Jeff Risdon. 5th September, 2006 - 9:55 pm
Last season: 5-11
Coming: QB Jon Kitna, WR Corey Bradford, WR Mike Furrey, RT Rex Tucker, G Ross Verba, LB Paris Lenon, QB Josh McCown
Going: WR Charles Rogers, LB Earl Holmes, QB Joey Harrington, OL Kyle Kosier, LB James Davis, CB Andre Goodman, CB RW McQuarters, T Kelly Butler
Rookies of note: LB Ernie Sims, LB Anthony Cannon, S Daniel Bullocks
What I like: There is a completely different aura and attitude under new Coach Rod Marinelli and coordinators Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson. They demand toughness, accountability, and precision, the three adjectives you?d never use to describe any post-Barry Sanders Lions team. The defensive line is very good with a potential for being dominating. DT Shaun Rogers is as good as any in the league when he?s fired up, and there is experienced depth with decent ability, particularly at DE. Rookie LB Sims plays like a young Ray Lewis with the demeanor to match. Dre Bly is still a capable #1 CB and a playmaker in the secondary. RB Kevin Jones has shown great promise as a workhorse feature back, and he?s just entering his prime years. WR Roy Williams is a star in the making, and with Martz?s passing system he could emerge as one of the better #1 WRs in the league. QB Kitna is a heady veteran and an upgrade over the departed Joey Harrington, and McCown is a decent backup who fits the offense well. There?s a lot of physical, tenacious players on the offensive line, and the left side should excel in run blocking. There is versatile depth at RB. Last season they were two egregiously awful referee calls away from beating playoff teams Carolina and Tampa Bay, and this year?s team is better overall. The punter/kicker combo of Nick Harris and Jason Hanson is very solid. Letting go of flops like Charles Rogers and James Davis shows this is a team looking forward and upward.
What I dislike: Improved toughness and tenacity doesn?t necessarily equate to a more successful football team, certainly not in the short term. The right side of the offensive line struggles badly in pass protection, even after upgrading from Kelly Butler to oft-injured Rex Tucker at RT. Some other upgrades (Kitna at QB, Bradford at #2 WR, Verba at RG, Lenon at LB) merely bring the Lions to passable, not strengths. The LBs are asked to make lots of plays in Marinelli?s defense, but other than Sims there?s not much talent, not that can be counted on for 16 games. The secondary beyond Bly looks to be among the worst in the NFL in pass coverage. None of the CBs are good in run support, and none of the safeties have the range or instincts to help much in coverage. Though Martz has been successful before with middling talent at WR, there?s very limited talent at WR behind Roy Williams, and the TE position is not a strength. Both Roy Williams and Kevin Jones have major potential, but thus far both haven?t shown great effort or results in becoming the impact players this team desperately needs them to become. The DL is going to feature a 6 or 7 man rotation, and it?s not always easy to get egoistic players to buy into that. The failures of recent drafts really hurt. Seasons 3-6 are when a team reaps the most benefit from its draft classes; the Lions have just 6 players from those drafts that will make significant contributions, and only Shaun Rogers has made a Pro Bowl. Most teams have at least 10-12 with a handful of impact players. This is yet another team with lots of turnover throughout the organization, and it takes time for all the new people and systems to blend into a cohesive, successful team. The first two games are against SEA and CHI, likely the two teams that will finish 2006 with the most wins in the NFC. That?s a real tough start for a team in this state of affairs.
Best case: The DL produces a wicked pass rush and stops the run up the middle; the LBs and DBs show improvement in tackling and covering underneath routes, and Ernie Sims emerges as a wunderkind; Roy Williams and Kevin Jones step up to Pro Bowl caliber, and Kitna relives his 2003 season. The team develops a nasty disposition and toughness that will carry over to subsequent seasons. The Lions win one of those first two tough games and pull themselves up to 8 or 9 wins and a shot at a Wild Card, or possibly the NFC North title if Chicago collapses.
Worst case: The first two games are one-sided losses, and all the offseason and preseason harping on toughness and attitude gets lost in the mix. None of the playmakers (R. Williams, Bly, Jones, Sims, S. Rogers, DE Kalimba Edwards) have great seasons; the OL doesn?t improve in pass blocking; the kicking and punting units don?t win the field position wars, forcing the offense into a long field and not giving the defense a chance to unleash.
Prediction: This team has lots of players who are merely adequate, nothing special. It keeps them from being terrible, but it also limits how high the ceiling is for their success. I like the needed changes in coaching and philosophy, but it?s going to take a little time for it to really pay off. The Lions should linger within a game of .500 all season, but the last two games are probable nightmares: Chicago and at Dallas, two teams likely fighting for postseason spots and seeding. That leaves the Lions at 6-10 or 7-9, depending on if they can sweep the hapless Packers. But if the defense stiffens and Roy Williams and Kevin Jones finally live up to the hype, this is a playoff team.