Key positions Lions could address in free agency

Jared Odrick's rookie year was ruined by injury, but he's been durable since then, playing all 16 games each of the last four years.

Stew Milne

One way or the other, the Detroit Lions will be major players in the free-agent market this year.

They’ll either re-sign defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the premier free agent available, or they’ll have a lot more money to work with to try to find replacements for him and also possibly upgrade at some other positions.

The Lions have made big splashes each of the last two years in the open market. It’s a dangerous way to live in the NFL because teams typically overpay for the top unrestricted free agents, which ultimately has ramifications in a salary-cap league.

But the Lions are trying to win now and the additions of safety Glover Quin, receiver Golden Tate and safety James Ihedigbo played a big role in last season’s 11-win breakout that got them into the playoffs.

The team’s other recent high-profile signing, running back Reggie Bush, was widely viewed as the ideal addition at the time, but his success was short-lived. Bush, hampered by an ankle injury in his second year in Detroit, got released last week.

If the Lions somehow re-sign Suh, they’ll have much less, if anything, remaining to try to make other significant free-agent moves, depending on how the contract is structured. Some deals are back-loaded to give the team a friendlier cap hit that first year or two.

However, if Suh goes elsewhere, as many suspect will happen at this point, the Lions will have plenty of cap space to not only re-sign some of their other free agents, but also to try to fill some holes by targeting others around the league.

Here’s a look at some of the key positions they could address if they have the cap space:

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Not only is Suh a free agent, but so are Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen, making this the top priority if they aren’t re-signed.

Some top options:

Jared Odrick, Miami: The 28th pick overall — 26 slots after Suh went to Detroit — coming out of Penn State in 2010. His rookie year was ruined by injury, but he’s been durable since then, playing all 16 games each of the last four years.

Terrance Knighton, Denver: Nicknamed "Pot Roast," the gregarious Knighton is considered a quote machine by the media. He’s a run-stuffer who has played nose tackle. There’s been speculation that the Lions could consider using a 3-4 defense more often, instead of their 4-3, if they lose Suh.

Dan Williams, Arizona: Taken 24 picks after Suh — two picks before Odrick — in the 2010 draft. He’s another tremendous run stopper, like Knighton, who could be a nose tackle in a 3-4. However, Williams is versatile enough to line up in different spots, although he’s not a great pass-rusher.

Stephen Paea, Chicago: A second-round selection in 2011 coming out of Oregon State, Paea has emerged as one of the top pass-rushing D-tackles but he’s not as good against the run. He’s coming off a career-best season in which he had six sacks, 12 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

Kendall Langford, St. Louis: The Lions have already shown interest in Langford, bringing him in for a visit earlier this week. He’s a quality player who became a salary-cap casualty because of his expensive contract and the emergence of first-round draft pick Aaron Donald in St. Louis.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The unit was the weak link on last year’s team and should be addressed either in free agency or the draft, if not both.

Left tackle Riley Reiff and projected center Travis Swanson are versatile enough to play other positions, so the Lions could go in several different directions depending on who they can add.

A veteran would be ideal for an otherwise young group if the Lions don’t re-sign free-agent Rob Sims, their aging left guard.

A top option at each position:

Guard Orlando Franklin, Denver: Versatility makes him very attractive. Franklin, a second-round pick in 2011, started three years at right tackle before excelling last season at left guard.

Center Rodney Hudson, Kansas City: Considered a strong run blocker, which would help an offense in need of becoming more balanced.

Tackle Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay: Came back to play all but one game last season after missing the 2013 season because of a knee injury.

CORNERBACK

If they re-sign Rashean Mathis, who has started for them the last two years but is entering his 13th NFL season, the Lions could opt to add another young corner through the draft.

If they don’t bring back Mathis, they probably need to sign a veteran who can start immediately. There are mixed views on this group of free-agent corners, but the top-rated options include Seattle’s Byron Maxwell, San Diego’s Brandon Flowers, Houston’s Kareem Jackson and San Francisco’s Chris Culliver.

Another to consider is Cary Williams, who made four interceptions while starting 16 games for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens during the 2012 season when Teryl Austin, now Detroit’s defensive coordinator, was his position coach.

RUNNING BACK

The Lions still have Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and George Winn under contract after releasing Bush, but they need to add someone else to try to bolster the run game, which could come through the draft. Among the free-agent options could be Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller, New England’s Shane Vereen and Baltimore’s Justin Forsett.

RECEIVER

A quality No. 3 wideout to go with Calvin Johnson and Tate would greatly help the offense. They can probably find that in the draft, but the free-agent possibilities include Baltimore’s Torrey Smith (Lions coach Jim Caldwell was his offensive coordinator with the Ravens), New Orleans’ Robert Meacham (Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is a former Saints’ assistant) and Miami’s Brian Hartline.