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Detroit Lions Season Preview 2010
Jeff Risdon. 16th August, 2010 - 11:41 am

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2009 record: 2-14

Key Stats:


Turnover Ratio: -18

Sack Differential: -17

Point Differential: -232

Coming In: DE Kyle VandenBosch, DT Corey Williams, WR Nate Burleson, CB Dre Bly, LB Landon Johnson, CB Jonathan Wade, CB Chris Houston, QB Shaun Hill, G Rob Sims, S Dante Wesley, S CC Brown

Going Out: LB Ernie Sims, DE Dewayne White, LB Larry Foote, QB Daunte Culpepper, CB Williams James, CB Philip Buchanon, DT Grady Jackson, S Kalvin Pearson

Key Rookies: DT Ndamukong Suh, RB Jahvid Best, CB Amari Speivey, T Jason Fox

Offense

QB: Matt Stafford returns for his second season as not just the undisputed starter, but the undisputed leader of the team. That?s an important first step for a team that has lacked a clear identity other than ?perennial loser? for over a decade. Stafford showed great moxie and fought through numerous injuries, winning over his teammates and a skeptical fan base. He flashed great arm strength and the ability to extend plays with his legs, even present something of a rushing threat if given a crease. The come-from-behind win over Cleveland showed the heart of a champion and the clutch ability that led the Lions to choose him #1 overall.

That?s the good news. The bad news is that he got the hell beat out of him last year, and the numbers he posted aren?t exactly impressive or imposing. Completing just 53% of his passes and forcing an eye-popping 20 INTs in just 10 games, Stafford wasn?t exactly an on-field upgrade over the likes of Joey Harrington or Jon Kitna. That should change with better health and a stronger supporting cast, but he needs to make better decisions with the ball and improve his pre-snap coverage reads. He?s only 22 and will benefit from a full summer as the starter and the experience he gleaned last year. Stafford will be better, but to expect a quantum leap forward is a stretch. Leveling out the TD/INT ratio and bumping the completion percentage to at least 58% are tangible goals, achievements that would constitute improvement and make the team far more competitive.

Daunte Culpepper couldn?t handle the role of veteran mentor/backup, so the Lions went out and got someone more than willing to take on that responsibility. In getting Shaun Hill from the 49ers, the Lions picked up an experienced veteran that understands his role and can actually play reasonably well when called upon. Hill started several games over the past couple of seasons in San Francisco, alternating with Alex Smith depending on the whimsy of the coaches. He?s fairly accurate and improvises well, and his Niners teammates responded to him well. Drew Stanton returns as the #3, and other than being an inexplicable 2nd round pick of local heritage, he offers less than just about any other clipboard holder this side of John Beck.

RB: Detroit has joined the cadre of teams who believe that having one clear-cut feature back is pass?. Kevin Smith has been fairly successful as the lead RB, but he has fought some nagging injuries and lacks breakaway ability. That prompted the Lions to trade up and use an extra first round pick to select Cal?s Jahvid Best, who is nothing if not explosive. Best possesses a nice blend of dynamic speed and great burst, with an innate feel for finding the hole not unlike a young LaDanian Tomlinson.

Deliberate tangent on perceptions: during draft coverage on ESPN, NFL Network, and Sirius NFL Radio almost all the talking heads were spewing positive after positive about Best, many calling him the best (no pun intended) in the draft. And then the Lions traded up and drafted him. The tone on Best turned noticeably darker, the lone exception being Pat Kirwan on Sirius. All of the sudden he went from a player that should have been taken 10 spots earlier to a reach pick because of his concussion history, his tendency to string the run outside too far, and his (perceived) poor passing game skills. I strongly suspect that had it been Dallas or San Diego that drafted Best, you wouldn?t have heard any of that. I?m not saying the criticisms are invalid--I wasn?t nearly as high on Best as most--but to go out of your way to ding a guy after blowing smoke up his tail pad for hours simply because he went to a poor team is dishonest and lazy.

Early indications are that Best and Smith will share the load, with Smith being the ?thunder? and Best the ?lightning?. That?s not an ideal role for Smith but he should be able to reliably churn out 4 yards per carry on 12-14 attempts. I suspect Best will have more than a handful of 20+ yard runs but also quite a few negative carries. Maurice Morris was solid as the reserve last year and provides a nice 3rd option and fallback plan should either runner ahead of him get hurt. Second-year player Aaron Brown is the fastest player on the team but has little patience and trouble finding the hole. Brown figures to have a greater impact on special teams, though he could contribute as a 3rd down back if his pass protection improves.

Jerome Felton returns as the lead blocking FB, where he is adequately effective. The coaches talk up his potential as a short-yardage back but have yet to utilize him in that capacity. The team hopes to run more power formations so his role there could expand.

WR/TE: The one good thing that came from the horrifying Matt Millen era is Calvin Johnson, yet even Johnson has yet to fully met expectations. Given a stable QB situation and more talent in support, it is now or never time for Megatron to show why he was universally regarded as the top WR prospect of the last five years. Blessed with tremendous size, deceptive speed, and great hands, Johnson has all the tools anyone could ever want in a receiver. Staying healthy would be a great step forward, as he has been plagued by nagging injuries. Teams routinely triple teamed Johnson last year, especially once Stafford was gone, and he still turned in some very productive outings. He needs to put up those numbers more consistently; there is no excuse for him not getting 80+ catches for 1200+ yards and 10+ TDs with this offense.

Signing Nate Burleson was a huge bone to throw Johnson. The former Seahawk brings field-stretching speed to the team, but what makes him special for the Lions is that he can actually catch the ball when it?s thrown deep. He can also turn a quick slant into a big gain. Detroit thought they signed someone for that role last year in Bryant Johnson, but he flopped. Burleson should represent a major upgrade at the #2 wideout spot and push Bryant Johnson to the 3rd spot, where he has thrived in the past. He?s big for a slot receiver but understands his role, which is similar to what he played in Arizona. The lowered expectations on his production should help him, but I suspect he?ll live down to them.

Derrick Williams showed little as a rookie as both a receiver and a return specialist. He will need to show major improvement at one of those positions to make the team, though he entered camp as the #4 wideout. Veteran Dennis Northcutt still lingers as an extra slot receiver for multiple wide formations, but the team is hopeful Williams usurps his role. Of the remaining camp bodies, Mr. Irrelevant Tim Toone is the most intriguing and offers some potential as a return man.

The Lions are hopeful that a pair of impressive tight ends will pick up the slack for the underwhelming complementary wideouts. Tony Scheffler comes from Denver as a field-stretching seam receiver, where he had some prolific production with Jay Cutler but fell out of favor last year. He has great hands and is a real threat after the catch. Blocking is not his strong suit, an understatement akin to saying Rush Limbaugh doesn?t care for welfare. Expect a lot of Scheffler flexed out and more Brandon Pettigrew when the team wants a true ?tight? end. Pettigrew was a first round pick a year ago (the prized booty of the Roy Williams trade) and looked very much like a first round rookie--slow start, gradual improvement, rough finish (he got hurt). He is still recovering from the ACL tear, which will likely limit his downfield receiving ability, hence the Scheffler acquisition. But Pettigrew developed nicely as a blocker and was turning into a reliable 3rd down target until his injury, which will constitute his functionality in 2010. Will Heller will get limited reps in the jumbo packages, a much more suitable role than last year when he saw far too many passes. Even with Pettigrew?s anticipated gimpiness the Lions have enviable TE skill and depth.

OL: Left tackle Jeff Backus is coming off a career year and has finally shaken the chronic fan demands for his hide. The problem is that Backus? career year brought his level of play up to only the league average, and he?s not likely to replicate it at his age. The biggest reason for the ascendance to adequacy was the simplification of the blocking scheme, stripping away the angular island gimmickry of Mike Martz?s offense that Backus had no prayer of handling. Keeping a tight end in to help in pass protection helped him quite a bit too. His pass blocking will never be good; his feet are too slow and he doesn?t extend his arms quickly or with functional power. But even his most ardent critics must concede that Jeff Backus was one of the best run-blocking left tackles in the league last year. That shouldn?t fall off much.

The Lions got him some flanking help by bringing in former Seahawk Rob Sims to try and remedy the pathetic LG situation. Sims is a phone booth guy but is quite good within that small area, and he absorbs bull rushes as well as anyone. He can?t be any worse than the Manny Ramirez/Daniel Loper platoon, which could neither run block nor pass protect at all. If you ever need proof that physical strength alone means little to success as a guard, watch Ramirez try to do anything other than drive block a 1-technique DT. Sims? relative adequacy should help undersized Dominic Raiola at center. The veteran is one of those guys that Lions fans undervalue because he?s not a physical mauler and has been almost perennially surrounded by garbage at guard. His technique is rock solid and he never gets outworked, though his lack of power is a real detriment against 0-technique nose tackles.

The right side is still a major question mark. Stephen Peterman proved quite effective at leading the run and sealing open holes at guard before he got hurt. He should be back to full strength, but he does tend to get too upright and lets the defender dictate the action in pass protection. At tackle, former 1st rounder Gosder Cherilus is enigmatically curious. Cherilus has good size and strength and flashes the desired mean streak and physicality for the position at times. But he?s too passive far too often and still hasn?t learned to move his feet while engaged in a block. He?s also prone to regrettable mental errors and stupid penalties. This is a make-or-break season in Detroit for Cherilus, and the odds of a Millen-era pick finally clicking are (take your pick) either infinitely minute or agonizingly overdue. My money is on the former, in part because of 4th round pick Jason Fox. The Miami product would have gone much higher without his injury problems, and two different observers have called him the Lions? best linemen in training camp, at least of the first couple weeks. He?s better suited to play the left side with his length and sound footwork, which would kick Backus to the right side, which in theory suits his skill set better as well. If Fox has a strong preseason and Cherilus continues to struggle, expect to see that happen before their annual Thanksgiving Day humiliating defeat, which will come this year at the hands of the Patriots.

There is no depth inside at all. Colts castoff Dylan Gandy is the top reserve, followed by Ramirez. Should any of the barely adequate starters get hurt, this line goes from perhaps being fair to definitely being awful.

Defense

DL: Other than one strong season with Shaun Rogers and Cory Redding, the defensive front four has been a chronic black eye (or hole, take your pick) in Detroit. GM Martin Mayhew and the coaching staff have made upgrading the line a major priority, and they should be handsomely rewarded in 2010. Three new starters up front, all of them significant upgrades, will help fortify a defense that has been the worst in the league for most of the last 4 years, including 2 straight campaigns of rating dead last in nearly every stat metric.

It all starts with #2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh, perhaps the most dominant collegiate interior lineman since Warren Sapp. His incredible brute strength and leg drive are mighty impressive, but what makes him really stand out is his feel for the game. At Nebraska he invariably wound up hitting the right gap, making the right read, correctly anticipating the action of the blockers. Even after his short holdout he has impressed coaches and teammates with his ability to diagnose the play and take appropriate action. He?ll likely need some work on pass rushing moves, but he could be as good as the Vikings? Kevin Williams by the end of September. He has that dynamic style. He also easily wears the expectations that go with being anointed the savior of the defense, and his earnest, pensive demeanor is a welcome change from the false swagger of so many others.

A trade brought Corey Williams to start next to Suh at tackle, and the switch back to the 4-3 can only help him after he struggled in Cleveland?s 3-4 front. The last time he played in a 4-man front (Green Bay in 2007) he led all DTs in sacks with 7 and excelled at collapsing the pocket from the inside. With Suh bound to command a lot of attention, Williams is in prime position to take advantage and threaten that sack total once again. He?ll have to fend off young Sammie Hill, the unquestioned star of the summer in Detroit. Hill was already the best interior run defender as a rookie last year, but the 330-pound behemoth has astonished observers with his improved footwork and tenacity at getting off blocks. Center Dominic Raiola compared him to the aforementioned Rogers, and if Hill is anything close to a motivated Shaun Rogers the Lions have quite the three-man tackle rotation. All have questions about being able to translate great potential into real results, but it?s an optimism that runs deep with Lions fans and coaches. That?s as deep as it gets, however. Andre Fluellen and former Ohio Bobcat Landon Cohen are eminently replaceable roster filler as the other reserves.

One end spot is resolved with the signing of Kyle Vanden Bosch. The former Titan was the top offseason priority for Coach Schwartz, his former DC in Tennessee. VDB has proven he makes an excellent foil for a dynamic inside presence (see: Suh) during his time next to Albert Haynesworth, adept at twists, stunts, and subtle shuffles that allowed him to vary the attack and keep blockers on their heels. He wasn?t as great sans Big Al, but still applied decent pressure without sacrificing his sound run defense. His veteran presence is vital on a defense that was essentially run by a rookie safety a year ago. Expect around 7 sacks and 15 QB hurries with very solid run D, along with great leadership and a direct conduit from Coach Schwartz to the players.

The other end spot is much less certain. Veteran Jared Devries brings a high motor and an uncanny ability to whip the Bears (5.5 of his 16.5 career sacks and 3 of his 6 forced fumbles have come against Chicago), but he?s 34 and coming off an injury. He?s best used in a limited role but might have to start if Cliff Avril cannot seize the opportunity. Avril has great potential with his speed and long arms, but the productivity has yet to live up to expectations. He lacks instincts and counter moves, though Avril did show improvement at the end of last season. That improvement must carry over and build onward, particularly at run defense outside the tackle box. Jason Hunter was the most consistent end a year ago but like Devries is better utilized in small doses. His 5 sacks come with an asterisk--one came on a play where Jason Campbell fumbled and turtled on the ball, another was a 3-yard loss on an Alex Smith scramble where Smith slid into him. 7th round draft pick Willie Young has shown enough early to make the team but is a likely game-day inactive. Turk McBride survives on the roster based on a few great moments in garbage time play against Green Bay.

LB: The two players that figured to be the top performers here a year ago, Ernie Sims and Larry Foote, are now gone. In many instances that would be problematic, but Detroit should be better in the long run by replacing them with two 2009 rookies. Deandre Levy takes over in the middle for Foote after showing legit promise as a rookie, albeit on the strong side. Zack Follett assumes Sims? role on the weak side with the promise of better positional discipline and bigger size.

Obviously there is a certain level of risk with starting two greenhorns. Levy had some wrapping issues with his tackling, while Follett played almost exclusively on special teams. But their shortcomings are coachable, whereas Foote and Sims were already whatever they were going to be, which were misfits in this system. Sims is easily the worst coverage LB in the league, an astonishing declaration to hang on a guy with his speed. But he is completely lost in space and has yet to see a play action fake on which he won?t bite hard. Foote also had coverage limitations and he failed to play as north/south as DC Gunther Cunningham desired. Levy presents a more athletic, more aggressive option at the expense of experience. Follett should provide better blitzing and more stable run containment at the expense of the two weekly highlight-reel hits from Sims. It?s still not pretty but it is younger, cheaper, and has significantly more upside.

Julian Peterson remains the other starter, coming off an up-and-down first season in Detroit. His play vacillated with the performance of the line in front of him--when they were good, he still looked great but when blockers got free quickly, Peterson did little. He lined up at end at times but frequently dropped into coverage as part of a zone blitz from that formation. He remains the most reliable pass rusher on the team and needs to double his 4.5 sacks from a year ago to earn his contract, which won?t be easy given his increasing age.

The reserves are where the toxic waste that was Matt Millen?s drafting really shows up. Jordon Dizon is the nickel LB, which plays to his speed and diminishes the fact he?s smaller than a lot of safeties at 5?10? and 220 pounds. He?s listed at more than that but I?ve shaken his hand and there?s no way he?s any bigger than the dimensions I listed. Dizon has fared reasonably well in coverage and hits like a full-sized LB. One intriguing possibility is that the Lions have toyed with using Dizon as the straight nickel back--not the nickel LB but deploying him against split out tight ends. Considering the tight ends in the NFC North, that might not be a bad experiment. Special teams specialists Vinny Ciurciu, Landon Johnson, and Isaiah Ekejiuba are all at least two slots higher on the depth chart here than they would be on any other roster at LB.

DB: The annual overhaul on the back end of the defense continues, once again by necessity. Unfortunately the results probably won?t improve much, though there is better reason for optimism with this year?s cast.

That optimism starts with Louis Delmas, who turned in a very impressive rookie campaign before getting hurt. A natural playmaker with great range, Delmas quickly assumed the role of defensive leader and wore that hat comfortably. He is a legit playmaker, scoring on both a fumble return and an INT return, and his run support was very solid. Coverage remains a work in progress, as Delmas is still learning the art of shading in help coverage and finding the correct assignment when tight ends split out. Delmas has Pro Bowl potential and figures to be a stalwart in the Lions secondary for years.

Detroit sought more playmakers to go with him, attempting to mimic the Saints largely successful philosophy that as long as the turnovers created wash with the big plays surrendered, everything will be fine. Corner Dre Bly returns to the Lions a few seasons removed from being woefully miscast in Rod Marinelli?s rigid Tampa-2 scheme. Bly remains a gambler that loves to bait QBs and jump routes, often at the expense of more reliable downfield coverage. Lions fans will notice an improvement in his tackling, but it?s still not an asset. Chris Houston should wind up as the other starter, and the former Falcon offers the potential (with Bly) of playing more man press coverage. Houston has never looked comfortable in zone shells, but he attacks the run nicely and has decent ball skills when he?s in the right area.

The rest of the secondary is one giant question mark. 3rd round rookie Amari Speivey will be given every chance to win the nickel corner job, but early camp reports indicate he?s not close to being ready for prime time. He was quite physical at Iowa but is not quick-footed, which means covering quick, small guys in the slot is never going to be a good fit. Rams discard Jonathan Wade is as bad as that moniker sounds. Wade gets lost in coverage too easily and doesn?t appear to apply his experience against receivers; two seasons ago new teammate Nate Burleson torched him on a shoulder-dip move, then got him again twice in the same game last year with the exact same move. At least the anticipated shoddy play this year will come from younger players with some potential upside rather than the cavalcade of has-been/never-were veterans of the past few seasons...at corner anyways.

The other safety spot opposite Delmas just might be the blackest hole in the NFL. Marvin White, Ko Simpson, Dante Wesley (more likely to play as the 4th CB), and former Giants whipping boy CC Brown enter camp all with legit aspirations of starting. If you saw any of them play last year, you know they would not foster those aspirations anywhere else in the league. White is the brightest of the lot, a big-time hitter who has improved some in coverage since the Bengals dumped him for continually letting receivers get behind him. Still he?s a journeyman at best, and when paired with underwhelming corners that will give up big plays, the secondary sure looks like a problem that has yet to be fixed to satisfactory levels. If Brown winds up playing significant minutes, that is a very bad sign. Undrafted rookie Randy Phillips has impressed early in camp and could be the rare UDFA find in Detroit.

Special Teams

Venerable Jason Hanson remains a viable long field goal threat, but that is about the extent of the positives here. It?s strange that a kicker like Hanson can reliably nail 52-yard FGs but seldom gets his kickoffs beyond the 10-yard line. It?s not a good thing that the 40-year old will miss all summer after knee surgery. Former Ohio State kicker Aaron Pettrey is Plan B. Punter Nick Harris is inconsistent and seldom produces the booming field position-changing boots.

The coverage and return units were indicative of a roster in flux and chock full of marginal NFL players. Derrick Williams was awful as a return man but he will likely get that gig once again--especially if Dennis Northcutt doesn?t make the team. Guys like Vinny Ciurciu and Isaiah Ekejiuba should help the cover units, but don?t expect a dramatic turnaround here.

3 Keys to the season

1. Don?t Stop Believing. There is tangible optimism all over this team, stemming from Head Coach Schwartz and guys like Delmas, Suh, and Stafford. That optimism figures to be tested hard with an early schedule that features 4 of the first 6 games on the road, including all three NFC North rivals. Staying focused, positive, and mentally strong after what looks like nothing better than a 2-4 start (if that) will be critical.

2. Take it on the Run, Baby. The Lions must run the ball better and also show major improvement at stopping the run. The offseason additions on both sides of the ball should help, but it?s a long climb up from as dreadful as Detroit has consistently fared in both areas in recent years.

3. Youth Gone Wild. There is a lot of very good young talent sprinkled on this roster, more than at any time in at least 15 years. The developmental progress of Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy, Ndamukong Suh, and Jahvid Best must be first and foremost, even if costs an extra couple of wins in the growing pains.

Forecast

This is the most talented overall roster the Lions have trotted out since the beginning of the Matt Millen train wreck a decade ago. It?s also still lacking in several key areas and playing in a very difficult division with a tricky schedule. I do buy into the prevailing optimism and I expect significant improvement on the field. But I just don?t see that translating into a major jump in the standings. If the youngster gel quickly this team could escape last place in the NFC North, but anything more than 6 wins is a pipe dream. The Lions double their 2009 win total and finish 4-12 in 2010, with the potential to do that doubling once again with another strong offseason.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com