Free agent Focus: Lions could lose Claiborne

Lions' insider Mike Fowler shares his analysis on the Lions decision not to tag free-agent linebacker Chris Claiborne. Also, Mike rounds out the best available linebackers in the free-agent market for this season.

(ALLEN PARK) -- Thursday's deadline for designating franchise and transition players came and went without the Lions using any of their tags.  The result, a talent poor team like the Lions could very likely end up losing one of their most talented and youthful players, linebacker Chris Claiborne.

Just 24 years old, Claiborne was the #9 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft and if he walks away as a free agent, Detroit will end up with nothing for their two 1st round picks that year (earlier Lions President Matt Millen released their second first round pick Aaron Gibson).  This one can't be blamed on the draft choices of Bobby Ross and Ron Hughes.  Detroit should have used the transition tag on Claiborne the way teams all around the league used the tag.

Yesterday, Jacksonville designated safety Donovan Darius as their franchise player.  Darius is a young speedy cover corner who would have been among the top players at the position if free, just as Claiborne will be.  So the Jags new director of player personnel James "Shack" Harris slapped the tag on Darius.  The result, if anyone signs him, the compensation to Jacksonville is two first round draft picks. 

Green Bay took the same pre-emptive move on defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt and Minnesota even tagged tight end Jim Kleinsasser as their franchise player.  Among linebackers, Cincinnati put the transition tag on Takeo Spikes.  While Detroit may not have elected to use the costly franchise tag on Claiborne, the less costly transition tag would have been a viable option.

Had Detroit tagged Claiborne, the move would have cost them a one-year deal worth approximately $4.85 million, not a bad figure considering Atlanta re-signed pro bowl linebacker Keith Brooking (140 tackles, two interceptions) to a seven-year $41 million contract with a $10.5 million signing bonus.  That makes Brookings average salary about $5.8 million although his cap figure will be far less initially.

Now Claiborne (101 tackles and three interceptions) figures to be the top-rated free agent linebacker on the market when the signing period begins next Friday.  Detroit still has time to get this deal done, but they don't appear to be putting much emphasis on getting a deal done and likely will focus more on the weak side linebacker position, along with wide receiver, safety and corner when the free agent signing period begins. 

Detroit is already known to be in the market for a starting outside linebacker. 

Indianapolis' Mike Peterson will be the top player at that position and Detroit will likely make a strong push to attract him.  Shelton Quarles of Tampa Bay is the equal of Peterson but Tampa Bay players are known to favor staying in South Florida if all things are equal.  "This team is one of the closest-knit teams in the league," Bucs backup center Todd Washington said. "And when you see one of your guys have to leave, get traded of get cut, it's going to hurt."

If Claiborne doesn't return, Lions president and GM Matt Millen will have no one to blame but himself.  Claiborne has been a inspiration voice in the locker room and has grown up in Detroit over the last four years.  After all that has taken place in that time -- including the tragic death of his father Emmitt Claiborne -- no one could blame him if he decided to put his days in Detroit behind him and move closer to his Southern California roots. 

In the end, the Lions will turn out to be the loser.

Top Five Free Agent Inside Linebackers
1. Chris Claiborne, Detroit, 101tackles, 3 interceptions (24 years old)
2. Mike Maslowski, Kansas City, 126 tackles, 3 interceptions (28 years old)
3. Ronald McKinnon, Arizona, 108 tackles, 0 interceptions (29 years old)
4. Wali Rainer, Jacksonville, 86 tackles, 2 interceptions (25 years old)
5. Chris Draft, Atlanta, 66 tackles, 2 forced fumbles (26 years old)


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