In the realm of the NFL, it is not uncommon to see a once struggling team finally have a good season. Remember the Miami Dolphins of 2008? They went 11-5 after a dismal 1-15 season, which capped off a decade of mediocrity. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in a similar boat last season, when they posted a 10-6 record after managing just three wins a year earlier. Similar things were said by analysts and fans alike about these two teams. People credited their front offices and coaches for building up an abundance of young talent and winning with that talent. Right now, the Detroit Lions sit in a similar situation.
It is hard to deny that Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh make up a nucleus that should make the Lions a legitimate team for the next decade if they can be kept together in Motown. It is also tough to deny that players like Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson, among others, give the Lions a young core of talent to complement the "Big Three." That shouldn't, however, mean that this offseason is any less important than say the 2009 and 2010 offseasons, when the Lions were in the middle of a rebuilding phase. In fact, I feel that this is the most important offseason that Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz will have thus far in their time in Detroit.
The challenges they face in this offseason are of a different type, a type that they haven't faced yet. In past seasons, the Lions were handed golden opportunities via the draft to bring in marquee players without having to compete with the other 31 teams in the league. To their credit, Mayhew and Schwartz were able to pick the right players and build a great core. They won't have that same luxury this year (and hopefully won't in future years, either). As proven by the Dolphins and Buccaneers, it's easy to go from drafting first or second to drafting in the 20s, but it is infinitely more difficult to go from drafting in the 20s to drafting in the 30s (i.e. winning in the playoffs). If the Lions are to take the next step, it starts this offseason.
In one week, when the Super Bowl is done and the league has crowned a new champion, the Lions will enter one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory. As it stands, the Lions will have 22 unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents (hat tip to TuffLynx). Of them, five were regular starters for the 2011 squad, while a half-dozen others were key backups. In past seasons, this wouldn't be much of a worry since no one would really want Lions starters on their teams, but this year is different. Considering that Cliff Avril and Jeff Backus are considered by many to be the top defensive end and left tackle in free agency and guys like Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton, Stephen Tulloch, and Eric Wright are likely to command a fair bit of attention as well, the Lions will face stiff competition in retaining their services with an already tight cap situation. Losing either Avril or Backus would be quite a step backward in the building process, as would not being able to fill the linebacker and cornerback spots with decent starters.
Then there are the issues that need taking care of. The 2011 Lions were hardly a perfect team. The Lions finished the season ranked 23rd in the NFL in points allowed and rush defense. Also, they actually ranked 21st against the pass. Aside from Avril, no one on the defensive line really produced what their contracts entailed. There should be serious questions asked about the wide-nine scheme that Gunther Cunningham is running and its effectiveness, as should there be serious questions about the health of Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best.
These are really tricky problems, to say the least. What exactly do you do with the defense? It's not as if you can simply cut Suh or Kyle Vanden Bosch and replace them with new players, nor can you fire Gunther Cunningham at this point in time. Do you change the scheme after you've spent years building half of your roster for? If not, then how do you prevent yourself from giving up massive runs to the opponent? What do you do with the running back corps? Is it too early to simply cut your losses with Best and draft a running back in the first round for the second time in three years? Do you hold out hope that both Best and Leshoure recover from their injuries? If so, what is the backup plan if they don't recover? What do you do with Calvin Johnson's contract? How much are Cliff Avril and Jeff Backus truly worth to you?
These are questions that Mayhew, Schwartz and the Lions front office will have to answer this offseason. No doubt, they are difficult decisions to make, no matter how they choose to answer them. With an NFC that has no shortage of talented teams and the Green Bay Packers playing in their division, the Lions more than risk not making the playoffs in 2012 if Mayhew and company answer incorrectly. On the flip side of things, the future for the Lions will be incredibly bright if they can answer them properly because of the cast of players that are already here and signed through 2012. If they can't, the Lions risk becoming sort of like the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFC: a team that had enough talent in the last decade to win eight or 10 games, but nothing more than that.