Lions can improve D with stronger punter

It’s been a long time since the Detroit Lions have had a lock-down defense.

That’s probably not going to change significantly next season. They could be improved by making some sharp offseason moves, but there’s a lot of holes to fill.

The focus is primarily on the secondary, defensive end and even linebacker; however, there’s actually another much quicker, easier way the Lions could improve their defense, perhaps immediately: Get a punter with a strong leg who can help change field position.

It’s tough enough to have a porous defense, but to add in a mediocre punter at the same time is a brutal combination.

Nick Harris, who is an unrestricted free agent and not expected to be re-signed by the Lions, ranked among the NFL’s worst punters in 2012. He finished 27th in net punting (37.6-yard average) and 32nd in gross punting (41.5).

Harris, 34, had replaced Ben Graham, 39, who also was unimpressive before getting injured in Week 3.

The Lions absolutely must make it a priority, either through free agency or the draft, to find a punter capable of flipping the field position at key times.

The defense desperately needs the help. Harris simply doesn’t have a strong leg to do that from deep in his territory.

Find a quality punter and the defense automatically will be stronger. Here are some potential targets:

• Five free agents stand out this year: Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee, 25; Cincinnati’s Kevin Huber, 27; Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt, 30; Houston’s Donnie Jones, 32; and Oakland’s Shane Lechler, 36.

McAfee averaged 48.2 yards per punt, fourth in NFL; Huber was fourth in net punting with a 42-yard average; Colquitt finished second with 45 punts inside the 20-yard line; and Jones was tied for 10th with a 47.2-yard average.

Lechler, meanwhile, is a seven-time Pro Bowler, but he will have to take a severe pay cut after making around $4 million last season with the Raiders.

Colquitt reportedly made $1.8 million in 2012; McAfee and Huber $1.3 million each; and Jones $825,000.

Harris was making $925,000 with Detroit.

The Lions aren’t in position to start overpaying for free agents because of salary-cap concerns, but they might have to do just that in this case to make sure they fill a major need.

• A few college punting prospects will be on display this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

The top-rated punter is LSU’s 6-foot-3, Australian-born Brad Wing, who is projected as a fifth-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com.

Some say he could go much higher, even as early as the second round.

Wing, who had five punts of more than 60 yards as a third-year sophomore last season compared to none by Harris for the Lions, is the first punter to leave college early to enter the draft in more than two decades.

Other late-round or undrafted free-agent possibilities include Oklahoma State’s Quinn Sharp, Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Allen, UCLA’s Jeff Locke, Ball State’s Scott Kovanda and Arizona State’s Josh Hubner.

Allen led the nation with a 48-yard average, followed by Hubner at 47.1. Sharp is also a good kicker who made two 51-yard field goals last season.
 
SHOWCASE FOR DENARD

The week-long NFL Combine officially begins Wednesday, but the on-field workouts, which will be televised by the NFL Network, don’t start until Saturday.

Michigan’s Denard Robinson is expected to hit the field with the other receivers on Sunday. Robinson needs to prove he can catch the ball much better than he did last month at the Senior Bowl, when he was still hampered by an elbow injury.

Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher, a potential top-10 pick, is scheduled for an on-field workout Saturday.

There are also four Michigan State players among the 333 invitees: tight end Dion Sims (Saturday workout), running back Le’Veon Bell (Sunday), defensive end William Gholston (next Monday) and cornerback Johnny Adams (next Tuesday, Feb. 26).

RECRUITING PITCH

Lions receiver Nate Burleson took to the air Monday to publicly try to recruit free-agent running back Reggie Bush.

“I’m going to just say this — Reggie Bush, you already took your talents to South Beach, come on to Detroit,” Burleson said during an appearance on the NFL Network. “I know it’s not as sunny and it might not be the same type of glitz and glamour, but you can do wonders for us.”

The Lions are in need of a speed back to replace Jahvid Best, whose career is in jeopardy because of a brain injury.

Bush has spent the last two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

“If I can get Reggie Bush in a Detroit Lions uniform, ooh-wee, watch out,” Burleson added.