Power Ranking Detroit Lions' 10 Best Moves of 2014 Offseason
The Detroit Lions made Super Bowl moves this offseason.
Don't agree? I don't care.
Actually, I do because it's the truth. This franchise made the type of decisions that lead to success, and to persuade you to the bright side, I'm going to list the best 10.
For added sizzle, I'm going to rank them so you understand how serious this is. And I only took into account the impact that each move will have on the team, both short- and long-term, in winning games.
That's all that matters in the NFL.
So click through to see why the Lions will make a run at the NFC Championship this season.
10. Released Chris Houston
We kick things off with the most surprising move of the offseason—Chris Houston's release.
The "mutual" decision, as Houston told Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman, signaled the end of Houston's four-year tenure and raised a multitude of questions about the Lions' cornerback depth.
The most prominent being are the Lions really willing to run with the second-year Darius Slay and an aging Rashean Mathis as the starters?
With Brandon Flowers off to San Diego, it appears the answer is yes. That could be viewed as a negative, but Slay's offseason is inspiring hope that he can capitalize on his potential. In that same vein of hope, Detroit is betting that Mathis will continue the pace set by his resurgent 2013.
The lack of depth should still concern the faithful until we see both in pads. However, this decision made to cut because Houston's injury is something he's been dealing with since high school, per Mlive.com's Gillian Van Stratt. Plus, toe recoveries have a difficult-to-peg recovery time, meaning Houston may not have contributed at all this year.
So the front office ripped off the band-aid in one pull. The Lions will absorb the $1.3 million cap hit in 2014 and endure a further $3.9 million punishment in 2015, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. While the dead money is tough to swallow, the uncertainty of whether Houston could recover any time soon made it a necessity. You can't carry a $5-million-a-year player without any confirmation of his future.
Plus, the Lions were able to sign first-round pick Eric Ebron under contract with the $3.5 million. And in turn, the move meant the Lions aren't under the gun to reach an extension with Ndamukong Suh anymore. The Houston release, in a roundabout way, gave them the tiniest bit of leverage in the ongoing negotiations.
Houston had some good years in Detroit, like when he only allowed opposing passer to post ratings of 65.9 in 2011 and 78.7 in 2012. But his lingering toe injury, combined with a defense that will require a more attacking style from their cornerbacks, especially with his No. 1 cornerback contract, required the Lions to remember the fun times fondly while making the best decision regarding their future.
9. Didn't Cut Mikel Leshoure
Just like Houston, Mikel Leshoure has had better days. It's easy to remember his free fall down the depth chart last season and the dour attitude that followed, but Leshoure is a big back who bullied his way to nine scores in 2012.
And his large frame and more bruising running style are exactly why Detroit needed to give him another shot.
New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, as has been discussed ad nauseam at this point, is bringing elements of the New Orleans offensive style. The pertinent facet for Leshoure's sake is a large running-back rotation, as the Saints gave four different backs at least 50 carries in 2013.
Leshoure seems to understand that his 233 pounds can be an asset and that an opportunity is present for him to carve out a role in the new offense. That's the type of energy a new coaching regime can provide. Leshoure is a perfect candidate for a career rebound under Lombardi.
He's in the final year of his rookie contract and accounts for less than $1.1 million against the cap. If he can power his way to a couple of touchdowns or drive-sustaining first downs, he'll be well worth it.
8. Didn't Listen to the Trade Chatter
Making a move before or during the first round was all the rage in Detroit sports chatter leading up to the NFL draft. And every discussion centered on moving up for Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Watkins' skills and size would have been a welcome addition to the Lions' receiving group. There wouldn't have been a weakness for defenses to ignore when Detroit trotted out Watkins, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
But the price to move up was too steep. The Buffalo Bills, who moved up from the ninth spot, gave up two first-rounders and another fourth for the right to land the coveted wideout.
Good luck to them. They might have landed a singular talent, but the value is tough to justify for a Lions roster that already has two bona fide receiving threats.
Additionally, general manager Martin Mayhew didn't make the panic move of parting with his best defensive player (and one of the best in the league) because of a supposed bad attitude and a contract-extension negotiation that frustrated the fan base.
Suh's cap hit will stay at $22.4 million if no deal is reached, per Spotrac. However, both sides want to work out a long-term deal and you don't give up your best player unless he has no desire to stay put.
7. Fired Jim Schwartz
Jim Schwartz took to the head-coaching gig in Detroit with a fire that wasn't nearly as laughable as Rod Marineli's. While Marineli was busy talking about digging out of tunnels, Schwartz focused his intensity on turning his new team in a feisty bunch that wouldn't lay down.
It worked. He guided the Lions to the playoffs for the first time in a decade and had Detroit looking like a team on the rise.
But the overaggressive schtick was starting to run it's course, even during that "magical" 2012 run. The wheels might have been coming off as far back as the infamous handshake with San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Lions gave away first downs on third down more than once via an untimely penalty. We all remember defensive tackle Nick Fairley's stuff of Bears running back Matt Forte that sealed a win, but don't forget that Fairley's late hit earlier in the drive gave the Bears the chance to steal that game.
Schwartz's loss of control was evident by the end of the 2013 season. Detroit, with a chance to sneak into the playoffs with wins over the woeful Giants and Vikings, demonstrated a complete lack of discipline. They piled up the turnovers and failed to notch even a single win.
The franchise should appreciate Schwartz' injection of passion, but he took them as far as he could. It was time for a change.
6. Drafted Kyle Van Noy
One of the changes spurred by the decision to jettison Schwartz and his wide-nine scheme was the hiring of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Austin has promised to bring an attacking scheme, while keeping opponents under control and not letting them make the big plays that have plagued the Lions seemingly forever. Remember that 78-yard run by Adrian Peterson to kick off the season?
But he shouldn't tinker around too much. Last year's edition finished sixth against the run and was middle of the pack in scoring. What it couldn't do was end plays in the backfield.
Despite all of the talent in the front line, Detroit managed an indefensible 36 sacks. That kind of time allowed opposing quarterbacks to get the ball to their playmakers with a shot to make those game-breaking plays.
Schwartz and former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham relied almost solely on the defensive line. Austin won't make that same mistake. Austin's new style will focus on enhancing the talent already on the roster by moving players around and blitzing.
He just needed someone he could move all over the field like the Lions plan to do offensively with tight end Eric Ebron. He needed a guy who could produce regardless of the situation he was put in.
So the Lions sprung a deal to land BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round. Van Noy's ability to rush the passer (26 career sacks) and create turnovers (18 forced fumbles) means he will fit that defensive joker-type position to a T.
Van Noy will start plays in a variety of places to create more pass-rushing angles than offensive lines can handle. And his true value might be his ability to stay on the field since he can stuff the run and drop back into coverage as well.
5. Signed James Ihedigbo
Lost in the luster of the top draft picks and the attractive signing of Golden Tate, James Ihedigbo snuck into town and could be exploding on your screen this fall.
Yes. That's a very optimistic take on a 30-year-old safety joining his fourth team.
But it isn't absurd, either.
Ihedigbo spent the last two years playing under Teryl Austin, when the latter was the secondary coach for the Baltimore Ravens. And in Detroit, familiarity could help breed success.
Ihedigbo is already privy to Austin's ways. While the other Lions' are learning the new system, he'll have less new material to learn and could act as a subject-matter expert for his teammates.
There is more to this pairing than educational value. Ihedigbo, after six average seasons, put together his best performance in 2013 and finished as the 16th best safety in the league.
That ranking won't blow you away, but Detroit has a better-stocked defense than you think. If Ihedigbo can be a serviceable, calming presence and support the playmakers, this Lions unit can pump out a top five season.
4. Signed a Quarterback-Centric Coaching Staff
Big plays and a thinly worn coaching staff were factors in the Lions' lost 2013 season; turnovers were easily the most damaging.
The Lions posted an okay +1 turnover differential on it's way to a 6-3 start, but the wheels fell off in a hurry. During the last seven games, Detroit only had one game with less than three turnovers, including five giveaways in an easily winnable 24-21 loss to a then 2-8 Buccaneers team.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford was easily the worst offender. He went on a tear that Mark Sanchez would have been jealous of. He consistently took too many chances or failed to find an accurate touch. He had two or more interceptions in five of the last nine games, with four coming in that aforementioned Tampa Bay defeat.
With that in mind, the Lions took a quarterback-friendly approach to their coaching search by making Ken Whisenhunt (now with the Titans) and Jim Caldwell the primary candidates. Whether the Lions whiffed on Whisenhunt or not, Caldwell is the guy who guided Joe Flacco's Super Bowl-winning playoff performance and worked with Peyton Manning for 10 years.
In short, Caldwell knows what it takes to make an elite quarterback. Even if he had zero input on Manning's illustrious career (not true) or Flacco's dream postseason, he has, at a minimum, observed the necessary steps to make the leap.
That knowledge and experience, paired with same from offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter (formerly of the Denver Broncos), can do the same for Stafford.
The Detroit signal-caller was arguably a top-five quarterback over the first half of the season and touted a 19-6 interception radio in nine games. That talent is there.
And now, so is the know-how.
3. Drafted Eric Ebron
In order for the coaching staff to work its magic on the quarterback, he needs to be put in the best position to succeed. Just like Ihedigbo finding the right system, Stafford needed to be given more viable weapons.
Aside from Calvin Johnson, not a single wide receiver had more than Kris Durham's 38 catches. The Lions, as you have read 374 times this offseason, led the league in drops and relied too heavily on dump passes to the running backs (107 combined catches for Reggie Bush and Joique Bell).
Mayhew knew that he couldn't patch over the problem with Kevin Ogletree and Durham. A quarterback can't reach his peak until he has a third option that can torch defenses too preoccupied with the wideouts. Look at the early 2000s Rams or the current Broncos. Both would have been good but weren't great until Az-Zahir Hakim and Julius Thomas emerged.
Eric Ebron can be that third option that destroys inattentive defenses.
The 10th overall pick can use his solid size (6'4", 250 pounds) and large hands (10"), per NFL.com, to out-muscle defensive backs. He also has the 4.6 speed to blow past linebackers to exploit the seams created by Johnson and Golden Tate.
The Lions plan to employ him in a Jimmy Graham-like fashion based on his physical gifts. However, his biggest impact could come in the play-action game as the man who can quickly sneak behind the momentarily confused linebackers. That little bit of a delay is all Ebron will need.
Ebron was the right pick for Detroit in the first round. Everything above points to a player that can put the Lions offense over the top in a league whose winners always excel in one area instead of trying to fill every hole with top-notch talent.
2. Retained the Line Coaches
While the offense struggled to hold on to the ball and put up enough points, the offensive line was handling business.
Only the Broncos gave up fewer than the 23 sacks that Detroit allowed, and that performance is backed up by Pro Football Focus, who gave the Lions the fifth highest pass-blocking grade.
Offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn was the man behind that unit. General manager Martin Mayhew discovered youngsters Riley Reiff, Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle, but Washburn molded them into an offensive line.
That's why Washburn was spared when pink slips were being passed around in January.
And he wasn't he only one. Defensive line coaches Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn were kept on board and it's easy to see why.
Despite the anemic sack numbers mentioned in a previous slide, the Lions have done an excellent job of developing defensive linemen. These two molded Sammie Lee Hill and Willie Young into capable starters, and even made Hill a lot of money via his three-year, $11.4 million deal from Tennessee.
Detroit is now trying shape the next generation behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor need technique help, and defensive tackle Caraun Reid also figures to benefit from Kocurek's and Washburn's retention.
More often than not, games are won in the trenches. The front office was smart enough to only get rid of the parts that weren't working, instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
1. Signed Golden Tate
As mentioned on the Ebron slide, the Lions had a serious deficiency at wide receiver. They didn't enter this offseason in need of an exciting rookie, they needed an entirely new bandolier to strap around Stafford's capable shoulder.
So instead of focusing on wide receivers in one of the deepest drafts at the position in memory, the Lions grabbed sure-handed Golden Tate. And it was the perfect addition.
First, there's the beaten-to-death team-wide drop problem. Tate has finished with a top 10 drop rate among wide receivers who accounted for at least 25 percent of his team's targets for the past three years and didn't have a single drop among his 53 targets in 2011.
Next, Detroit needed someone who can create space and make the type of plays needed to win games. Tate contributed to a Super Bowl winner and was responsible for the "Fail Mary" play because he was strong enough to make a highly contested catch with the game on the line.
Lastly, Detroit finished as the third best team in terms of yards after the catch. Tate produced 530 yards post-reception, more than half his receiving total for the season, and he gives Detroit one of the most capable turning-nothing-to-something offensive rosters in the league.
That's what it takes to win Super Bowls. You need a world-class unit and at least competency from the rest. Detroit has built a contender for the best offense in the NFL and a defense that has everything needed to finish in the top third.
Those are Super Bowl moves.
Brandon Alisoglu is a Detroit Lions featured columnist who has written about the Lions on multiple sites. He also co-hosts a Lions-centric podcast, Lions Central Radio. Yell at him on Twitter about how wrong he is @BrandonAlisoglu.
All statistics, rankings and grades are courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com and require a subscription.