The year has turned, a Super Bowl victor has emerged and – just like that – the 2012 NFL season is in the books.
The grueling gauntlet players faced from summer to winter will now transition to a punishing period for front office executives, scouts and coaches.
The biggest landmark on the upcoming horizon is March 12 – the open of free agency and the Detroit Lions have many players eligible for some form of it, including some key starters.
Let's dive deeper into the most significant pending free agents for the Lions.
Today's free agent focus: Chris Houston
Houston entered training camp as the team's leader at the cornerback position.
The Lions were counting on the now 28-year-old corner to stand out amidst a group of young, raw players or castoffs from other teams. In fact, Houston along with training camp casualty Alphonso Smith were the only cornerbacks on the roster that were selected earlier than the third-round (prior to the acquisition of Drayton Florence).
Houston was unavailable for the first two games of the season due to injury. He did eventually return and played the remaining 14 games on the schedule, compiling 56 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 11 defended passes.
The six-year pro was often matched against the opposition's top receiver and – for that reason – was on the wrong end of some big scoring plays (a nightmarish matchup against the Atlanta Falcons as an example). Still, Houston often held his own against the league's best and demonstrated that he can be a reliable player in the defensive backfield.
The Lions can ill-afford to lose Houston, especially considering the group of players behind him. The Lions depth at cornerback consists of NFL sophomores with little-to-no playing experience and castoffs from other clubs.
Detroit does own the fifth overall selection in the draft, so it is possible that a rookie cornerback with a high skill set could be acquired but it isn't likely that player could immediately replace the team's top cornerback.
The void a departing Houston would leave also isn't likely to be filled by another free agent. Of the significant available cornerbacks this offseason, only Keenan Lewis, Captain Munnerlyn and Cary Williams player more snaps and Houston would widely be considered a better option than any of those three.
The biggest problem for the Lions could be cornerback Eric Wright. The Lions signed Wright to a one-year contract for the 2011 season. The corner started all 16 games that year and proved to be a valuable player in the secondary, so much so the Lions couldn't afford to re-sign him.
The loss of Wright not only hurt this season but the five-year, $38 million contract he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might drive up Houston's asking price.
Houston has enjoyed his time in Detroit and wants to stay.
"(Playing in Detroit) has helped me change my career around," said Houston a week before the regular season ended. "Coaches have helped me with my game, able to focus more, I have became more professional, smatter in the game and we'll just see what happens when that time (free agency) comes."
Houston – despite his positive experience with the Lions – was non-committal about his future, which is expected. Still, there is no doubt the Lions will make a strong push to retain him – or potentially franchise him.
Listening to his coaches is a great indication of his value to the team.
"Chris has matched up some pretty good wide receivers," said head coach Jim Schwartz during the final stretch of the season. "(He's) gone out and competed very well and taken some pretty good wide receivers out of the game. He's had some injury situations even going back to the preseason but he's been able to battle through a lot of those. Hadn't always been a 100-percent, but he's a guy that is a good pro. He's been around a long time… You can't overlook what Chris Houston's done this year at all."