MIKE O'HARA

Monday Countdown: What's next? Detroit Lions can begin releasing players under contract today

Posted Feb 4, 2013

Mike O'Hara offers his take on what the Detroit Lions should do with their roster

The pomp and circumstance of crowing a new champion, as the NFL did Sunday night at the Superdome in New Orleans with the Super Bowl XLVII-winning Baltimore Ravens, is followed Monday morning by the cold and unforgiving reality that change is a constant.

Starting Monday, teams could begin making the first moves that will help build their teams for the 2013 season. Nobody is exempt from that – whether it’s the Super Bowl champs who had confetti falling on their shoulders, or teams like the Detroit Lions, who had the roof fall in on them in the 2012 season.

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses on key dates, issues and personnel decisions facing the Detroit Lions as they face a reshuffling process after last season’s disastrous 4-12 season.

The Lions stood relatively pat last year, bringing back 21-of-22 starters returning from a 10-6 season in 2012. That will not be the case in 2013. It could be an offseason of upheaval, with well-known players departing.

We start with the key first date that starts the offseason:

1. Monday, Feb. 4: Under NFL rules, the day after the Super Bowl is the first day teams can release players who are under contract. It’s a hugely important date, because of the impact on players, what it means going forward for teams planning to rebuild and reshape the roster, and salary-cap implications.

We’ll get back to it because of an issue that seems more pressing to most Lions fans.

Titus Young2. Titus Young: He is second on this list only because of the emotion generated by his behavior. In reality, Young isn’t that important. Any decision about him should be made without a shred of emotion.

In other words, part ways with him at a time that benefits the franchise, and Monday is not that time.

3. Monday: This is a much more important date than anything involving Young’s future.

GM Martin Mayhew hasn’t tipped his hand, but some established veterans who have given the Lions yeoman service could be let go in a two-pronged mission – to clear cap space, and to rebuild key elements of the team.

Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and a significant portion of the offensive line are candidates to be cap casualties.

On the offensive line, left guard Rob Sims is the only secure starter.

Right tackle Gosder Cherilus becomes a free agent on March 12.

Left tackle Jeff Backus has one year left on his contract, and it appears that Backus and management won’t rush to make a decision on his future.

The status of center Dominic Raiola and right guard Stephen Peterman is more tenuous. Both are on the last year of their contracts. Raiola has a salary-cap number of $6.3 million in 2013. Peterman’s is $2.9 million.

Mayhew has talked about “interior pressure” affecting quarterback Matthew Stafford, and center and guard represent the interior.

The Lions could go younger, and cheaper, in the rebuild of the offensive line.

Riley Reiff, last year’s first-round draft pick, will start somewhere in 2013. His natural position is tackle. Bill Nagy, a young lineman claimed off waivers from Dallas in training camp after sustaining a season-ending ankle injury, has experience at guard and center.

Rodney Austin, an undrafted free agent, showed some good signs at guard on the practice squad. And Jason Fox, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, is a restricted free agent who can be signed back. He finally should get a legitimate shot at playing time at tackle unless he gets an offer from another team that the Lions are unwilling to match.

In any of these moves, the Lions have to be mindful of the franchise’s needs first, but also be fair to veteran players who don’t fit in their plans and release them in time for them to find jobs on other teams.

4. Salary cap/renegotiations: From now until the start of free agency on March 12, the Detroit Lions will work to get under the salary cap, projected to be about $121 million. Under NFL rules, teams can’t be as much as a penny over the cap.

The Lions are about $3 million over, but that’s not a big deal.

The Lions need to make impact signings and re-signings in free agency. They can’t come out of free agency like they did last year, when their only significant signing was Jacob Lacey, a reserve cornerback.

Cap cuts will create some room, and so will renegotiating some contracts.

Matthew StaffordMatthew Stafford and Nate Burleson are key players who could renegotiate their deals.

Stafford’s cap number is $20.8 million for 2013. He reworked his contract the last two years to create salary-cap room, and he has given every indication of a long-term commitment to the Lions.

However, it’s logical to assume that he’d want some assurance that the front office will add some assets on offense – a speed running back, a proven veteran receiver, and pass protection up front to get the rush out of his face.

Burleson’s cap number is $6.531 million this year and $7.531 million in 2014. He has said he wants to finish his career as a Lion. He might have to cut his base salary close to in half to do that, especially coming off a broken leg that put him on injured reserve in mid-season.

One thing Burleson no doubt appreciates is being the No. 2 receiver to Calvin Johnson. It’s hard to imagine playing in another offense where the No. 1 receiver gets as much attention as defenses give to Johnson. It frees up others to make plays.

5. Free-agent planning: Mayhew has said he will not use the franchise tag this year, which means any of the 23 unrestricted free agents the Lions want back involve hard negotiations.

At some positions, choices might have to be made. For example, at linebacker do the Lions favor Justin Durant over DeAndre Levy? Both are eligible for free agency. Or do they re-sign both?

In the secondary, do they have to decide to make a pitch for safety Louis Delmas or cornerback Chris Houston – or both?

On the defensive line, tackles Corey Williams and ends Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson are up for free agency. If Vanden Bosch is released, the Lions face the prospect of losing their top three veteran ends.

Williams played only seven games because of a bad knee, but he made an impact when healthy. And he’s a respected presence in the locker room who could have a future in coaching if he chooses that career path after his playing career is over.

Whatever moves are made with their own roster, the Lions need obvious additions. A veteran receiver at a low cost is one. The secondary needs upgrading.

The probability of not having Jahvid Best makes running back a priority to keep the offense from relying almost exclusively on Stafford’s arm.

One player I’d target: running back Reggie Bush. He was productive the last two seasons in Miami, he’ll be only 28 in March despite playing seven pro seasons, and he’s a threat as a runner or receiver – with 29 rushing TDs and 15 receiving.

6. The draft, April 25-27: The Lions have the fifth pick overall. All their planning should be to help the defense with the first pick – at least.

7. Titus Young: His issues have been well documented. He was banished from the team for allegedly punching Delmas during the offseason and again after a loss to Green Bay in the 10th game for deliberately lining up in the wrong position because he wanted the ball thrown to him.

He did not play again after the Green Bay game. Young wound up on injured reserve.

Really, it’s not that hard to decide what to do with Young, who has made it known via Twitter that he wants to play elsewhere. The offseason workouts don’t begin until mid-April, so Young is not a distraction to the rest of the team.

The Detroit Lions should do nothing with Young until the trade deadline on March 12. From then until the end of the draft April 25-27, they should make the best deal possible, however minimal.

And if there’s no deal, then release him.

After the draft and free-agency, most teams have their rosters set for the start of training camp.

That becomes Titus Young’s problem.

Nothing personal. It's only business.