STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The future that Lions’ fans had been promised and waited for nearly a decade to see come to fruition appears to have finally arrived. Years of futility and high draft choices finally paid off with a playoff berth last season, the team’s first since 1999. Moreover, the Lions appear built to last, as the team’s young talent comes into its own.
Finally healthy, quarterback Matthew Stafford had his breakout campaign in 2011, passing for 5,038 yards, en route to the fifth-highest yardage mark ever for a single season. Meanwhile, he completed 63.5 percent of his passes and tossed 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions.
Of course, he’s been paired with arguably the best receiver in the game, Calvin Johnson, who has unquestionably established himself as part of the NFL’s wide receiver elite. Johnson started the 2011 season with two touchdowns in each of the Lions’ first four games, en route to recording league-high totals among wideouts in both yardage (1,681) and TDs (16).
Together, the two represent everything the Lions want to be about these days: Youth, talent and success. No longer in perpetual rebuilding mode, the team made no splash whatsoever in the free agent market and didn’t do anything flashy on draft day either. Instead, the Lions were content to stay locked in at the No. 23 slot and select Iowa offensive lineman Riley Reiff, even though the team is pretty well set, though certainly not elite, at offensive tackle.
Detroit’s defense has lagged behind the offense in its development, with the young cornerstones there – Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley – having had problems staying on the field last year, whether it was due to suspension or injury. Improving on the 24.2 points-per-game allowed last season will be a must as the franchise attempts to earn a return trip to the postseason.
The Lions are probably still on the outside looking in on the NFL’s Super Bowl contending teams, but they are certainly knocking on the door, as their high-end talent stays and continues to develop in the Motor City. Stafford and Johnson may very well be at the peak of their powers right now, but there’s room for growth on defense and in the backfield, where Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith have been unable to stay healthy enough to provide the Lions with a legitimate and consistent ground threat.
It’s a new day in Detroit where hope and winning don’t seem so very far away. The Lions may be a piece or two away from being a Super Bowl-caliber team, but with the playoffs now an expectation instead of a pipe dream, the team continues to move in the right direction.
Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa (Round 1, 23rd overall)
Questions linger as to whether he’s a true left tackle, but he will be given opportunity to start immediately.
Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma (Round 2, 54th overall)
An ACL tear ended the prolific Sooner’s college career. He was drafted to eventually become the long-term complement to superstar Calvin Johnson.
Everette Brown, DE (Panthers)
Gives Detroit added depth at an otherwise thin positional group.
Jacob Lacey, CB (Colts)
Strong tackler who should help solidify an already-imposing group for the Lions.
James Bryant, FB (CFL)
The former boxer and CFL player will get a look in camp, as he tries to kick start his career after some time in the ring and up north.
Dwight Bentley, CB, LA-Lafayette (Round 3, 85th overall)
Seen by many as a steal in the third round, Bentley doesn’t have elite size, but does have a lot of promise. He could contribute on special teams.
Ronnell Lewis, LB, Oklahoma (Round 4, 125th overall)
The second of three Sooners taken by Detroit will be a backup and special teams contributor.
Eric Wright, CB (Buccaneers)
Was the team’s third-leading tackler in 2011, but the Lions went cornerback-heavy in the draft to minimize the sting of the loss.
It had been 13 long years since the franchise appeared in the playoffs prior to this past season. The Lions believe that the nucleus of the team they’ve assembled is good enough to get back there, as they’ve chosen to basically roll the 2011 roster over to 2012, with no major free agent acquisitions or any aggressive plays to move up in April’s draft. Detroit has the look of a team that can compete in the long run, with youth and talent at key positions on both sides of the ball. Keeping that talent healthy (or not suspended, Ndamukong Suh) and on the field has been problematic, though. The Lions are committed to the team they’ve assembled and appear content to simply add depth through the draft. It’s a formula that has brought the team success after the abysmal Matt Millen years that culminated, or, rather, bottomed out, with an 0-16 campaign in 2008 that now seems to be a distant memory.
CAN THE RUNNING BACKS GET HEALTHY AND STAY THAT WAY?
The Lions have invested heavily in running backs via the draft over the past handful of seasons, using early-round picks on Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, all of whom have spent significant amounts of time injured. Ironically, Smith is the healthiest, now a year removed from an ACL tear, but he’s also the back with the lowest ceiling. Best is expected to be back after dealing with concussion symptoms throughout the winter while Leshoure has yet to play in an NFL game after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon during training camp. All three are expected to be healthy once this year’s training camp opens and are all within shouting distance of the first-string job, though Leshoure’s debut will be further delayed by a two-game suspension to start the season. The Lions like their backfield and it’s an impressive enough one on paper, but they need to keep its members healthy in order to ease the pressure placed on the team’s passing game.
IMPROVING THE DEFENSE
Detroit wasn’t an awful defensive team by any metric, but it’s certainly a unit that needs improvement as the team attempts to move into the league’s upper echelon. The Lions ranked outside the top 20 in scoring, total, passing and rushing defense despite being one of the league’s best at creating turnovers. The Lions came up with 21 interceptions, while the defense recovered 13 fumbles as a whole. With Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril (franchise tag) cementing things up front, there’s no reason to believe that the Lions can’t be at least an above average defensive squad in the near future.
RISING: Kevin Smith returned to the Detroit backfield after recovering from an ACL tear to find himself the featured back, with both Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure going down. With Leshoure having been suspended two games out of the gate, Smith could again find himself getting carries by default.
DECLINING: Nate Burleson had an inconsistent campaign a year ago and with the Lions taking a still-recovering Ryan Broyles in the second round, his time may be waning.
SLEEPER: The Lions’ second and third receivers often occupy this spot because of who plays across from them, but Titus Young has the talent to post a true breakout season.
SUPERSLEEPER: Ryan Broyles is unlikely to make an immediate splash, but has the talent to make a mark as the season rolls on, if he can get healthy while others fall.
Ndamukong Suh, DT
Tackles and sacks went down in 2011 while league scrutiny increased. Look for a bounce-back year.
Deandre Levy, LB
Broke the century mark in tackles for the first time in his career last season.
Nick Fairley, DT
Injury-filled and disappointing rookie campaign, but huge upside.
RotoWire Rank: 8