Lions mostly intact after early stages of free agency

Posted March 23, 2012 @ 2:21 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

The Lions’ 2012 free-agency strategy can broadly be described as “holding their position.”

Yes, the Lions want to do more than simply reach the postseason as they did in 2011, when they threatened the Saints before fading in a wild-card loss at New Orleans. But their core, as constituted, is quite good. 

Viewed through that lens alone, signing WR Calvin Johnson to a seven-year contract extension on March 14 was a wise move. Johnson, whose new deal is reportedly the richest in NFL history for a wide receiver, was the NFL’s most dominant receiver in 2011 and the catalyst for multiple comeback wins.

The extension, along with the restructuring of the contracts of QB Matthew Stafford and WR Nate Burleson before free agency, also provided needed salary-cap relief for the Lions. (DT Ndamukong Suh also reworked his deal, according to Fox Sports Detroit.) Since the Johnson deal, the Lions have re-signed several key contributors, with MLB Stephen Tulloch the headliner of the group. Tulloch, who reportedly signed a five-year deal, led the Lions with 111 tackles in 2011. He also recorded three sacks and intercepted a pair of passes.

“This is a great day for every kid that was told he was too small, every kid that wasn’t the fastest guy on paper, but went out, had a passion for the game and played the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said of the 5-11, 240-pound Tulloch, a fourth-round pick from North Carolina State in 2006.

Tulloch, 27, is in the prime of his career and fits the Lions’ scheme well. His re-signing keeps an improved LB corps together. And, for the most part, the Lions have been able to keep their club together in free agency. Jeff Backus, the longtime starter at left tackle, re-signed, as did backup QB Shaun Hill. Other reserves coming back are DL Andre Fluellen, TE Will Heller and LB Ashlee Palmer. The Lions also re-signed P Ben Graham, who will compete with Ryan Donahue in training camp.

The lone Lions starter to leave in free agency was CB Eric Wright, who signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal with Tampa Bay. While talented, Wright has been somewhat inconsistent. Aaron Berry and ex-Colts CB Jacob Lacey are among those in the mix to replace him. Cornerback help also could be added in the draft.