The Detroit Lions have several holes to fill this offseason, and they will get their first real chance to address some of their needs when free agency opens on March 11. They will also look to fill some needs in the draft in May, but first up is free agency.
Before free agency begins in a few weeks, I went ahead and ranked the Lions' current needs by dividing them up into different categories. When looking at the roster, I only included players who are under contract or are restricted or exclusive-rights free agents (since they will all likely be back). Because we don't know which unrestricted free agents will actually be re-signed, none of them factored into my ranking of the Lions' needs. If a starter is set to become a free agent, for example, then there's simply a vacancy on the depth chart at that position.
What did factor into how I ranked the Lions' needs? For starters, glaring holes on the roster are higher up on the list, especially for starting positions. Also, I kept in mind how much urgency is needed when addressing each need. If there's a short-term need to find a starter at a certain position, for example, it's going to be ranked higher than a need for a backup or a future starter. Along the same lines, the ability to fill each need was also considered. If you can wait around and easily fill a need at a position, it's going to be lower on the list than a position where options are limited.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the Lions' needs. (Be sure to leave your rankings in the comments.)
Wide receiver - This is by far the Lions' biggest need. They need a No. 2-caliber wide receiver to take some of the pressure off Calvin Johnson, and they could really use a No. 3 type of receiver as well. It also wouldn't hurt to add a developmental guy for extra depth. The way I see it, the Lions need to sign a veteran receiver during free agency and add another receiver or two during the draft. They have to add more talent at this position.
Cornerback - It's no secret that the Lions' cornerback play was quite bad in 2013. Rashean Mathis, who is set to become a free agent, only joined the Lions in the middle of the preseason, and he ended up being their top corner. The Lions are hoping that Chris Houston will bounce back from a rough season and return to his 2012 form, and they are also hoping that one or two of their young guys will make a jump and become a reliable NFL cornerback. However, there's no guarantee that either of those things will happen, and cornerback is not a position you should gamble on. The Lions really need to bring in a starting-caliber veteran, and I suppose throwing another draft pick into the mix wouldn't be a terrible idea. No cornerbacks seem to be worth the 10th overall pick, though.
Safety - This position was actually in the "no needs" category until the Lions released Louis Delmas last week. Now they are in need of a starter. The Lions do have Don Carey, who did a good job of filling in for Delmas as a starter in 2012. However, I'd prefer to see the Lions keep Carey in a backup role and bring in somebody with more talent to be the permanent starter. It's unlikely that they will be able to afford a top-tier free agent at safety, but I could see them using one of their top draft picks to address this need.
Tight end - Brandon Pettigrew is set to become a free agent, so the Lions could be down a starter at tight end. Joseph Fauria should have a bigger role this year, and Michael Williams, who missed his entire rookie season because of an injury, could slide into something similar to Pettigrew's role as the main blocker and occasional pass catcher. Generally speaking, though, there's a need to add a tight end who can become a weapon in the passing game. Fauria has a lot of promise, but the Lions need another starting-caliber player at this position.
Quarterback - Matthew Stafford is the Lions' starter, but I consider quarterback a primary need because backup Shaun Hill is headed for free agency. The Green Bay Packers showed us in 2013 that you're only as good as your backup quarterback, and it's important to have a solid backup plan in case your starter goes down. I certainly wouldn't consider rolling the dice on Kellen Moore to be a solid backup plan, so I view this as a top need. Simply re-signing Hill would make the most sense, but the Lions will have to find a different veteran quarterback to take over the backup role if he lands elsewhere. The hope is obviously that the backup will never actually see the field unless it's in garbage time, but you can't risk throwing your season away because you weren't prepared for a potential injury to your starter.
Defensive end - The Lions currently only have Ziggy Ansah, Devin Taylor and Jason Jones under contract. Ansah will for sure be a starter again, and Taylor showed a lot of promise in a limited role in his rookie season. Jones currently projects to be the other starter, but he is coming off a season-ending knee injury. He has never played in all 16 games in a season, and he hasn't had more than 4.0 sacks in a single season since his rookie year in 2008. At the very least, the Lions need an extra backup (either a veteran or developmental guy) at defensive end, but they could really use an upgrade in talent at the starting spot opposite Ansah. They can certainly get by with Jones if he's healthy, but having someone with more pass-rushing ability would be preferable.
Outside linebacker - Much like defensive end, the Lions could use a talent upgrade at the starting left outside linebacker spot. A combination of Ashlee Palmer and the nickel package like we saw in 2013 would be fine, but shifting Palmer to a backup role and solidifying the linebacking corps with more talent at left outside linebacker would be ideal.
Kicker - The Lions currently have John Potter and Giorgio Tavecchio under contract at kicker. I'm sure they could make it through the 2014 season with one of those two guys starting, but neither seems like a great long-term option. Much like the Lions did with punter last year, drafting a kicker to take over this job for the next decade or so appears to be a better option than rolling with Potter or Tavecchio.
Long snapper - Don Muhlbach isn't under contract for 2014, so long snapper is technically a need. Having someone who can consistently deliver good snaps is quite important, but since this vacancy shouldn't be too tough to address (they can simply re-sign Muhlbach or sign someone else), it's only a secondary need.
Offensive tackle - The Lions' starters appear to be set with Riley Reiff and LaAdrian Waddle, and Corey Hilliard is set to be back as the top backup. There's a need for a fourth offensive tackle, though. Unless the Lions simply re-sign Jason Fox, adding a developmental guy appears to be the best way to fill this particular need.
Offensive guard - The starting spots at offensive guard belong to Rob Sims and Larry Warford. Behind them, Rodney Austin is the developmental guy at the position, and center Leroy Harris can play offensive guard as well. I could see the Lions adding another veteran (like Dylan Gandy) to help back up the interior spots on the O-line, or perhaps they will look to add another developmental guy to go along with Austin.
Center - With Dominic Raiola re-signing for another season, the Lions don't need a new starting center just yet. Technically, they also don't need a backup center with Harris still under contract. However, they could use someone to develop as a future replacement for Raiola since Austin seems better suited for guard. It's not a pressing need by any means, but it is something to keep in mind.
Defensive tackle - Detroit's top three of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley could be among the very best in all of the NFL. Detroit does need a fourth defensive tackle to join the rotation, but they can simply fill this need with a late-round draft pick, a developmental guy already on the roster (Jimmy Saddler-McQueen or Xavier Proctor) or by signing a veteran like Andre Fluellen to a minimum deal.
Middle linebacker - There doesn't appear to be a ton of talent backing up Stephen Tulloch, but the Lions could always just shift DeAndre Levy inside if Tulloch were to get hurt. There's no real need to worry about this position.
Running back - You could make the case that running back is the deepest position on the Lions' entire roster. There is talent from top to bottom with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell getting the bulk of the playing time, Theo Riddick serving as the third-stringer and Mikel Leshoure there as extra depth. Also, don't forget about Montell Owens. He may have had injury problems last year, but he could also contribute as a back for the Lions in 2014.
Punter - With the Lions drafting Sam Martin last year, the starting punter job is set. The Lions could bring in another punter as a camp body, but this job belongs to Martin.