Sunday, July 21, 2013

Training Camp 2013; Here's Some Thoughts

I had only planned to write four or five things, but as the subjects got longer and more thoughts entered my mind and found its way to the keyboard, I felt compelled to divide it into separate posts.  It makes it look like I'm adding content on a more frequent basis.

With training camp less than a week away, the Lions are at a critical juncture in their turnaround.  If they can't win more than six games this year, it may be time for Tom Lewand to make the necessary move and replace both GM Martin Mayhew and Coach Jim Schwartz.  Here's where I think the biggest areas of concern heading in to the 2013 season are.

1. The salary cap.  Since the new collective bargaining agreement took effect in 2011, the NFL has imposed a tight salary cap at $120 million.  In the third year of the new CBA, the cap has only risen to just over $4 million.

Every year since, the Lions have had to wage two different battles: restructuring the existing contracts of the players they have and making just enough room to add new free agents where necessary.  This constant shifting on the fly does short term good, but makes it more difficult to field a team in the following years because the players on the higher end of the salary spectrum are converting all their salary to a signing bonus and playing under a minimum salary.  Where you save in cap room now costs you in the long run because that bonus money gets prorated and becomes dead money against the final years of the contract, pushing you closer to the cap limit.

Because the Lions had top two draft picks in three out of four years between 2007 and 2010, they had to commit large sums of money to three players: Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Ndamukong Suh.  This was before the new CBA instituted a rookie salary cap.  Prior to restructuring their contracts over the summer, the Lions were looking at committing close to $60 million, about half the total salary cap.  Yet with Johnson's new deal, Suh converting his salary to a bonus, and Stafford's extension, the Lions have managed to put themselves in a position to make a significant addition if a key player gets released before the start of the season.

2. Matthew Stafford.  Simply put, the Lions' fortunes will rise and fall with their franchise quarterback.  You could argue that Stafford is the most important concern the Lions have, as good quarterbacks can mask deficiencies in other areas.  I tend to think that they still need more help on the defensive side of the ball and that requires more money and cap space.

Whatever the case may be, he's outplayed every other quarterback on this team since Greg Landry, the last Lions' quarterback who went to the Pro Bowl in 1971.  After an injury plagued first couple of years, Stafford made a huge step forward in 2011, becoming only the fourth quarterback in history to throw for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns while leading the team to its first playoff appearance since 1999.

In 2012, he regressed, while coming close to 5,000 yards again, most of those were simply playing catch up as the Lions fell to 4-12, losing all eight of their second half games.  Some say it was his mechanics, mainly his throwing motion and poor footwork (which according to some, will cause poor throws), while others think he might have been injured, forcing him to throw a lot of sidearm passes.

Whatever the case may be, the Lions have a lot riding on Stafford.  So much so that he was given a 3-year, $43 million contract extension.  His detractors will point to his 1-21 record against winning teams, but I still think the Lions had no other choice.  The salary of players like Stafford are determined by one of two metrics: merit or market.  He's clearly in the latter, having a starting record of just 17-28.  But letting Stafford hit the market would mean that he would have about 24 suitors, regardless of the fact he hasn't won anything in four years.

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