, but their ends were extremely poor last season. None graded positively as everyone experienced a drop in production from 2011. Cliff Avril led the group with a Pass Rushing Productivity of 7.4, while the lowest mark among those same players in 2011 was Kyle Vanden Bosch’s 7.3.
Now Avril, Lawrence Jackson, and Willie Young are all free agents, and Vanden Bosch has been given a veteran courtesy and already been released. However, Vanden Bosch may not be a great loss (at least on the field as he’s a solid leader), as the 35-year-old was 34th in Pass Rushing Productivity and 28th in Run Stop Percentage among starting 4-3 defensive ends. He also hasn’t graded positively for a season since 2008. The Lions have used their depth on the defensive line to their advantage the past few seasons, but it looks like that luxury may have run out.
Free Agent Fix: Lawrence Jackson
This position could very well be where they go with the No. 5 pick, but the Lions will still probably want to retain one of the four ends that got significant playing time. If they didn’t re-sign one they would be left with 2012 fourth-round pick Ronnell Lewis as their sole end to have played a snap last season.
When comparing the value of free agents, I believe the best return on investment would come from Lawrence Jackson. Avril will be looking for another big contract after a 10-sack season, and Young’s size makes him ill-suited as an every-down end. With Jackson the Lions get a former first-round pick who they know can stop the run and has flashed pass rushing ability. Jackson’s Pass Rushing Productivity marks from the past three years are 5.9, 8.7, and 9.6, and he has worked almost exclusively from the right side the past two seasons. He made just under $1 million last year and it wouldn’t be outrageous to think they could keep him for a mild pay increase.
The Lions secondary was a revolving door all season. Only one player played more than 600 snaps, while 11 players played at least 100 snaps. The problem is few played effectively in their snaps, and a good portion of those guys are now free agents. The bottom line is the Lions’ pass defense was 24th in passer rating against, and our 19th-rated pass coverage unit.
If they don’t re-sign/add any free agents, they will be stuck with quite a bit of unknowns. Ronald Bartell would be the lone cornerback who has played a considerable amount of snaps in the league. Ricardo Silva and Don Carey will be the returning safeties with the most snaps. Carey was starting at the end of the year with Louis Delmas and played well, but he has played just over 1000 snaps in his four-year career.
My guess is that the Lions go after secondary help heavily in the draft, and bring back one, possibly two, of their free agents. The one positive that can be said about the 2012 season was that the coaches got to try out a bunch of players and give their young guys some valuable experience.
Free Agent Fix: D.J. Moore
It’s going to be tough for the Lions to pull a corner with starting experience, and their best bet on that front is Chris Houston or Jacob Lacey. If the Lions are going to sign a free agent to go alongside or even replace Houston, their best bet would be to go after a successful nickelback playing behind two strong corners.
The Lions could get some value if they went after D.J. Moore. Moore has been the Bears’ nickelback the past three seasons after being a fourth-round pick in 2009. His lowest pass coverage grade over that time was -1.9, and he was on pace for a great year in 2012 until he was injured. Not only could Detroit feasibly lure him away with the promise of a starting role, but they could also sign him fairly cheaply.
All three levels of the defense need to be addressed this offseason. If Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy weren’t free agents, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a position of need. Stephen Tulloch has never graded negatively before last season and there is no reason to think he won’t continue to be a solid middle linebacker. Levy is the one linebacker that has consistently underperformed in that unit, and even he would be fine as a nickel/dime linebacker.
While Levy is expendable, the question of whether or not to re-sign Durant is a tough one and will come down to cap space and asking price. Durant has always been able to stop the run, and he had the fourth-best Run Stop Percentage among 4-3 outside linebackers last season. He has struggled though in coverage, allowing 300 yards and 100+ passer rating the Past two seasons. How much is a run stuffer worth nowadays, especially when more pressing needs exist in the secondary? The Lions will have to answer that question this offseason.
Free Agent Fix: Moise Fokou
This is another position where looking for a talented backup from another team might be their best bet. Durant will likely command too much money, and Levy’s poor run defense makes him expendable. Moise Fokou was the Colts’ nickel linebacker last season and performed admirably. Fokou had positive grades in run defense as well as pass coverage in 403 snaps. He played inside in a 3-4 last season, but has played as a 4-3 outside linebacker before that with the Eagles.
The Lions may very well be happy letting recent draft picks Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis, as well as any rookies, have a competition for the outside linebacker positions. That being said, trying to rebuild this team through rookies will take some time and many pieces are in place that are capable of winning now. If the Lions are able to clear enough space, Fokou could be a cost effective signing in an offseason where many cost effective signings will be needed.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner