by Mario Granata
HC Jim Caldwell had a very successful 2014 campaign, going 11-5 in a very tough NFC North. While his defense, under DC Teryl Austin ranked 3rd in points allowed (jumping 12 spots from 2013) there were some problems with the team that led to their first round exit against the Dallas Cowboys and their off-season poses some interesting questions as well. What do the Lions have to do to ensure success in 2015?
The Lions recently released RB Reggie Bush paving the way for Joique Bell, but ultimately extending their salary cap, which stood at roughly 18.4 million. Bush was a versatile player, but wasn’t on the field enough to prove that the Lions needed him. Detroit is already the frontrunner for having the largest dead money in the league (17 million) and will have some tough decisions to make going into 2015, especially on the defensive side of the ball. When 6 out of your 16 games are against Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson (if he is reinstated) you better find a way to stop the run, and stop it fast.
WR Calvin Johnson is due 20.5 million this year, 12.5 of that making up is base salary. As Johnson’s contract currently stands, he will be due an average of 17 million until 2019, where he will be 34. The Lions have the option to push some of his base salary to the final two years of his contract in the form of a bonus and deal with the dead money later, but as we have seen with the New Orleans Saints, this is a risky avenue to take.
The other big money contract on the books is QB Matt Stafford who is set to make 17.7 million this year. Like Megatron, he could push some of his 9 million dollar base to later years, so we will have to see if the negotiating department at Ford Field is up to the task.
DT Ndamukong Suh’s contract is problem #1 for the Lions. As stated in a previous article Tag! You’re It. The Jerry Hughes Breakdown the Lions could tag Suh, but because he was already the highest paid player at the position, he would earn 120% of his previous year’s salary, or roughly 27 million for one season. The clock is ticking on the Lions as they have until March 2nd to decide if they are going to tag him and until March 7th to resign him otherwise he might have a new address come the start of the 2015 season.
DT Nick Fairley and DT C.J. Mosley are also up for free agency and while it is unlikely that the Lions will even keep 2 of the 3, they will have to at least keep one of them if they are going to be competitive in 2015. The Lions are the only indoor team (currently) that play in the NFC North, so when the later part of the season hits, they have to have an answer to the power running game of their division foes. Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson (or Matt Asiata) are some backs that you don’t want to give an open lane to the second level.
Depending on what happens with the current front of the Detroit Lions will very much dictate what they do in the draft come April 30th. The top names on the list for the Lions are DT Eddie Goldman (FSU), NT Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma), and DT Malcom Brown (Texas). Goldman and Brown played in a 4-3, which is what the Lions run and both would come at a much cheaper price than any of the 3 incumbents. The question will be can they have the impact that the Suh, Fairley and Mosley had? Phillips is the odd man out, as he played in a 3-4, but hopefully his 6’5” 329 pound frame can transition to a different front where he has primary gap control. Smart money says he will be a player in the league.
In the copycat league that the NFL is, the Lions could surprise everyone and take the first running back in the draft and select Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin). He is not the “banger” that Lacy or Peterson are, and isn’t as good at picking up the blitz as Forte, but his blend of sheer athleticism and speed could give the Lions another dimension to their offense, and a new toy for OC Joe Lombardi to play with. He worked with Drew Brees and rookie Reggie Bush when he was in New Orleans and during that time Bush averaged 80 receptions over his first two seasons. With Gordon catching some passes in space, and Bell banging in between the tackles, the Lions may shift their philosophy in 2015. They might dip defensively, but will make up for it with an explosive offense.
Aside from the aforementioned defensive linemen, the Lions don’t have any other big name free agents that they are in desperate need to sign. If DT Stephen Paea can’t reach a deal with the Bears, Detroit could sign him. Recent history would suggest that the NFL North loves switching players around. (Greg Jennings, Julius Peppers, and Jared Allen to name a few.)
If the Lions exhaust all of their efforts to resign Suh, that might bring their cap number down a bit, but unless that saga has reached its apex, the Lions would like to steer clear of any moves early in free agency.
Quick Guide to the Rookie Wage Scale (First Round Breakdown)