The Detroit Lions overhaul is off to a great start.
These kind words have been on replay the past few years when describing the Lions' offseason. However, given their salary cap circumstances and the many holes on the roster, this franchise repair deserves an applause.
Even with these upgrades, this isn't a finished product. Which leads to Detroit's biggest offseason test, the NFL draft in April.
Expect the "best player available" mindset to govern Detroit's draft process this season. Luckily, the best players at the top of many draft boards suit the Lions needs. Unfortunately, this is one of the weaker first-round draft classes in recent NFL history, especially at the top of the order.
Still, this draft could allow Detroit to address its biggest needs—offensive tackle, cornerback and defensive end. After their free-agent overhaul, the Lions' draft board should be narrowed to cornerback Dee Milliner or the best available offensive tackle. Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan's Eric Fisher are rated as the top tackles on most draft boards.
Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew brought back priority players at sensible contracts. Cornerback Chris Houston inked a five-year deal, safety Louis Delmas is returning for another two years, linebacker DeAndre Levy agreed to a three-year deal and the Lions reached one-year agreements with defensive end Willie Young, safety Amari Spievey, and special team ace Kassim Osgood.
The new acquisitions hold much promise and fill an important role on the Lions roster. Detroit added some flare on both sides of the ball with running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and defensive tackle Jason Jones. All contracts came at reasonable prices that didn't damage the Lions pocketbook.
After upgrading the secondary, adding a role player on the defensive line and a spark plug out the backfield, there is still an immediate hole at defensive end. With former Lion Kyle Vanden Bosch cut and Cliff Avril joining the Seattle Seahawks, the Lions are slim at the position with only Willie Young and Ronnell Lewis on the depth chart.
Mayhew has addressed the lack of edge-rushers and has already given praise to first-round caliber prospects in this draft. But even with these signs, I still don't think the Lions will or should draft a pass-rusher first.
Defensive ends who come out as top-five options should be a stud-in-the-making, if not one already. First-round prospects like Ezekiel Ansah and Barkevious Mingo are athletically gifted but extremely raw. Drafting either of these two would be a high-risk, high-reward decision. At the No. 5 pick, the Lions need to take the safe route instead of gambling on raw talent. If Mayhew wants to take a gamble in the draft, he should wait to see if riskier prospects like LSU's Sam Montgomery fall to the Lions in the third round.
Other popular picks like Florida State's Bjoern Werner, Georgia's Jarvis Jones and Texas A&M's Damontre Moore have all dropped down out of the top ten of major mock drafts like WalterFootball.com. Given the Lions' draft history, trading down is not realistic, making it more unlikely that they'll land one of these pass-rushers.
Detroit isn't neglecting the need for a defensive end, however. Recent reports show the Lions expressing interest in former Giant Osi Umenyiora and former Bronco Elvis Dumervil. The Lions are better off finding a bargain in one of these veterans or drafting a late-round option.
After the sudden retirement of left tackle Jeff Backus, the release of guard Stephen Peterman and the departure of free agent Gosder Cherilus, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts, the Lions need to boost the offensive line.
If Fisher falls to the Lions at No. 5, picking him should be a no-brainer for Mayhew. Fisher could start immediately at either tackle, with second-year linemen Riley Reiff playing on the opposite side. If both Fisher and Joeckel are gone, the Lions could find guard Barrett Jones in the second round and live with tackle Jason Fox for a year.
If Milliner is available at No. 5, Detroit could finally solidify the long-plagued secondary. Chris Houston is a solid starter, but he could use a quality partner on the other side. Injury-prone cornerback Bill Bentley could be more valuable and durable as a nickelback. With the re-signing of Delmas, Houston and the addition of Glover Quin, Detroit's secondary could become a strength with Milliner in the back seven.
Defensive end is slowly shifting out of play for the Lions as they consider their first pick in the draft. Milliner and Fisher would be the best options available in a weak first-round draft class. They might not be immediate Pro Bowlers, but they're certainly long-term upgrades at weak positions.