Friday, February 24, 2012

Mayhew, Your Test Begins...Now

"In Mayhew We Trust."

Those words have become the trademarked slogan when describing the faith Lions fans have in general manager Martin Mayhew. In his three years at that position with the Lions, Mayhew has certainly earned all of the praise he is receiving. He has managed to turn a roster full of the Ernie Sims of the world into a depth chart chock-full of NFL-worthy talent. Mayhew deserves full credit for the Lions' first run into the postseason in over a decade.

But Mayhew had help along the way. In his three years drafting, he had eight picks in the first two rounds (granted, he earned those extra picks by swinging excellent trades, including his career-defining mugging of the Cowboys in the Roy Williams trade). Mayhew also had the fortune of having the best wide receiver in the league already on his roster. Finally, the previous GM (his name must go unmentioned) didn't exactly set the bar too high. Mayhew had nowhere to go but up.

But don't let that take away from the job he has done. Mayhew made the, at-the-time, unpopular decision of drafting Matthew Stafford in the face of a perceived stud linebacker. He also hired a coaching staff who seem to have meshed perfectly with management. And Mayhew continues to make trades that have opposing fanbases scratching their heads in perplexity.

That was all the easy part.

Mayhew no longer has the benefits of low expectations, high draft picks and easily replaceable players. The Lions are expected to not only make the playoffs next year, but to even make a Super Bowl run .The Lions will be picking 23rd overall, their lowest place on the draft board since 1993. And now Mayhew faces his biggest offseason challenge: with four starters (and additional, valuable backups) facing free agency and only an estimated two million dollars of cap room left, Mayhew must tinker with contracts and franchise tags to keep the Lions roster intact.

The Lions have nearly all of the puzzle pieces needed to make a playoff run, but it is getting harder and harder to make those puzzle pieces fit together. At the forefront of this conundrum is Cliff Avril. Avril is coming off his best professional season and many believe he wants to be paid as a top defensive end in the league. Since the Lions have limited cap space, fans are reacting the way anyone does when something they love is threatened to be taken away: widespread panic. Some decide the best coping mechanism for panic is denial: claim that Avril was never that good and the Lions are better without that greedy cap-hog. Others believe the Lions aren't that committed to Avril and will just franchise him.

But lets examine this Avril situation a little closer. First, lets be clear, the Lions are 100% committed to bringing Avril back. Mayhew has said so, Jim Schwartz has said so. When someone as quiet as Mayhew comes out and says forgoing a long-term contract and having to use the franchise tag is almost as bad as losing Avril to free agency, you know that he means business when re-signing Avril.

And then there's the "Avril is selfish" crowd. All of this newly-found hatred towards Avril is sprouted from his comments stating that he may hold out if the Lions decide to franchise him. Now whether Avril is being truthful with this statement or is merely making a negotiating tactic has yet to be seen. But, regardless, Cliff's position is the right one for him. The Lions were relying on him to step up huge last year and Avril did his job. Franchising Avril to a one-year deal after all that Cliff gave them last year would be an insult and a financial disaster for him. For all the sacks, the forced fumbles, the two interceptions they would be locking him up for only one year? You can call Avril's statement selfish, but in a league that can cut a player or pressure them to restructure their contracts at any moment, players must look out for numero uno. A player's career can be over in a flash, so they must lock up their financial future when they can. For Cliff Avril, that time is now.

So the Lions don't want to franchise Avril, and Avril doesn't want to be franchised. Good news, right? Well, mostly. The issue then becomes a matter of locking down a long-term deal that fits within the Lions' limited cap room. And the solution to this problem is not an easy one. But Mayhew appears ready to begin phase one of ensuring Avril is a Lions. This weekend, Mayhew will begin talks with Calvin Johnson's agent in order to simultaneously create more cap room and wrap up Megatron long-term (whose current contract expires after next season).

Mayhew has been successful in the past in restructuring contracts in order to save space for other players. Last year, Matthew Stafford restructured his contract, opening up an estimated six million dollars in cap space. In 2009, Mayhew got Daunte Culpepper to restructure his contract, paving room for the monster contract that Stafford would sign months later when the Lions drafted him. This year, the challenge is more difficult with even less cap space and Avril's presumably giant contract looming.

Mayhew has done an incredible job as the Lions GM for his first three years. But it's not how you start a job that matters, it's how you finish it. Mayhew must face his most difficult offseason this year, but if he can continue working his cap magic and make intelligent draft picks, his legacy will continue.