Sunday, August 7, 2011

Detroit Lions 2011 Outlook

2011 Detroit Lions Preview

by Carl Mitchell

As a life-long Detroit Lions fan, I cannot stress enough the measure of disappointment the last decade has been. Ever since the retirement of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, this franchise has acted as though it were cursed, with nearly ever coaching change, every free agent move, and every draft pick backfiring. They could do nothing right. But will 2011 be different?

Keep in mind, this is a proud franchise that has been around since the very early days of pro football. They played outside at old Tiger Stadium for years, and were NFL Champions 4 times, the last time being in 1957. They moved to suburbia, inside to the Pontiac Silverdome in the 70's, then back to downtown Detroit and the domed, and maybe doomed, Ford Field in 2002, right in the midst of this era of futility. In a blue collar town like Detroit, there were those that said this "cursed" franchise needed to move back outside when Ford Field was built, but owner William Clay Ford would have none of it, preferring to build a stadium that could also be used for such things as NCAA Basketball Final Fours (which it has), a Super Bowl (which it has), and concerts all year, increasing revenues. But for Detroit Lions football, their home has been nothing less than a House of Horrors, and it has a vanilla "feel" to it that strikes little fear into the hearts of visiting teams, despite many sell-outs.

You see, Detroit Lions fans are loyal. They used to sell out the Silverdome at 80,000 plus fans, the biggest stadium in the NFL. Ford Field is about 64,500, but even it has seen many sell outs despite the pathetic product on the field, with only the last 2 seasons beginning to show empty seats. For the Lions fan, hope springs eternal. Every year could be The Year they go out and surprise, like in 1990, the season they won their lone playoff game in over 50 years, and the season they went to the '91 NFC Championship game, getting thrashed by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.

Let's look at this year's team. It all starts with coaching. After a parade of names like Bobby Ross, Marty Morninhweg, Steve Mariucci, and Rod Marinelli (Mr. 0-16), the Lions are now helmed by former Tennessee Titans Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, hired in Jan. 2009. Schwartz also spent some time under Bill Belichick early in his career. He is a young guy, at 45, and he has a vision, and most agree the temperament and brains, to put that plan in place. He went 2-14 in 2009, then 6-10 last season. Another 4 game improvement would put the team at 10-6, and likely in the playoffs.

Thankfully, the Schwartz era coincides with the end of the Matt Millen era as GM. He was the Architect of Failure that culminated in Marinelli's 0-16 record breaking disaster in 2008. Things could only get better with Millen's departure, and so it seems that GM Martin Mayhew truly knows what he's doing based on his generally lauded drafts and free agent moves, along with a few sharp trades.

Let's face it, to win a Super Bowl, or to become a consistent winner in today's NFL, you need a good, if not great Quarterback. The Lions haven't had one of those since Bobby Layne back in the 50's. It was the trade of Layne to Pittsburgh that supposedly "cursed" this franchise to failure. Since then, it has been one mediocre arm after the other, or guys that came in with big college credentials and a high pick that failed to live up to the billing, like Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, and Chuck Long.

The Lions spent the #1 overall pick in the 2009 draft on QB Matthew Stafford, yet another highly selected and vaunted QB. Stafford has been impressive, when on the field. The problem is, that has been all too rare as he now fights the reputation as injury-prone. Even though he was named the Opening Day starter by Coach Schwartz in his rookie season, he started only 10 games due to a shoulder injury, and ended the season on IR. He came back in 2010 and injured his throwing shoulder on Opening Day against the Bears, and then attempted a comeback mid-season, only to re-injure it again versus the Jets. He started only 3 games in 2010, but did manage 6 TDs against only 1 INT for a 91.3 rating in those games, showing marked improvement. He is being tabbed as a big-time sleeper by most Fantasy pundits this pre-season. The Lions have accumulated a war chest of offensive weaponry to surround the QB, and if he can stay on the field, that big arm and those leadership qualities Stafford possess can hopefully translate to several more wins for the team. Backing Stafford up will be Shaun Hill, in his 2nd season with Detroit, and he filled in admirably for most of the season before getting injured himself agasinst the Giants. 3rd string QB Drew Stanton will return as well. The Lions are as set at the QB position as they've ever been. Now if he can stay healthy, perhaps they'll get some Pro-Bowl caliber play out of Stafford. I think the Lions' success overall really hinges on Stafford staying on the field.

Carrying the rock for the Lions will be 2nd year player Jahvid Best, who started the 2010 season on fire, but cooled off as turf toe hit both of his feet during the season. He returns to handle the majority of the ball-carrying and receiving out of the backfield, and has electric speed and soft hands. He will be supplanted on the Goal Line, and in short yardage by draft pick Mikel LeShoure out of Illinois, who the Lions took in the 2nd round, #57 overall. LeShoure was ranked very highly by some draft prep guides, and if he shows the talent, may steal even more carries away from Best. Maurice Morris, who filled in capably while Best was out late last season, returns as the insurance policy. Altogether, this is a talented group that can definitely make an impact on the ground, though unfortunately, none of them will make one forget Barry Sanders.

The offensive strength of this team is undoubtably WR Calvin Johnson. He is widely regarded as a top 5 player in the NFL at his position, and is an All Pro. His incredible size (6'5" 236 lbs.) coupled with blazing speed and some of the surest hands anywhere, make him feared by CBs across the league, and a frequent target of double teams. Even so, he has put up incredible numbers with poor QB play the last few seasons, so if Stafford steps up this year, there is no telling how much better Calvin Johnson can get. On the other side is returning WR Nate Burleson, a blazer in his own right. He missed much of the first half of 2010 injured, but came back strong in the season's second half and was able to pick up the slack when other teams focused on CJ81.

The slot was a little uneven last season, but that should change with the addition of 2nd round pick Titus Young out of Boise State. Young is another guy with incredible speed, so are you seeing a theme here? That is the Lions' plan, to just burn you with speed at all skill positions, and they now have the personnel to do that. Bryant Johnson has departed, so the 4th WR is likely to be free agent signee Rashied Davis, late of the Bears. The Lions may also mix lightning quick kick returner Stefan Logan into the offense for a play or two per game. Brandon Pettigrew is seen as a rising star at TE having caught 71 balls for 722 yards in 2010, and the Lions can go 2 TE by putting in Tony Scheffler on the other side, another solid receiver. 3rd TE Will Heller isn't noteworthy fantasy-wise, but is a solid blocker, and a decent receiver when forced into action if one of the other TEs gets injured.

The Offensive Line has been pretty static for awhile. Left Tackle Jeff Backus has been manning the position for the Lions since 2001 and has never missed a game to injury, but right now he is suffering from pectoral muscle injury suffered duing the lockout while working out. The Lions are hoping he will be healthy by the start of the season. He is regarded as a solid player, but not an All-Pro, and does tend to receive some heat from the fans for mental lapses (i.e. false starts), or because he tends to get beaten by the leagues better DEs regularly, and its tough when you have a QB go down to injury because the LT was beaten. Center Dominic Railoa came into the NFL with Backus in 2001, and they have played on the same line together ever since. He is another one of those guys who is considered average, or slightly better than average, but just keeps his job and keeps showing up, and the Lions don't replace him. He tends to make news at least once a year for getting into it with fans, as Dom is a little hot-headed. Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims are both vets that are entrenched at the starting Guard positions. Again, they're both average players, not All Pros by any means. Right Tackle has been an issue for the team. Gosder Cherilus was drafted 17th overall in 2008 to solidify the position, but has been a failure overall. Right now, Corey Hilliard is listed as the starter, but this may change during camp. Its not a horrible O-line, but one that could defintiely use some improvement. Yet the team seemingly thinks it can get the job done that needs to be done, so who am I to argue?

Defensively is where the Lions took a big step forward in 2010, and why they are looked at as a hot team in 2011. Of course, the main reason for this is the addition of one Ndamukong Suh, the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 draft, who went on to dominate at the Defensive Tackle position, and was the first Lion to be named a Pro Bowl starter as a rookie since Barry Sanders. He also won Defensive Rookie Of The Year in the NFL. Suh harried QBs, collecting 10 sacks, and also played a big role stopping the other team's rushing game. He became an instant leader, and is the "face" of the defense.

Coach Schwartz, being a former Defensive Coordinator, believes in building the defense around a strong Defensive line, and so the team selected Nick Fairley out of Auburn with the #13 pick overall in the 2011 draft to play next to Suh. Fairley was widely regarded as "this year's Suh" going into the draft, but slipped for various reasons, mainly because he's not as "clean" a player as Suh. We'll see what happens, but for now Fairley is on the shelf with a foot injury and recently had surgery to correct it. He is in a walking boot now, and may not get into the regular d-line rotation until the season's second half. That leaves Corey Williams and Sammie Hill to play next to Suh in the Lions' 4-3.

I wouldn't call Defensive End a strength of the team, but it does OK because so much of the opposing offense's attention is focused on stopping Suh and the interior line. Kyle Vanden Bosch returns for his 2nd season on the club and will start, barring injury, while Lawrence Jackson will man the other side. The 3rd man in the rotation should be Cliff Avril.

To say the Linebacker situation on the team has been a mess is an understatement. All three spots have been a revolving door thanks to bad play and injury. Gone for good is Julian Peterson, who was cut and is unsigned by any team right now. But the Lions think that stability has arrived in the form of free agent signee, former Titan Stephen Tulloch, who will man the middle for the team and can be expected to rack up tackles in IDP leagues. DeAndre Levy, who played MLB for the Lions last season, but missed 5 games to injury, will move outside, likely to the strong side. Then, newly acquired FA signee Justin Durant from the Jags, will probably play the weak side position. Bobby Carpenter, who came aboard in mid-season last year, just re-signed and will back up all positions, along with help from Ashlee Palmer and Isaiah Ekejiuba. 5th round pick Doug Hogue out Syracuse will likely end up on the Practice Squad, as he is raw. LB is definitely a much improved area for the team that may end up being a strength.

The secondary has been an ongoing battle for consistency. The only player that has been there the last 2 years and returns is Free Safety Louis Delmas, a young hard hitter and playmaker who did suffer through some injuries in 2010 that affected his play on the field. He is the type of player to play through injury, which can be a double edged sword. It is admirable and shows toughness, but can affect the overall play of the defense negatively, which it surely did. He should hopefully be at 100% going into this year. The Lions inked former Falcon Erik Coleman, who has been a decent fantasy IDP in the past, to start at Strong Safety next to Delmas, and both players will be backed up by 2nd year man Amari Spievey.

Cornerback Chris Houston joined the Lions via trade in 2010 and was their best CB. That isn't saying much, but he will return and likely start. He only has 4 career INTs since joining the NFL in 2007. The Lions signed former Brown Eric Wright as a free agent this year to man the side opposite Houston. Wright was OK in 2009, but was seen as an underachiever in 2010 for Cleveland. He is more of a ballhawk than Houston, having 9 career INTs. Nathan Vasher returns as the nickel back. Maurice Leggett and Brandon McDonald provide some depth.

I already mentioned Stefan Logan when talking about the wide receivers. He is an excellent kick and punt returner who is always a threat to take one back. The Lions were lucky to acquire him last year when the Steelers cut him in the pre-season thanks to too many young WRs they wanted to keep who could fill the return duties. The Lions had been struggling in that department until Logan's arrival. The kicking game has been Jason Hanson's territory in Detroit for the last 20 plus years. Hanson is the Lion's all-time leading scorer, and is 7th in NFL history. He is unbelievably popular with Lions' fans. The former All Pro had been extremely accurate and reliable, but got injured in 2010 and former Michigan State kicker Dave Rayner filled in the rest of the year. Hanson's kickoff distance has also suffered, so the Lions may keep both Rayner and Hanson to handle the kicking duties in 2011. Nick Harris has been the Lions' Punter since 2003, and has established himself as one of the NFL's best at pinning teams inside the 20 yard line. All in all, the special teams are pretty good for the Lions.

Its always a little scary for a Lions fan when the team starts getting national attention for being a "team on the rise" because we've heard it before. But that seems to be the consensus opinion for both real life pundits, and those that focus on the fantasy prospects of Detroit Lions players. So much is hinging on the health of Matthew Stafford. With him, I can see a 10-6 record and maybe a wild card playoff berth. If the team gets ravaged by injury again, well, 7-9 or worse wouldn't surprise me. Its August, so its time for the Lions fans to feel that little bit of hope.....and until they actually become a winner, this is the best time of year to be a Lions fan. Go Lions!

*I want to thank Carl for this in depth look at the Lions. (Wes Ramsey)

This article is the property of Carl Mitchell and may not be re-used for any other purpose.

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