Detroit Lions Final Free Agency Outlook and Predictions
General manager Martin Mayhew will begin negotiating with player agents on March 8th, and the team will be able to sign players beginning March 11th according to the league calendar at CBS Sports.
Detroit figures to be shopping for starters at wide receiver, safety and perhaps cornerback in free agency. A tight end or linebacker would not be a real surprise, either.
As of March 5th, the Lions have about $11 million in cap room, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
$11 million or so "@dczuk8208: how much are lions under the cap now?”— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) March 5, 2014
That figure is fluid, however. Ndamukong Suh will have a new contract at some point that will free up millions in additional room, as noted by Rotoworld.
How will the Lions attack free agency? Here are a few notes and predictions...
Keep an Eye on Former Caldwell Players
New Lions head coach Jim Caldwell will have a lot of input on the player acquisition process. He's sure to desire some familiar faces from his old haunts.
Caldwell was the head coach in Indianapolis from 2009-11, and then served on the staff in Baltimore for the last two seasons.
Three former Caldwell underlings all fit roles that Detroit needs:
- safety Antoine Bethea
- wide receiver Jacoby Jones
- safety James Ihedigbo
Bethea (pictured) is a former Colt, while Ihedigbo and Jones both are coming off tenures with the Ravens.
Since releasing starter Louis Delmas, the Lions have a big hole at safety. It makes sense to connect players with familiarity to Caldwell's style and system.
Ihedigbo is coming off his best season, his first as a starter in Baltimore. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded the 30-year old as the 16th-best safety in the NFL in 2013. It's worth noting that new Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was Ihedigbo's position coach in Baltimore.
Bethea has struggled the last two seasons, but reuniting with Caldwell could reignite his career. Twice he made the Pro Bowl (2007 and 2009, courtesy of Pro Football Reference) in Indianapolis, and did so playing more of the free safety role he would figure to assume in Detroit.
Jones danced his way to hero status in Baltimore's Super Bowl season, and his deep speed is something the Lions covet across from Calvin Johnson. He's also an accomplished kick returner, which adds to his allure.
The Lions Will Sign at Least One Wide Receiver
The free-agent wide receiver class features many players who are not in the upper talent echelon. Instead, it's awash with complementary-type wideouts that will command second-tier status on most teams.
That's perfect for the Lions, who have a superstar in Calvin Johnson but little else at the position.
Many of the lists of top free agent wideouts, including these from Chris Wesseling at NFL.com and Nick Kostos at Bleacher Report, feature the same usual suspects. Players like James Jones, Emmanuel Sanders and Hakeem Nicks will all draw many suitors.
Expect the Lions to pounce hard on one of these players.
Each offers something a little unique and inherently useful for Detroit.
Jones is a solid No. 2 receiver, as he has been during his tenure in Green Bay.
He's ready to contribute right out of the box as the complementary weapon Detroit desperately needs. Per NFL.com, Jones led all NFL receivers with 14 touchdowns in 2012, though he fell back in 2013 between a minor knee injury and the implosion of the Green Bay offense when Aaron Rodgers got hurt.
Sanders would provide the answer at the slot position, where he's thrived in Pittsburgh. As Nick Kostos notes in the aforementioned Bleacher Report article:
Last season, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders set career highs in receptions (67), yards (740) and touchdowns (six)
That's exactly the kind of production the Lions need in the slot. With 2012 second-rounder Ryan Broyles coming off his third major injury in as many seasons, Detroit would be wise to upgrade that spot with a more proven performer.
Nicks is an enigma, albeit a talented one. He's coming off a miserable season where he failed to catch a single touchdown pass. And as Jordan Raanan of NJ.com reported, Nicks was fined numerous times for being late to meetings.
Still, Nicks was a top-20 wideout in both 2011 and 2012 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) He's just 26 and has a career yards per catch average of 14.9 (h/t Pro Football Reference). Consider this as well...
In 2013: Hakeem Nicks, in a bad year, had 56 catches for 896 yards. Riley Cooper, in his best year, had 47 catches for 835 yards ...— Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoNYDN) February 27, 2014
Some other names Detroit might court in free agency:
- Andre Roberts, last with the Arizona Cardinals
- Jacoby Jones, Baltimore Ravens
- Ted Ginn, Carolina Panthers
Look for the Lions to pounce on at least one of these receivers in the first few days of free agency.
Brandon Pettigrew Will Be Resolved Quickly
Veteran tight end Brandon Pettigrew is one of the few Detroit free agents that stands a chance of returning to the Lions.
According to Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press, he's still a priority even though the Lions elected to not use the franchise tag on the former first-round pick:
This is a situation where it behooves both parties to act quickly.
For the Lions, they know Pettigrew's game and what his value is to the team. With the relatively limited cap space, Detroit can approach Pettigrew with that value in mind. If he wants more, expect the team to swiftly wish him well in his future endeavors.
As for Pettigrew, he needs to ascertain how badly the Lions want him back. If their offer isn't what he expects, he must quickly move on and market his wares to other teams. Otherwise, he will be waiting for counter-offers from Detroit that are unlikely to come while other tight ends snap up the richer deals.
If Pettigrew doesn't have a new contract in Detroit within the first few hours of free agency, he will likely not be back with the Lions next season.
Detroit Will Not Break the Bank for Anyone
While it's fun to fantasize about chasing the top free-agent names, the Lions are not really contenders to compete with teams that have more ample cap room and cash to spend.
Former Bills safety Jairus Byrd (pictured) would make a fantastic addition to the den, but his sticker price figures to be more than the Lions could charge to their salary-cap credit card. As Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com notes:
A similar issue comes up with top cornerback Vontae Davis. As Aaron Nagler states in the Bleacher Report Video "Detroit Lions Top Free Agency Targets at Cornerback", he too figures to command a premium that the Lions just cannot afford.
Eric Decker at wide receiver? He's the top-shelf Johnnie Walker Blue, and the Lions can barely afford the Black-label whiskey.
The Lions will do some window shopping, but do not expect a spending splurge on a prominent, expensive target.
A Surprise May Be in Order
The NFL free-agent rumor mill has featured precious little Lions grist this year. The sounds of silence do not mean that Detroit isn't plotting a surprise move or two, however.
Nobody really knows what all Martin Mayhew has up his sleeves.
Maybe he throws a curveball and signs a veteran backup quarterback. The general manager has already gone on record that he wants competition for Kellen Moore behind Matthew Stafford:
Mayhew on K. Moore as 2nd QB: "I haven’t seen enough of him in actual games to say that you just role with him and you feel great about it."— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) February 21, 2014
Perhaps an under-the-radar linebacker like Arthur Moats, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, is in order. As Eric Edholm of Yahoo opined:
Jack of all trades, master of none, but a versatile player who wins with instincts and hustle. Could fit with a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme, and he helps on special teams, too.
It would be a real surprise if the Lions signed a kicker...
Good kicker, but they wouldn't spend on Hanson last yr, aren't now. Tavecchio, Potter or rookie KevinLanG20: Steven Hauska, worth signing?”— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) March 5, 2014
...but the Lions do need a replacement for David Akers, and neither player Birkett mentioned has any NFL experience.
It's hard to say what lies behind Mayhew's wry smile. We'll just have to be patient and hope it's a pleasant surprise.