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Lions Dilemma: Stephen Tulloch vs David Hawthorne

The Lions are faced with a free agent dilemma that will escalate on Monday as free agent linebacker David Hawthorne visits Detroit.  The Lions committed highway robbery last season in free agency when they signed Stephen Tulloch to a one year $3.5 million deal and got Pro Bowl level performance.  That deal has put them directly between the rock and a hard place this offseason.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just link you to The Lion in Winter’s brilliant breakdown of Stephen Tulloch’s impact on the Lions.   Tulloch was a huge addition to the team and made an enormous number of plays for the Lions.  The dilemma stems from there, Tulloch gambled on a one year deal last season with a long term deal squarely in his sights this season.  His demands are reportedly in the $6 million per season range, which is a steep price for a middle linebacker.

The Lions and Tulloch haven’t found that middle ground, so the Lions are pursuing backup options, the best of which is Hawthorne.  David Hawthorne has more position flexibility than Tulloch, he’s younger, he’ll be cheaper and there’s not a huge drop in talent.  The downside is the gap in talent, the familiarity and leadership Tulloch brings and the difference in experience in the Lions’ system.

Hawthorne has started 41 games in the last three years and has amassed 336 total tackles, seven interceptions, six sacks, 15 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries.

In the same time period, Tulloch has logged 45 starts with 406 total tackles, three interceptions, six sacks, 14 passes defensed, one forced fumble and five fumble recoveries.

Tulloch has the better production, especially in his first season with the Lions’ excellent front seven.  Will Hawthorne see a spike in production if he plays amongst the higher level of talent coming to Detroit from Seattle?  Will the difference in price force the Lions hand?  Can anybody actually replace the void Tulloch would leave?  And most importantly, is Hawthorne’s visit going to bring Tulloch’s price down?

Tulloch hasn’t been beating away suitors, he has yet to announce a visit with anybody, so will his leverage dry up if the Lions move on?  Tulloch has the most value to the Lions, and if he prices himself out of their range, who would reasonably be expected to outbid the team that knows him best and needs him most?

This situation will resolve itself quickly as the linebacker market is just picking up.  Once the first domino falls, the rest will happen quickly.  Will Tulloch or Hawthorne be the first to tumble, or will they fall in place later down the line?  Tomorrow’s visit will go a long way towards answering that, and go a long way towards establishing the identity of the Lions’ front seven for 2012.


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