Sizing up Lions' free-agency scorecard

BY foxsports • March 12, 2012

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The airlines, rental-car companies and hotel operators won’t benefit this year from the Lions’ approach to free agency.

The phone bill will replace the travel budget.

Much of the hard work will be done at their headquarters. That’s where team president Tom Lewand will lead ongoing negotiations to restructure contracts of players already signed for 2012 and beyond, and to re-sign players to keep them from becoming free agents at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

It isn’t sexy, and it lacks the drama of bringing in fresh faces, but it is a necessary approach for the Lions given the makeup of their roster and the fact that they are squeezed so tightly under the salary cap that every Benjamin in their bankroll is grimacing.

The Lions never make their salary-cap status public, but there have been reports from NFL sources that say the Lions are one of a handful of teams that are over the 2012 salary cap of $120.6 million.

All teams must be under the cap by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. The Lions reportedly are about $11 million over.

Trimming player salaries is not as dramatic as it might seem. No one from the NFL hierarchy is going to step in and foreclose on Matthew Stafford.

Renegotiating contracts to convert base salaries into signing bonuses is standard fare for NFL teams as an accounting practice to get under the league-mandated spending limit on player salaries.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has restructured his deal. Stafford, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson restructured their contracts last year to loosen the salary-cap squeeze.

The Lions have stated their free-agent strategy since the end of the 2011 season, and general manager Martin Mayhew reiterated it at the NFL Scouting Combine last month.

“As we said before, our goal and our plan is to get our own guys back,” Mayhew said.

If no players re-sign before Tuesday, the Lions will have 24 players who will be eligible for some form of free-agency.

Of those, 20 will be unrestricted free agents, and eligible to sign with any team with no compensation paid to the Lions.

Four others will be restricted, which means the Lions retain the right to match any offer or accept compensation from the new team in the form of draft picks if the restricted player has been tendered an offer.

Based on the Lions’ stated approach and their salary-cap status, here are the issues facing them, some potential moves – and one or two that fall into the category of wishful thinking:

Calvin Johnson

Extending his contract would give much-needed relief. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2013, but his salary-cap number for this year is $21 million.

A new deal would guarantee he’ll remain a Lion for the next several years and open room under the cap.

The idea that the Lions would part ways with the All Pro receiver is unthinkable.

Stephen Tulloch

He played on a one-year contract last year in the flurry of signings before the start of training camp. Tulloch added leadership and production at middle linebacker as an every-down player. Not every middle linebacker can do that.

Tulloch is not in the class of Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, but he’s regarded by many as the best middle linebacker in this year’s free-agent market.

If he doesn’t re-sign in Detroit, he’ll be the target of a team like the Eagles seeking to upgrade its defense.

Core starters/backups

Cornerback Eric Wright and offensive tackle Jeff Backus started all 16 games. Backus turns 35 in September, but his durability cannot be questioned. He has started every game for 11 straight seasons.

Wright had some ups and downs last season, as did most of the secondary. Cornerback is likely to be addressed in the draft next month, but Wright’s veteran presence has value.

Backup quarterback Shaun Hill should be re-signed. He adds stability behind Stafford.

Starting outside linebacker DeAndre Levy is restricted, as is defensive tackle Sammie Hill, who played well in the rotation and could be in line to play a bigger role.

Also restricted are offensive tackle Corey Hilliard and linebacker Ashlee Palmer, who’s been used mostly as a special-teams player.

Drew Stanton has been the No. 3 quarterback for his five seasons as a Lion. He has said he wants to improve his status. If no team signs him as a solid No. 2, the door is open for him to return to Detroit.

Snap judgment

Long-snapper Don Muhlbach has been as consistent as the noon whistle in eight seasons with the Lions. His position isn’t glamorous, but there’s no reason to start over.

Cornering the market

Brandon Carr of the Chiefs, Cortland Finnegan of the Titans and Carlos Rogers of the 49ers are out of range of the Lions’ budget, but there are always surprise signings.

The fact that Finnegan played under Lions head coach Jim Schwartz when Schwartz was the Titans’ defensive coordinator could help if the Lions somehow could make an equitable offer. Don’t count on that happening, though.

Runners

The Lions have said they expect Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure to return from injuries, but that shouldn’t keep them from shopping for a veteran back.

Mike Tolbert of the Chargers has been productive with limited opportunities. At 5-foot-9 and 243 pounds, he would be a power back who also can catch the ball out of the backfield.

In the last two seasons, Tolbert has rushed for 1,225 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 79 receptions and more than 8 yards per catch.


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