For every NFL team not heading to Indianapolis to play a football game next week, all organizational attentions will be focuses on the Senior Bowl this weekend in preparation for the upcoming NFL Draft in April.
So Let's take a good luck at where the Lions will need to shore up this offseason. Now, due to the upcoming contracts of Cliff Avril and renegotiations with Calvin Johnson, the Lions will not have a lot of extra cash to spare in free agency. Most of their help will probably be centralized around the draft. When four players take up close to 40% of your salary cap, your options become pretty limited. So, as much as the Lions would like, and even as much as it would seem logical for them to go after Tennessee Titans and former Jim Schwartz protege Courtland Finnegan...I just don't see them having the green to be able to lure the smaller, overly physical former probowler to motown.
Instead, the Lions will most likely have to address their needs almost exclusively through the draft.
Let's look at all of the positions and see where they need the most help.
QB: One might think that with Matthew Stafford in the fold the Lions would have absolutely no interest in drafting or signing another quarterback...but behind Stafford, things are starting to look a little shaky. Both second stringer Shaun Hill and third stringer Drew Stanton are potential vacancies as both are eligible for free agency. Yes, Stafford battled through his first entire season last year, but he's still only done that once...he could go down again and the Lions will need a capable backup.
RB: A very strong argument could be made that the Lions don't have a single RB on their roster that can be counted on. Mikel Leshoure, last year's second round pick, missed the entire season with a ruptured achilles heel. Jahvid Best was put on IR halfway through the season with concussions--an issue that doesn't usually just go away. Kevin Smith filled in admirably, but was bogged down with injuries at times...just like the rest of his career. In my opinion, the Lions will be rolling the dice if they do not try to upgrade this position.
WR: Calvin Johnson will have to his contract extended. He is the closest thing the Lions have had to a "Barry Sanders-type" presence since #20 ran off on a plane to London so long ago. Nate Burleson is a great #2, but he may actually fall to #3 as Titus Young improved by leaps and bounds as the season continued. The Lions may need to look for a kick returner to fill out the group, but this is not a huge pressing need at the moment.
TE: Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew are both great and Will Heller as a blocking tight end isn't too shabby either. This is a strong position on the team. No needs here.
OT: Here is where things start to get a little iffy on the offensive side of the ball. Jeff Backus will be 34 and was taken out in the playoff loss with a biceps injury that has required surgery. Gosder Cherilous did fairly well this season, but is maddeningly inconsistent. The backups at these positions are probably best kept as backups, not starters. OT is a need position. But we say that every year and the Lions never listen.
G: Rob Simms and Stephen Peterson are both signed for next season and while it might be a good idea to try and upgrade, because the Lions running game was pretty pathetic last year, the cap and other needs may put the Lions in a position to have to let this slide for another year.
C: Dominic Raiola is also getting up there in age. He was drafted the same year as Backus. He is smallish and has been a victim to a lot of larger DT's over the years. This is a position that the Lions might want to look at finding an eventual successor for Raiola.
DT: Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairly and Sam Hill are a pretty fearsome quartet to rotate over the two DT spots. This is the strongest position on the team...which is just the way Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew have always wanted it to be from the beginning.
DE: Cliff Avril is an unrestricted free agent who is going to garner a lot of attention after piling up 11 sacks this season. Will he be worth the cash? Kyle VandenBosch is an unquestioned leader in the locker room who is signed for next year, but at 34 he maybe losing a step. Willie Young showed he could be very disruptive, but also very streaky--if the Lions cannot afford Avril, Young might be next in line to take his spot. With the Lions love of the pass rush, it would not surprise me to see them take another DL in April.
LB: The Lions tried pretty hard to upgrade the middle of their defense last offseason, but the results were a little up and down. They signed Justin Durant, Stephen Tulloch (on a one year deal) and moved DeAndre Levy outside...and even with the Lions great strength in the DL they were still one of the worst defenders against the run in the NFL. That could be a lot of things...it could be inherent to the "Wide 9" scheme they use, it could be that the DL is nowhere near as good as everybody thinks it is...or it could be the LB's just weren't good enough. Don't be surprised if the Lions take on the attitude that it was the linebackers.
CB: 480 yards and 6 TD's to Matt Flynn? Do I need to say more? Chris Houston, Eric Wright and Alphonso Smith...and Aaron Berry...the Lions just did a wretched job of covering. Wright was only signed to a one year contract, so he might not be back and the Lions might be OK with that. I'm sure they'd love to be able to sign Finnegan, but the cap probably won't allow it. This is an area that MUST be addressed this offseason.
S: Louis Delmas is an incredible talent...when he's on the field...which hasn't been nearly enough. Amari Spievey continues to improve, but he is not a natural safety and he's not fast enough to be a corner. Here's another position that needs to be addressed, but it might have to wait in line behind all of the other Lions needs.
Lastly, let me say something, the Philadelphia Eagles managed to make the playoffs for most of the last decade behind Andy Reid's continued drafting of OL and DB's...now there are a lot of ways to build a playoff team and you can argue that those teams made it more on the arm and legs of Donavon McNabb than anything else (they didn't even have any WR's) , but that's also one way to do it and Donavon rarely got hurt and the Eagles always had one of the best defenses in the league. Just sayin...
Now, at the senior bowl and for the draft, try to pay particular attention to the following guys.
1. Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia, 5-9, 183, 4.35 Boykin, a smallish cornerback at only 5-9, 183 lbs maybe the best corner available when the Lions pick at 23. In the Lions defense the corners have to be exceptionally physical and able to play the bump and run. At the Senior Bowl practices, Boykin showed great natural instincts covering receivers and great speed. Most important, Boykin seemed a natural at playing physical against much bigger receivers. It's possible, because of his height, he might drop to the top of the second where the Lions have a history of moving up and grabbing guys.
2. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama, 5-10, 191, 4.35 Jenkins was kicked off the Florida campus for multiple team violations and also has two marijuana possessions on his rap sheet along with some other criminal activity. At the JUCO Northern Alabama, so far he's kept his nose clean and stayed out of trouble. If Jenkins did have all of the personal character questions, he'd be up there in the arguments of best corner on the board. The Lions will take a look at him...but I have a feeling the ghosts of Charles Rogers will probably put Jenkins in the "out of bounds" category...unless he drops to the bottom of the second round...
3. Alphonso Dennard, CB, Nebraska, 5-10, 205, 4.45 Dennard pulled out of the Senior Bowl after a minor injury, but he is the most sound and physical corner at the game. He is the prototype for the kind of corner the Lions would like to get, but he'll probably be gone before the Lions can get on the clock.