Jeff Risdon is a new addition to the NFL’s Future team. Jeff boasts an impressive resume which includes covering the NFL Draft for RealGM.com
I’ve been a Lions fan long enough that my Honolulu blue #20 jersey says “Sims” on the back and it’s not a throwback. And not since another #20 retired at the end of the last century have I been so excited and positive entering an offseason. However, the newfound glory brings about a new set of challenges for GM Martin Mayhew and his team.
For most of the past 15 years, the offseason plan has been to accumulate better talent across the board. This year is about managing the talent already here, with tough decisions about whom to keep and whom to let go. I have donned my Chris Speilman jersey and my Lions hat, and while drinking Hawaiian grog coffee from my Detroit Lions mug I shall offer my plan for keeping the team moving forward towards the goal of winning multiple playoff games in the same season. As you might know, that is a feat that has not been accomplished even once in team history.
First comes free agency. Here’s a listing by position of the Lions free agents:
QB: Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton
RB: Jerome Harrison, Maurice Morris, Kevin Smith
WR: Rashied Davis, Maurice Stovall
OL: Jeff Backus, Leonard Davis, Corey Hilliard
DL: Cliff Avril, Andre Fluellen, Sammie Lee Hill
LB: Cody Brown, Bobby Carpenter, Isaiah Ekejiuba, Ashlee Palmer, Stephen Tulloch
CB: Brandon McDonald, Eric Wright
S: Erik Coleman, Chris Harris
ST: punter Ben Graham, long snapper Don Muhlbach
…and now for the tricky part. The Lions are in a sticky salary cap situation and will need to make some tough choices to bring back the players they want. Various figures have the Lions with between $4M and $7M under the cap to spend before cutting any players or restructuring deals. The team clearly wants to keep Avril and Tulloch, plus either Morris or Smith, and one of the backup quarterbacks.
The elephant in the room is Calvin Johnson’s mega contract. Because he hit some escalators that seemed pipe dreams at the time they drafted him, Megatron will count $22M against the $125M cap in the final year of his contract. Obviously the team wants to sign him to a long-term deal that is more immediately cap-friendly, but that is easier said than done. Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh gobble up nearly $26M in cap room between them as well, and Stafford already helped the team with a restructure last summer.
Here’s how I would handle it:
–sign Calvin Johnson to a new deal, something along the lines of Larry Fitzgerald’s 8 year, $120M contract. Structure the deal so the big bonus hit and base salary hit in 2014 or 2015. If done properly, the Lions could free up as much as $10M in 2012 cap room while locking up the best wideout in the game. The Cardinals were able to make the numbers work so that one year of Fitzgerald’s deal actually only counts $5.5M. At some point the Lions will have to bite the bullet on a monster cap hit season, but they can be more prepared for that down the road than right now.
–restructure Suh’s deal. He is scheduled to make $9.25M in base salary in 2012 but just $1.15M in 2014 and $3.5M in his team option year of 2015. Pick up the option year and shift the bulk of his 2012 salary to that season. This could free up another $6M-$8M. For argument’s sake, let’s say this puts the Lions at $108M, or roughly $17M below the cap at this point.
–say goodbye to TE Tony Scheffler, saving another $1.55M, and DE Kyle VandenBosch, saving another $3-5M depending on how his bonus is structured. Both are still quality players and would be missed, but this is where the depth on the defensive line and at tight end pays off. Honestly I don’t see Jim Schwartz agreeing to sever ties with VandenBosch, his hand-picked leader, but Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson both played well in the rotation last year and combined they barely make half of what VandenBosch makes. This gives me just over $22M to play with.
–try to work out a long-term deal with Avril, but use the franchise tag to keep him if needed. The franchise figure will be right around $10.6M. That might actually make more sense than working a long-term deal as far as 2012 goes, but because new deals forStafford, Suh, and some others are coming down the line (plus Johnson’s giant hit) make a long-term deal a real case of monetary finagling. Avril has publicly stated his aversion to playing under the tag, but he should be aware that if he replicates his 11 sacks and 6 forced fumbles he will get even more money in 2013 on the open market and he’s unlikely to get much more than $10.6M in cash for 2012 anywhere else. I’ll count the $10.6M against the cap and trust in his motivation.
–sign Tulloch to a long-term deal. I would use Gary Brackett’s 5yr/$33M deal as a blueprint that would give a cap hit of about $4M in 2012. With Avril’s deal, that soaks up $14.6M of the $22.4M cap, leaving $7.8M in cap room.
–see if Backus wants to play ball. He’ll be 35 in September and is still hopeless against edge speed, but Backus is arguably the best run-blocking LT in the game and he has proven both durable and very strong in the locker room. Offer him the same deal Seattle agreed to with Breno Giacomini, 2 yr/$6M, and not a penny more. If he takes it that’s great; if he walks, I use that money on bringing back Hilliard and Muhlbach.
–offer Chris Harris a cap-friendly 3yr/$8M deal with some incentives that take it up to $11M. I’m not sure he would take that, but that’s all I can afford for an inconsistent player.
That concludes what I would do before the draft. Now for the fun part, the rampant speculation that is the world of draftnik glory!
1st round pick, #23 overall. I have four players I want with this pick at this particular spot: North Alabama CB Janoris Jenkins, North Carolina LB Zach Brown, Ohio State T Mike Adams and Wisconsin C Peter Konz, in that order. I suspect at least one will still be on the board, but I would definitely be receptive to anyone wanting to trade up into the spot. Aside from saving some cap dollars, the talent value between pick #23 and pick #30 (just using it as an example) is minimal and I can pick up an extra pick down the line. For this exercise, let’s say I stand pat and draft Konz. Dominic Raiola still has something to offer at center, but I think Konz has the size and power to handle playing guard for a year or two.
2nd round pick, #54 overall. With the first pick going OL, I am now focused on the defensive back seven. Safety is the most pressing issue, with Louis Delmas regressing from his stellar rookie season and Amari Speivey best-served as a reserve. If Harris returns I am much more inclined to go corner here, and the value at corner seems better at this spot than from a very weak safety class. I’ll take Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt. He is a natural fit in the zone coverage and an aggressive ballhawk.
3rd round, #86 overall. There are a couple of offensive tackles in this range that intrigue me, Brandon Washington from Miami FL and Bobby Massie from Ole Miss. Tackle is a higher priority if Backus departs, but there are two defenders also in this range that would represent better value. Montana CB Trumaine Johnson, a zone guy who has great length and could transition to safety, would be great but I doubt he falls this far. Antonio Allen, a safety fromSouth Carolina who impressed during Senior Bowl week, would be next. I suspect he’ll be gone as well, so the pick is Bobby Massie, T, Ole Miss.
4th round, #117 overall. Time for value and depth picks. Two players here I really want: Toledo WR Eric Page or Louisiana-Lafayette CB Dwight “Bill” Bentley. Bentley is the more likely of the two to still be around, but since this is all hypothetical I’ll consider myself lucky and grab Page here.
5th round, #150 overall. I want to add a 3rd down back-type runner at some point, and this seems like a prudent spot. Florida’s Chris Rainey, who proved in Mobile he can play in the slot as well, would be ideal but I think he’ll be gone by the previous pick even though he’s tiny. Page’s Toledo teammate Adonis Thomas will almost certainly still be on the board, and he fits with what the Lions need at running back. Adonis Thomas, RB, Toledo.
6th round: this pick got forfeited due to questionable tampering charges against Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
7th round, #212 overall. I am a strong believer in using late-round picks on small-school players with lots of developmental potential rather than BCS conference guys that will never be more than depth and special teams players. In that vein, I’ll take Damon Harrison, DT, William Penn, who could potentially replace Sammie Lee Hill as the beefy 1-technique along the DL.
With that draft class, I would clear a little more cap space by cutting CB Alphonso Smith ($1.27M) and G Rob Sims ($1.5M). All that money, plus the carried over $1.47M from the 2011 cap, would go to Shaun Hill as the backup QB and the college/street free agents. I chose Hill over Stanton because Stanton still harbors aspirations of starting, while Hill is more accepting of his role and is a little more of a guiding rudder for Stafford. The Lions would very much like to become one of the teams that carries just two quarterbacks on the active roster, and I wholeheartedly agree with that move.
That still leaves some holes that will just have to wait. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Super Bowl isn’t won in just one year. I think these moves would keep the Lions in the thick of the NFC playoff race without mortgaging the future for a quick but unlikely shot at winning it all next season.