The Detroit Lions have 46 players under contract at this point in time. They also have half that number in guys who will be free agents if they are not signed or in the case of 4 of them, tendered an offer, by March 13th at 4:00pm. Getting some of those potential free agents signed is no easy thing as several may want to test free agency regardless of any offers. Getting the players they want to keep is further complicated by the fact they have to be under the (as yet unannounced) salary cap with their top 51 contracts by 4pm on March 13th as well. As explained below the Lions may have as much as $11 million (or as little as no) salary cap available at this point in time (one source says $11 million, others none, and I have them at around $8 million). However, they could free up cap space by signing Calvin Johnson to a new contract, as much as $13.5 million in fact. They could also restructure as many as 5 contracts freeing upwards of $17 million more if they truly wanted to... but it would have to be for a very good reason as whatever cap is freed up will reduce future cap by the same amount one way or another (unless a signed player is outright cut).
With all this in mind, let's take a look at the Lions Depth Chart (ie: Roster) in detail. We'll start with the offense and closest to the ball working our way out.
At Center we have Dominic Raiola and his backup C/G Dylan Gandy and the on again off again 3rd string player C/G Dan Gerberry. Raiola still has years left on his contract, he is extremely good at identifying defenses and he calls all the OLine plays. He is nearly totally useless in the short yardage run plays but that is his only negative. That makes him one of the coaches favorites (despite the 3rd or 4th and 1 issue) and he's not going to be going anywhere. That said, he's no spring chicken and a replacement center of the future needs to be developed behind him. I'm not sure if Gerberry or Gandy is that player, the Lions will likely bring in at least one guy to compete against those two for the backup job, and if the guy can play guard so much the better. This will not be a free agent though, it will be someone in the draft or even an undrafted player, or one of each possibly. If the guy could play the long snapper position too, he'd probably be a lock to make the team. Dan Muhlbach is a free agent and remains unsigned. I can't rule out a first round pick for the backup/developmental center job, but I do find that highly unlikely based on how long it would be before the draft pick would become a big contributor to the team.
The starting guards are Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman. Their backups are the same dudes who are backing up the center position (see above). I can almost guarantee the Lions will draft at least one guard to compete against Gandy, Gerberry, and to be honest, Peterman. With a $2.725 million salary I don't think the Lions will cut Peterman, at least not unless he loses his starting job to said draft pick, but they could if they need the cap space. Drafting a starting guard in round 1 is not where you would normally take one unless he was ready made to start immediately, so this situation does bear watching. A later round draft pick may find it harder to win the starting job but if the guy can backup the center position too as he's being developed it could be an interesting cut down day in August.
The starting tackles are Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus. Jeff Backus is a free agent who will likely be re-signed by the Lions. As beerlion posted in my forum, Backus started the year recovering from a pec injury but in the final 8 games of the year he was the best LT in ... the entire NFL (yeah, he was, really). Gosder has a tendency to end up in the coaches dog house at least once each year but plays semi-solid when he's trying to. This lack of consistency is driving the coaches crazy and if they ever find a replacement RT I think Cherilus is a goner. His backup is Corey Hilliard, but he's a free agent. The other two tackles are Jason Fox and Johnny Culbreath. Fox has been injured so much no one knows if he can play LT and Culbreath was recently caught hiding two joints in a hotel hallway desk. Cutting Cherilus frees up $2.89 million in cap but that leaves the Lions without a starting RT. Like Peterman, I can see the Lions drafting someone to challenge for the starting job, and if obtained, cut down day in August becomes interesting for a second reason.
All 3 of the Lions TEs (Pettigrew, Schefler, and Heller) are signed for 2012, the Lions will bring in at least one more to keep them honest but I don't expect much to happen to this group.
At Running Back we have a M.A.S.H. unit. Jahvid Best is the starter, but how many more concussions he can take is at issue. If he were a cat I'd say he has run out of lives and the next one is the end. Mikel LeShoure was drafted to be the short yardage back but his foot injury is extemely hard to come back from. He may never make an NFL roster in his lifetime, or he may come back fully recovered and play for the Lions for years. It is not even 50/50. More like 5/95. Past players with this injury who came back and had successful NFL careers rate way under 5%. Kevin Smith has the heart of a Lion but is a free agent. Then there's Joique Bell and Keiland Williams. Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris are also free agents. The Lions probably will draft a RB to compete with whichever of these players can be healthy enough to practice (and in 3 cases, if they get re-signed even). Keep an eye on the rounds after round 1.
At Wide Receiver there's Calvin Johnson (the best in the NFL), Nate Burleson, Titus Young all under contract along with Stefan Logan and Nate Hughes. The Lions might re-sign free agent Rashied Davis who plays special teams well and can also play back up cornerback. I suggest they re-sign him at least. Maurice Stovall probably won't be offered a contract to come back to the Lions. For those counting, that does leave an opening, someone to compete with Hughes for the last spot if Rashied comes back or to fill the roster spot he leaves behind. This might be a free agent, a trade, a draft pick, or one of the sure to be many undrafted WRs the Lions will look at.
At Quarterback Matt Stafford is the only one with a contract. Hopefully he is still keeping his shoulders in condition as two years of therapy sure helped him in year 3. Backups Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton are free agents. I look for the Lions to re-sign Hill and Stanton will test free agency (he's looking for a #2 job at least). The Lions will be getting a QB in to camp and probably more then one to compete for the #3 job.
The Lions went with 24 on offense last year for most of the season and 26 on defense, so a really talented offensive player could take a roster spot away from one of the defensive players ... just something else to keep in mind.
In summary, the Detroit Lions will be bringing in a Guard and potentially/probably a Center, Wide Receivers, Right Tackles, a #3 QB, and a Running Back to compete for roster spots. For those saying to go with an all defensive draft this spells trouble but for the Lions it gives them the option to continue to draft the best player on their board (or near enough to the top dude anyway).
I say the Lions need to re-sign (on offense) Jeff Backus, Shaun Hill, and if possible with short contracts; Rashied Davis, Kevin Smith and Corey Hilliard. I look for Stovall, Stanton, Leonard Davis, Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris to hit free agency.
Now for the defense. At Defensive Tackle and under contract is Suh, Fairley, and Corey Williams. They aren't going anywhere. Potential free agents Andre Fluellen and Sammie Lee Hill may test free agency and it's possible the Lions will be looking for yet another DT this off season. I don't expect it will be a first round pick however. That said, it would be nice if the Lions could get Hill re-signed, I just don't think they will have the money to do it.
At DE the big potential free agent is Cliff Avril. KVB, Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson are under contract. The Lions might franchise tag Avril if they have the cap space to give them more time to work out a contract. I really don't think they want Avril to get to free agency. I can see the Lions drafting a DE if there is a good one to be had to help the rotation, this would probably be the Fluellen roster spot, so if the draft pick is big enough to also play some DT he'll have a better chance of making the team. If Avril ends up a free agent this becomes a major hole in the defense and in fact the team.
The Lions have only 2 linebackers under contract. Doug Hogue and Justin Durant. Levy is a RFA and will probably be tendered an offer. Palmer won't be tendered but he may still end up a lion as a signed free agent. I have no idea what will happen to Bobby Carpenter. The big free agent fear here is Stephen Tulloch. The Lions really need to re-sign him. If a hole in the roster opens up due to Tulloch, Palmer or Carpenter then a game changing LB in the draft, ready to start or developmental, is almost a given.
At Cornerback the Lions have Houston, Alphonso Smith, Aaron Berry, and Don Carey under contract. Rumor is the Lions would entertain trade offers for Smith. Willing to trade and getting one are two different things though so we'll see what happens here. Free agent Eric Wright the Lions would like to re-sign. Unsigned player Brandon McDonald will probably enter free agency but may end up a Lion down the road anyway. I expect, as does most of the world, that the Lions will bring in competition from the draft at CB. Which round remains to be seen.
At Safety the only guys not under contract is Chris Harris and Erik Coleman. I think the Lions might try to re-sign Coleman but they do have Delmas, Spievey (who has yet to have a full off season at Safety) Wendling and Silva under contract. If a game changing Safety falls to the lions in the draft they could snap him up, else I'm looking for them to bring in competition for the backup roles and may the best men win.
That leaves special teams. I personally think the Lions need to re-sign Ben Graham as the punter to compete against Donahue who is under contract already as I believe Graham to be the better punter.
I already mentioned that Muhlbach is not under contract, it'll be interesting to see if the Lions allow him to go into free agency or if they will look for a new one in the draft who can also play center.
In summary, the Lions could draft any defensive position and that player would have a chance to win a roster spot.
As some of my readers know, I have the depth chart in a spreadsheet format on my website at http://www.theNetRat.com/depthchart.html ... if you click on the link and view it watch for the tabs at the bottom, I add them as the off season progresses. You can also click on File and Save if you want to save a copy on your computer to play with (helps with the what if scenarios). I only ask you do not publish it online anywhere (you know, them copyright rules and all rights reserved and all that kind of stuff).