Analyst: 10-step plan for the Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is on the clock.

Mayhew’s future arguably could be determined by what he does over the next seven weeks. Can he repair his team’s roster and give coach Jim Schwartz an improved lineup after they plummeted from 10-6 in 2011 to 4-12 last year?

The Lions have so many needs, from a pass-rush threat to playmakers in the secondary to a return specialist, punter and a running back who can create explosive plays.

It’s no exact science. There are many paths they could take between re-signing their remaining 21 unrestricted free agents, luring free agents from other teams and, finally, the NFL Draft.

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. The draft is April 25-27.

Here’s a 10-step plan on how the Lions can get back to respectability as quickly as possible:

1. Quarterback Matthew Stafford absolutely must sign an extension or a restructured deal to lower his ridiculous $20.8-million salary-cap hit.

Some cap relief already has been created by releasing Kyle Vanden Bosch and Stephen Peterman, along with receiver Nate Burleson and center Dominic Raiola taking less money to redo their contracts, but the Lions could still use a lot more flexibility.

Stafford struck a goldmine by coming out of college just before the rookie wage scale went into effective.

How badly does he want to win a championship? How badly does he want to win it in Detroit?

From all indications, both are very important to him. If so, it’s time to prove it. His agent, presumably, will disagree, but it is on Stafford to help this club manufacture additional cap room to put more talent around him.

In a salary-cap world, this is what good teammates, incredibly wealthy teammates, have to do.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is in a similar position with an $18.1-million cap hit. He could stand up and help the cause by reworking his contract, too.

The bigger concern with Suh, however, is does he really want to be here long term?

2. Re-sign cornerback Chris Houston and, if his ailing knees pass the physical, safety Louis Delmas, too.

Taking away two key pieces of an already soft secondary would be a disaster.

3. Assuming the price tag for defensive end Cliff Avril is going to get too high, which it appears will happen, don’t pay it. Just make sure you re-sign the other free-agent defensive end, Lawrence Jackson, to start to fill the void.

4. The price apparently is also going to be too steep to keep right tackle Gosder Cherilus considering the Lions’ cap issues.

Let Cherilus go, put Riley Reiff at right guard (or left tackle if Jeff Backus retires) and let Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard battle it out for the right-tackle job. Bill Nagy is a back-up plan at guard if Reiff has to replace Backus.

5. Sign free-agent running back Reggie Bush, who played the last two years with Miami.

Some will argue that the Lions need to put all their resources into the defense. But the defense’s problems aren’t going to be solved with one piece.

The offense, on the other hand, could quickly return to elite status simply by adding an experienced, game-breaking threat to fill the Jahvid Best role.

The Lions have reduced enough cap money that going after Bush has become realistic.

The best chance for them to win in 2013 is to outscore opponents with a prolific offense. That’s not going to happen without some more explosive plays from a running back to complement Calvin Johnson.

6. Take the best pass-rushing defensive end in the first round of the draft.

The first instinct was to make Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner an automatic choice at No. 5 overall.

If he’s available and they go that route, there certainly should be no dispute. After all, the Lions have needed an elite corner for a long, long time.

However, if you do that, how are you going to replace Avril unless someone else happens to become affordable in free agency?

There are mixed reviews on the top pass-rush candidates in the draft. Some analysts consider them overrated. Others think they’re too risky to take with such an early pick because of health concerns or lack of experience.

But it won’t get any better waiting until the second round or later, will it? If the Lions lose Avril, they will be desperate.

At cornerback, you can at least argue there are some best-case possibilities out there if Houston re-signs. Bill Bentley, a third-round pick last year, showed some promise before a shoulder injury limited his effectiveness and eventually ended his season early. Jonte Green, a sixth-round pick, was a surprising contributor as a rookie. Maybe Chris Greenwood, a fifth-rounder, can bounce back after missing all of his first year following abdominal surgery.

At defensive end, there just aren’t any real back-up plans if Avril is gone, which is looking more and more likely.

The player with possibly the most upside in the draft is BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who is from Africa and has been playing football only since 2010.

At 6-foot-5, 271 pounds, his freakish athleticism makes him so incredibly appealing.

Some question how much time he’ll need to develop because of his limited background. The Lions certainly can’t afford to take any long-term projects with such a high pick, not with Mayhew’s and Schwartz’s jobs on the line.

It will be a tough call for them. This is no perfect world in the NFL, certainly not with a draft that has become so difficult for analysts to even try to project the very top picks.

At the very least, Ansah should be pretty good right away simply because of all that athleticism.

For the same reason, he could be great much sooner than later.

The Lions would need to coach him up, get him on the fast track and make sure it’s much sooner because they don’t have the luxury of waiting for later.

7. Draft the best available safety in the second round.

Believe it or not, it’s actually a position that’s even weaker than cornerback for the Lions, especially if Houston is back and safety Amari Spievey (concussions) isn’t.

You simply can’t fill all these holes on defense in one year. The Lions might have to roll the dice that Bentley or someone else emerges at corner while trying to land a defensive end and a safety right now.

This is considered a strong group of safeties. Some second-round targets could include Florida’s Matt Elam, Florida International’s Johnathan Cyprien, Syracuse’s Shamarko Thomas or LSU’s Eric Reid.

Sometime in the first round, there’s likely to be a run on the next-best cornerbacks after Milliner goes early, but at least a couple of these safeties still should be around when the Lions get their second pick.

8. Yes, take the risk on former LSU bad boy Tyrann Mathieu, an extraordinary return specialist, in the third round.

He will provide a desperately-needed serious threat on kick and punt returns and also can play the slot corner.

Somebody is going to benefit from taking a shot with Mathieu. He hit bottom after being kicked off the LSU team last year because of a drug problem.

The difference between him and some other players with character risks is that he already had the game taken away from him for a year. That should have been a life-altering experience for him.

Mathieu was extremely impressive during his workout at the Scouting Combine. He also displayed much more maturity during interviews.

The question is whether the Lions will be willing to take this chance?

There’s still a natural cautiousness around Allen Park after all those arrests a year ago and then the Titus Young saga last season.

But this team is going nowhere without some playmakers and Mathieu is a definite playmaker.

9. Draft one of the top punters, possibly even as early as the fifth round.

Someone who can change field position with one swing of his leg will make life much easier on a weak defense.

LSU’s Brad Wing is the preferable choice, but he comes with a little baggage, including a failed drug test last season.

If Wing’s character remains a concern, UCLA’s Jeff Locke is also highly rated.

No player drafted in the fifth round or later can have a bigger impact on the Lions’ defense next season and beyond than a punter with a strong leg.

10. What about a receiver to replace Young?

Under this plan, unfortunately, there’s no room for a high-end addition.

The Lions need to continue searching for cost-efficient free agents, identify an underrated late-round pick and then hope that Burleson and Ryan Broyles recover from injuries and someone like Kris Durham or Patrick Edwards develops.