by Zac Snyder
With high hopes heading into the off-season after a four game winning streak to end the ’10 season, in my mind the Lions are only a few key position upgrades to make the playoffs in 2011.
Assuming the season is a go, which we all pray nightly to the football Gods, the upcoming draft and free agency this year are probably the most important that the Lions have had in recent memory. Although most NFL “experts” still see the Lions in the bottom five teams in the league, I am seeing the Lions as a team that needs just a couple more pieces to fit the puzzle and make this a complete team finally.
The big question on the offense is the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his 2 years, but has been unable to stay on the field because of injuries. Last year with so much promise, Stafford went out early in the first game of the year on a blind side sack by Julius Peppers. Shoulder injuries over the last two years have put the Lions behind on the offensive side of the ball. Relying on 2nd and 3rd stringers all year is not a recipe for victories. Although Hill and Stanton played rather well at times, they have nowhere near the talent and leadership that Stafford has. I believe that Stafford’s health unfortunately is one of the key factors for next year’s success or failures.
The offensive line has finally been set, playing together with the same starters for the majority of the last 2 seasons. Everyone’s favorite player to blame problems on, Left tackle Jeff Backus, had a surprisingly very good year last year. He is getting up there in age though and it would not be a bad idea to look to draft someone possibly in the 3rd round this year to possibly groom them to eventually take Backus place. Other than Backus, the guards have played solid, the center Domini Raiola is undersized but plays with a lot of heart and is a team leader. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is coming off surgery and should be 100% by the time camp rolls around.
Running backs could use some help. Jahvid Best is a great back, when he is not injured. Turf toe problems last year caused Best to be less than 100% for most of the year, but for a rookie, he showed a lot of All Pro ability and I believe will be a top 5 running back in the league if he can stay away from the injury problems. The Lions do need a power back though. Someone to get the tough yards and short first downs. There are some intriguing free agents that could fill this role such as Mike Tolbert and Michael Bush, two big bruising backs that won’t kill the salary cap.
Wide receiver is one both key positions on offense that the Lions must address this off-season. The top two receivers in Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson are very good, but the Lions struggled all year last year trying to find someone to step up at the #3 receiver spot. There are some very good free agents this year that will definitely improve the Lions passing game. I am really hoping for the Lions to sign Steve Breaston, former Wolverine and Arizona Cardinal. As a #3 wide receiver between Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in 2008, Breaston put up over 1000 yards and had three touchdowns. His numbers have dropped a little since, but still is very fast and has great hands.
2010 was a great year for the Lions defense. What had been the leagues worst defense for easily 2 years running, a huge upgrade in talent from the draft and free agency has made this defense a legitimate top 10, if not top 5, defense in the league with just a few more key additions.
This defense is led by a dominating defensive line. Kyle Vandenbosch was a big free agent pickup. Corey Williams was brought over in a trade with Cleveland and the big draft pick of Ndamukong Suh has made this defensive line elite. There is not much needed on this unit which should be set for the next few years.
Linebackers have been a concern though. With the only true star potential being Deandre Levy, who was moved to middle linebacker last year and excelled, when he was not injured. The big problem the Lions have this off-season is filling the outside linebacker positions. Julian Peterson is gone due to his hefty salary and the other OLB spot was filled by backups all year after starter Zack Follett was lost for the year due to a neck injury. Follett’s status is in doubt because the neck injury could possibly be career ending, we should know more before camp comes.
The Lions must fill one of the starting outside ‘backer spots through the draft and one through free agency. At pick #13 in this years draft, there are a couple of really good OLB’s that the Lions could possibly look at drafting. Von Miller is a very good outside linebacker from Texas A&M. He is expected to be gone by the time the Lions draft and barring a trade are unlikely to have the chance to get him. Most scouts see him as a 3-4 defense OLB more in the mold of Clay Matthews. Most of the time in college he rushed the passer so not a lot is known on his coverage ability, which is a big part of the 4-3 defense’s strategy, which the Lions run. That is why I am hoping the Lions take linebacker Akeem Ayers from UCLA. He has played the 4-3 defense and is excellent in coverage. He is a freak physically, is very fast, and is a good tackler. Apparently his only knock is he seems to lose interest at times and plays below his ability. But I believe if we draft him, guys like Suh and Levy will make sure he doesn’t slack off and plays like a beast at all times.
The other OLB spot needs to be filled in free agency, and there are some really good ones that I would think would love to play behind the Lions defensive line. My ideal OLB the Lions need to target is Chad Greenway from Minnesota. He is an elite player, is great at run support and excellent in coverage.
The cornerbacks and safeties are a work in progress. Safety Louis Delmas is a stud, building around him is what the Lions need to do. The other safety spot has been filled recently by rookie Amari Spievey. He had a decent year after moving to safety from the cornerback spot. We should be set because the Lions just signed former Falcons safety Erik Coleman, who started for the majority of the last 6 seasons for the Falcons. The Lions are not as weak as most people think at cornerback. One of the problems this off-season is their best corners from last year, Chris Houston, is a free agent. They do need to resign him then they need to sign a top free agent to fill their other vacancy. Some of the ones I hope they can get to sign a contract are everyone’s dream Nnamdi Asomugha, from the Raiders but he will probably be too expensive. Others that I wool like that are more feasible are Carlos Rogers, Antonio Cromartie, and Richard Marshall. The Lions have good depth at CB with Alphonso Smith, up and comer Aaron Berry, and Jonathan Wade. Smith is easily the # 3 corner and will press for starting time. The Lions could also look at a cornerback in the first round of the draft if the linebacker picks fall through. Some names that you should listen out for are Prince Amukamara, Jimmy Smith, and my favorite Brandon Harris.
The 2011 Lions are a team to be reckoned with. No longer are teams circling Detroit as an easy “W” for them. Coach Schwartz and GM Mayhew have done a great job recovering from the “Millen” years with getting rid of the players that were not going to get us to where we need to go. Smart personnel moves and excellent draft classes have changed this team from pretender to contender in 2 short years.