STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
While not a major leap forward, the 2009 season was certainly a step in the right direction for the Lions. An 0-16 season in 2008 resulted in the franchise cleaning house, and those who have stepped in appear to be much better equipped to help get Detroit back on track to the playoffs, though that day may still be a way off.
First-time head coach Jim Schwartz looked more than capable during his first season at the helm and has given the Lions faithful reason to believe that relief from their seemingly endless misery is in sight. The team's biggest splash to that end in the post-Matt Millen era came with the selection of Matthew Stafford with the first-overall pick of the 2009 draft.
The Lions inserted Stafford, to whom they had handed $40 million worth of guaranteed money, as their Week 1 starter, and while he predictably struggled for much of his rookie campaign, in part due to injuries, he showed enough flashes of talent that Detroit's faith in him looks justified. Stafford's upside has Lions fans drooling about the heights that a duo of he and the team's incomparable wideout
Calvin Johnson can achieve in the coming years.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle between the Lions making the move from laughingstock to mediocrity and beyond, is a defense that of late has turned nearly every contest into a game of catch-up. In 2009, the team ranked last in per-game averages in passing yards allowed (266), total yards allowed (392) and
points allowed (31).
Despite having a bad defense for the past two seasons, there is reason to believe the unit can improve. Last year's top rookies Louis Delmas and DeAndre Levy looked like legitimate talents and, especially in Delmas' case, potential Pro-Bowlers. Moreover, the selection of Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, who some consider a generational talent, is sure to help a run defense that has allowed 49 touchdowns over the last two years.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan brought the Lions' offense from the basement up to the bottom third of the league last season even with below-expectation seasons from running back Kevin Smith, who appeared primed for a breakout season before tearing an ACL, and Johnson, whose numbers went from elite to pedestrian.
Once he's back, Smith will likely be behind rookie Jahvid Best, whom the Lions traded up for to take in the first round of the draft. Best is a potentially explosive playmaker, who averaged better than seven yards per carry and racked up 29 touchdowns during his three-year career at California.
A lot of work remains to be done here, but the presence of a bonafide star in Johnson, coupled with the potential of youngsters such as Stafford, Best, Delmas and Suh at least gives the Lion a foundation upon which they can build.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (2) Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska-Will anchor the Lions’ defensive line from Day One.
1. (30) Jahvid Best, RB, California-Durability a concern after 2009 concussion issues, but playmaking ability is undeniable.
3. (66) Amari Spievey, CB, Iowa-Gives Lions needed depth in secondary.
4. (128) Jason Fox, OT, Miami (FL.)-Expected to watch from sidelines initially.
7. (213) Willie Young, DE, N.C. State-Has the size to eventually become a threat on the edge.
7. (255) Tim Toone, WR, Weber State-The 2010 Draft’s Mr. Irrelevant could make an impact on special teams.
Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE (Titans) Reunion with former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could be the spark the 31-year-old needs after seeing his production decline in recent years.
Larry Foote, LB (Steelers) Returns to the place where he made a name for himself after a solid season in the Motor City.
Grady Jackson, DT (FA) Aging run-stuffer became redundant with the addition of Suh.
CAN THE DEFENSE IMPROVE?
There's no way to sugarcoat Detroit's defensive ineptitude over the past couple of seasons. After coming within shouting distance of the NFL record for points allowed in a season in 2008 by serving up an eye-popping 517 points, the Lions “improved” by lowering that number to 494 last year. The Lions' 23 takeaways ranked them in the bottom 10 in the NFL, and they were situated safely in the cellar in nearly every other meaningful category. On the plus side, Louis Delmas impressed last season, and DeAndre Levy's play at linebacker gave the Lions enough faith to part ways with both Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. Looking ahead, Ndamukong Suh's ability to be an impact player the second he walks onto the field is enough to provide hope that there's an end in sight.
WHO IS THE ‘BEST’ OPTION AT RUNNING BACK?
The Lions clearly lost confidence in Kevin Smith as the 2009 season rolled along, and that was before he went down for the year with a torn ACL in December. Later, it was revealed that he had a shoulder injury, as well. Maurice Morris did an admirable job as a fill-in, but the Lions are in love with first-round selection Jahvid Best. While Detroit believes the rookie's ceiling is sky-high, he won't likely be the Lions' exclusive ball carrier to begin the season. Even if Smith starts the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, a real possibility, Morris, or even Aaron Brown could steal carries from Best. The Lions showed last year that they didn't have a problem throwing rookies into the fire, putting Stafford behind center in Week 1, so Best will get a chance to earn the starter's role. Still, there's enough uncertainty and moving parts here to approach the team's RB situation with caution.
FOCUS ON MEGATRON
Calvin Johnson announced his presence with authority in his sophomore campaign but failed to return to the superstar stratosphere in his third season. After sharing the league lead in touchdown receptions and ranking in the top five in receiving yards in 2008, Johnson's numbers took a hit across the board. A lingering knee injury and a bothersome hand injury didn't help matters, but the real problem was inconsistency everywhere else in the Lions' offense. The running game was nonexistent at times, and neither Bryant Johnson nor Dennis Northcutt were able to alleviate pressure from Johnson, who regularly faced triple teams in the latter portion of the season. Matthew Stafford's knee injury was another impediment, but there was simply no excuse for the team's underutilization of Johnson. While defenses will unquestionably still game-plan around him, the Lions simply have to find a way to put the ball in Johnson's hands more often.
Sleeper: Tony Scheffler wasn’t much of a target in Denver, but the Lions used
the tight end quite a bit in the passing game last year.
Supersleeper: With Smith ailing and Best still unproven at the professional level, Maurice Morris could eventually sneak back into the mix after proving himself capable in ’09.
Louis Delmas, S Fantastic rookie campaign should be a sign of things to come.
DeAndre Levy, LB Another rookie who showed promise in 2009, he's penciled in as the starter in the middle.
Julian Peterson, LB Didn't have fantastic numbers last season, but his 4.5 sacks were third on the team.
RotoWire Rank: 31