Friday, April 24, 2009

NFL free agency interviews: Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit

All the hype at the moment is around tomorrow's NFL draft, but it's important to remember that free agency plays just as important of a part in the offseason. One team that will be watched closely in both the draft and free agency is the Detroit Lions, who went 0-16 last year and are in full-on rebuilding mode. They hold the #1 and #20 overall picks, plus a second-rounder, two third-rounders, two sixth-rounders and a seventh-round pick, so the draft will be a key part of the turnaround; they've already agreed to a deal to give anticipated #1 pick Matthew Stafford more guaranteed money than any player in NFL history [Kevin Seifert,].

The team may be active in the free agent market as well, though, and it will be interesting to watch and see what they do there. As part of the preparation for this piece on free agency at The Good Point, I spoke with Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit, the SB Nation Lions blog, about the team's historical moves in free agency and what role free agents will play in their rebuilding efforts. Sean had some great insights, but I couldn't fit them all into the overarching piece, so I figured I'd present them here for those interested in the Lions and free agency as a whole. The interview is below with minor edits for grammar and readability. If you like it, you can also check out Part I of this series, my extended interview with Michael Bean of the great Steelers' site Behind The Steel Curtain.

Andrew Bucholtz: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Sean. In your mind, what's the worst free agency move the Lions have made since the [Scott] Mitchell signing? What was the problem with it (age, money, injury?), and could it have been predicted? You can limit it to the worst move in the last couple of years if that's easier.

Sean Yuille: There isn't one specific move that stands out to me, because generally, the Lions haven't broken the bank for somebody. That never has been their style. Instead, especially once the [Matt] Millen era began, the Lions focused on signing guys that wanted to come to Detroit for a reasonable price. That is part of the reason why the Lions have been so bad over the years since Millen came to Detroit.

If I had to pick one, though, it probably would be bringing Jeff Garcia to Detroit. Joey Harrington's career was on the ropes, and adding in Garcia was basically the nail in Harrington's coffin in Detroit. The two battled for the starting position and when Garcia returned from an injury, he got to play. He started his career in Detroit with a win over the Browns, but after that it was all downhill. He actually lost the job back to Harrington and wasn't even offered a contract the following offseason.

A.B.: What's the most effective free agent signing the Lions have made in that period? Why did it work well?

S.Y.: If you would have asked me this prior to last season, I actually may have answered Jon Kitna. Under Mike Martz, Kitna put up good numbers and did lead the Lions to their best season in quite some time in 2007. What happened in the first month of the 2008 season, however, prevents me from answering with Kitna. He fell apart, so much so that the Lions shelved him even though he hadn't actually experienced a season-ending injury. It turned into a train wreck pretty quickly, and in general it is tough to remember one great signing the Lions made. Usually most of their talent came through the draft. When you pick as high as the Lions have since 2000, you're bound to make a good pick every once in a while.

A.B.: The Lions are obviously in a bit of a rebuilding mode at the moment. What role should free agents play in that process as opposed to draft picks? Also, do you see that role changing down the road (i..e. focus on bringing in players through the draft for the next couple of years and then turn to key free agents once the team has a shot at contending)?

S.Y.: I think free agents should play a big role. When rebuilding a team, overhauling the roster is necessary. You can't replace everyone via the draft, so free agency is very important to bringing new faces to the team. I think once a foundation is established the focus can shift more towards the draft. That way you don't have to worry about signing so many new players, and if there is a big fish out there that is the missing piece of the puzzle, you can spend the money to sign him.

A.B.: Do you see the Lions' handling of free agents changing now that Matt Millen isn't running the team? If so, how do you expect it to change?

S.Y.: I don't see it changing too drastically, but one thing I have noticed is that the Lions are no longer stockpiling their roster with players from the coaches' former teams. Although the Lions did look at a few Titans, it was nothing like the Lions' love fest with ex-Bucs and ex-Rams when Rod Marinelli was the coach and Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator. Every other signing seemed like it was a former Buc or Ram, and that led to an aging roster filled with washed up players. The Lions haven't shied away from signing players that may be past their prime, but at least they are no longer signing them based on the fact that they played for the head coach's former team.

A.B.: If you were assigned to develop a set of guidelines for the Lions regarding free agency, what would they be? (i.e. would you lay out strict restrictions on the money and terms offered to free agents or treat each situation as it goes? Would age affect your guidelines? Would you seek to stock certain positions through free agency and others through the draft?)

S.Y.: I think each situation is different, though age is definitely a factor. In general, though, I would prefer the Lions not go out and spend money like the Redskins do, for example. At the same time, it is not smart to sit back and sign only players that are willing to come in for a cheap price. I think the Lions need to find a healthy medium where they can make a big splash every once in a while and also maintain a comfortable salary cap.

Thanks again to Sean for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to keep an eye on his site during the draft later today and the Lions' offseason!

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