Lions have holes to fill during free agency

Alterraun Verner and Emmanuel Sanders are both possible free-agency targets for the Detroit Lions.

For the Detroit Lions, the time won’t be now unless they plug some holes.

Management and new coach Jim Caldwell have vehemently maintained that they’re ready to win immediately — "The time is now," Caldwell proclaimed when he took the job – despite the team’s 11-21 record over the last two seasons.

Caldwell, general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand could be right. They might be ready to breakout.

But, more than likely, it’s going to take some sharp moves on their part this offseason to upgrade key positions such as cornerback, safety and receiver.

It all starts next week — Tuesday at 4 p.m. – when the NFL’s free agency season officially opens. Negotiations can begin as early as Saturday.

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The Lions aren’t likely to match the headlines they made a year ago. They were the talk of the league after signing running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and defensive lineman Jason Jones less than 24 hours after free agency began.

But make no mistake: They need to make some type of impact this year, too.

The Lions are currently more than $10 million under the salary cap, but that’s before possibly signing some of their own free agents (tight end Brandon Pettigrew, defensive end Willie Young, cornerback Rashean Mathis, backup quarterback Shaun Hill?), not to mention their upcoming draft picks.

Some more flexibility could be created by lowering defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s $22.4-million cap hit with a contract extension, but there’s no indication an agreement is anywhere near imminent.

The Lions can’t overpay too much in their current state, which is a problem because that’s what typically happens with the top free agents.

Nevertheless, here’s a look at what the Lions could be up to this time around:

It would be dangerous to go into the season assuming that’s definitely going to happen.

Chris Houston, considered the top, veteran corner of the group, is coming off a terrible season. It’s hard to know how much Mathis, a pleasant surprise in 2013, will have left at age 34 after 10 years in the league.

Based on grading by Pro Football Focus, Houston ranked as the 96th-best cornerback in the league in 2013, Slay 92nd and Bentley 83rd.

Adding a proven starter through free agency would be a huge lift for an annually weak-link secondary.

As defensive coordinator Teryl Austin put it, "In the NFL, you can’t have enough corners."

"I think that, obviously, that would be an area that we would want to make sure we strengthen up," said Austin, a former secondary coach with Baltimore.

In most cases, it’s a tough position to make a quick transition to the NFL. That’s why an established cornerback is the ideal fit for this team right now and should be the Lions’ No. 1 target next week.

It’s one of the deepest positions in free agency and was made even more so with the recent news that Denver’s Champ Bailey and St. Louis’ Cortland Finnegan are also going to be available.

Mayhew should be able to find someone at a reasonable price among all these candidates that include Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, Indianapolis’ Vontae Davis, New England’s Aqib Talib, Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Green Bay’s Sam Shields, Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn, San Francisco’s Tarell Brown and Chicago’s Charles "Peanut" Tillman.

The Lions, who led the league in dropped passes last season, desperately need a reliable weapon to complement Calvin Johnson.

The No. 2 receiver in 2013 was Burleson with only 39 catches, and in 2012 it was Titus Young with just 33.

That’s a ridiculous stat. Johnson needs some help. So does quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Denver’s Eric Decker is generally considered the class of the free-agent receiver pool, but his asking price is likely to be way too high for the Lions. The same could be true for Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants.

Some lesser-priced options might include Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders, Green Bay’s James Jones, Seattle’s Golden Tate, Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones and possibly New Orleans’ Lance Moore.

If the Lions aren’t able to fill this need in free agency because they spend their money on the secondary, the draft is considered loaded with quality receivers, including some first-round targets.

Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd is the star attraction among the free-agent safeties, but the price will be very steep.

Others available include Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, Miami’s Chris Clemons, Baltimore’s James Ihedigbo and Indianapolis’ Antoine Bethea.

— The Lions also could be in the market for a reserve quarterback if Hill doesn’t re-sign. It seems unlikely they would trust Kellen Moore with the No. 2 job.

 — A replacement for kicker David Akers is another necessity – don’t hold your breath on it being fan favorite Havard "Kickalicious" Rugland – but the Lions probably won’t want to invest much money into any of the top free agents.

— Upgrading the depth at linebacker would be a nice bonus, provided the price is right.

— A fullback, which wasn’t on the roster last year, also could be added by the new staff.