The Detroit Lions have accomplished the difficult, complicated and expensive task of retaining the core of the team that lifted them to their first playoff appearance in a decade. The final domino to fall was middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who agreed to a five-year contract hours before his potential replacement was scheduled to visit the team's practice facility.
Tulloch's deal means that 21 of the Lions' 22 offensive and defensive starters from last season are now under contract. The exception is cornerback Eric Wright, whom the Lions wisely chose not to pursue once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offered him a pricey five-year contract worth $37.5 million.
Otherwise, however, the Lions systematically took care of business over the past month, navigating a tight salary cap situation by using most every tool at their disposal. At times, it required premium cash outlays that not every NFL team would commit to.
In summary, the Lions:
Used the franchise tag to prevent the departure of defensive end Cliff Avril, a move that in essence guarantees Avril a one-year deal worth $10.6 million.
Issued a second-round tender to linebacker DeAndre Levy, essentially giving him a one-year deal worth $1.927 million.
Freed up about $9 million more in cap space by extending the contract of receiver Calvin Johnson. For the moment, at least, Johnson is the NFL's highest-paid player with an eight-year deal worth a total of $132 million, of which $60 million is guaranteed.
Re-signed left tackle Jeff Backus to a two-year deal worth $10 million.
Although it took the longest, Tulloch's agreement was no less important than any of those we just ran through. Tulloch made a substantive impact on the Lions' defense as both a leader and a sure tackler. He proved exceptionally durable, playing on all but 19 of their defensive snaps in 2011, and provided a true fixture that allowed Levy to play a more a natural role on the outside.
Negotiations stalled to the point where the Lions scheduled free agent David Hawthorne for a visit. (Funny how the timing often works.) In the end, however, the Lions have managed to keep together their best team in a generation, and now they can look for ways to supplement it through secondary free agency and the draft.