The Lions' defense gradually collapsed over the last eight games of the season. They gave up 45 points in each of the last two games - to the Packers and Saints. They gave up an average of 31 points over the last eight games, including the playoffs.
Yet, after the dust settled and emotions were allowed to simmer, general manager Martin Mayhew came away feeling better about his defense than most.
"I like our defense," he said. "We didn't finish the season the way we would have liked, but our defense did a lot of good things this year."
He ticked off the accomplishments:
- Seven defensive touchdowns, the most since 1937.
- Forty-one sacks.
- Twenty-one interceptions.
- Thirteen fumble recoveries.
"We made a ton of plays," he said. "Obviously, we didn't finish off well, but I think injuries were a factor in that," Mayhew said. "By no means do I think we need an overhaul on defense. We have a lot of good defensive players and a good defensive coaching staff. We need to healthy-up a little bit."
Specifically, Mayhew tied the decline of the defense to safety Louis Delmas' knee injury on Thanksgiving Day. He called Delmas a "vacuum cleaner," because he cleans up so many mistakes.
But Delmas has battled through injuries the last two seasons. Mayhew was asked if he was worried about Delmas' ability to stay on the field moving forward.
"You worry about everybody's durability, but no, he's a young guy and he's not getting shoulder or neck injuries," Mayhew said. "He had a groin in 2010 and a knee injury this year. He's a good player and he makes a difference."
Still, Mayhew knows he has some work to do on the defensive side. It will be vital to re-sign defensive end Cliff Avril and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. Cornerback Eric Wright is also unrestricted. The Lions have no cornerback signed beyond the 2012 season.
"Interestingly, if you look at our team; we have eight starters (under contract) on defense and 10 on offense," Mayhew said. "But the positions where we have free agents are the most critical positions on our football team - pass rusher, mike (middle) linebacker, cornerback -- those are hard to find."
Unlike the past few years, the Lions don't have a top five draft pick and it looks doubtful, barring a trade to move up, they will be able to fill any of those holes with the 23rd overall pick.
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., has the Lions taking North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins in his latest mock draft. NFL Network's Mike Mayock offered two choices for the Lions at No. 23.
"What they really need is to get better on defense and maybe look at corners and linebackers," he said.
At cornerback, he said the top prospects - LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick - will be gone by No. 23, but Jenkins from North Alabama could be there.
"He's one of the ultimate boom or bust guys in this draft," Mayock said. "He has great ability but he's slid a little because of off the field stuff. But he's a logical guy."
As for an outside linebacker, he suggested Ronnell Lewis out of Oklahoma.
"He's an intriguing prospect," Mayock said. "You see his size (6-2, 244) and he's a tweener. But you can't deny his movement skills and ability to rush the passer. In the NFL, you will make a living and maybe be a high draft pick if you have those skills. He does have some durability issues, but he would be a logical guy there."
If the Lions don't re-sign Tulloch, they would probably move DeAndre Levy back to the middle, thus creating an opening on the outside. That is clearly not the best-case scenario for Mayhew.
"Stephen Tulloch did a great job for us," Mayhew said. "He was the quarterback of our defense. He understands our defense and we feel very confident with him in there. He's a good leader, he's good in the locker room and we would really like to have him back."
Getting Avril signed priority for Lions
General manager Martin Mayhew has not used the franchise tag since he's taken the job and he said recently that he would prefer not to in the case of Cliff Avril.
"I have no plans to use the franchise tag but you never know what might happen," he said. "We will approach Cliff about a long-term deal and try to get something done." The franchise tag would pay Avril approximately $10 million for the 2012 season. He is expected to seek a deal that would average $12 million per year, with a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $30 million.
- President Tom Lewand told season-ticket holders that he didn't see the Lions playing a home game in Europe any time soon. "Europe is great but we don't look to participate as a home team," he said. "We don't want to lose games at Ford Field."
- Lewand also said the team was among the 20 NFL franchises that borrowed space from a future salary cap in 2011. He wouldn't say how much, though teams could borrow no more than $3 million. "That just means we will have less money to spend in 2015," he said.
- Mayhew did not respond publicly to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's stomp and suspension during the season and he wasn't much in the mood to do so after the season: "Things happen during the season. You fight through them and you move on to the next thing," he said. "I felt like the league had dealt with it appropriately and I felt Ndamukong came back with a great attitude. We've moved on from that. That's sort of dead and I don't want to walk over and kick it. Let it go."
Mayhew didn't think Suh's performance fell off very much last season. "If you look at every game last year and every game this year, his performance wasn't that different. He didn't have those impact plays - the interception or fumbled recovery and touchdown - he didn't have those splash plays but he played solid and consistent."
Mayhew also defended his team against charges that it was undisciplined: "I don't know if we have a discipline problem. Maybe I am by myself on that. We had a problem in that particular game (New Orleans), it was addressed appropriately by Jim (Schwartz) and the team leaders and after that we didn't really have a problem. I would like to see us reduce the number of penalties, but I don't think that's a discipline issue."
- QUOTE TO NOTE: "We don't take the short view of 'Let's go out and sign one or two or three guys and try and hit a home run this year.' Too many times, we've seen that fail. That strategy has failed over and over again. A team gets to 10-6, and they think they're one player away from a Super Bowl championship, and lo and behold, they fall short, for whatever reason. They get beset by the injury bug, and they've fallen short of where they thought they could be, and they've been buying on credit, so they don't have enough cash on hand to make the investment in the future of where they want to go. The quick fix is not a strategy we want to look at." -- President Tom Lewand on the team's free-agency strategy.
- RBs Jahvid Best (concussion) and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles) are expected to participate in the team's offseason workouts in April but club president Tom Lewand said the team will still be looking for help at running back. "We can't put all of our eggs in the basket of guys coming off injury," he said.
- LT Jeff Backus' recovery from biceps surgery is going "incredibly well," Lewand said. "We feel like he is a guy that can be healthy in time for training camp and he is certainly a guy we want back."
- FS Louis Delmas (knee) has begun his offseason conditioning work in Miami.