MIKE O'HARA

Martin Mayhew says the Lions are looking to re-sign nine free agents ... but which ones are they?

Posted Feb 22, 2013

Detroitlions.com Mike O'Hara offers his best guess as to which unrestricted free agents the Detroit Lions are looking to bring back

INDIANAPOLIS – Let the game of Detroit Lions roster roulette begin.

General Manager Martin Mayhew sent the wheel spinning at the NFL Combine Friday morning in his annual breakfast meeting with beat writers.

The Lions have 23 players eligible to become free agents on March 12, and the guessing game has been underway as to which of the 23 the Lions are attempting to re-sign.

Mayhew didn't exactly pull back the curtain to reveal the Lions' personnel plans, but he shed light on who the front office is targeting to sign back.

"I'll put it like this, and maybe you guys can identify them," Mayhew said. "But there are about nine guys that we really are focused on."

But which nine are in the prime group the Lions want back? And who are the other 13 who won't be pursued as aggressively ... if at all?

Good questions, and with no specific answer from Mayhew. And it should be noted immediately that the Lions have pending negotiations with players on their roster besides the free agents.

Mayhew said Friday that he and other members of the front office are meeting here with agent Tom Condon on a contract extension for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Jeff Backus, the starting left tackle for 12 years, is not a free agent, but his status has to be solidified. Backus has a year left on his contract, and there has been no decision on whether he'll return for season No. 13. I expect he'll be back, but to put it in the simplest terms, it's not a done deal until the deal is done.

Here are my nine candidates, in alphabetical order. Feel free to disagree.

Keep in mind, all nine might not want to remain in Detroit, or they might spurn the Lions for bigger contracts, even if their first choice is to return.
 
Cliff Avril: The issue will be money, and the Lions won't come close to offering him the three-year, $30-million deal he turned down last year. He might not get that on the open market, either.

Avril's a solid, consistent football player. He shows up ready to play. There are no character worries.

But he's in the same spot as a lot of free agent defensive ends who will hit the market on March 12. And there's a solid group of pass rushers in the draft.

This is one year in free agency when the money squeeze will be more on the players than the teams.

Having said all that, on my list of nine, I'm the least confident in Avril returning.

Kassim OsgoodLouis Delmas: When healthy, he's a blue-chip safety. Mayhew has called him "the lifeblood" of the secondary. It makes sense to re-sign Delmas instead of looking for a transfusion.

Justin Durant: He and DeAndre Levy are both eligible for free agency. Durant is a little more athletic, and he plays more of the weak side role among the starting linebackers, which should be a higher priority if all things are equal. If the Lions have to choose between Durant and Levy, the choice likely will be Durant.

Sammie Hill: He adds depth at defensive tackle in a rotation with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Corey Williams.

Chris Houston: As coach Jim Schwartz said on Thursday, the Lions put Houston in the role last season of covering the opponent's No. 1 receiver. That's a sign of how highly they value him at cornerback.

Lawrence Jackson: He's a smart, detail-conscious defensive end who is productive when healthy. With Kyle Vanden Bosch gone and the possibility that Avril won't be back, Jackson can step into a bigger role. And the Lions can't get rid of all their defensive ends.

DeAndre Levy: He fits the mold of how the Lions want to build the roster – a young player, on his second contract. He can play outside and the middle, if needed.

Kassim Osgood: He solidified special teams coverage after he was signed early last season. There's no reason not to keep him.

Corey Williams: He can't play every down at defensive tackle, but he's a force when he's in there. And he's the leader of the defensive line.

Those are my nine candidates, but it doesn't mean the other 13 won't be back.

Something can be worked out with kicker Jason Hanson if he decides to return for a 22nd season – and assuming the Lions want him back. Same for long snapper Don Muhlbach, tight end Will Heller and offensive tackle Corey Hilliard. All have value at some level.

If any of the nine aren't signed by the time the free agent bell rings on March 12, all bets are off.