Analysis: Morton should be Lions first priority

Lions' wide receiver Johnnie Morton (left), was the most consistent playmaker on the ball club last season, and is also entering the last year of his contract. Detroit, although one of the more active NFL teams this free-agency period, could risk losing Morton after next season because of stalled contract renegotiations.

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Nate Caminata -

The Detroit Lions have entered free-agency with reckless abandon, scheduling several visits with marquee free-agents, upgrading speed and defense with the signings of Az-Zahir Hakim and Brian Walker, and thus far have lived up to expectations after a dismal 2001 campaign.

Unfortunately, Matt Millen and Co.'s hardball tactics on current players could render those efforts completely useless.

The Lions and wide receiver Johnnie Morton, one of the more consistent and popular players the past five seasons, are at a stall in the negotiation process. The Lions would like Morton, 30, to restructure his current deal to a backloaded contract, paying him a nominal fee the first few seasons.

Morton, meanwhile, has one-year remaining on his current contract and is looking for an offer that pays him more than the deal received by Hakim. And with good reason: Morton is a superior receiver.

Morton tallied 77 receptions last year compared to Hakim's 39, but Morton's intangibles is what makes him one of the best receivers in the league. His consummate route-running has elevated him to All Pro status, and he is one of the more sure-handed pass catchers in the business. In 2001, Morton lived the Lions' season publicly, and became somewhat of a national spokesman for the team with the Jay Leno spectacle.

Morton's health has always remained intact due to a strict training regimine, which has rubbed off on other players, and his classy demeanor and fun personality has made him a fan favorite. And it doesn't hurt that Morton's onfield production last season, compared to the rest of the team, was near perfect. This has led to the exciting prospect of a potentially explosive Lions offense next season.

Initially, it was believed that Hakim's presence would hand Detroit offensive speed, and lift the double-coverage Morton faced last season. The two would become one of the more formidable -- and feared -- wide receiver tandems in the National Football League. But Millen's stubbornness may disallow that from happening.

While talks of cutting Morton, which would save the Lions cap space, are a bit extreme, they aren't unrealistic. And if the team decides to have Morton play out his existing contract, they could risk losing him to free-agency next season.

With the way Lions' management has handled this negotiation process, why would Morton give the team another chance?

The Lions' off-season moves have been diametrical to how past management has handled free-agency -- which is a very good thing. However, what is the purpose of upgrading a position only to relapse worse the following year?

Prior to free-agency, Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg's list of priorities included additional team speed among other items. But that agenda could become moot if they risk outcasting a player of Morton's quality and respect -- the affects of which could be devastating on both the teams and the fans.

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