Ah, NFL Free Agency. With my colleague over @ MLive.com, Tom Kowalski reporting tonight that the Detroit Lions have signed not one, but two new offensive guards tonight (Edwin Mulitalo and Zach Piller) it seems like a good a time as any to do an accounting for where the Lions stand with their moves so far this off-season. And the verdict? Despite missing out on some of their top targets, General Manager Matt Millen may actually deserve some credit. Maybe. Let's look at what the Lions have gained and lost so far.
Running Backs: Tatum Bell (formerly of Denver), TJ Duckett (formerly of Washington)
Wide Receiver: Shaun McDonald (St. Louis)
Offensive Guards: Edwin Mulitalo (Baltimore), Zach Piller (Tennessee)
Offensive Tackle: George Foster (Denver)
Defensive End: DeWayne White (Tampa Bay)
Cornerbck: Travis Fisher (St. Louis)
2007 Draft Picks: Denver's 5th Round selection, St. Louis's 5th Round Selection
Fullback: Cory Schlesinger (signed with Miami)
Tight End: Marcus Pollard (signed with Seattle)
Offensive Lineman: Ross Verba (released)
Defensive End: James Hall (traded to St. Louis)
Cornerback: Dre Bly (traded to Denver)
Safety: Terrence Holt (signed with Arizona)
2007 Draft Pick: 6th Round selection (traded to Denver)
So...Where does that leave the Lions? I think better off than they were in 2006, that's for sure. Most importantly, the team has not lost anybody really important (I'll get to Bly in a moment). While Cory Schlesinger is a fan favorite, and will be missed, he had no role in Mike Martz' offense. He's a sentimental loss, but nothing more. Pollard was a vast disappointment since signing from the Colts a few years back, and like Schlesinger, he really saw his role reduced last season in Mike Martz' offense. Losing Verba was likewise nothing. While the Lions had hoped he was going to be their answer at left guard last season, he was never healthy. And losing Dre Bly and James Hall may actually help the team. Addition by subtraction. Neither bought into the new system or coaching staff the Lions have in place, and the last thing this team needs are malcontents in the locker room. It's hard enough fighting back from years of being the laughing stock of the NFL without your own players practically working against you. Only the loss of Holt may sting a bit, and even he was only going to be a backup this year, supplanted in the starting lineup by 2nd year starter Daniel Bullocks. I always thought Holt was going to make it with the Lions. In limited playing time early in his career, he seemed to have a nose for the ball. But, he never quite was able to push his game to the next level.
And as for what the Lions have added, its quite a bit. The addition of Bell and Duckett the backfield of Kevin Jones and Shawn Bryson gives the Lions one of the deepest running back groups in the league, and each brings something different to the table. Bell is your speed guy, your home run hitter. Jones is a tough runner, is good out of the backfield, and can be an every-down-back. Bryson is a perfect third down runner and is a great pass protector. And Duckett is your goaline-short yardage specialist. And with both Jones and Bryson coming off of serious leg injuries, increasing the depth at this position was key. And when all four backs are healthy, it will make for quite the rotation (and quite the headache for Fantasy Football addicts like myself).
The Shaun McDonald acquisition, we'll see on that. The Lions top aim for the role was another quick St. Louis receiver, Kevin Curtis, but for many reasons (money and Curtis' reported desire not to live in Michigan) so settling for McDonald hurt a bit. But, he's still better than Corey Bradford and backup QB Josh McCown who played wide receiver (no joke) at times last season. And the last no name WR from St. Louis (Mike Furey) turned out to be a stud. So, I'll trust Mike Martz on this.
The additions to the offensive line are interesting. It seems (as always) these moves will be boom or bust, and not much chance for anything in between. Foster is a former first round draft pick and is a monster of a man. But, he has work ethic issues and was benched for part of last season. The two new guys signed tonight (Edwin Mulitalo and Zach Piller) both have extensive starting experience. But both also have extensive injury histories. Piller missed most of last season due to an ankle injury and Mulitalo missed the majority of the season after he tore his triceps . Despite the risks, both are seen as solid starters when healthy, especially Mulitalo.
The loss of Mulitalo is a tough one for the Ravens, since he and perennial Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden form one of the NFL's best left sides. Although he has suffered through some inconsistencies in his career, Mulitalo is a powerful in-line drive-blocker who has approached Pro Bowl-level run-blocking at various stretches of his career.
The former Arizona standout was a fourth-round choice of the Ravens in the 1999 draft and has appeared in 106 games, starting 102 of them. Since 2000, his second season in the league, Mulitalo has averaged 15.0 starts and never started fewer than 14 games.
The offensive line has forever been a problem for the Detroit Lions under the Matt Millen era (ever since Millen foolishly let Jeff Hartings leave during Millen's first season on the job) but these additions, and the potential drafting of Wisconsin Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas could solidify the position for years to come.
On the defensive side of the ball, both White and Fisher are solid signings. I've written about White before (needless to say, I think it was a good signing and that White could be very very productive as a starter in Detroit), and Fisher, while no Dre Bly, is a solid defender who at worst is better than our former nickel cornerback (the woeful Jamar Fletcher) and at best, can be a solid #2 cornerback for a team which desperately needs depth at this position.
So, where does this put the Lions for a bottom line? I sound pretty bullish on their off-season moves, and in many ways, I am. Yes, we didn't sign the wide receiver we targeted (Kelvin Curtis). And yes, we haven't signed a middle linebacker (losing out on London Fletcher early in free agency), leaving us with the unproven and oft-injured Teddy Lehman at that spot for right now. But, we got rid of some malcontents, signed some young players with high upsides (Bell, White, McDonald, and Fisher) and some veterans with starting experience (Foster, Piller, and Mulitalo), albeit who have some serious question marks surrounding them. And we still have the draft and some time left in free agency to go.
Maybe I'm an eternal optimist when it comes to the Lions. Or maybe I'm just blinded by loyalty (or, stupidity). But, I honestly believe the Lions are a better team today than they were three months ago, and with a deep draft to come, and a plethora of picks and potential trade options, the Lions can continue to better their team (so long as they don't take Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, but that's another story for another post) Matt Millen may turn this team around yet. Or maybe, like happens every year, the exciting free agent moves I think will work out so well, will fall flat, and the "Fire Millen" chants will return to Ford Field. Such is life as a Lions fan.