Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Normally I use this format for my Sunday pieces at RealGM, but it fits too well here to not plagiarize my own creation.
The Lions released cornerback Chris Houston today, and subsequently used the freed up cap room to sing first round pick Eric Ebron. Here is the official statement from the team:
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) June 13, 2014
$.01–Thus ends the Chris Houston era in Detroit. It’s a symbolic ending, just as his initial acquisition was a symbolic indication of a new time for the Lions.
Let’s go back to March 2010, when the Lions traded draft picks that became Shann Schillinger and Andrew Jackson to the Falcons to get Houston. At that time, the Lions were desperately trying to get out of the massive hole dug by Matt Millen in his reign of inept terror.
The starting corners for most of 2009 were underwhelming retreads Philip Buchanon, Anthony Henry and Will Peterson, none of whom would ever be mistaken for a quality player. Houston was a great schematic fit for Gunther Cunningham’s press/bail zone coverage, and he brought credibility to the secondary.
It was also an indication that the Lions, and GM Martin Mayhew, were going to go shopping from the more premium section of the player market. The Millen era was best defined by half-baked signings of marginal talents with little upside. In dealing for a legit starter with youth and real talent, the Houston trade announced that the Lions were to be taken seriously.
His release, while not necessarily about this, also sends a definite message. The new Lions regime is not going to take past accomplishment and hold it up like a trophy. Being merely good two years ago is not enough to warrant a roster spot, not even if the financial ramifications are painful. Mayhew has enough confidence and security to admit a mistake and deal with it, instead of letting it fester on the roster as a constant reminder of his own poor judgment.
General Managers don’t make moves like that without knowing and believing in their own job security. What makes it even more significant is that ownership has changed this offseason, meaning that the man who hired and believed in Mayhew is no longer there. While it’s not a radical change with the Lions remaining in the Ford family, what better way for a new owner to make his (or her, in Detroit’s case) mark by deposing an old regime? A move like this tells me Mayhew’s job is a lot safer than most of his critics would like it to be.
$.02–How do the Lions replace Chris Houston?
(Insert joke about sack of balls and tackling dummy here)
Even though he wasn’t good in 2013, ranking 96th in Pro Football Focus CB ratings, he was still a veteran starting corner with some ability. Now the Lions will have to rely on a more veteran presence in Rashean Mathis, who was wisely brought back after finishing 27th in those same PFF ratings. He was a godsend to the Lions, especially late in the year when the defense took over as the strength of the team.
There is some real risk here. Mathis is 34 and was inconsistent (to be kind) in his final few years in Jacksonville. Even last year there was some definite streakiness to his game, and now he’s a year older and transitioning to a new, more aggressive cover scheme that will place more of a premium on catch-up speed, which he doesn’t really have anymore. Late-career renaissances are nice stories, but depending on them continuing can be foolish. Still, I’m confident Mathis can be an adequate #2 corner.
That means Darius Slay has to emerge as a viable #1 corner. We all know the story, he was in over his head early as a rookie before showing some promise late in the campaign. He’s been working with Rod Woodson, for my money the best defensive back of the Super Bowl era, and impressed in OTAs. This is a great deal of pressure to put on a player who didn’t handle pressure very well a year ago. I like Slay’s talent, really I do, but it’s a huge leap for him to even become the equal of the 2013 Mathis. After all, Slay finished just four spots ahead of Houston according to Pro Football Focus. I think Slay can emerge as Mathis’ equal and give the Lions two solid #2s.
The problem is that the NFC North is stacked at wideout. Chicago has two legit #1s in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. Green Bay has an underappreciated star in Jordy Nelson, a dynamic force in Randall Cobb, and a fantastic quarterback who can exploit any mismatch anywhere on the field. Minnesota has some strong weapons in Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, and their QB play probably took a major step forward with Teddy Bridgewater.
In short, this is a very bad division to not have very good corners.
Some other youngster must step up. I’m optimistic that Bill Bentley will become a perfectly capable slot corner, and the new defense fits his style very well. I’m also quite bullish on Nevin Lawson, though he’s definitely at his best in the slot too. The fourth round rookie did show some competence playing outside at Utah State, but he needs a lot of work at not holding and illegally contacting receivers before anyone should have any confidence in his ability to match up with NFL receivers.
Cassius Vaughn could be the answer. He was 76th in those oft-referenced PFF rankings last year in Indianapolis, but his skills fit better in Teryl Austin’s attacking defense than in Indy’s porous, passive-aggressive scheme. If you’re the type that believes in one player making an unexpected giant leap or having a career year (think DeAndre Levy last year), put your money on Vaughn in Detroit. Even if he does, this is still no better than an average group of corners. Wait another year for that #1, which I strongly believe will be the overriding priority next offseason.
$.03–How do the finances work?
I’m going to rely on the good folks at Over The Cap to explain it, because it’s complicated. Basically, the third option (injury settlement) is the most likely course of what really happened. The Lions probably paid him his cap hit of $1.3M this year, at minimum. It could be the full $2M, but those details will come out later.
This is only possible because the Lions waited until after the June 1st date, when contracts progress from one state of guarantee to another. Again, I’m no expert on the minutiae involved here, but had the Lions tried this before June 1st, cutting Houston would have cost them more cap room than it saved them today.
The real pain comes next year, when Houston’s dead money will count almost $4M against the cap. This will come at a time when the team is hoping to sign a big-ticket free agent corner or defensive tackle. If Ndamukong Suh winds up playing all of 2014 with no extension (which I do not believe is going to happen), every penny will be precious.
After Ebron’s signing, the Lions do not have much left over to work with. If Detroit is aiming for another veteran upgrade somewhere on the roster (DE?), another veteran will need to be sent packing. Montell Owens, Corey Hilliard and possibly Rob Sims are the next potential necks under Mayhew’s axe.
$.04–What happens to Houston now?
My initial reaction was fairly grim for Houston:
Houston’s decision to delay toe surgery could very well end his career. Won’t be able to even work out for new teams until late preseason
— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) June 13, 2014
It’s going to be hard for him to catch on before the season. The toe surgery, which he foolishly delayed in a vain hope that rest would cure an obviously messed up appendage, will prevent him from getting medical clearance to even work out until August at the earliest. Even at that point, he’s coming off a bad season and has not proven he is recovered from the same injury that ended Deion Sanders’ career, among others.
His name value and the relative desperation for cornerback depth around the league will get him a look at some point this fall. If the toe surgery worked and he recovers fully, Houston can contribute to a bump and release zone scheme. The Bears, Buccaneers, and Cowboys all run variations on that scheme as their base defense. He’s not going to sniff close to the $25M he signed for in Detroit. In fact, he’s likely going to have to settle for a make-good, vet minimum deal. That is a tough pill to swallow.
$.05–One of the reasons I’m pretty confident that the current secondary will hold up is because I do strongly believe the pass rush is going to be a lot more productive in 2014. In the same Bleacher Report piece where I forecasted Houston’s eminent demise in Detroit, I also boldly predicted the Lions would roar out 57 sacks this season. That’s 1.5 sacks per game more than a year ago.
Some of this comes from Suh completing the ample amount of pressures he generates more frequently. If I were a betting man, I’m taking the over on Suh and 9.5 sacks. I’d take the same with Ziggy Ansah too. Kyle Van Noy could triple last year’s combined LB sack total of 2 before Thanksgiving. Devin Taylor is only going to get better. I’m even cautiously optimistic Jason Jones can chip in a handful as a hybrid DE/DE. Teryl Austin’s more unpredictable scheme will help facilitate the talent making plays.
All that pressure up front will help ease the pressure in the back. The Lions now have two very good coverage backers in Van Noy (hopefully) and Levy. Glover Quin is vastly underrated by the national media at safety. The corners are going to get beaten at least some times in every game. That’s true of every team; even All-Pros like Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis get burned and surrender big plays now and then. The Lions certainly don’t have anyone of that caliber in the back seven, but the sum of the parts has a very real chance to be a lot better than the anticipated individual outcomes.
Remember, this is a defense that gave up less than 200 yards per game in the air over the final six weeks, over half of which was played sans Houston. The pass rush, other than the massacre over Green Bay, was not very good in that time period. There is no reason that this Lions pass defense, as the total sum and not just the corners, should not rank in the top half of the league in 2014. They proved as much in the final month and a half a year ago.