Positions of Need
Defensive tackle has been a strength for the Lions for years, but all three of their top defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and CJ Mosley, are free agents this off-season. Mosley is the most likely to re-sign and will be the cheapest, but he’s going into his age 32 season. The Lions will find it borderline impossible to bring back all 3 of them and they’ll also have trouble bringing back even two of them. Defensive tackle help is needed this off-season and the Lions could turn to the early rounds of the draft to fill this need.
Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay were a great cornerback duo in 2014 for the Lions, grading out 12th and 19th among cornerbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus. However, Mathis is a free agent going into his age 35 season and they really lack depth at the position. Bill Bentley was drafted in the 3rd round in 2012, but he hasn’t delivered yet, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013 and then missing all but 3 snaps with a torn ACL in 2014. They need to add another cornerback to the mix, especially if Mathis isn’t brought back on a short-term deal as a stopgap.
Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate each broke the 1000 yard barrier last season, one of just 4 wide receiver duos to do so (Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, and Mike Evans/Vincent Jackson were the other 3). However, they were the only two Lion wide receivers to play a snap and grade out above average in 2014, which becomes a serious problem if Johnson or Tate ever get hurt, as Johnson did for a period of time in 2014. Depth needs to be added.
Jason Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 59 eligible last season and the Lions could cut him, to save 3.15 million in cash and cap space. Even if he returns, it could be as a defensive tackle. George Johnson was solid as a 3rd defensive end last season and could be a candidate to replace Jones as a starter. Johnson played 502 snaps last season, grading out slightly above average, but he’s still unproven, after playing 156 snaps in his first 4 seasons combined. They could add to this position this off-season.
Rob Sims is a free agent going into his age 32 season. He’s aging, but he still showed the ability to be a capable starter in 2014, so they should try to bring him back. That being said, if they’re unable to, they’ll need to replace him, as they don’t really have a good internal replacement.
Dominic Raiola seems to be at the end of his line, a free agent going into his age 37 season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked center out of 41 eligible in 2014. The Lions drafted Travis Swanson in the 3rd round in 2014 to be a long-term solution, but he struggled as a rookie, primarily at right guard. He only played 277 snaps, so he wasn’t eligible for Pro Football Focus’ rankings, but no one played fewer snaps at guard and graded out worse.
Key Free Agents
DT Ndamukong Suh
Ndamukong Suh has a good chance to be the best free agent on the open market this off-season. Guys like Justin Houston, Dez Bryant, and Demaryius Thomas can all make arguments that they’re the best player with an expiring contract this off-season, but all 3 of those players figure to get franchise tagged. Because of franchise tag rules and Suh’s massive cap number in the contract year of his rookie deal in 2014, franchising Suh would cost the Lions 26.7 million, so that’s not really an option. The Lions could still sign Suh before free agency hits, but more than likely he’s going to want to test the market, in search of the richest deal that a defensive player has ever signed. He wants a deal bigger than the 6-year, 100 million dollar extension JJ Watt got last off-season. Suh isn’t quite Watt, but some team could still be willing to give him that. Suh joins Gerald McCoy (who got a 7-year, 98 million dollar extension last off-season) as the only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-4 among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons.
DT Nick Fairley
Nick Fairley is a frustrating player. He went 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, but, 4 years into his career, it’s still not clear how good of a player he is. It’s clear how good he can be, but he’s been so inconsistent. Fairley only played 236 snaps as a rookie, largely because of injuries, but he still played well and, in 2012, he was even better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle on just 511 snaps. Fairley looked primed for a breakout year in 2013, but weight problems caused him to only grade out slightly above average on 693 snaps. As a result, the Lions didn’t pick up his option for 2015, making 2014 his contract year, and briefly benched him for CJ Mosley last off-season. That seemed to wake him up as he played very well to start the season, but he missed 8 games with injuries. He still graded out 18th among defensive tackles on just 297 snaps, but now he heads into free agency still an enigma. He’s shown top defensive tackle talent and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s inconsistent, he’s had discipline problems dating back to his collegiate days, discipline problems that won’t get better if he gets a ton of money, and he’s missed 18 games with injuries in 4 years in the league. He’s a high risk, high reward signing at 6-7 million annually.
G Rob Sims
Rob Sims is an ironman who has made all 80 starts over the past 5 seasons since arriving in Detroit, but he’s going into his age 32 season and graded out below average last season for the first time since 2008, back when he was a reserve with the Seahawks. He still played pretty well last year, grading out slightly below average, but he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 37th and 40th ranked guard in 2013 and 2014 respectively, so the days of him grading out in the top-13 at his position, like he did in 2011 and 2012, and being one of the better guards in the NFL are gone. Still, he’s a starting caliber guard who won’t break the bank, so he’ll draw plenty of interest. I don’t expect him to get much guaranteed money past 2015 though.
CB Rashean Mathis
Rashean Mathis looked done after 2012, as he graded out below average in 2012, missed 11 games with injury in 2011 and 2012 combined, and was going into his age 33 season. He didn’t get signed until mid-August in 2013, but he turned back the clock in Detroit over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts and grading out 26th in 2013 and 12th in 2014. He’s a free agent going into his age 35 season this off-season so he won’t command a large salary, but the Lions would love to bring him back as a stopgap in their secondary and he should draw interest from other cornerback needy teams as well.
DT CJ Mosley
CJ Mosley has been the 3rd defensive tackle for the Lions over the past 2 seasons, but he’s made 9 starts, played 836 snaps, and graded out above average in both seasons so he’s been very important to the Lions. When you take into account that he graded out above average in 2011 and 2012, this is one of the best reserve defensive linemen in the NFL. He’s going into his age 32 season so he won’t get a ton of money on the open market, but he should get paid like a low-end starter. If the Lions are unable to bring back Suh and Fairley, Mosley could easily be a starter in Detroit next season.
C Dominic Raiola
Dominic Raiola has been with the Lions since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2014, making 203 starts over that time period, but he appears to be at the end of the line and is expected to retire this off-season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked center out of 41 eligible last season. If he does decide to play another season, what would be his age 37 season, it probably won’t be in Detroit, as they appear ready to move forward with 2014 3rd round pick Travis Swanson at center in 2015. He might not draw any interest at all on the open market.
Cap Casualty Candidates
RB Reggie Bush
Bush never really became the otherworldly talent that the NFL was expecting him to be, after the Saints drafted the former Heisman winner 2nd overall in 2006, but after an injury plagued tenure in New Orleans that saw him max out at 157 carries, Bush became a solid starter from 2011-2013 with the Dolphins and Lions, averaging 222 carries for 1026 yards and 5 touchdowns and 44 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns over that time period. Those days appear behind him now though, as he heads into his age 30 season, coming off of a season where he was more of a complementary back behind Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries (3.91 YPC) and caught 40 passes for 253 yards. He also missed 5 games with injury and Theo Riddick did a solid job as the complementary back in his absence. The Lions could cut Bush to save 3.5 million in cash and 1.72 million on the cap and move forward with the significantly cheaper Riddick behind Bell.
DE Jason Jones
Jason Jones was signed to a 3-year, 9.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago by the Lions, but he was limited to 87 snaps in 2013 by a torn patellar tendon and then graded out 47th out of 59 eligible this season as a starter. The Lions could cut him to save 3.15 million in cash and cap space, but he’s only going into his age 29 season and he’s had more career success at defensive tackle than defensive end so the Lions could bring him back and move him inside. As a defensive tackle, the 6-3 274 pounder has graded out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and graded out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a starter in 2010.