With the first rookie camp just around the corner, and the preseason soon after, it's time to start previewing the prospects of each NFL team. We continue with the Detroit Lions, who finished the 2009 NFL season with a 2-14 record.
The Playbook: Getting past eight years of Matt Millen-induced franchise destruction isn't an easy thing, but head coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew have put together two very solid drafts and made some interesting free-agent moves since Millen was sent packing. On offense, coordinator Scott Linehan likes to integrate a dynamic, consistent running game with downfield passing.
In theory, the franchise has the tools to do these things effectively, but things aren't quite built yet. Rookie quarterback Matt Stafford (pictured) performed about as you'd expect from a strong-armed 21-year-old quarterback — he mixed astonishing throws with frustrating interceptions. Stafford's heroic performance against the Cleveland Browns in Week 11 rallied his teammates and got them to buy into the idea that the kid was for real. However, the bloom will wear off that rose pretty quickly if Stafford isn't more efficient in 2010. Stafford can literally make any throw you'd want a quarterback to make — he just needs to stop making so many of the ones the Lions don't want. A 53.3 completion percentage, and 20 interceptions to 13 touchdowns, won't get the job done.
This season, he'll have the tools to be better. Receiver Calvin Johnson(notes) is one of the league's best when healthy, and ex-Seahawks receiver Nate Burleson(notes), brought in on a questionable $25 million contract ($11 million guaranteed), is fast enough off the line to do some damage. If his route-running was more disciplined, Burleson would be an elite No. 2 option. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew(notes) (part of the 2009 draft haul) and Tony Scheffler(notes) (another new acquisition) will help with the hot routes.
In this draft class, the Lions added Cal running back Jahvid Best(notes), who is the kind of back the Lions want — he can get outside from the backfield and catch the ball on screens and swing passes. Combining pass attempts and scrambles, only the Seahawks dropped back more often than the Lions (659 attempts for Detroit), which means that pass-blocking is at a premium. Ex-Seattle guard Rob Sims(notes) should help, but the line is still cause for concern.
Impact Players: Stafford is going to be the franchise, and more will be expected of him this season. Burleson will be asked to take double-teams away from Johnson. With all the tight end talent on the roster, it's possible that Stafford's deep passes will be more intertwined with shorter, more sensible throws until he finds his way through NFL defenses. The Lions were surprisingly efficient on long drives, which bodes well for the future.
The Playbook: Schwartz brings the defensive theories he learned as the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator — he doesn't blitz much at all (though he did bring six or more rushers more often than expected last season) and believes in a front four that can bring pressure with stunts and loops. In Tennessee, he had end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) and tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) making plays around each other, and he'll attempt to replicate that with the signing of Vanden Bosch and the selection of Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) (pictured).
Suh has the potential to be the very best in the NFL at what he does — his combination of speed, power and technique is as elite as elite gets. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham makes the defense a bit less risk-averse — he calls more blitzes that require more man coverage. Second-year linebackers DeAndre Levy(notes) and Zack Follett(notes) are expected to see more time along with veteran Julian Peterson(notes); again, questions abound.
The secondary may have been Detroit's biggest liability in 2009, but things are looking up. Second-year safety Louis Delmas(notes) was an absolute stud in his rookie season, and another reason that Detroit's 2009 draft may have been the league's best. The Lions acquired former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Chris Houston(notes) in a trade, and Cunningham seems happy with the deal — back when Cunningham was part of Kansas City's staff, he lobbied for the Chiefs to draft Houston in 2007. It is hoped that Houston will improve with a more dynamic pass rush in front of him. Safety C.C. Brown(notes), who was exposed repeatedly in pass coverage with the New York Giants last season, has his own theory about his issues — he's blaming the media. That may not go over so well.
Impact Players: Schwartz and Cunningham will build the defense around Suh as quickly as possible, but Suh recently told me that he's encouraged by all the talent around him. "I don't have to come in and be 'The Man' on my team, especially on the defensive line," he said. "Because I have Kyle, and Corey Williams(notes) from Cleveland, and Jared DeVries(notes) — all veterans that have been in the game for years, and know what's going on. So I just have the luxury to come in and help them out, to help me out. So I'm in a great situation."
New Blood: Suh and Best are the marquee draft picks, but third-round cornerback Amari Spievey(notes) from Iowa is a good-sized player with excellent tackling ability — you may see him early on in nickel defenses.
2010 Projection: There's no question that the Lions are gradually improving, but they're in the wrong division for a rebuild. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings project as two of the NFC's best teams, and the even the Chicago Bears could put a serious whomping on the Lions' secondary with their new Mike Martz-approved passing attack. If Stafford grows further into his role and the front seven steps up, the Lions should be good for three to five wins and a division upset or two. However, this is a team to keep an eye on — they're rebuilding intelligently, and Schwartz and Mayhew are very much on the same page. Lions fans will soon be rewarded for their near-Biblical patience.
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