The Detroit Lions kicked off their post-minicamp "vacation" by releasing cornerback Chris Houston on Friday. The move freed up enough cap space to sign first-round pick Eric Ebron, and it raises a lot of questions about the situation at cornerback going forward. Here's a look at what this move means for the Lions from a few different perspectives:
According to Dave Birkett, Houston will count $1.3 million against the Lions' 2014 salary cap and $3.9 million against the cap in 2015. Houston was originally supposed to have a cap number of $4.8 million this year, so the Lions saved $3.5 million in cap room for 2014 by letting him go. For next year, Houston's cap hit was originally supposed to be $5.8 million, so the Lions actually saved $1.9 million in cap room for 2015.
It's worth remembering that the Lions are still going to be paying a price for the cap space they saved with this move. There is going to be dead money on the books for Houston for the next two seasons, meaning they will essentially be paying for a player no longer on the team. Then again, if they didn't expect to get any contributions out of Houston anyway, letting him go makes sense, especially since they won't have to worry about 2016 and 2017, when he was set to make $4.5 million and $5 million in base salaries.
On the field in the short term
Considering Houston missed the Lions' OTAs and recent minicamp because of the toe surgery he had in May, it didn't exactly look like he was going to be ready for the start of the 2014 season. I personally was expecting him to begin the season on the PUP list, and the Lions would have been without him for part of the year anyway in that situation. With him now off the team, we already know that the Lions will be without him (assuming he doesn't get healthy and re-sign later on, of course).
For 2014, confirmation of a lack of Houston means there is more pressure on Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis. Slay has been talked up quite a bit this offseason, but now the Lions are going to have to rely on him to be their No. 1 cornerback. He wasn't even ready to be their No. 2 cornerback as a rookie last year, but he has seemingly made a lot of progress this offseason. That better be the case, because he's going to have a big role at cornerback this year.
There's also going to be a lot of pressure on Mathis, who was actually the Lions' best cornerback last season. He's going to be 34 years old in August, and the Lions need him to stay healthy this year. He's no longer insurance in case Slay struggles or Houston doesn't get healthy; Mathis is now an important starter at cornerback.
It's also going to be important for guys like Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green to show improvement this year with Houston officially out of the picture. The Lions also have rookie Nevin Lawson and veteran Cassius Vaughn, and at least a couple players from this group need to step it up in 2014. Bentley will likely continue to be the Lions' nickelback, but there are a lot of question marks from a depth standpoint with this group of players.
On the field in the long term
The best-case scenario for the Lions would be for Slay to live up to the hype and develop into a legitimate No. 1 cornerback and for one of the other young guys to develop into a legitimate starter (maybe Greenwood?). This would give the Lions a pair of quality starters going forward, and if Bentley continues to improve in the slot and Lawson becomes a good depth player, this position would be in pretty good shape going forward.
On the flip side, the nightmare scenario would be if Slay continues to struggle, nobody emerges from the Greenwood/Bentley/Green group and Lawson takes a couple years to even show signs of becoming a real contributor. In the short term, the Lions would have to hope that they can get by with Mathis and Vaughn, who has made 18 starts over the last three years. In the long term, though, it might be a situation where it's back to the drawing board and they have to consider completely revamping the position.
The most realistic scenario is likely somewhere in between. In other words, perhaps Slay becomes a competent starter this year and the Lions get by with Mathis, but chances are they will be going into 2015 needing at least one starter at the position. Slay could still develop into a legitimate No. 1 cornerback in 2015 in this scenario, but we'd be looking at another offseason of talk about how the Lions need to draft a cornerback in the first round.
Considering Houston played so well in 2012 and signed a five-year deal worth $25 million in March 2013, it's hard to believe he's now off the team. I suppose that shows just how quickly things can change in the NFL, though. Houston went from being the Lions' top cornerback -- in the short term and in the future -- to being a free agent after a tumultuous year filled with injuries. Whether or not he will be able to get healthy and play again at a starting-caliber level in the NFL remains to be seen, but clearly the Lions don't have much confidence in that happening. That's why they let him go on Friday and sacrificed the potential of Houston bouncing back for the short-term savings of a few million dollars in cap room.