Lions Slam the Revolving Door of Free Agency

>> 3.19.2012

revolving-doorWhen Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand took over, they had almost no young talent on the roster. That’s the idea behind the Old Mother Hubbard posts: when they got there, the cupboard was bare. No longer.

The Lions are a playoff team, and an incredibly young one at that. The foundation of this team is No. 9, Matthew Stafford, and his connection with Calvin Johnson—who, thanks to the richest total contract in NFL history, will be a Lion through the end of the decade.

I can't overstate the significance of this.

I remember well the advent of free agency, the splash Reggie White made by going from Philadelphia to the tiny outpost of Green Bay, and the pillaging of the league the 49ers and Cowboys did throughout the 90s.

From the beginning, free agency has been a revolving door for the Lions: Jerry Ball out, Pat Swilling in; Chris Spielman out, Pepper Johnson in; Jeff Hartings out, Brenden Stai in. Time and time again, the Lions lost foundational pieces and replaced them with designer-impostor stopgaps. Even when they drafted well, the Lions seemed all too content to let good players walk out the door. The Old Lions would have let Calvin walk, and signed Josh Morgan to replace him.

Calvin Johnson is not just a good player, he’s a great one—and not only is he a good person, he’s a great one. Despite the mind-boggling figure, his teammates took to Twitter en masse to declare he earned every dollar (and then some) with his attitude and work ethic. That combination of talent and character is breathtakingly rare—and he has chosen to spend the best years of his career as a Detroit Lion. As Justin Durant wrote at MetroTimes, it was a good day for anyone connected to the Lions.

The Lions have also re-signed Jeff Backus to a two-year deal, inked Shaun Hill to another two-year contract, and  brought back veteran safety/special-teamer Erik Coleman. As Anwar Richardson reports, the last major free agent the Lions are looking to add is Stephen Tulloch.

But wait. Don’t I always say that standing pat is losing ground? Don’t I always say that A + B = C doesn’t work in the NFL? That each season is it’s own special potion, an alchemy experiment that can go wildly wrong or wildly right, even with similar ingredients?

Yup, I sure do. But letting Jeff Backus walk and signing Marcus McNeill, or swapping Stephen Tulloch for David Hawthorne, would be classic Old Lions moves. Moving from a sure thing who knows the system to someone new who doesn’t is a risk in and of itself; McNeill and Hawthorne are clear and obvious downgrades from Backus and Tulloch.

In the beginning, the cupboard was so bare the Lions cycled 123 different players on and off the roster in that first contract year. They were desperately clawing to get better at any spot on the roster, even if it was just the 53rd over and over and over. They viewed 1st waiver wire priority as a major tool to improve the roster. Can you imagine any street free agent improving the Lions now?

Let me quote what I said in the final Watchtower of the 2011 season:

For the first time in a long time, it’s truly possible for the Lions to regress. Building blocks of the offense and defense may need to be replaced. Jeff Backus, Cliff Avril, and Stephen Tulloch are all major contributors who may or may not be back, and they only start the list. For the first time since Schwartz was hired, this offseason will not be unidirectional.

Still, what’s important here is that the core, the fundamental truth, the identity of this team will not change. Jim Schwartz is the head coach, Matthew Stafford is the quarterback, Calvin Johnson leads a legion of viable targets, and the defensive line is stacked. That, along with all the other factors, is good enough to get the Lions to the playoffs—and that will be true in 2012 as well.

Can Schwartz, Mayhew, Lewand and company brew a more potent batch of Lions in 2012? Can they add just the right ingredients, and hold back what might spoil the brew? Can they put it over just the right amount of heat so, as the Saints are doing now, it peaks in strength at the perfect time? We’ll see.

We’re seeing right now: not only are the Lions drafting and develop long-term starters, they’re actually paying to keep them here long-term. Slamming the revolving free-agency door shut is crucial to becoming a perennial contender.

If the Lions ink Tulloch to a multi-year deal, and draft as well as they always do, this team is going to be better in 2012 than they were in 2011—and better over the next five years then they’ve been in fifty.


Denham,  March 19, 2012 at 1:49 PM  

The offseason is getting boring now but I am FINE with that. Good write up Ty

Precisionwc1,  March 19, 2012 at 4:34 PM  

I'm a huge fan of Mayhew, but so far this off-season has been a bit of a disappointment. We have $13M in cap room and we haven't signed anyone yet. LaRon Landry just signed a 1 yr deal w/the Jets for $4M. You mean to tell me that he's not a massive upgrade over Spievey who cannonballs into the backfield and repeatedly misses the ballcarrier? Or letting Tolbert get away when you have a Best who is 1 hard hit away from calling it a career and Leshoure who's coming off a major knee injury. No talk of Micheal Bush either. It seems to me that the "we've arrived" and "we're now relevant" mentality has set in. So what's our goal? To be playoff-relevant every year, or is it to win the Super Bowl?

Jimmerz,  March 19, 2012 at 8:44 PM  

Gotta disagree about Tulloch vs Hawthorne. They are pretty close, but Hawthorne is more flexible and a better run-stopper. Personally, I hope they sign whichever of the two comes cheaper.

Anonymous,  March 19, 2012 at 11:52 PM  

I really hope Sammy signs his tender. I think that would hurt the line a lot more than people think. He's the best run-stuffing DT we have on a team that sucks against the run...

Flamekeeper_Ty,  March 20, 2012 at 10:27 AM  

I don't think they're that close.

Tulloch was PFF's 7th-ranked inside linebacker with a +20.9 overall grade; Hawthorne was 18th with a +8.8. Both were poor blitzers, and better against the run than in coverage. Tulloch was +11.2 in coverage and +12.7 against the run, and Hawthorne was +2.9 in coverage and +5.5 against the run.

Hawthorne is a nice player, cut from a similar cloth. He's a nice insurance policy if the Lions can't afford Tulloch, but I can't imagine he'll be nearly as good in the Lions' system as Tulloch has been.

Also, this year is the year you go all-in. If the goal is to win a championship ever, it should be to win one this year. If the Lions can fit Tulloch under the cap, they must.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  March 20, 2012 at 10:30 AM  

Well, Landry has an Achilles tear he refuses to get surgery on. Also, his focus on extreme bodybuilding reminds me of David Boston (who also couldn't keep his tendons connected).

Something will happen with the running backs, but Best and Leshoure already make an awful lot of money. You can't tie up even more cash on a free agent tailback who'll likely be the third-most talented back on the team.

Anonymous,  March 20, 2012 at 12:04 PM  

As usual, great post Ty!

One small correction though; Swilling came to the Lions via a trade (1st round pick that became Willie Roaf).

I don't think they will address the RB situation until the 2nd day of the draft. Best/LeShoure/Smith/Morris & the rookie will be the RB's come opening day.


Jimmerz,  March 20, 2012 at 12:42 PM  

LeShoure's base salary is $465,000. Best's is $640,500. The cap hit might be a bit higher but I don't think I would call that an awful lot of money. Given their low salaries, I'd probably hold on to them, but I'm not expecting much production from either. Just about any healthy body would be an upgrade to either of them, including Kevin Smith (but of course he's never actually healthy).

Nate Washuta,  March 21, 2012 at 2:05 PM  

Don't get me wrong, I love what the Lions have done and are doing. I believe they'll be a contender for a long time. My hesitation in the Lions strategy comes with taking the next step and maintaining their roster in the long term. As it currently stands, their pass defense is the limiting factor. You can keep building up the offense and building up the d-line, but very quickly, you get to a point of diminishing returns. How many tackles see the field at once? How many RBs can you line up in the backfield? Is there any money left for a corner? Will your shootout style allow you to keep up with offenses that are better than yours (i.e. Saints)?

If your free agency focus is entirely on retaining your own guys and signing roster depth, you don't do anything to change the structure of your team. If your draft focus is on best player available regardless of position, you have maybe a 1 in 15 or 20 chance that guy is a corner. Will you pick a 3rd RB or a 4th WR to the detriment of your pass defense just because he's slightly more talented?

Ty, I've read your pieces and realize that a cornerback will not crack the starting lineup this year. I am completely willing to accept that. But playoff teams don't draft starters. They draft role players, developmental guys, and guys that will eventually become starters. If you're not going to go after it in free agency, you have to go there in the draft or it will never get done.

And if your focus is always on keeping your current guys, what happens when they get more and more expensive. You can't have CJ and Stafford redo their deals every year to help your cap situation. Good young players come with healthy pay raises. If your young foundation continues to cash in, the rest of your roster has to balance that with pay cuts, which means diminishing talent or young replacements.

I love the drafting, the trading, the schemes, just about everything about this coaching staff and front office. What I haven't really seen is that development. Just look at Spievey, Delmas, SLH, and Jason Fox. If you really want to stick with the Lions current strategy, you need to develop the young guys to turn into competent starters so that you're okay with letting the pricey veterans fall by the wayside. We've seen a lot of guys that come in and contribute (The Great Willie Young for example), but I'd feel more comfortable if the Lions coaching staff believed these guys could take over (KVB needs to lose some of his playing time, for one).

Of course, I'm not any expert on this. Just a guy that watches and wonders what the future holds. And I wonder what type of approach the Lions front office really believes in (in more depth than just a short phrase like "best player available" or "young foundation")

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