Detroit Lions’ Offseason Three-Step Plan

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This past season was arguably the best season Lions fans have been a part of since the Barry Sanders days. The emergence of Golden Tate, the rock-solid coaching of newly hired Jim Caldwell and staff, the No. 1 defense in the entire league and the almost-complete domination of the NFC North to cap off the 2014 season.

The key word here is ‘almost.’

Almost getting first place in the North, almost getting the first round bye, almost beating the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round. Almost…

But when will Lions fans be satisfied with their team? Now is the time. Coming off of a great campaign with superstars exploding at every corner of the roster, solidity at almost every position with more depth than ever before and a coaching staff that can back it all up with a huge culture change and the mindsets of winners.

The Lions can now act like they have been there before and make another push toward an NFC North title.

However, the offseason has begun a little too soon for the Cardiac Cats, and it is time to accept some changes around the locker room. Luckily, Teryl Austin, the Lions’ superb defensive coordinator, will most likely be staying in Detroit despite some head coaching rumors. But Austin’s departure is not the only concern in the D, there will be plenty of moving parts when free agency turns the corner March 10 and the draft boards go up April 30-May 2.

With a little bit of time to muster up draft boards and create predictions on free agency signings, its time to get down to brass tax.

The Lions had an excellent year, but they still need a lot of help if they wish to make it to the big game. Here is a Martin Mayhew’s simple three-step plan for the 2015 offseason:

  1. Familiar faces
  2. Two Impactful signings
  3. The future of the run game

Here are the positions the Lions must improve within the next five months: OL, CB, DL, RB, WR.

This is where the Lions stand under the cap:

Salary Cap: $133 million

Detroit Lions: $127 million

The Lions rest easily under the ceiling by a solid $6 million. That is good news considering the opportunity to pick up a few small-time smart contracts from within the organization before venturing out into the open market.

Yes, the Lions must first handle all of the free agents within the organization first. Not just because of the wait until the week of March 10 to sign others, but because the Lions have a hefty amount of players hitting the market. Some of those players are top five in the NFL at their position.

The Lions’ 2015 free agents include:

  1. Ndamukong Suh
  2. Rob Sims
  3. Nick Fairley
  4. Corey Hilliard
  5. Ashlee Palmer
  6. C.J. Mosley
  7. Dominic Raiola*
  8. Jed Collins
  9. Isa Abdul-Quddus
  10. Dan Orlovsky
  11. Don Muhlbach
  12. Rashean Mathis
  13. Kellen Moore
  14. Cassius Vaugh
  15. Darryl Tapp
  16. Jeremy Ross
  17. George Johnson
  18. Garrett Reynolds
  19. Josh Bynes
  20. Matt Prater
  21. Andre Fluellen
  22. Kellen Davis
  23. Joshua Thomas
  24. Ronnie Sneed
  25. Johnny Culbreath

*Confirmed by team that he will not return for next season.

To honor the first step in the Lions’ offseason manifesto, it is time to pull out the wallet and decide who comes back for the Lions’ next playoff push. With Suh’s dollar signs clouding the future, it is hard to see where the Lions go. Will Suh stay or will Suh go?

If Suh were to receive J.J Watt’s exact contract, then his cap hit would cost the Lions an approximate $10 million guaranteed with $12 million in bonuses — putting the Lions at $149 million, $16 million too much, something the Lions just cannot do. There are a couple of teams on the market that can cough it up with ease (Seattle, Cincinnati, Cleveland) to name the best teams of the bunch.

However there is something working into the Lions’ favor at the moment, the salary cap adjustment. In 2013, the salary cap was $123.9 million and then was adjusted to $133 million for the 2014 season. It has been rumored that the jump this year could be upwards of $8 million, equaling somewhere around $141 million.

This jump in the salary cap will propel the Lions into a more comfortable number of approximately $15 million under the cap, a number that will bode well for a successful offseason.

Signing Suh is starting to become more of a possibility than a probability with all the commotion around the subject. Calvin Johnson publicly stated he will “…do whatever it takes to get Suh back.” Small adjustments could be made to Stafford’s contract as well.

When Suh cried at the podium during the playoff loss post-game presser, it was eye-opening to say the least. The guy obviously is passionate and actually has heart, unlike what some would admit. It seems as though an indicator of Suh wanting to come back himself.

Look for Suh to be in Honolulu Blue next year.

Along with Suh is a plethora of players to be decided on. Some players that should be inked this offseason will include kicker Matt Prater, Joe Lombardi’s favorite fullback Jed Collins and under the radar pass rusher George Johnson.

Players like Ashlee Palmer, Jeremy Ross and C.J. Mosley could get the axe. Ross did not have a terrific year, Mosley is the only tackle not named Nick Fairley or Suh on this list and  Palmer is an admirable special teamer and great backup, but could see the outs if he does not settle for a backup/special team type contract.

The special case here in this case is Fairley. Anything from “He is an excellent counter-part to Suh,” to “Oh he is just too fat” has been said about the defensive tackle out of Auburn. The Lions not picking up his fifth-year option was a nod to this debate, but do the Lions really want to give him up if he is still one of the best free agent defensive tackles on this list? The Lions should be thinking one thing after re-signing Suh, and that is to franchise tag Nick Fairley. Who else would they use it on? Nothing seems more perfect to a Lions offseason than to tag Fairley and sign Suh to a lucrative contract.

There is far too much fine print to read when getting ahead of the offseason moves, but the Lions should still be able to manage $4-6 million on another deal. Which brings the Lions’ three-piece manifesto to part two: sign two impactful free agents.

The Lions must address one more position before even thinking about the Draft come May. With the hypothetical signing of Suh and hypothetical tagging of Fairley, the Lions do not have to worry much about drafting a defensive lineman. However, there are a few positions left to examine: OL, CB, WR, RB. The free agent list of running backs is very long and lackluster to say the least, and it is last on the list as far as pertinence goes.

Alone at the top sits the need for an offensive lineman, whether that is to fill the position of the free agent Rob Sims, or to set LaAdrian Waddle down a peg and secure the right tackle position. Either way, an offensive lineman is needed immediately in order to improve the fifth-worst rushing attack in the league.

The best-case scenario for the Lions is signing Mike Iupati, the best offensive guard in free agency, for a $3.5-$4.5 million guaranteed contract. If the Lions are looking cheaper, they could find a decent contract for offensive tackle Joe Barksdale from the St. Louis Rams, a Detroit native. These moves are all in line to improve Stafford’s pocket and increase the run game.

There are two other options Martin Mayhew could go here.

If the Lions stay with a defensive mindset with their cash they will find plenty of options in the market of corner backs. The Lions were one more playmaker on the edge from being entirely dominant in the face of opponents this past season. The corner position can still improved, and there are plenty of names out there. Legion of Boom corner, Byron Maxwell, tops the list, followed by players like Brandon Flowers from the Chargers and Perish Cox and Chris Culliver from the 49ers. Any name on the list seems like an alright signing, but the Lions should start by rewarding Rashean Mathis with a contract for his level of play last year. At 34, he played within the top 15 corner backs in the league, and he could return for cheap.

One wild card signing that could be plausible is the signing of wide receiver Michael Crabtree. He is a role type receiver who has high upside for a modest contract. In the right regime and a little bit more love, Crabtree could be a perfect fit as the Lions’ third wide receiver.

The signing of Suh and any one of the names just listed will complete objective two of the Lions’ offseason mission: sign two impactful free agents.

Now, the final piece of the Lions’ offseason agenda: Future of the run game.

The Lions would do well to sign an OT or OG in the offseason before looking to the Draft, but there is more to the run game than one free agency pickup. With Rob Sims and Dominic Raiola out the door, the Lions are dealing with a massive void in the middle of the offensive line. Plug in proven rookie Travis Swanson to Raiola’s spot to fill the center position. Now, there is a young capable player at the left tackle position in Riley Reiff, the center position with Swanson, and right guard with Larry Warford (pending successful injury rehabilitation). Plug in hypothetical Iupati, and the Lions now only have a question mark at the right tackle position with Waddle. Except now there is a lack of depth. Corey Hilliard and Garrett Reynolds hit free agency with Sims, so the bench is just as bare.

The Lions will have to get a few linemen this offseason, some of them will be drafted. If Detroit sticks to the best available mantra in the Draft, then La’el Collins, offensive tackle out of LSU, could be a prospect for the Lions. A.J Cann and Josue Matias are top offensive guard prospects. But the real fun lies in the later rounds, when the coaching staff gets to make a decision on a playmaker in the third and fourth round. This is when a great overshadowed running back, like Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford or Alabama’s T.J Yeldon, fall to deserving teams. If all of the expected junior running backs declare for the Draft, then there will be gold waiting for the Lions.

The future of the run game is something the Lions must not take for granted this offseason, it was the very reason they could not beat the best of the best. It would relieve Stafford of pressure and extend leads and run clock on playoff opponents. It is by far the weakest aspect of the offense and must be adjusted. The defense is right at number two for the Lions. They must maintain this dominant defense if they want to gain respect in this league and to reign as the Kings in the North.