Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 2/28/13
Free agency always affects NFL Draft decisions, but perhaps never more so for the Detroit Lions than this year. The Lions have numerous holes to fill coming off a 4-12 season, but there could be even bigger ones at certain spots if some key unrestricted free agents don't come back. One piece of this puzzle in free agency can change what is the best direction to take in the draft. They are intertwined. Free agency begins March 12. Those decisions should be clear before April 25, the first day of the draft. The Lions have several core players hitting free agency right now, and there appear to be just as many options of similar value in the draft. It's likely to turn the next few weeks into a frenzy of speculation, possibly ending in an extreme roster makeover. With salary-cap limitations and not knowing which free agents will receive lucrative offers from other teams, it's difficult to project what veterans are going to return. And then there's the draft, which has as much uncertainty as ever over the top few picks because it's a group filled with very good talent at several positions but no clear-cut, no-brainer choices coming out of the Scouting Combine. Here are some of the scenarios to consider for the Lions: If cornerback Chris Houston doesn't return, an already weak secondary becomes significantly worse, forcing the Lions to rely exclusively on unproven youngsters and veterans who are limited in ability. Jacob Lacey, who started nine games last season, is also a free agent. Houston is ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 2 free-agent corner behind Atlanta's Brent Grimes. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has to make Houston his top target to re-sign. Losing Houston would increase the likelihood that the Lions draft Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner with the No. 5 pick overall. They could take him even if Houston is re-signed. Milliner ended any doubts about his speed by running the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds, the second-fastest among defensive backs at the Combine. But he now has to undergo shoulder surgery, which will put him behind in his development with his NFL club. That could be a concern for the Lions, who need an immediate impact player out of the draft. If the Lions lose Cliff Avril, they will be nearly depleted at defensive end. They already released Kyle Vanden Bosch. Willie Young is a restricted free agent and likely to return, but Lawrence Jackson, like Avril, is an unrestricted free agent. Detroit, without question, needs to improve its pass rush, which was mediocre last season and made the secondary that much more vulnerable. Both outside linebackers, Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy, also are UFAs. The Lions will have a number of defensive endoutside linebacker candidates to choose from with such a high draft pick, from Oregon's Dion Jordan (shoulder surgery) and Georgia's Jarvis Jones (spinal stenosis) to Florida State's Bjoern Werner (overrated?) and BYU's Ziggy Ansah (raw talent). But the question is, will any of them make a major contribution right away -- which Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz need with their jobs on the line -- or are they more likely a year or more of development away? The other possibility is that the Lions try to sign a free agent from another team who fits their pass-rush needs rather than bring back Avril, Durant andor Levy. If right tackle Gosder Cherilus signs elsewhere, the Lions will have to replace two starters on their offensive line. Right guard Stephen Peterman was released in early February. Cherilus' departure would increase the chances that the Lions go for an offensive lineman in the draft, such as tackles Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) and Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M) or guard Chance Warmack (Alabama). Any of the three should help protect franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford for many years to come, but the Lions do have some in-house replacements for Cherilus and Peterman. Riley Reiff, last year's first-round pick, can play tackle or guard and is expected to be a starter somewhere next season. The Lions also seem optimistic about the futures of tackle Jason Fox and guards Bill Nagy and Rodney Austin. If safety Louis Delmas doesn't come back, the Lions will be without an inspirational leader on the back end. Delmas has been injury prone, missing a total of 13 games over the last two seasons, but the Lions have no one on their current roster who can replace him. Depending on the price tag, this is another position that Detroit could target in free agency outside of Delmas. A reliable veteran would be a huge addition in trying to rebuild the secondary as quickly as possible. The top-rated safeties on the market include the New York Giants' Kenny Phillips, Atlanta's William Moore, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson, Baltimore's Ed Reed and Houston's Glover Quin. The No. 5 pick in the draft certainly won't be used on a safety, but the Lions should be looking later on to fill that void. Florida's Matt Elam, Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien and LSU's Eric Reed might be available in the second round. There also could be some steals in later rounds because this is considered one of the best drafts for depth at safety in several years. All of these issues -- from the secondary to the pass rush to the offensive line -- will be sorted out over the next couple months for the Lions. The results in free agency will dictate the decisions in the draft.
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