Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News
Allen Park— This is a big week — possibly a make-or-break week — for the NFL. If there is to be at least a two-week free-agency period with training camp starting on time at the beginning of August — meaning if the NFL year is to start July 18 — the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement should be all but in place by the end of the week.
According to ESPN and the Associated Press, talks between the owners and players are set to resume today in New York City. After a brief bump in the road last week, it seems like progress is being made toward a deal.
So let’s be optimistic and start looking toward that free-agency period for the Lions. There’s little mystery about where they will be looking — cornerback and linebacker.
General manager Martin Mayhew made it clear during the draft, when he did not address those needs, that he felt he could better upgrade those positions through free agency or trades.
For the sake of discussion, here are five free agents at both positions that the Lions might have some interest in once the doors open on free agency.
1. Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland: You have to list him first because he will be, arguably, the most coveted free agent on the market, and also the most expensive. But the odds of the Lions winning this sweepstakes seem long.
The Eagles and Cowboys are expected to make a run at him.
He turns 30 Wednesday, but he’s considered to be the best cover corner in the game.
His stated intention is to land on a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Lions might be poised to end their playoff drought next season, but adding Asomugha alone won’t make them Super Bowl contenders, and his price tag might prevent the Lions from filling some other holes.
2. Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati: This might be a more realistic option. He’s going to command about $8 million per year, according to ESPN’s John Clayton, which is no bargain but far less than Asomugha.
Plus, Joseph is 27 and isn’t far behind Asomugha in terms of his shutdown abilities on the edge. He has 14 interceptions in his career, three last season in 12 games.
Joseph might have more suitors than Asomugha, because he’s perceived to be more accessible. The Bengals won’t go out without a fight, and the Texans, Seahawks, Redskins, Buccaneers, Eagles and Cowboys could be in the mix.
3. Chris Houston, Detroit: It’s not completely clear how much the Lions want to re-sign Houston. They liked him, for sure, but they didn’t offer him an extension last season. They were hoping they could get him on another one-year deal to take a longer look before committing to him long-term.
But, he was their best corner last season and unless they strike it rich with one of the free agents previously mentioned, they will have to woo him back.
4. Chris Carr, Baltimore: The Lions made a run at him before last season. He’s 28 and has been a steady, if not spectacular, player for seven seasons.
He doesn’t have the size (5-foot-11, 180) that Mayhew likes at corner, but he plays with the aggression and toughness that the GM covets.
5. Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh: Three years ago, maybe, this guy would have been at the top of the wish list for a lot of teams. But he’s 31 now; still productive, but clearly, he’ll be negotiating his last big contract.
But at 6-2, 195, he has the size the Lions want at corner and he has shown throughout his career that he is an above-average cover man.
The question is, does he have three good years left? Two?
1. Stephen Tulloch, Tennessee: He has a history with coach Jim Schwartz. He has an expressed fondness for the Lions’ aggressive style of defense and he has said he’d love to play behind the Lions’ talented defensive front.
He might be the most underrated linebacker in the game; for sure, he’s the most anonymous guy who’s made 281 tackles the last two seasons, and he’s still just 26.
He’s a middle linebacker, though. So to sign him would mean moving DeAndre Levy to weak-side linebacker. It’s a position that Levy played at Wisconsin and one he said he wouldn’t mind going back to at the professional level, but the Lions are reluctant to move him out of the middle.
2. Ben Leber, Minnesota: He’s a little bit older (32) but has been a consistently productive outside linebacker for 10 seasons.
It seems like Leber expects an address change next season. Here’s what he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
“The reality is if they (Vikings) were really, really wanting me back, then maybe something would have been said before the lockout. I had a good meeting with coach (Leslie) Frazier and (vice president of player personnel Rick) Spielman at the end of the year. Each side expressed how much I’d like to be here and finish my career here.
“I am hopeful and hope that I can come back and be a Viking again. But I’m also a realist, and I’ve been through this process before. It’s not always up to you, and you have to be willing to move on.”
3. Kirk Morrison, Jacksonville: He’s 29 and coming off his least productive year. After averaging more than 130 tackles for six years with the Raiders, he had 89 tackles for the Jags.
But he’s still considered one of the best and most durable middle linebackers available. He’s played in 95 straight games.
There’s a good chance Jacksonville will work hard to keep him.
4. Thomas Howard, Oakland: Howard lost his starting outside linebacker spot last season to Quentin Groves, but he is a player a lot of scouts believe is ready to break out.
He’s just 27 and had a three-year stretch — from 2007-2009 — when he started and produced 106, 96 and 97 tackles.
He would be a lower-profile signing than somebody like Tulloch, or even Tampa Bay middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who has been mentioned as a player of interest for the Lions, but he would also be a lot more affordable — especially if the Lions spend big to get a corner.
5. Thomas Davis, Carolina: Interesting case here. A first-round pick in 2005 and a productive player for a couple of years, but he tore his anterior cruciate ligament twice in a seven-month span and missed the entire 2010 season.
Dr. James Andrews, who performed both surgeries, said that he will be able to return to football this season. The question will be whether or not he regains the explosiveness he had before the injury.
If he does, there’s a lot of good football left him in.
The Lions ‘D’
Where the Lions ranked in various defensive categories last season:
Scoring defense — 19th (23.1 points per game)
Total defense — 21st (343.6 yards per game)
Passing yards — 16th (218.6 per game)
Rushing yards — 24th (124.9 per game)
Sacks — Sixth (44 total)
Interceptions — Tied for 19th (14 total)