Fans around the National Football League have been on pins and needles since free agency began the afternoon of March 13, hoping for their team to sign that marquee player to fill that one unavoidable weakness that every team has. For a few select teams, this single big splash signing is all that is needed, but for the majority, filling every hole through free agency simply isn’t affordable, or a viable solution. There are many philosophies on how to approach building a roster through the off-season, and each has had success at some point in the past. Like the Eagles of 2011, the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dueling for this year’s “dream team” title by spending and spending on the open market. Each team is appeasing fans in the process by signing household names, even if they are forced to overpay dearly (Tampa Bay signed Eric Wright for just under $8 million per year). But these two franchises near the top in available cap space coming into free agency, and so were able to go shopping to plug their gaps.
Most franchises, however, were without the luxury of cap room, and were forced to either sit on their hands, or re-structure existing contracts to create space. The Detroit Lions fall into this category. General manager Martin Mayhew has worked diligently to re-structure the contracts of Matthew Stafford, Nate Burleson, and Ndamukong Suh, and work out a long term deal with Calvin Johnson, in order to free up much needed salary cap breathing room. This extra space was then used to re-sign some key players, such as Jeff Backus and Shaun Hill. Mayhew and the Lions front office stated from the outset that their first priority was to keep the current roster intact, and so their focus would be on re-signing their own free agents. This was evidenced by Tuesday’s re-signing of middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who will be a fixture in the middle of the Lion defense for the next five years.
Mayhew’s offseason strategy carried heavy risks that could have crippled the franchise’s future for the sake of keeping some continuity for a rebuilding franchise. Utilizing the franchise tag in order to keep defensive end Cliff Avril from testing the open market is as risky a move as Mayhew could have made. There is really no winner in this situation. Worst case scenario would be a hold-out through camp, which Avril has already indicated that he is willing to do. Best case scenario would be to work out a long term deal for the edge rusher, but with Cliff already poised to make over $10 million in 2012, it is unlikely that the Lions will be able to secure him long-term for a reasonable price. In this case Mayhew over paid for an underwhelming talent, which can be dangerous for a young, developing team.
While Mayhew was able to bring back several players, one that got away was starting cornerback Eric Wright. There are two ways to look at this development. Wright wasn’t the lockdown corner that Lions fans and front office had hoped he could be, but he was a serviceable starter, even if only to keep Alphonso Smith and the atrocious Aaron Berry off of the field as much as possible. But with the price of nearly $8 million per year, it is certain that Martin Mayhew, and most Lions fans, would have gladly packed Wrights bags for him and given him a ride to Metro Airport. Losing a starter in the secondary could seriously hinder an already sub-par defense, considering that this was the weakest unit on the field last season. The signing of cornerback Jacob Lacey could help fill the void, but Detroit will likely have to rebuild the secondary through the draft, which is one of the most difficult things to do. Rarely are rookie cornerbacks able to come in and make an immediate impact. Hopefully Lacey can buy the Lions a year to develop some young talent, or to find the perfect fit on the open market.
Considering all the risks involved, general manager Martin Mayhew has succeeded with his strategy thus far. Arguably the best receiver in the history of football will now be a Lion for at least the next seven years. The franchise quarterback will have his blindside protected for two more years by veteran Jeff Backus, which should buy the Lions time to find his replacement, and hopefully an upgraded one at that. Cliff Avril will still be a Lion, even if only for one more year, and more importantly, Stephen Tulloch, who was one of the Lions best defenders, will be here for the next five years. Through all of the extensions, restructurings, and re-signings, Martin Mayhew has been able to lock up the young talent; the core of Detroit Lion football future; for a long time. With only a few major pieces missing, Mayhew can now turn his attention toward building depth through the draft, and developing young talent, the way that championship franchises have for years.