ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has a difficult job this offseason: trying to figure out exactly how to put a winning product back on the field next season.
He’s already gotten rid of his problem-child receiver, Titus Young, and started to create some salary-cap space by dumping more than $8 million with the release of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and offensive guard Stephen Peterman.
Some of the next steps include confirming whether offensive tackle Jeff Backus and kicker Jason Hanson will return for another season or retire, determining center Dominic Raiola’s status and also trying to sign quarterback Matthew Stafford to a contract extension as a means to create more cap room.
As of now, it sounds as if there’s a good chance Backus, 35, and Hanson, 42, will be back.
Although Mayhew said Thursday that he doesn’t have a definite read on either’s plans, he added, “I did see Jeff downstairs a few minutes ago. It was good to see him in the building.
“We didn’t talk about what his plans are, but I’m cautiously optimistic on both those guys.”
Mayhew didn’t tip his hand on what might happen with Raiola.
“I haven’t made any decision on that,” Mayhew said.
There’s been speculation that the Lions might release Raiola, too, because of a $6 million cap hit. Another option could be to try to rework Raiola’s contract to lower that figure.
As for Stafford, Mayhew expects negotiations on a new deal to heat up soon.
“It will be a challenge,” Mayhew said, referring to the skyrocketing salaries that franchise quarterbacks typically receive these days.
The last part of this month for Mayhew will be devoted to the NFL Scouting Combine to try to establish a plan for the draft in April. The Lions have the No. 5 pick overall.
March, meanwhile, will be devoted to free agency. Not only do the Lions have 23 unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents, Mayhew plans to be more active in pursuing free agents from other teams than he was a year ago.
The Lions added only one free agent, Indianapolis cornerback Jacob Lacey, before this past season.
“We were a non-player in free agency last year,” Mayhew said. “We’ll definitely be a bigger player this year.
“We need to make some changes. Obviously, things aren’t going in the right direction. Things didn’t go in the right direction last year. We’ve got to improve our roster. We’ll definitely make some (free-agent) moves in that direction this offseason.”
For the most part, Mayhew has declined to comment on most of the Lions’ free agents. However, he did commit to getting reserve defensive end Willie Young and reserve offensive tackle Corey Hilliard re-signed.
“I anticipate having Willie Young back,” Mayhew said.
Mayhew later added of Hilliard, “He’s definitely a guy we’ll like to try to get back.”
The team will have much bigger decisions to make on starters such as defensive end Cliff Avril, safety Louis Delmas, cornerback Chris Houston, linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy, defensive tackle Corey Williams and offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus.
“If you go back and look at our history, we haven’t had a lot of free agents that we really wanted to have back that we didn’t get back,” Mayhew said. “The guys that we want back, we have been able to get back for the most part.”
Whether that trend continues will play a major role in exactly how this roster makeover shakes out after a 4-12 season.
Mayhew indicated that it would have been worthless to keep Young in an attempt to trade him.
“I didn’t call 32 GMs and try to get a seventh ‘if’ (a conditional seventh-round pick based on how Young fares),” Mayhew said. “I think it’s my job to know sort of what his value is. He didn’t have any trade value.”
Young eventually was claimed on waivers by St. Louis.
Mayhew conceded that the Lions lost out on “a big investment” made in Young, a second-round pick in 2011.
“Didn’t work out; time to move on,” Mayhew said. “I think one of the things we have to do as an organization is understand when it is time to move on and not hang on to guys too long.”
Coach Jim Schwartz insisted the team made great efforts to solve the problems with Young, who didn’t play in the final six games for disciplinary reasons.
“It’s safe to say we exhausted every resource that we had and everything that we thought could help the situation,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who was Vanden Bosch’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee and recruited him to come to Detroit as a free agent, said it was difficult to let go one of the team’s best leaders.
“Our relationship goes beyond football,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot of mutual respect there. I don’t know if there’s a more respected player in our locker room or even throughout the league.
“But part of this business is separating personal from business. This was business.”
After defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh reportedly saved comedian Louie Anderson from possibly drowning during a taping of a celebrating diving show, Mayhew reached out to his former first-round draft pick.
“I sent him an e-mail … he’s a ‘Suh-per’ hero,” Mayhew said, laughing. “He’s saving lives out there and everything. That was awesome.
“Typically, he didn’t respond.”
As for whether he’s concerned about Suh being involved in the diving contest, Mayhew said, “If Louie’s doing it, I think Suh can handle it.”