The Super Bowl is over which means the countdown until draft day begins with free agency soon to follow. There is no better time than the present to take a look at the Detroit Lions’ greatest needs this offseason.
There are a couple gaping holes on this roster, but there are far fewer this offseason compared to last year’s. The offensive line, backfield, and strong safety positions were huge question marks last February. Today, each of those spots are safely secured with the only exception at center with free agent Dominic Raiola.
Despite these positives, depth is dire in the back seven and at wide receiver. Below is an ordered list starting with a few key items that need to be addressed for this team to make the next step.
1. Ace cornerback
The Detroit Lions have not had a shutdown corner since Lem Barney in the ’70s. Maybe you could make the case for Dre Bly who made a couple Pro Bowls with the Lions, but his production was overshadowed by a terrible unit. No matter your answer, it has been awhile since the Leos could contain an opponent’s elite wideout.
Free agency is very deep at corner this offseason. One stud would make a massive difference allowing Chris Houston to slide to number two, Slay in the slot and Bentley to compete as the number four. Jonte Green and another pickup early in the draft or through free agency would provide solid depth. Keeping Rashean Mathis is an option after a surprisingly efficient season, but he is turning 34 in August.
The draft is another option to get a top-flight corner, but this route is much riskier. Currently, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard are atop big boards but both are projected to go in the middle-to-late portion of the first round. Taking one of them at 10 could pay off in the long run, but the selection could be a reach. A dream scenario may be a desired quarterback like Fresno State’s Derek Carr dropping to 10. Then, the Lions could bait the 10th pick to a team willing to trade up in exchange for a mid-round first rounder and an extra pick. Extra picks are always welcome.
2. Secondary wide receiver
Nate Burleson surprised me last season when healthy, but staying out of the doctor’s office is not his forte. Kris Durham is set to be a free agent, and while the Lions may try to keep him, his inconsistencies with catching the ball and running precise routes makes him a number four wide receiver at best. Kevin Ogletree is a free agent after playing 12 games with the Lions and only grabbing 13 receptions. His lackluster performance last season leaves him with few suitors in 2014.
The first round in the 2014 NFL Draft looks like the most attractive option to immediately address this spot. Sammy Watkins is an absolute dynamo with the potential to be a number one on most teams. His explosive skills set and sure hands would not need long to adjust to NFL competition. If Watkins gets snatched up before pick 10, the Lions will likely go with Marquise Lee or Mike Evans. Lee is the electric option with durability issues, while Evans is the mammoth with athleticism concerns. I prefer Lee because of his elite upside, but Evans is a safe bet to be a top 25 wide receiver for the next 10 seasons with a peak comparable to Vincent Jackson.
3. Starting tight end
Brandon Pettigrew is a free agent and will already be hitting 29 years old this season. His chance of becoming an elite tight end has come and passed. While he only had four dropped passes this season, Pettigrew’s overall production was mediocre. He does not have any separation speed and falls hard whenever hit. His massive build makes him a plus blocker, and his athleticism is decent for his size.
Joseph Fauria showed off a terrific knack for the end zone with nice athleticism and even better hands. Currently, his blocking ability is near non-existent, but if he adds another ten pounds and works heavily on his technique, he has the potential to start in another year or two.
Seventh rounder Michael Williams never had a chance to show his stuff after being placed on injury reserve in August. I love Williams as a blocker, and he could be another red zone option for Matthew Stafford, especially at the goal-line.
The Lions should either resign Pettigrew or take a tight end in the draft. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro top an incredibly strong big board of tight ends this May. Again, trading down would be the best option in acquiring one of these players as they are all projected to go in the middle-to-late first round. Although, a guy like Seferian-Jenkins could drop to the second round because of character concerns. Each of the three have elite athleticism and speed for the position with Ebron as the best blocker.
Free agency, on the other hand, lacks any sort of depth here.
4. Strongside linebacker
Ashlee Palmer is not bad at all, but he does not do anything really well either. He is not a liability, but he lacks any sort of play-making ability.
Outside linebacker is virtually void of talent through free agency so the only route of improvement is through the draft. UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack are stud rush linebackers that could drop to pick 10, but they are better suited for a 3-4 defensive scheme. Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is another option in the first round who would make a bit more sense for the Lions’ 4-3. He is excellent in pass coverage and has plenty of all-around talent. He does not have elite athleticism or size but more than makes up for this with fantastic instincts.
One of my favorite players in this year’s draft is Brigham Young’s Kyle Van Noy. He is projected to go late first/early second, but if he drops to pick 45 the Lions should be all over this guy. Another guy with excellent pass coverage skills, he is also extremely effective on the blitz. He is similar to Mosley in many ways but could go a round later.
In 2013, Dominic Raiola earned the second-highest grade among centers from Pro Football Focus, having his best season by far. But as a 35-year-old free agent, Raiola may choose to retire. Whether he signs for one more year or not, the Lions could draft his replacement with a mid-round pick.
While there are no standouts among the pack, there are plenty of decent centers who figure to come off the board around the third and fourth rounds.
6. Slot wide receiver
We have only seen so much of Ryan Broyles, but one has to wonder if has the former second round pick has any explosion left. Injury after injury has been the story for Broyles, and he cannot be relied on for much of anything in 2014.
The Lions will almost certainly be spending a pick or two at wide receiver in the draft.
David Akers is a free agent and should be long gone after missing a few gut-wrenching field goals this season. Perhaps Kickalicious comes back, but don’t count on it because for some reason no team will give this guy a chance in a game. The Lions might just sign another veteran, preferably younger than 80.
Though I don’t condone it, picking a punter (Sam Martin) in last year’s draft worked out quite well for the Lions. Don’t be surprised if they use the same philosophy at kicker.
8. Defensive end
Willie Young had himself a nice year in 2013 after Jason Jones ruptured his patellar tendon, ending his season. While Jones will be back in 2014, Young could be leaving through free agency, along with Israel Idonije. That would leave Ziggy Ansah, Jones and Devin Taylor as the team’s remaining ends. A veteran or two could solidify this group as a strength.
9. Backup Quarterback
The always reliable and non-threatening Shaun Hill just turned 34 and will be headed to free agency. A fourth or sixth round pick as a replacement would put a tiny bit of heat on Matthew Stafford. After so many flat-footed throws, Stafford would be on his toes for a change.
10. Kick returner/punt returner
Jeremy Ross sure seemed like a viable answer in 2013. In a disastrous second half to the season for the Leos, Ross was one of the only bright spots. As an exclusive rights free agent, Ross should be back next season; however, he came out of nowhere, and if he were to regress, the Lions don’t yet have a backup plan. A speedster late in the draft would suffice.