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NFL free agency has kept the Lions in purgatory, but this year they could break out

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The Lions have been victims of the asset treadmill, forced to used money to retain and replace key players and coming up short on salary cap space in free agency. But this year FINALLY appears to be different.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions went into the 2015 season expecting bigger things with largely the same roster that won 11 games and made the playoffs the year before. Instead, they started 1-7 before bailing out a listless ship and finishing 7-9, matching the 2013 record that got Jim Schwartz fired as head coach.

The Lions did not fire Jim Caldwell, but they got rid of nearly everyone else. The feeling of hopelessness is about what it was after the 2013 season, except that feeling is even more dangerous now that there's a precedent suggesting they could bounce back. A part of the fan base still hopes for the best despite low expectations, setting it up for an extra kick to the gut if the team falls short of the playoffs again.

It's easy to say that teams like the Lions are cursed -- the Lions moreso than others, dead last with one playoff win since the AFL-NFL merger behind franchises that began in 1995, 1996 and 2002. Others have followed a similar pattern of late, like the Chargers, Texans, Eagles, Bills and Rams, all teams that have strained against their established milieu. They have all been active during recent offseasons, but no matter what they do they can't do much better than a playoff berth before collapsing.

Teams can get stuck in place for a number of messy reasons. Ownership can be too apathetic or too meddling, the energy surrounding a new head coach can dissipate by the third or fourth season, players on expensive long-term contracts often decline and hamstring the salary cap, etc. These are difficult fixes.

Not every offseason has to be an existential confrontation, however. In their preview of the Lions' offseason, Over The Cap offered a more pragmatic reason for why certain teams never seem to improve.

One potential explanation for parity in the NFL is that many teams find themselves in a similar position, essentially stuck on an asset treadmill that involves utilizing cap and draft assets each year just to replace departing and declining talent, rather than aligning assets in time so as to deliver maximum impact (i.e. winning 7/8/8/9 games over four years instead of trying for 4/5/11/12 games).

While it is fun to imagine that certain teams have spooks, it can't really be true. Sports spit out weird statistically anomalies all the time, or else teams actually do suffer under decades of terrible management. Either way, the explanation for why a team is terrible is grounded somewhere in the natural universe. The Curse of Bobby Layne has now gone eight years past its 50-year statute of limitations. Something is systematically wrong with the Lions.

Okay, maybe you knew that, but Over The Cap's point about teams with only a moderate amount of cap space suggests there could be a simpler solution than another cultural exorcism. They're certainly right that the Lions haven't had the resources to go after the very best free agents in recent seasons -- and they need a lot of resources given how hard it is to sell Detroit as a destination. A pattern emerges when you look back at their salary cap space and roster questions at, or near, the start of free agency over the last four offseasons.

2012

Cap space 2 days before start of free agency: (-)$11.5 million, 31st in the NFL

(Via Pro Football Talk)

What they had to do: The Lions were well over the salary cap nearing the start of free agency. To create space, they reworked the contracts for quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and wide receiver Nate Burleson, and cut tight end Will Heller. This didn't free up enough space to go after a big fish in that year's free agent class, but the Lions were able to re-sign key free agents like offensive tackle Jeff Backus and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Coming off a 10-6 season, it didn't seem like they needed to make a splash, anyway. The Lions had more than half of their salary cap tied up in four players going into the 2012 offseason: Suh, Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and that was fine because they formed a talented core.

Then the offense, particularly Stafford, regressed badly and the Lions finished 4-12. Once again, they couldn't sustain success, only now they were still saddled with backloaded contracts that would weigh down the payroll in offseasons to come.

2013

Cap space two weeks after start of free agency: $7.27 million, 18th in the NFL

(Via NFL.com)

What they had to do: The Lions restructured Suh's contract again, along with Johnson's, dropping the base salaries for both players to their minimum for that season to free up cap space. They also cut Vanden Bosch, giving themselves capital to patch up departures.

I was not able to dig up their cap space before the start of free agency, unfortunately, but their actions show the measures that teams with middling cap space have to take just to keep the status quo. The Lions lost defensive end Cliff Avril to the Seahawks, but signed Jason Jones in free agency and drafted pass rusher Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah with their first pick. They signed running back Reggie Bush after Jahvid Best's ill-fated career ended. The only big addition that didn't address a newly-created void was safety Glover Quin.

The Lions "improved" to 7-9, but that modestly better record masks the fact that they lost six of their last seven games. The new talent didn't mesh particularly well. After cutting Best and wide receiver Titus Young, the Lions had nearly $9 million tied up in players no longer on the roster. Meanwhile, the Lions had committed even more to a bill to be paid at a later date. Jim Schwartz was fired.

2014

Cap space the day before the start of free agency: $10.89 million, 21st in the NFL

(Via Rotoworld)

What they had to do: At least when the Lions patched in their roster gaps in 2014, they tended to upgrade. Wide receiver Golden Tate was an excellent addition after cutting veteran Nate Burleson. Safety James Ihedigbo helped the depth at safety after the Lions cut the oft-injured Louis Delmas.

More importantly, the team improved to 11 wins thanks to leaps made by the defense. In what was one of the league's biggest surprise developments, the Lions finished third in points allowed and second in yards during the regular season without any significant changes to what had been a mediocre unit the year before. The best player on that defense was Suh, who by then counted more than $22 million against the cap.

Jim Caldwell's first offseason and season as head coach were perhaps Detroit's best in nearly 20 years, but the success wasn't sustainable.

2015

Cap space on day of free agency: $17.6 million, 21st in the NFL

(Via Business Insider)

What they had to do: The Lions wanted to keep Suh, but because of how his contract was restructured they would have had to pay him $26.9 million on a franchise tag just to buy extra time to negotiate a long-term deal. Ongoing contracts for Johnson ($20.5 million cap hit in 2015) and Stafford ($17.7 million) left the Lions with little wiggle room. They let Suh go along with several other key pieces to the defensive line like George Johnson and Nick Fairley. They had to make several cuts to position themselves in free agency, ballooning their dead money to what was, at that date, a league-leading $17.4 million.

Trading for Haloti Ngata didn't completely fill the gap up front and the defense dipped to its steady spot in the bottom half of the league while the Lions went 7-9 again.

2016

Current cap space: $25.9 million, 14th in the NFL

(Via Over the Cap)

What now? With the NFL salary cap expanding, the Lions don't have as much room to work with as it may seem, but the situation is a little better now that they're out of the mess created by restructuring contracts. Barring a sudden improvement on one or both sides of the ball, they aren't likely to be much better based on the roster alone. They have enough money to re-sign the players they'd like to keep, assuming they want to stay. The decision whether to keep Ngata will be difficult, given his age, uneven production and potentially inflated contract.

They still don't have much money to go after bigger names in free agency, even if they address their biggest concern and release Johnson to save $11 million (as well as eat about $12 million in dead money).

What they can and have already begun to do is change course. The Lions have more freedom to shape the roster now that so much of their money isn't tied up in just a handful of players. They hired Bob Quinn as their new general manager, a man from the New England Patriots' front office who, if he's a good Belichickian, won't let himself become beholden to players.

The Patriots have been one of the most unsentimental teams in the NFL since the turn of the century, and also the most successful. For a team that has been to six Super Bowls since 2001, they have undergone several significant roster overhauls, often (conveniently) in the wake of losing to Peyton Manning in the playoffs. Whether the same will prove for the Lions (particularly that Manning bit) remains to be seen, but at least it would be a different way of doing things.

The Lions are still in a class of teams hoping for the right bounces to put them back in the playoff picture, but at least now there's some sign that it doesn't have to remain that way forever. Something like sustainable success seems attainable, and with it a chance to put their demons to rest.

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