The Lions went 4-12 in 2012, but everything suggested they would be much better in 2013. They were killed by turnovers (-16), inability to recover fumbles (32.6%), return touchdowns (-10 touchdowns), and inability to win close games (3-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less). Through 9 games, things were great. They started 6-3, going +1 in turnovers, recovering 39.1% of fumbles, going +1 in return touchdowns, and going 3-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. However, they won just 1 of their final 7 games, despite a fairly easy schedule (a combined 50-60-2 record by those 7 opponents). They went -13 in turnovers in those 7 games and 0-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, some of the same things that plagued them before.
Those types of things tend to even out in the long run, but they haven’t really been doing that with the Lions. They have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NFL, finishing 6th in rate of moving the chains differential, moving the chains at a 73.92% rate, as opposed to 68.50% for their opponents (both of which were top-10), a differential of 5.42%. On top of that, they aren’t going to lose much this off-season, in spite of the fact that they don’t have a ton of cap space. They absolutely made the right move firing Jim Schwartz. It might not fix the problem, but at this point they had no other choice.
They’ve replaced him with Jim Caldwell. He’ll probably be better than Schwartz, but I don’t know if that was the right hire. They’re banking on him being more of the man that was recommended by Peyton Manning, led the Colts to a 24-8 record and a Super Bowl appearance in 2 seasons with Manning, and orchestrated the Ravens’ offense during their Super Bowl run, rather than the Peyton Manning puppet that finished 2-14 in the one season with Manning, led one of the worst offenses in the NFL this season with the Ravens, and went 26-63 as head coach of Wake Forest. I’d bet on the Lions winning more than 7 games rather than less than 7 games in 2014, but I don’t know if they’re going to reach their potential.
The Lions drafted Titus Young and Ryan Broyles in back-to-back 2nd rounds because they wanted a talented trio of wide receivers with them and Calvin Johnson. However, Titus Young is out of the league because of off-the-field problems (to put it lightly), while Ryan Broyles has suffered significant leg injuries in each of the last 3 seasons dating back to his time at Oklahoma. His career is now in doubt. Now they have nothing after Calvin Johnson and they really struggle to move the ball when he’s out of the lineup. They need a good receiver opposite him. Nate Burleson is going into his age 33 season and could be a cap casualty, while the likes of Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree aren’t getting it done.
Dominic Raiola had a fantastic season this year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center this season. However, he’s a free agent this off-season and could just retire, going into his age 36 season. They may need to replace him for next season and even if they don’t, they will have to at some point. They need a center of the future.
Brandon Pettigrew is a free agent this off-season. He’s never lived up to his potential as a former first round pick and especially struggled in his contract year, catching just 41 passes for 416 yards and 2 touchdowns. He probably won’t be back next season so they’ll need another tight end to go with talented rookie Joseph Fauria.
Louis Delmas could easily be a cap casualty this off-season. If he is, they’ll need to replace him.
The Lions have spent a lot of picks on cornerbacks over the past few drafts, including Darius Slay in the 2nd round in 2013, Bill Bentley in the 3rd round in 2012, Chris Greenwood in the 5th round in 2012, and Jonte Green in the 6th round in 2012. However, they still don’t have another cornerback opposite Chris Houston. Veteran Rashean Mathis was the savior for them at the position this season, but he’s a free agent going into his age 34 season. They could spend another pick on this position in this draft.
Ezekiel Ansah had a strong rookie year, but they might need help opposite him. Willie Young, a talented starter, and Israel Idonije are free agents this off-season, while Jason Jones could be a cap casualty after a suffering a serious injury this season.
David Akers is a free agent this off-season and could retire going into his age 40 season. If he’s not back, they’ll need to replace him.
Key Free Agents
DE Willie Young
A talented reserve since being drafted in the 7th round in 2010, Willie Young broke out as a starter this season, playing 801 snaps and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Just in time for his contract year. He should be the Lions’ number #1 priority in terms of free agents this off-season. He’ll get a deal around 4-5 years, $20-$25 million this off-season.
C Dominic Raiola
Dominic Raiola had a fantastic season this year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center this season. However, he’s a free agent this off-season and could just retire, going into his age 36 season. If he continues playing, it’ll probably be on a one year deal with the Lions.
TE Brandon Pettigrew
Brandon Pettigrew is a free agent this off-season. He’s never lived up to his potential as a former first round pick and especially struggled in his contract year, catching just 41 passes for 416 yards and 2 touchdowns. He probably won’t be back next season.
QB Shaun Hill
Shaun Hill is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s not a starting caliber quarterback at all, going into his age 34 season, but he’ll get a good amount of money to be a backup somewhere. In his career, he’s completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 6.69 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions. If I had to bet, I think he’ll be back in Detroit.
DE Israel Idonije
Idonije remained unsigned late into last off-season because of his age (going into his age 33 season), but he provided the Bears with great play at two spots on the defensive line in 2012, lining up at defensive end in base packages and rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages. He also moved to defensive tackle for a few games late in the season. His composite grade would have been 8th among 4-3 defensive ends and 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2012. That being said, he played just 347 snaps in 2013 and now is going into his age 34 season so job offers will be limited.
CB Rashean Mathis
Rashean Mathis randomly had a very strong season in 2013 in his age 33 season, after being let go by the Jaguars. Believe it or not, he actually finished as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback in 799 snaps, allowing opponents to complete 48.7% of his passes against him. He won’t be a hot commodity going into his age 34 season, but he should get picked up at some point. He’s probably looking at one year deals though.
K David Akers
David Akers is an incredibly accomplished kicker, who has 1721 career points, 11th most all-time. He’s hit 80.9% of his field goals for his career and bounced back from a rough 2012 by hitting 19 of 24 in 2013. However, he’s going into his age 40 season and may opt to hang them up. If he doesn’t, he might have to wait a little bit for a chance at a job.
Cap Casualty Candidates
G LeRoy Harris
LeRoy Harris was brought in on a two-year deal last off-season to compete for the right guard job, but ended up losing the job and didn’t play a single snap all season. The Lions can save 1.95 million in cap space and cash by cutting him this off-season and given Larry Warford’s breakout year as a rookie, Harris is entirely superfluous. He’s probably gone.
S Louis Delmas
After playing in just 19 of 32 possible games in 2011 and 2012, Louis Delmas didn’t miss a game in 2013, playing 1058 snaps, 2nd most on the team. He was a pretty solid starter. However, his history of injury problems is still there and he probably isn’t worth his 6.5 million dollar cap number for 2014 on a cap strapped team. The Lions can save 6 million in cap space and cash by cutting him and there’s already talk that they’re going to do so.
RB Montell Owens
Montell Owens is a running back/fullback/special teamer, who played just 2 snaps on offense in 2013. The Lions are pressed for cap space and can save 1.205 million by cutting Owens. That’s too steep of a cap number for a special teamer coming off of a serious knee injury.
WR Nate Burleson
The Lions can save 5.5 million in cap space and cash by cutting Nate Burleson going into his contract year in 2014. Burleson is going into his age 33 season and has missed 17 games over the past 2 seasons. That seems like a no brainer for a cap strapped team. A paycut is another option here.
OT Corey Hilliard
Corey Hilliard started the first 7 games of the season at right tackle for the Lions and wasn’t bad, but he was benched for undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle, who impressed down the stretch. The Lions may cut him to save 1.6 million in cap space. It wouldn’t be hard to find a cheaper backup at right tackle.
DE Jason Jones
Jason Jones’ first year of a three year deal was disappointing, as he played just 87 snaps before suffering a serious knee injury. Willie Young, who took over at left end for him, was very solid and, provided he’s brought back as a free agent, the Lions may just go ahead and cut Jones. They’d save 6 million in cash over the next 2 seasons and about 2 million on next year’s cap by cutting him.