State of the Franchise
What promised to be another year of the new era in Detroit quickly devolved into another Motor City meltdown in 2012. The Lions followed up their first trip to the playoffs since 1999 with a 4-12 effort that featured an eight-game losing streak to finish the season.
The Lions managed just one win over a team with a winning record last season, though they were no strangers to close calls. Nine of Detroitís losses were by single digits and two were in overtime, lending some credence to the notion that the team was actually closer to a repeat playoff berth than its poor record would indicate.
QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson, the two biggest pieces in place to fuel Detroitís continued offensive success for the next decade, werenít able to replicate their stellar 2011 numbers, but they came close in some respects. Stafford finished just shy of recording 5,000 passing yards for a second straight season and completed 59.8 percent of his passes. He did, however, see his touchdowns cut in half (from 41 to 20), due in large part to Calvin Johnson seeing the end zone just five times after scoring 16 times in 2011. Johnson did, however, account for a whopping 1,964 yards receiving.
The revolving door and unanswered questions in the running game continued last year for the Lions, with injuries again derailing promising backs. Detroit hopes it has added a viable threat in the backfield in Reggie Bush, an intriguing pass-catching option joining a pass-heavy team. The Lions still believe that Mikel Leshoure has the ability to be a starting-caliber back, but there was little evidence of that during a 2012 season in which he averaged 3.7 yards per carry. At tight end, Brandon Pettigrew will try to bounce back after seeing his reception total fall to 59 after an 83-catch effort in 2011.
Defensively, the loss of DE Cliff Avril via free agency figures to sting, but the Lions addressed the void quickly by selecting fellow end Ezekiel Ansah fifth overall in Aprilís draft. The front four has been a strength for the team, but not the overwhelming force it envisioned when selecting DTís Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley as back-to-back first-rounders in 2010 and 2011. While Detroitís offense has flirted with excellence, the defense hasnít been able to escape mediocrity, and without any major additions outside of Ansah, thereís not much reason to believe that will change.
The Lionsí core is still young and still talented, but it will have to deal with the weight of failing to live up to expectations in 2012. Outside of Green Bay, however, the NFC North appears vulnerable if the Lions can figure out how to turn close losses into victories.
Reggie Bush - RB, Dolphins
Has his limitations, but will be able to provide Detroit with a spark in the backfield that could keep defenses honest.
DAVID AKERS - K, 49ers
It was a down season last year for the veteran, but now has the opportunity to replace a Lions legend, Jason Hanson.
Ezekiel Ansah - DE, Brigham Young
(Round 1, 5th overall)
Could help fill the void left by the departure of Cliff Avril via free agency.
COREY FULLER - WR, Virginia Tech
(Round 6, 171st overall)
The former track athlete will likely need some seasoning before heís ready to help out.
Theo Riddick - RB, Notre Dame
(Round 6, 199th overall)
A dual threat out of the backfield, who could be in line to see some action, given a fluid RB depth chart.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS - TE, Alabama
(Round 7, 211th overall)
The Lions will be looking for a third tight end with Will Heller not re-signing.
Cliff Avril - DE, Seahawks
His loss takes a bite out of Detroitís D-Line.
JASON HANSON - K, Retired
A 21-year era with the Lions ended this past spring with his retirement.
Though the Lions quickly learned that they had found the right pairing at quarterback for wideout Calvin Johnson when they drafted Matthew Stafford, theyíve struggled to add other key skill position pieces around the twosome. The running game has been an absolute mess, with four different players leading the Lions in rushing during Johnsonís tenure, with none of said quartet ever eclipsing 1,000 yards. Most never even approached it. The Lions are hoping that Reggie Bush can provide an alternative to the teamís reliance on Johnson, but thatís no sure bet to transpire. Meanwhile, Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell have much to prove as well. The Lions have had a bit more success in finding a No. 2 wideout opposite Johnson with Nate Burleson being a competent cog, but heís coming off a broken leg and the youngster Detroit invested so much hope in, Ryan Broyles, is rehabbing an ACL tear for the second time in two years. Stafford and Johnson showed in 2011 how potent a duo they can be. Making the options around them viable will be a key to their sustained success, with both players under long-term contracts with the Lions.
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE
Having been one of the most ineffective franchises over the past decade gave Detroit the opportunity to continuously select at the top of the draft, giving them high-promise prospects on both sides of the ball. Those selections have paid dividends on the offensive end, but the defense hasnít kept pace. Ndamukong Suh has been a disruptive presence, but not quite the game-changer many predicted. Meanwhile, fellow DT Nick Fairley is still finding his way. The Lions defense doesnít have one glaring weakness to point to, but theyíve been rather mediocre in every respect, ranking 16th in rush defense, 14th against the pass, 24th in sacks and 27th in takeaways, resulting in a rank of 27 in scoring defense in 2012. Improving in just one aspect could go a long way toward a potential rebound by the unit this season.
RACE FOR THIRD
Bush and Leshoure are all but assured the top two spots on the Lionsí running back depth chart, but who will emerge behind them is murky. And with the duoís injury history, itís a job worth winning. Bell had spurts of success last season and the Lions are high on sixth-round pick Theo Riddick. With how volatile things have been recently in the teamís backfield, either of those two could conceivably emerge as a notable contributor, especially if Bush is used heavily as a receiver, as has been speculated, or if Leshoure canít improve measurably.
Rising: Reggie Bush figures to see a ton of pass-catching opportunities come his way in Detroitís air attack offense.
Declining: Ryan Broyles looked like he could be a legitimate threat opposite Calvin Johnson, but a second ACL tear in two years puts both his long and short-term viability in question.
Sleeper: Joique Bell will open the season third on the RB depth chart at best, but he was solid in relief last year and there are injury risks attached to the backs ahead of him.
Supersleeper: With Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles both coming back from injuries, Mike Thomas could make a play to claim the teamís No. 2 wideout assignment.
STEPHEN TULLOCH - LB
Has had four straight seasons with at least 110 stops.
Ndamukong Suh - DT
His eight sacks last season rank among the best for interior linemen.
Nick Fairley - DT
Another year alongside Suh should mean a jump in production for him.
RotoWire Rank: 17