Lions still looking to fill vital roster spots


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.

Cornerbacks

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?

Linebackers

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.

He’s 28.

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)

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis utilizes skill, swagger on his ‘Island’


The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Ninth of 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position

The NFL’s transition into a passing league has made cornerbacks one of the most important players on the field.

“I think it’s the quarterback first and the defensive back second,” former safety and current NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots told USA Today.

Offenses have gotten complicated and are incorporating so many weapons, that defenses without a gifted corner or two are playing from a disadvantage.

A corner that can shut down half the field and take an offense’s No. 1 receiver out of the game is a defensive coordinator’s dream.

Interceptions don’t accurately measure a cornerback’s effectiveness, either. The truly talented corners don’t get thrown at enough to make an impact with interceptions.

So, taking into account those standards, there are two lockdown corners that stand above the rest: Darrelle Revis (Jets) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders, free agent).

Revis is so good, his real estate on the football field has been coined “Revis Island.”

Receivers rarely get off Revis Island.

Calvin Johnson (Lions) and Andre Johnson (Texans) combined for five catches and 45 yards against Revis last season.

Despite finishing last season with no interceptions and 10 pass breakups, Revis was a unanimous choice to start the Pro Bowl, and earned all-Pro first-team honors.

At only 25, it’s amazing to think Revis might only be reaching his prime.

As for Asomugha, the Raiders couldn’t afford his $16 million price tag, so they voided the contract in January.

With his production — eight interceptions for the Raiders in 2006, teams got wise and stopped throwing at him (three the next four years) — Asomugha will be inundated with calls when free agency opens.

He’ll likely become the richest cornerback in history.

The Lions’ situation at corner is up in the air.

Chris Houston was the most consistent performer last season, but says he’ll test the free-agent market.

Alphonso Smith started 10 games on the right side last season and led the team with five interceptions.

But his confidence seemed to waiver toward the end of the season, especially after a terrible game against the Patriots on Thanksgiving, when he allowed three touchdowns.

Smith is also coming off shoulder surgery that forced him out of the last four games.

The Lions do have a number of other players who’ll compete for time during training camp, including Aaron Berry, Nathan Vasher, Brandon McDonald, Prince Miller and Jack Williams.

But expect the Lions to be big players in a deep free-agency market.

Top 10 corners

 1. Darrelle Revis, Jets: What more can you say about a player who week-in and week-out performers at an all-Pro level against the best receivers? The Jets had the No. 3 defense last season and were No. 6 against the pass, thanks in large part to Revis.

 2. Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders: The three-time Pro Bowler surrendered a mere 10 receptions last season and didn’t allow a touchdown. He’s right there with Revis among the elite.

 3. Charles Woodson, Packers: He’s a jack-of-all-trades for Dom Capers’ defense. He plays corner, safety and rushes the quarterback. A seven-time Pro Bowler, his 92 tackles and five forced fumbles in 2010 were career bests. He’s three interceptions shy of reaching 50 for his career.

 4. Asante Samuel, Eagles: The career leader with four postseason interception returns for a touchdown, Samuel allowed 20 completions and one touchdown in 11 games last season. Unlike Revis and Asomugha, teams continue to target Samuel — and he continues to make then pay (36 interceptions the last five seasons).

 5. Champ Bailey, Broncos: Bailey continued to be one of the most dominant cornerbacks in 2010, with two interceptions and 13 passes defended. At 32, his 10 Pro Bowl appearances are the most by a corner.

 6. Tramon Williams, Packers: Williams certainly benefits from having Woodson on the other side, but he’s a playmaker in his own right. He’s notched 15 interceptions the last three seasons (six in 2010).

 7. Devin McCourty Patriots: His biggest accomplishment last season was earning the starting job on a Bill Belichick-coached defense as a rookie. He rewarded Belichick with 82 tackles, seven interceptions (second in the league) and a Pro Bowl nod.

 8. Dunta Robinson, Falcons: He was the free agent catch of 2010 — and proved it. Teams stayed away from his side of the field, and teammate Brent Grimes benefited. The pair form one of the best secondary duos in the NFL.

 9. Brent Grimes, Falcons: Teams had to pick their poison — pick on Robinson or Grimes? Grimes made them pay when they chose his side of the field. The undrafted corner out of Shippenburg University earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2010, finishing with 87 tackles, five interceptions and 23 pass break-ups.

 10. Antoine Winfield, Vikings: Like Bailey, the 12-year veteran is as productive as ever. He’s one of the best at supporting the run defense — he had 91 tackles last year. He also chipped in two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Schedule

June 22 Quarterbacks

June 23 Running backs

June 24 Receivers

June 25 Tight ends

June 26 Offensive tackles

June 28 Guards

June 29 Centers

June 30 Safeties

July 1 Cornerbacks

Saturday Outside linebackers

Monday, July 4 Inside linebackers

Tuesday, July 5 Defensive ends

Wednesday, July 6 Defensive tackles

ttwentyman@detnews.com

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