Yesterday, my wife and elder daughter were at the Breslin, watching the MSU women’s hoops team take out Northwestern. There were only two tickets available, so my son ended up being an unwilling non-participant. Given his love of all things motorsport, I figured a quick jaunt out to a sports bar for a big-screen viewing of the Daytona 500 would lift his spirits.
Along with my way-too-close-to-two-years-old-for-my-comfort younger daughter, we got a table right next to a big projection screen—with the 500, in all its red-flagged-glory, on glorious display. That’s right; I took my kids out to watch the Daytona 500 on the biggest possible screen, and we didn’t see a lap of actual racing.
The good folks at Daytona ended up just pouring a bunch of Bondo in the hole and runnin’ ‘em anyway; any car guy will call that poetic justice. However, their old-school solution produced some serious problems: the finish was marred by wreck after wreck. Four-time champ Jimmie Johnson at least superficially blamed his late-race DNF on the gerry-rigged surface.
Upon closer inspection, it turns out the Daytona Beach superspeedway hadn’t been resurfaced since 1978; three years before this blogger was born. It seems preposterous that I have conscious memories of Interstate freeways being built with public funds, while the crown jewel of American motorsport rolls on dated pavement—but there it is.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to the state of the Lions’ roster; the “345” pounds of Bondo filling the middle of the defensive line comes readily to mind. It became obvious during the season that the aging veterans the Lions were relying upon to patch the roster weren’t doing the trick; the core of the roster has to be rebuilt.
The core of a successful NFL team is its young veterans: the 25-to-30-year-olds who have honed their craft through experience, but haven’t yet lost their youthful athleticism. I present to you all the core of the Lions’ roster, in ascending age order:
- WR Calvin Johnson
- DL Turk McBride
- OT Corey Hilliard
- LB Ernie Sims
- QB Drew Stanton
- SS Marvin White
- SS Ko Simpson
- TE Matthew Michaels
- DE Jason Hunter
- DB Kevin Hobbs
- SS Daniel Bullocks
- OG Manny Ramirez
- CB Eric King
- OG Dylan Gandy
- OG Daniel Loper
- OG Stephen Peterman
- LS Don Muhlbach
- MLB Cody Spencer
- WR Bryant Johnson
- TE Casey Fitzsimmons
- OLB Vinny Circiu
Wow. I knew this would be brutal, but it surpasses even my worst fears. Of the 21 players that met my criteria, you could release all but four of them without any impact on the Lions’ 2009 performance*, or 2010 team potential: Megatron, Sims, Peterman, and Muhlbach.
The criteria were tough to define. Brandon Pettigrew is 25, but just finished his rookie year—and Ernie Sims is only two months older, but has already played four seasons. I set the lower bound at “at least 24 years old, with three or more completed seasons”, and the upper bound at “no more than 30 years old, or 7 completed seasons”.
If that seems like a narrow window, it is; time is short in the NFL. We already speak of the “aging” Larry Foote and his “diminished skills”—yet, he’s only 29. His eight years of service just barely disqualified him from this list.
Further, the 2009 draft class has been pushed into starting roles far more quickly than they would have on any other team. It’s undeniable that Stafford, Pettigrew, Delmas, Levy, and Hill are starting-caliber talents, but to varying degrees they all could have benefitted from the time and space to develop before getting thrust out into the fray. They’re the “core” of the team, but only because the actual core of the team lays in ruins.
What can be done? Not much. The answer should be to pursue these types of players in free agency, but this is an especially bad year to do so. The vagaries of the CBA and the 2010 uncapped year mean that the four- and five-year veterans who’d be coming into the open market are now restricted free agents; if tendered at a decent level they’re nearly unsignable.
Here’s a reasonably complete list of six- and seven-year starter-caliber veterans who’ll be unrestricted free agents come March:
- OLB Karlos Dansby
- DT Vince Wilfork
- MLB Gary Brackett
- CB Dunta Robinson
- WR Nate Burleson
- DT Aubrayo Franklin
- OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa
- WR Antonio Bryant
- WR Kevin Walter
- FS Will Allen
Wilfork and Franklin will be slapped with the franchise tag, taking them off the market. Robinson will almost certainly be either tagged or re-signed to a monster deal, as the Texans have almost no one behind him at cornerback. The 5’-11”, 235-pound Brackett doesn’t fit the Lions’ system at all, and the same goes for Tinoisamoa.
Burleson, Bryant, and Walter are legitimate options as #2 WRs, but it’s questionable whether Bryant or Walter represent a head-and-shoulders upgrade over Bryant Johnson. Besides Burleson, Will Allen is another strong possibility. A special-teams standout with experience at both free and strong safety, Allen missed most of last year with a broken thumb, and could be a nice complement to Louis Delmas.
Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of it: a handful of wideouts and a safety. Any further attempts at rebuilding the young-veteran talent foundation of the Lions would involve either signing a restricted free agent, or making a trade—both which would almost certainly involve surrendering draft picks, with I don’t see Mayhew doing under almost any circumstance.
The more I look at the free agent market, the more I realize that, like Sunday’s Daytona 500, we’ll waiting a long time before the Lions’ roster is competitive again. All we can hope for is that, like the 500, when they finally get there, it’s worth it.
* obviously, if they released Loper, Ramirez, and Gandy the Lions would have nobody to play left guard. The idea here is that all of these guys are fungible; you can exchange a Dylan Gandy for a Rex Hadnot whenever you want, but a Jahri Evans is much tougher to come by.