The last major piece of the free-agency puzzle for the Detroit Lions this year fell into place last week when the team signed safety James Ihedigbo. This came a couple weeks after they re-signed running back Joique Bell and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and it came after they added fullback Jed Collins, wide receiver Golden Tate, defensive end Darryl Tapp and defensive tackle Vaughn Martin.
The Lions have filled several notable needs since free agency opened a few weeks ago, and now we've reached the point where the focus is shifting back toward the 2014 NFL Draft. The draft isn't until May this year, but there's really not much left to do at this point from a free agency standpoint. The Lions do still need to add a veteran backup quarterback, and I suppose they could still re-sign cornerback Rashean Mathis, but they appear to be content with the rest of their roster for the time being.
Part of the reason the Lions are seemingly content with their roster is because they added guys like Tate and Ihedigbo. Wide receiver and safety were two of the Lions' top needs, and they managed to add a starting-caliber player at each position. Those two positions are still on the list of needs, but the Lions aren't in a situation where spending an early draft pick on a wide receiver or safety is an absolute must.
Free agency has given the Lions a lot of flexibility when it comes to the 10th overall pick, and you could say the same about the 45th and 76th overall picks as well. The addition of two compensatory picks in the fourth round last week added some flexibility to the Lions' overall draft plans, but their work in free agency means that no one position is in such dire shape that the Lions will have to spend an early pick to address it.
For the first round, this means that the Lions are really free to go in any direction they want. I know the Lions take a best-player-available approach anyway, but need truly doesn't need to be a concern this year. The Lions could add even more help at wide receiver, for example, or they could give Matthew Stafford another target at tight end. They could also potentially elect to upgrade their talent at tackle if the right guy falls, and they could even prepare for life without Nick Fairley and/or Ndamukong Suh by taking a defensive tackle. And, of course, the other positions on defense could always use some help as well.
The Lions also have the flexibility to trade down since there isn't a position that absolutely has to be addressed with a top-10 pick. I know we've talked a lot about them potentially moving up for Sammy Watkins, but trading down would make a lot of sense if there is a team that wants to jump up. Stockpiling picks is never a bad idea, especially in a deep draft like this. And Martin Mayhew has already hinted that there are only five elite players in this year's draft, so if the Lions don't get a shot at any of them, trading down could be the way to go.
Looking at the draft beyond the first round, the Lions luckily don't have to fill starting spots at positions like right guard and punter like last year. If the season started tomorrow, they could field a competitive lineup with the players already on their roster. This means that if they draft a safety in the third round, for example, he won't necessarily have to start on Day 1. Obviously the hope is that the Lions will have another excellent draft like last year by adding multiple starting-caliber players, but they are going into the draft mainly looking to make upgrades rather than simply fill holes.
What's also nice is that between their work in free agency and the fact that the Lions currently have eight draft picks, they could even double up on certain positions if they want. They don't necessarily have to draft two wide receivers with the addition of Tate, but hey, if this class of receivers is as deep as they say, why not? The Lions could address their short-term need for a No. 3 and solidify their depth for years to come with a second wide receiver later on. They also have the freedom to spend picks on players who might not be asked to make an immediate impact in 2014. Case in point: Finding a center to groom to eventually replace Dominic Raiola would certainly make a lot of sense.
In short, the Lions don't have to head into the draft with the mindset that certain needs absolutely have to be filled. And they especially shouldn't feel pigeonholed in the first round. Adding extra help at wide receiver or safety would definitely be nice, but the Lions can afford to go in another direction if the right player isn't there at one of those positions. And later in the draft, if it comes down to adding extra depth at a position of need or trying to make an upgrade elsewhere, the Lions have the flexibility to simply go with the highest-rated player on their board.
The really interesting thing about all of this flexibility for the Lions is that they can go in so many different directions on all three days of the draft. This could lead to some head-scratching picks and confusion before we see the Lions' entire draft play out, but it could lead to a lot of surprises and excitement as well.