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Lions accomplish a lot in first week of free agency

The Sports Xchange
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When free agency started, general manager Martin Mayhew was looking at 21 free agents on his own roster - including vital pieces like defensive end Cliff Avril, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, left tackle Jeff Backus, cornerback Eric Wright and backup quarterback Shaun Hill - and a payroll that was $11 million over the cap.

Yet, in a 10-day span, he managed to create cap room without having to shed assets, retain the core players with the lone exception of Wright and add to the depth of some of the troubled positions.

And he did it in classic Mayhew style -- patient and prudent. The moves were mostly understated, barely making a ripple in the free-agent pond. But they were essential to the continued growth of this football team.

To review:

On March 12, the day before the new league season commenced, he was able to knock some $16 million off the cap by restructuring the contracts of quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Nate Burleson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

That enabled the Lions to use the franchise tag, $10.6 million, on Avril, ensuring that he would be on the roster for at least this season and buying some time to continue negotiating a long-term deal.

The Lions increased their available spending by cashing in a $1.6 million cap credit creating by league sanctions against the Redskins and Cowboys. They also, presumably, gained another $1.5 million by utilizing cap credits on three players with five or more years of service. They also had $1.47 million in a rollover from the 2011 payroll.

Also on March 12, they tendered restricted free agents DeAndre Levy ($1.927 million), Sammie Hill ($1.26 million) and Corey Hilliard ($1.26).

They cleared some more space by not offering a tender to linebacker Ashlee Palmer and by releasing tight end Will Heller. The Heller move lopped $1.18 million off the cap. The Lions have since re-signed Palmer to a one-year deal and then also brought Heller back, as well.

On March 14, Mayhew wisely opted to stay out of a bidding war for Wright, letting him go to Tampa Bay for a five-year, $37.5 million deal.

More important, that was the day the Lions announced they had given wide receiver Calvin Johnson a new, eight-year, $132 million contract which, besides keeping their most lethal offensive weapon in Detroit through 2019, saved another $9 million for 2012.

That move enabled the Lions to take care of the rest of their free-agent business.

On March 15, they began shoring up the depleted safety position by bringing back veteran Erik Coleman on a one-year deal. There is a chance they will also add veteran Oshiomogho Atogwe, who was in Allen Park Wednesday.

On March 17 they re-signed both Backus and Hill to two-year deals.

On Monday, they brought back punter Ben Graham on a one-year deal and then Tuesday secured the last major free-agent piece, agreeing to terms on a five-year deal with Tulloch.

They also re-signed defensive lineman Andre Fluellen, former Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey on Tuesday and on Wednesday, re-signed veteran long snapper Don Muhlbach.

There are still plenty of holes to fill, but, as Mayhew often says, free agency is just one of many roster building tools at his disposal. There is the draft. There are trades. And, as the season gets closer, there will be players cut from other teams that may fit what the Lions are looking for.

But if the signing of Tulloch more or less closed the free-agent phase, then you have to give Mayhew, president Tom Lewand and the Lions high marks. It's hard to imagine how, given their cap constraints, they could have come out of it any better.

They have maintained the foundation of a 10-6 playoff team and they still have six months to make it stronger.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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