Five storylines to follow in Lions’ offseason

If the Lions lose both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, they will have to immediately rebuild the middle of their defensive line.

Raj Mehta

Was the Detroit Lions’ 11-win season just an aberration, and they’ll take a step back again in 2015? Or was it the foundation for maybe even bigger and better things?

Here are five storylines to follow this offseason that will help determine the answer:

Can they re-sign Ndamukong Suh?

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew indicated that putting the one-year franchise tag on Suh to keep him out of free agency for 2015 — despite the excessive salary-cap figure involved — is a possibility, although signing a long-term deal is much preferable.

Mayhew even sounded optimistic last week that Suh wants to stay here, but it’s difficult to trust anything that gets said publicly during a negotiation.

The truth is not too many people really know what Suh is thinking because he’s very private, even with his teammates, and just a different type of dude. The other unknown at this point is just how much another team will be willing to offer him.

Because of these unknowns, I’d say it’s still about 50-50 on whether Suh comes back.

Is defensive coordinator Teryl Austin returning?

A year ago at this time, Austin was a relatively unknown secondary coach with the Baltimore Ravens.

But he rebuilt the Lions’ defense on the fly so impressively that he’s now on the fast track to a head-coaching job in the NFL.

Austin is expected to get a second interview with Atlanta. Chicago and San Francisco have also expressed interest, as did Buffalo before hiring Rex Ryan.

It’s a no-brainer that Austin, 49, has to go for it while his name is hot, but the best thing for him in the long run actually might be to get some more experience as a coordinator and continue to prep to be a head coach.

If he gets a job too soon, it could backfire on him in a league where there’s very little patience.

Will they re-sign defensive tackle Nick Fairley?

This is a tough one. Do you trust Fairley to keep his weight under control and to demonstrate a good work ethic once he gets another contract with a lot of guaranteed money?

He got his act together in 2014 after being benched in the preseason, but even the laziest players usually are at their best in a contract year.

Fairley hired a personal chef and got in shape before suffering a knee injury that forced him to miss the final nine games. He had returned to practice before the regular-season finale and there were indications he might have played had the Lions continued to advance in the playoffs.

Several months ago, the team chose not to pick up Fairley’s option for 2015 because he was not reliable. That’s the reason he’s eligible for free agency this year instead of a year from now.

Asked how confident he is that Fairley’s weight and work ethic problems are in the past, Mayhew answered, "As confident as I can be."

I’d be careful. Maybe Fairley has changed, but judging that on behavior during a contract year is not always real accurate.

The problem is that if the Lions lose both Suh and Fairley, they will have to immediately rebuild the middle of their defensive line through the draft or other free agents, and the strength of their team will be absolutely ripped apart.

Do they make upgrades on the offensive line, perhaps even try to rebuild it, or just stand pat?

The O-line was a disappointment because it regressed from the previous year, leading to another inconsistent run game, not to mention a career high in sacks for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Mayhew maintains that injuries were a major factor, creating a lack of continuity. That certainly didn’t help, but it might be unrealistic to think this group is the answer going forward.

Stafford usually gets most of the blame, but his offensive line was the bigger problem this past season.

Center Dominic Raiola, left guard Rob Sims and tackle Corey Hilliard are among team’s 22 players eligible for free agency.

Raiola, 36, would be entering his 15th NFL season. Sims, 31, would be in his 10th. Hilliard, 29, missed most of 2014 because of a foot injury.

The Lions could immediately replace either Raiola or Sims with Travis Swanson, a third-round draft pick last year. Swanson appears more comfortable as a center at this point.

If Suh is re-signed, any other rebuilding on the offensive line probably would have to come through the draft because it’s unlikely they would have enough room under the salary cap to pursue a top free agent.

If Suh isn’t re-signed, it’s a totally different story. There would be much more money available to try to fix the O-line.

Either way, don’t expect the offense to make a big jump if they fail to address these issues upfront.

Who will be this year’s top salary-cap casualties?

A year ago, the Lions released receiver Nate Burleson and safety Louis Delmas to help create room to pursue free agents Golden Tate and James Ihedigbo as their replacements. Both moves were crucial in the transformation from an also-ran to a playoff team.

Speculation has centered on running back Reggie Bush being a potential cap casualty this year. Bush, who turns 30 in a couple months, had an injury-plagued season although he did show signs of his old self in the final weeks.

Releasing Bush would create less than $2 million in cap space, but the Lions do have a younger player, Theo Riddick, to try to fill the void.

Two others to consider are linebacker Stephen Tulloch and defensive lineman Jason Jones simply because the cap savings would be greater, more than $3 million in each case.

Tulloch just turned 30 and he’s coming off a season-ending knee injury. Jones, 28, is a quality, versatile player, but he is replaceable and the Lions will need to do something if they’re going to keep Suh and still try to address some other needs along the way.