By: Eric Thomas

The Lions are teetering on the edge this off-season. The stakes are so very high. They need to make the right decisions in this year’s free agency or they will collapse into an early 2000s sinkhole they will find it nearly impossible to climb out of.

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No pressure.

It’s difficult to articulate just how bad the 2012 off-season was for the Lions. The promise shown in the 2011 season—the one that led to their first playoff game since the first George Bush administration—collapsed into an ignominious swirl of arrests and hubris. They set themselves back ten years, and made the moves that would eventually lead to Jim Schwartz’s firing in January. Bad off-season moves can set a franchise back five years, and that happened to the Lions in 2012 without question. Those who compared the Lions to the arrest prone Bengals circa 2006 turned out to be absolutely right.

Coach Jim Caldwell has walked into titanic expectations—win now with a team that had one winning season in the past thirteen years. If they lay another egg next year the fans will be in full revolt.

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If they make the right moves and add the right pieces in this off-season, and above all, keep their heads down, they have the talent to make a major impact. They’re also thin enough to win six games again, and maybe even worse if they make the wrong moves. The good news, when you compare the Lions to those legally troubled Bengals from 2006, is that the Lions expunged their more rancorous team members. Caldwell’s upside, for this team right now, is his docility. They need a mature and steady hand, not a hothead screamer that will fight other coaches in the tunnel and flip off fans on the sideline.

T.J. Ward would be one of the right moves. He’s a widely respected safety, with many suitors stepping up to the plate. If the Lions land him, that would give them their best safety tandem in decades. Add a corner to the mix and everything that comes next would be gravy on top of the bangers and mash. The Lions spent the entire Jim Schwartz era uninterested in addressing the glaring holes in the secondary, only to have it bite them when the season started. Ward would represent a sea change. The Lions would be a close a decent secondary, which is something Lions fans haven’t heard in so long it’s hard to specify.

Ndamukong Suh isn’t going to sign his extension this year, which is probably going to be a distraction. Distractions for these Lions have been death knells in the past. They don’t handle chatter well. Maybe with Caldwell they could improve on that, but Suh’s contract will be a constant buzz in the background. If this turns into Dwight Howard of the NFL, it could consume the team. If he won’t re-sign with the Lions, you kind of hope they could make a deal to trade him, because having available cap room in the near future could provide more value than even a player the caliber of Suh can provide. The Lions would certainly miss Suh, he’s an elite talent with a bright future, but he’s one of the most expensive defensive tackles in the league. Even a player with his talent can disappear with an extra blocker. If you send Suh away, you would still have to spend some cap this year, but you set a favorable future, along with hopscotching that potential distraction minefield that could manifest itself next year.

Either way, the Lions enter this off-season at the crossroads. Any prediction made in the off-season would be ridiculous. The Lions future for the next ten years rests on this off-season. Succeed and they’ll be back in the playoff hunt for years to come. Fail and they will collapse into a black hole where everyone will wonder how they could have squandered so much talent, and the song of Same Old Lions will continue for another ten years.

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Again, no pressure.