by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
The records for Detroit over the last three years: 4-12, 7-9, 11-5. Although they have not won a playoff game since 1991, it was widely acknowledged prior to the season that this team was a force in the NFC North. This turned out to be true, falling short by one game to Green Bay before losing in the Wild Card round to Dallas. However, the current rebuild continuing under new coach Jim Caldwell may have its difficulty this offseason, as many starters on both sides of the ball are free agents.
Despite having average stats for three years (other than passing yards), Matthew Stafford had proven to be consistent and high quality. Unfortunately, 2014 was an off year for the 6th year Georgia product. His consistency was challenged, as he often played very well or struggled mightily. Nobody is quite sure how he doesn’t throw 40 TD’s with Calvin Johnson on his side, but he hasn’t thrown 30 since 2011. This year, he ranked 22nd in the NFL in PFF Passer Rating. As he starts to get into the serious dollars of his back-loaded contract, he will need to do better than that.
For the last 4 seasons, Stafford has barely left the field as he leads this offense; he has only missed 44 snaps during that time. It’s hard to even judge his backups. Dan Orlovsky is a UFA and would only be re-signed for his familiarity, not for his ability. Unproven Kellen Moore from Boise State has never taken a snap but has had pre-season success and should be re-signed. They may want to upgrade veterans from Orlovsky, however.
The Lions leaned on Joique Bell more this year and it paid off toward the end of the season. However, it seems that he disappeared on the road for some big matchups. Detroit seems content to get Reggie Bush 10-12 touches per game, while mixing in some Theo Reddick. All are threats with the ball in their hands, especially with screens and flat passes. They are all signed for two more years, so the Lions have to feel comfortable here.
Journeyman fullback Jed Collins (UFA) is an average runner, receiver, and blocker. It doesn’t make much difference if he is re-signed or not.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
For the 7th year, the passing game operates through Calvin Johnson, who is annually one of the top 5-10 wideouts in the league. Last offseason, Detroit signed Golden Tate to a large contract and gave him one goal: draw a little coverage away from Megatron, pretty please. He did his job well enough, although it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to do a little run blocking. The others on the roster have not fared as well. Ryan Broyles is perpetually injured, and Corey Fuller and Jeremy Ross don’t scare anyone. They could probably stand to upgrade their depth here, as Johnson was a little nicked up this year and the passing game suffered.
While using that 1st rounder on CJ in 2007 may have worked, a couple of 1st rounders since then have not. I’ll take it easy on Eric Ebron, who looks like he has a lot of talent but needs some time to learn. I like Joseph Fauria as a receiver, but he is also raw. UFA Kellen Davis is average and isn’t necessary. Detroit better hope Ebron comes on strong for next year, because one of the worst contracts on the team belongs to the starter, Brandon Pettigrew. He is fairly useless in the passing game and his blocking ability gets worse every year. His contract makes it hard to be cut, but he should probably be demoted and be an expensive backup.
Three offensive line starters and a top backup are free agents this offseason. With the defensive line also a priority, some guys will naturally get left out. Where is the solution? First, start with center Dominic Raiola. Dom, don’t get suspended for the biggest game of the year against a division rival. The larger problem is his blocking, which rates the NFL’s 5th worst. Travis Swanson performed capably toward the end of the season and could take over the position.
Rob Sims (LG) and Corey Hilliard (RT) are the other starters in line for a new contract. Perhaps a reason why the Lions run so many screens to the left is Sims’ ability to block for screens. It just seems his run blocking has really suffered over the last two years. Hilliard did well in a small sample size before going on the IR after one week. The 31 year old Sims, who made $2.2 million in 2014, would be a great signing for 3 years in the $7-8 million range because there isn’t a lot of depth at guard, even if UFA Garrett Reynolds is also re-signed as a backup. Since LaAdrian Waddle and Cornelius Lucas are there to back up Hilliard, the incumbent has little leverage and could also be re-signed for $1-2 million on a “prove it” deal.
Don’t get me wrong, though…signing these guys in no way means Detroit is set on the line. Other than solid linemen Larry Warford at RG and Riley Reiff at LT, upgrades would be a good idea.
Ezekiel Ansah is pretty good. He’s arguably in the top 5 4-3 DE’s in the league and he’s only finishing his 2nd year. On the other side, though, Jason Jones is not as good. The 4-3 DE is there to rush the passer and Jones is only good at occasionally stopping the run. At least backups George Johnson and Darryl Tapp (both UFA’s) are average pass rushers, which would be an improvement. It would be best to keep Johnson and relegate Jones to a run-stopping role. Cutting him would save over $3 million. Something to think about.
It’s well known that Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are both UFA’s, but did you know C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen are also? Caraun Reid is the only DT under contract that logged any snaps in 2014. Someone has to be re-signed. PFF rated Suh #3 in the NFL in 2014. Is that worth $22 million, his cap number last year? Not sure about that, but when they get that cap number to $15 million, you have to lock him up. Fairley is also pretty good and Mosley is above average. Sign one of them and move on from the other and Fluellen.
It’s nice when the guys in front of you keep running backs from getting to your level. Regardless, these guys aren’t too bad in their own right. DeAndre Levy is a top 3 4-3 OLB who excels at stopping the run. Same goes for both MLB Stephen Tulloch, injured in Week 3, and Tahir Whitehead, who started on the outside and moved to the inside for Tulloch. This is a solid unit of starters.
The backups, on the other hand, were shockingly average in their relatively limited snaps. UFA Ashlee Palmer is probably not affordable, especially as a backup. 2014 2nd round pick Kyle Van Noy held his own, but did not turn any heads. In addition to re-signing RFA Josh Bynes, the Lions should be interested in drafting or signing a MLB to provide depth and insurance against Tulloch having any problems in 2015.
Starting CB’s Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay were, appropriately, Detroit’s two best CB’s this year. Surprise, right? It actually doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Mathis needs a new contract, although at 35 years old it should only be for one or two years. Vaughn, on the other hand, was the least productive cover corner on the team and doesn’t need to be re-signed. The rest of the bench is young and inexperienced, so the Lions would be best served to get a mid-level veteran CB to provide insurance against Mathis or Slay injuries. In the meantime, developing draftees Nevin Lawson and Bill Bentley will help when Mathis decides to call it a career.
While the CB’s were decent, the safeties were better. Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo can cover the run, blanket the pass, and Ihedigbo can even rush the passer a little. They are a bit unheralded for their abilities. The backup, Isa Abdul-Quddus, is a free agent. He is average enough to where he can make some plays. If anything, the depth in the backfield has little experience, but that is to be expected in the NFL these days.
Punter Sam Martin suffers one problem: no one probably knows who he is. You should learn his name, because he’s one of the top 3 in the NFL, and he’s under contract for two more years. Kicker Matt Prater is good enough, but he is a UFA. Perhaps he signs for a respectable amount, but after coming off a 3 yr/$13 million deal, I don’t see him being affordable. Long snapper Don Muhlbach is also a UFA and did not have a great year, but he may get re-signed for the sake of familiarity.
Jeremy Ross (RFA) was the primary kick and punt return specialist. While he seemed to be a decent breakaway threat when watching him, his entire body of work was fairly average. No need to replace him, though.
Initial cap space: $15.3 million – net $2 million for draftees = $13.3 million
Re-sign: K. Moore ($660K), Collins ($745K), Ross ($585K), Sims ($2.5 mil), Hilliard ($1.5 mil), Suh ($15 mil over $9 mil currently prorated), G. Johnson ($745K), Tapp ($870K), Mosley ($2 mil), Bynes ($660K), Mathis ($1.5 mil) – these adds would create a $7.3 cap deficit
Let walk: Orlovsky, K. Davis, Raiola, Reynolds, Fairley, Fluellen, Palmer, Vaughn, Abdul-Quddus, J. Thomas, Prater, Muhlbach
Best cap cuts to make up the difference: Jason Jones ($3.2 mil), Bush (June 1st cut, $3.5 mil), Pettigrew (June 1st cut, $2.8 mil)
If Detroit then restructures Calvin Johnson’s contract, they will save $9 million. Suh could be re-signed, and they will have a few extra million to deal with some of their needs.
Biggest Team Needs: WR, CB, MLB, DE
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