After a decade of being the worst team in the league, the Lions finally returned to the playoffs last season with a team that was largely built through the draft. Now the Lions are in the unfamiliar position of drafting late in the first round, and of knowing that if they can fill a couple of big holes, they could use this draft to put the finishing touches on a Super Bowl contender.
Cornerback: Rarely does an NFL secondary get shredded as badly as the Lions’ did in their regular-season ending loss to the Packers and their postseason loss to the Saints. And if those two games didn’t make clear that cornerback was a significant need for the Lions, the loss of Eric Wright in free agency sealed it. This is the position at which the Lions are in greatest need of a new starter.
Drafting South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore would be the best-case scenario for the Lions, but few people think he’ll remain available deep enough into the draft for the Lions to grab him at No. 23. If Gilmore is gone, Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick may be an option for the Lions, although he’s not a great fit for what the Lions do defensively and may not be ready to step in and start in Week One. If the Lions want to take a high-risk, high-reward pick, they could go with North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins, who’s as talented as any cornerback in this draft but whose character concerns will likely make him available late in the first round. If Detroit doesn’t upgrade the secondary in the first round, it absolutely must do so later in the draft. But what the Lions really need is a starter, and it’s unlikely they’ll get a starting cornerback on the second or third day of the draft.
Offensive tackle: Jeff Backus, the first draft pick of the Matt Millen era, will return for his 12th season with the Lions and is projected to start at left tackle, as he has every single game since the Lions drafted him. But the 34-year-old Backus had an up-and-down season last year, and in his worst games he nearly got Matthew Stafford killed. (Minnesota’s Jared Allen sacked Stafford six times.) The Lions would like to draft an offensive tackle who can be groomed as Backus’s replacement.
Ohio State’s Mike Adams is a possibility in the first round, and the fact that he tested positive for marijuana is a red flag that won’t bother the Lions. Stanford’s Jonathan Martin could be an option for the Lions as well.
Running back: The Lions spent a second-round pick on running back Mikel LeShoure last year, but it’s hard to be confident in him when he missed the entire season with a torn Achilles, then got arrested twice for marijuana possession this year. Jahvid Best opened the season as a starter but ended it on injured reserve, and there are serious concerns about his history of concussions. Kevin Smith came in and did a nice job late in the year, but the Lions seem to view him more as a stopgap than a regular starter. Add it all up and the Lions may decide they need yet another running back on the roster.
Defensive end: The Lions had a good pair of starting defensive ends in Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, but that doesn’t mean this is not a position of need. Avril is unsigned as the team’s franchise player, and if the Lions are concerned they won’t be able to work out a long-term deal with him, a rookie defensive end could allow them to tell Avril he can sign the one-year franchise tender or sit. And Vanden Bosch will turn 34 during the season, so the Lions would like to get younger at the position. Plus, a better pass rush would help the Lions’ secondary.
Last year’s Lions team showed a lot of promise, but the pass defense ultimately disappointed. This year’s draft will determine whether the Lions can improve upon their 10-win 2011.