Following a 4-12 finish to the 2012 season, the Detroit Lions have begun an important off-season in their development. As I have noted in the past, the Lions have a good, young nucleus of players to build around. But now is the time to get the job done or, very likely, the organization will turn toward a new coaching staff and front office.
As we now know, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz will return for a fifth season with the team. Schwartz has kept both his offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. There were several changes on the staff as it relates to position coaches, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Lions also changed special teams coordinators this off-season – not an unexpected move after last year’s problems.
The new coaches will bring different perspectives to a staff that has stayed largely intact through the first four years of Schwartz’s tenure. The coordinators will still teach a similar philosophy, which will play an important role in personnel decisions this off-season.
General Manager Martin Mayhew has made the decision to bring in Brian Xanders – formerly with the Denver Broncos – to retool the personnel and scouting departments. Because NFL teams are already well prepared for this off-season’s free agency period and college draft, this move will not have much short-term impact but may prove successful in the long term.
A large part of managing a team is managing the salary cap. The Lions have already cut some high priced veteran players (Kyle Vanden Bosch, Stephen Peterman, Titus Young) while retooling the last year of Dominic Raiola’s contract to save money. Reports are that the Lions will also look to re-tool the contracts of Matthew Stafford and Nate Burleson to have enough money within the salary cap to sign other impact players.
Draft preparation is well under way. The Lions coaching staff got a jump-start on seeing prospective players as coaches in the Senior Bowl last month. This gave them the opportunity to coach players in practice all week. This could prove valuable in evaluating character and skill levels – especially for players drafted in the later rounds. The NFL combine will take place later this month.
With these moves in place, the careful work now begins to rebuild the roster. The Lions will have to make key decisions on which of their own free agents to re-sign, which free agents to target (free agency begins in March), and which players to draft (the NFL Draft is in late April). On both sides of the ball the Lions need playmakers – players who will change the outcome of a game with a strong pass rush, a key defensive turnover, or a long touchdown run.
As best I can tell, the Lions will build around the passing game of Stafford and Calvin Johnson on offense. The NFL has increasingly become a passing league in the last decade. The Lions are expected to re-tool their offensive line, especially if Jeff Backus retires. 2012 first round draft pick Riley Reiff is expected to start at one tackle spot, with guard Rob Sims and center Raiola returning for sure. If Backus retires, the Lions will need two new starters.
It is expected that running back Jahvid Best will retire due to concussions and that the Lions will pursue a speed running back in the draft/free agency to compliment power running back Mikel Leshoure. The name Reggie Bush keeps popping up. The team will also look to address the wide receiver position – trying (again) to find compliments to Calvin Johnson so that the all-pro doesn’t get triple teamed in 2013.
On defense, the Lions will build around their two young defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in their attempt to rush the passer with a strong defensive line. I am convinced that the scheme that the Lions want to play does not value investing a lot of resources into the defensive backfield (despite fan concerns) – where the Lions may have some new starters in 2013. I expect that cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas will both be back. The team is looking at safety George Wilson from the Bills.
The special teams will hopefully be improved. The Lions are awaiting word from 42-year old kicker Jason Hanson on whether or not he will play another season. If he decides to retire, the Lions will have a new kicker, punter and kick/punt returner in 2013 – to go along with the new coordinator.
In the months ahead, we will be able to better analyze the moves in free agency and the draft to see if the Lions are on the right track to success in 2013. Until then, we will be inundated with names and more names of players who could, should, or won’t become Detroit Lions – always an interesting time of the year for NFL followers.
I have been a die hard Lions fan since 1991. I played football in high school and began a college playing career at Wayne State before hanging up the cleats. I will try to provide a perspective on my favorite NFL team for the Patch.