Today at 4:00 pm, NFL free agency begins. For the first time in my memory, there will be no 12:02 am faxes to the league office, or midnight gift-bearing showings-up at houses. Free agency will begin in an orderly fashion, just as office workers everywhere would begin looking for football news on the Internet anyway.
Yesterday a lot of contract-y things happened, the upshot of which is Tom Lewand got the Lions under the cap, as he always does. Unfortunately, he did not get them under enough to sign Cliff Avril or Stephen Tulloch to a long-term deal before the deadline.
Here is the situation with Tully: last offseason, he thought his body of work merited a long-term deal, and it did. But he and the Lions were unable to come to terms, so both sides agreed to a one-year deal. This is known as a “prove it” deal: sign a contract, prove you’re worth big money, then get that big-money deal from whoever’s offering it.
Tulloch did his part; he proved it. As the Old Mother Hubbard showed, Tully was one of the best—and most valuable—inside linebackers in the game in 2011. His performance removes all doubt: he is worth the big money he’s sought for years.
Free agency allows a player to earn his market worth. The problem for Stephen Tulloch is, the market doesn’t think he’s worth a whole lot. As Anwar Richardson pointed out, Tulloch is not being targeted by the teams with big money to spend and a hole at MLB. Whether that’s because he doesn’t fit their system, they like someone better, they don’t think they can afford him, the devaluing of the MLB position in a “base nickel” NFL, or what, I couldn’t tell you.
The upshot of it is, there is no team who needs Stephen Tulloch more than the Detroit Lions—so salary cap notwithstanding, there will be no team willing to pay more than the Detroit Lions.
This is all a thought experiment on my part; no hard news or even rumor fuels it. But the vibe I’m picking up is that once again, Tulloch will need the Lions to need him just as much as they indeed need him . . . but first, he has to know for sure; he has to test the market. That’s fine. If and when he comes back, it will be for good.
Calvin Johnson has been the straw that stirs the Lions’ drink for quite some time, and he is once again today. If he the Lions re-sign him to a long-term deal, it could greatly increase breathing room against the cap—and long-term deals with Tulloch and Cliff Avril become much easier to reach. If not, the Lions can retain Avril at his tendered salary—but Tulloch and the Lions will be in limbo for quite a while.
Jeff Backus is also an unrestricted free agent, both both sides seem exclusively intent on Backus returning. As I said on Twitter, it’s so not even a thing that they’re not even talking about it. In fact, I wonder if the tacit plan is to simply wait until the last of the CJ/Avril/Tulloch/Eric Wright dominoes has fallen and then get Backus some money however they can.
I don’t see the Lions as players for signing other teams’ free agents. The Lions’ roster has matured; there are only a few select roster spots available on either side of the ball. Further, the lack of cap money means they can’t sign starters—and given the choice, I’m sure the Lions prefer to draft their backups.
So don't plan on any excitement today, Lions fans. The offseason is no longer our Super Bowl; the Super Bowl is our Super Bowl. The Lions need to re-sign their guys as best they can, then draft as wisely as they always do.
. . . now, watch them go sign Mario Williams.