The Lions have many decisions to make regarding free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, during the 2012 off-season. Four of those players were starters this season on Detroit’s first playoff team this millennium, and Martin Mayhew and company will have some tough decisions to make regarding who to re-sign and at what cost.
Jeff Backus, Cliff Avril, Stephen Tulloch, and Eric Wright are unrestricted free agents heading into the 2012 season and while each of them brings something different to the table, they each also are surrounded by very different circumstances. Avril is a burgeoning superstar who was drafted by the Lions, Backus is nearing the end of his career, and Wright and Tulloch were both serviceable veterans brought in on one year contracts.
While The Lions front office would surely love to see all four re-sign this off-season, it simply doesn’t seem feasible. With the massive contracts of Stafford and Suh and the unparalleled payday that Calvin Johnson is sure to receive, the most realistic scenario would see the Lions being able to re-sign two of the previously mentioned free agents this offseason. This begs the question, which two should Mayhew focus on, considering the players’ salaries, depth at the positions, and availability of replacements?
The most logical first step would be to say good-bye to Eric Wright. He played his role this season, but is largely considered the “worst” of the starting eleven Lion defenders. Even with the ineptitude of the Lion secondary, Wright was not a significant improvement over his backups and there is some depth and youth at the position. Many also believe that Mayhew will target a cornerback in the upcoming draft, or chase one of the many free agents at this position including Cortland Finnegan, a former Schwartz player.
It is also clear that the Lions simply must re-sign Jeff Backus, if healthy following his surgery for a torn biceps muscle. Regardless of your feelings about Backus, he had a very solid season when not facing Jared Allen, and there is simply nobody to replace him. Corey Hilliard isn’t good enough, Jason Fox isn’t healthy enough, and a rookie wouldn’t be ready in time. The only other option is the free agent market, but a quality left tackle is expensive in the NFL, and the Lions don’t have the cap room for another large salary. Jeff Backus will be the cheapest option and the Lions should be able to re-sign him for less than he is currently costing them when considering his age and the fact that the market for his services will be diminished due to his off-season surgery.
The most difficult choice comes down to the services of Stephen Tulloch or Cliff Avril. If all things were held equal, salary included, this would be an easy decision. But with Avril expecting a payday in the ten to thirteen million dollar range, Tulloch begins to look more appealing. While Avril may be more of an impact player, Stephen Tulloch was the most consistent performer amongst the most improved group on defense, the linebacking corps. Detroit has been searching for a quality middle linebacker since the retirement of Chris Spielman, and if Tulloch departs, he will be difficult to replace. There are very few NFL ready linebackers in this April’s draft and the prospect of moving DeAndre Levy back to the middle doesn’t seem as appealing now that we’ve seen how the position ought to be played.
There is also more depth at the defensive end position, as many believe that both Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson are capable of being starters on many of the teams in this league. As hard as it is to admit, and as crazy as it may sound, the Lions simply must let Cliff Avril walk at the price that he is rumored to be expecting. Re-signing Tulloch will fill a position of need, and free up some cap room to build the rest of the defense through the draft, where the Lions can solidify the secondary, and find an edge rusher to develop behind the talent already in place.