Free agent deals also a focus for Lions at the combine

Posted Feb 21, 2012

The NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis will give the Lions an opportunity to scout 328 NFL prospects, but evaluating college talent won't be the only matter of business on the Lions' plate this week.

"I do think the combine this year in Indianapolis, where we normally go down to scout college players, will be one that's a little bit more focused on free agent signings, and when I say that, I mean guys who are on our own team," Lions president Tom Lewand told season-ticket holders in a conference call last week.

Lewand and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew are expected to sit down with the agents of free agent starters Calvin Johnson, Cliff Avril, Jeff Backus, Stephen Tulloch and Eric Wright sometime during the combine, as well as some of the other 25 Lions players who will become both restricted and unrestricted free agents on March 13.

"That's when you'll start to see some of those deals get done," Lewand said.

The team would certainly like to get a deal done with Johnson as soon as possible to lower his nearly $22 million cap number for next season. The Lions will have a better idea of how much money might be available to the teams' other free agent starters if an extension can be worked out with him first. It will certainly help to better formulate a plan for the offseason.

The combine might also allow the Lions to get into deeper long-term contract discussions with Brian Mackler, who is Avril's agent.

Avril is a candidate to get the team's franchise tag, but has said a number of times that he'd prefer a long-term deal instead. The Lions would like to get a new contract in place to avoid a $10.6 million franchise tag or having to decide to let him test the free agent market.

Tulloch, 27, signed a one-year contract worth $3.25 million last year and is likely looking for something more long term for his next deal. The team has said emphatically that it wants Tulloch back. He led the team with 111 tackles last season and fits the scheme perfectly.

Like Tulloch, Wright signed a one-year deal to join the Lions last season and was a consistent performer with four interceptions and 73 tackles. Wright said after the season that he liked the Lions' system and would prefer to stay. He made $2 million last year and could be seeking a bigger payday, though.

Then there's Backus, who will turn 35 at the beginning of next season. Backus has spent his entire career with the Lions and would prefer to stay for a 12th season.

The Lions don't have the immediate left-tackle-of-the-future on the roster, so signing him is key. The Lions would prefer a discount from the $5.45 million Backus made last year, considering his age and health concerns (coming off bicep surgery), but left tackle is a high-pay position in the league.

Free agency has been pushed back nearly two weeks later than normal to March 13 and it's hard to say how that might affect the urgency to get deals done at the combine, but don't be surprised if news coming out of Indianapolis isn't confined to 40-yard dash times and bench press marks.