by Mario Granata
Jekyll and Hyde could be used to describe a lot of teams in the NFL, however that moniker couldn’t be truer than for the Detroit Lions. One week they would perform well, and the next it is like they are an expansion team. Newly anointed GM Bob Quinn has a tall task heading into the 2016 free agency period, as he will have to answer some questions as to the state of his team. Calvin Johnson’s impending retirement, resigning Haloti Ngata or not, and will Jim Bob Cooter be the shot caller for Matt Stafford in the long run are all on the table for him, but with his resume of being a scout and executive for the New England Patriots from 2000-2015, he might just be the man that the Lions need.
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell
Career Record: 44-36
Offensive Coordinator (Rank): Jim Bob Cooter
20th YPG, 9th Pass, 32nd Run
Defensive Coordinator (Rank): Teryl Austin
18th YPG, 15th Pass, 19th Rush
There is good news and bad news for the Lions when it comes to talking about the 2015 season. The good news is that after a 0-5 start, they were able to close out the season with a 7-4 record. The bad news was that they were a combined 1-7 against playoff bound teams. This was due to the fact that the Lions had 15 turnovers in the first five games, and only had 9 the rest of the season. Prior to Cooter taking over, Matt Stafford had a 65% completion percentage, throwing for 241 yards per game and a 6-8 TD to Int ratio. After that Stafford had a 69% completion percentage, throwing for 278 yards per game and an astounding 26-5 TD to Int ratio. That could be attributed to the fact that the 31-year old Cooter was a virtual unknown, and will have a tall test in 2016 now that he has 11 games of tendencies.
Heading the list of players to restructure will be T Riley Reliff. The 27-year old former first round pick is in his option year, and if the Lions and Quinn want to increase their salary cap past their current 25.8 million, they would be wise to extend him and chop down his 8 million 2016 cap hit. As was released yesterday, the 2016 cap figure is going to be set at 155.27 million, which is up 12 million from last season, so the Lions will have some room to sign some free agents if they choose to.
Stephen Tulloch is 31 and the Lions will save 6 million and take a 1.3 million dollar hit in the form of dead money. In the NFC North his statistics and production doesn’t reflect a middle linebacker that is needed in that division. With Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Teddy Bridgewater you would expect a MLB to have a few more pass breakups than he had. On the reverse side of that, with Eddie Lacy/James Starks, Matt Forte/Jeremy Langford and Adrian Peterson you would expect your MLB to be in the 130 range for tackles. He wasn’t in either category. Quinn hopefully learned something in New England of getting role players at a cheap price that are young and hungry. (A point that was highlighted on last year's On the Clock: 2015 Detroit Lions.)
The question of Calvin Johnson’s retirement puts the Lions in a tough spot. Johnson has a cap figure of 24 million for 2016, but has nearly 13 million in bonuses left on this contract (8 million in 2016, 5 million in 2017). If his retirement becomes official, the Lions could designate him as a post-June 1st cut, and save an additional 16 million for 2016 and then split the rest of his bonus money between 2016 and 2017. This would free up some cap room to find his replacement. Details of his contract are below:
Anyone else think that he has been talking to Barry Sanders?
The big name for the Lions to sign is Haloti Ngata. From a statistical standpoint, Ngata wasn’t that far off from his career numbers, however do the Lions want to throw big money at the 32-year old? IF they think that he is work the money, then they are directly relating his presence on the defense to Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah, the two previous years before Ngata had a combined 15.5 sacks and with Ngata this past season, he was able to tally 14.5. If they want Ansah to continue to shine, and think that he did so because of Ngata, they would be wise to hang onto him, at least for the next couple years. If they think otherwise, they might sign or draft another defensive tackle and save some money, but Ansah’s numbers might take a hit.
With the Lions being ranked 32nd against the run, how much will Ngata be worth? Jekyll and Hyde rearing his ugly head again. The Lions only allowed a 300-yard passer 5 times in 2015, however allowed more than 175 yards rushing 4 times (and two of those times they allowed 200+). So what really came first, the chicken or the egg?
The Lions have many names to go after in the 2016 NFL Draft and currently the top four names are Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama, Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson, Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame and Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State. This could all change if Quinn and the staff are unable to convince Calvin Johnson to return for an 11th season.
It seems that the Lions would be doing Ameer Abdullah a favor by taking either Stanley or Conklin as they are both well suited to run block to help the league’s 32nd ranked rush offense. Matt Stafford cannot do it all on his own especially if Johnson is gone.
If they decide to take Reed, they haven’t made any advance to sign Ngata and are going to use the money that they would have designated for him to draft Reed and develop him. Smart money says that is where Quinn might be headed in regards to that situation. If New England taught the league anything, its that they don’t pay players (other than Tom Brady) top dollar to be role players.
With the Denver Broncos performance in the Super Bowl, and the combination of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, the league might shifting to an ‘edge rushers paradise’. They already have Ansah and if they were to draft Dodd, this is how they want to structure their defense.
Teryl Austin would have two solid players on the outside, but would still need some help at the second level to make it work. Austin has a decorated past and was involved in two Super Bowls that were in their own right, interesting. In 2005 his secondary when he was with Seattle surrendered the Super Bowl MVP to a wideout (Hines Ward). In 2008, again against the Steelers, one of the most clutch catches in Super Bowl history was Santonio Holmes last second touchdown when Austin was with the Cardinals. Talk about snake bit.
Don’t be surprised if the Lions take a secondary player with the 16th overall pick if a solid one falls to them.
As stated previously the Lions are close to 26 million under the cap and that number could climb to close to 40, pending Johnson’s retirement and a few cuts here and there.
If Johnson’s done, they would be wise to target a wideout when March 9th hits. Lets be honest, Golden Tate is a nice side dish, but could never be enough to be the main course. He is targeted a lot and makes some plays, but that is due much to the 6’5” Megatron. However he thinks he is a legit #1 receiver, but that carries about as much weight as him catching that pass against the Packers in the Fail Mary game.
With Alshon Jeffrey likely to be tagged by Chicago, there is not really anyone else that could fill Megatron’s shoes (but really, who could anyway) in the remaining crop of free agents.
Quinn just might pull a page out of his New England Patriots playbook (and no I don’t mean cheating) and let the big name free agents get signed, target some solid role players for his defense, and draft Johnson’s replacement.
I would not even be surprised if he were to trade the 16th overall pick and acquire a couple of 2nd rounders or even a 3rd. That is, ultimately, the Patriot way. If you don’t believe me, then just ask Mike Rodak.
A Quick Guide to the Rookie Wage Scale (First Round Breakdown)
On the Clock: 2015 Detroit Lions