Martin Mayhew, Detroit Lions will need more than addition by subtraction

Posted Feb 8, 2013

The Detroit Lions will not get better by simply cutting players - they will also have to make the right moves in free agency and the draft

There is an obvious question hanging over the Detroit Lions that can only be answered by the team's performance in the 2013 season.

The question asked of General Manager Martin Mayhew in a meeting with the media Thursday afternoon was simple and straightforward, and it lies at the heart of the Lions' rise and fall in the last two seasons.

They were 10-6 and made the playoffs as a wild card in 2011. The passing offense was spectacular, and the defense created turnovers. It represented a major step in making the Lions relevant as a young team on the rise.

The Lions gave another endorsement to the old adage that nothing stays the same in the NFL. The team on the rise went into a steep decline, ending the season with eight straight losses for a 4-12 record and prompting many to think another dreaded rebuilding project is necessary.

Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz are not buying into the theory that another rebuilding project is necessary. Reloading, reshaping, refurbishing – there has to be a better word than rebuilding. Nobody – players, fans, coaches – has the stomach to go through another rebuilding project.

Based on the record, what gives Mayhew confidence that last season's tumble was an aberration, and there are enough good players and assets to add more to restore the Lions to playoff contention in 2013?

"I think just knowing the people involved," he said. "Knowing who our scouts are, knowing who our coaching staff is, knowing who our players in the locker room are, and looking at the season – the way the season went.

"Watching those games over - a lot of things happened last year that won't happen this year. We had a ton of injuries. We had a bunch of situations that happened. It's all excuses at this point.

"I know what we have. I know what players we have and the character of the guys in our locker room. I know the character of our coaching staff, and I know the scouts and evaluators in our front office."

All of that sounds good, and it should. This is a feel-good time in the NFL. Every team is making moves to get better.

It is the nature of the NFL that only one team is worried about getting worse – the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. If they don't repeat as champs, their 2013 season will be worse than 2012. The other 31, including the 49ers, who lost in Super Bowl XLVII, can get better.

The NFL offseason is a tear-down, build-up project. The tearing down began Monday, when teams started releasing players, and the Lions were quick to begin trimming players who were under contract.

Wide receiver Titus Young was put on waivers Monday. On Tuesday, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and guard Stephen Peterman were released.

For different reasons, all three moves were expected at some point in the offseason. The Lions chose to do it early. In Young's case, Mayhew was convinced that he'd get nothing in trade for a player with behavior problems and who deliberately sabotaged the offense last season by lining up in the wrong position.

For Vanden Bosch and Peterman, the quick decisions were made to give respected veterans a chance to hook on with other teams, if they wish to continue playing.

More such moves are coming in the tear-down phase, and they should be met with a large dose of caution. Teams don't automatically get better by releasing players.

The Lions are better without Young, because of the disruption on and off the field, but that's an exception.

They aren't better today just because they don't have Vanden Bosch and Peterman, and the same will be true of other players they will cut or potentially lose to free-agency – Cliff Avril, Louis Delmas, Chris Houston, Justin Durant and Corey Williams, to name a handful of veterans eligible to be free agents on March 12.

To get better – closer to being the 2011 Lions than the 2012 team – requires getting players that are better than the ones being replaced.

Some positions might be upgraded from within. The sense here is that the offensive line is targeted for improvement that way, with Riley Reiff, Bill Nagy, Rodney Austin, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard all part of the equation, along with whoever might be added in the draft.

But others, such as defensive end and secondary, are going to need new blood based on the likelihood of losses in free agency.

Mayhew believes in building through the draft and patching in free agency. Unlike last year, they won't be spectators when the signing period begins on March 12.

With the cuts already made and more coming, and contract renegotiations for players such as Nate Burleson and Matthew Stafford, the Lions should be significantly under the salary cap of around $121 million.

"We'll definitely be a bigger player this year," Mayhew said.

But will everything in this offseason make them better?

No matter what personnel moves are made, some of that has to come from the coaching staff producing a team with better discipline and more focus.

That's part of the answer, too.