After a decade as the worst franchise in the NFL, the Lions took a big step forward in 2011, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999. But after an offseason in which the Lions made headlines for the wrong reasons, will they take a step backward? Or could the Lions be poised to win a playoff game for the first time since 1991?
At No. 13 in our preseason power rankings, we see the Lions finishing just outside the postseason in 2012, perhaps taking a small step backward in a competitive NFC playoff race. The Lions undoubtedly have a wealth of young talent, but much of that young talent is very expensive, and that means they have some significant holes in the roster that they couldn’t afford to address in free agency.
If Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are healthy for 16 games, the Lions’ passing game will be one of the best in the league. After being plagued by injuries in his first two NFL seasons, Stafford started 16 games and topped 5,000 yards last season. Stafford is only 24 years old and has plenty of time to to grow as a quarterback, but he’s already plenty good. And Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL, and such a threat to opposing secondaries that even when he’s double covered, his mere presence should leave plenty of openings for Stafford to find receivers Nate Burleson, Titus Young and rookie Ryan Broyles.
The defensive line has a great deal of talent and goes eight deep: Starting ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril (assuming he eventually signs his franchise tender) are backed up by solid pass rushers in Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson, and starting tackles Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams are backed up by the big and explosive Nick Fairley and Sammie Lee Hill. Suh needs to keep his head on straight on the field, and Fairley needs to keep his head on straight off the field, but when everyone is focused and ready to go, the Lions have the kind of depth on their defensive line that other teams can only dream of.
The Lions thought their running game could become a strength of the roster last year with a 1-2 punch of Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best, but Leshoure missed the season with a torn Achilles tendon and Best missed most of the season with concussions. Leshoure is suspended for the first two games of the season for two marijuana arrests, but if both players are healthy, and if Kevin Smith continues to play like he did when the Lions acquired him in the middle of last season, the running game might actually be a strength this year.
The secondary was exposed as a major weakness in Week 17 of the regular season and in the wild-card playoff loss to the Saints, when Matt Flynn and Drew Brees torched Detroit’s defensive backs. Losing cornerback Eric Wright, who started all 16 games last season but is now in Tampa Bay, won’t help this year. Getting safety Louis Delmas back and healthy after he missed the final five games of the regular season and was at less than full speed in the playoffs should help, but the secondary is a concern.
Special teams are also a major problem in Detroit. The 42-year-old Jason Hanson isn’t the kicker he was in his 20s and 30s. Neither Ben Graham nor Ryan Donahue, who will compete for the punting job, has a particularly strong leg, and the coverage units weren’t very good last year, either. Return man Stefan Logan failed to make any big plays last year.
A major question mark is the offensive line, which had its ups and downs last year, nearly getting Matthew Stafford killed in games against teams with strong defensive fronts (the Vikings sacked Stafford five times in each of their two NFC North meetings, and the 49ers sacked Stafford five times as well). Stafford’s health is so important to the Lions that they can’t afford to have their offensive line be a weakness. But it very well might be.
The Lions headed into free agency with very little salary cap space, so they focused on maintaining the roster they had, not adding to it. In the case of defensive end Cliff Avril, they kept him with the franchise tag, and eventually he’s expected to sign and report. In the case of linebacker Stephen Tulloch, they kept him by signing him to a new contract. In the case of cornerback Eric Wright, they lost him to the Buccaneers, and that was probably the team’s biggest offseason loss. Where the Lions have to hope they made up for the loss of Wright is in the draft: Three different cornerbacks — third-round pick Dwight Bentley, fifth-round pick Chris Greenwood and sixth-round pick Jonte Green — were taken in the draft, and if one of them is good enough to start as a rookie, that would be a major plus. If all three of them are at least good enough to improve the nickel and dime packages, that would be great, too.
First-round draft pick Riley Reiff is the guy the Lions hope will eventually become their trusty starter at left tackle, although that probably won’t happen this year, as Jeff Backus, who has started every single game at left tackle since the Lions drafted him in 2001, is slated to return to the starting line up again. So if Reiff changes the face of the offensive line, it will probably be by playing a position other than left tackle.
Chris Houston is expected to start at one of the cornerback spots, but after him there’s a lot of competition for the cornerback pecking order. Aaron Berry is probably favored to beat out Jacob Lacey, a free agent arrival from Indianapolis, for the other starting cornerback spot, and rookies Dwight Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green will all be competing for playing time in training camp as well.
Riley Reiff may unseat Gosder Cherilus as the starting right tackle, and moving one of them to guard to unseat starters Rob Sims or Stephen Peterman could be a possibility. All five of last year’s offensive line starters are back, but Reiff wasn’t drafted to be a backup.
A good training camp performance can allow someone to emerge as the No. 1 running back among Mikel Leshoure, Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith, although the three of them have different and complementary styles and can probably all find ways to fit into the offense. Based purely on talent, Leshoure is the one who looks most like a No. 1 running back, but his Achilles and his arrests make him a major question mark.
It says a lot about the kind of roster that G.M. Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have built that it will be a disappointment in Detroit if this is not a playoff team. During the Matt Millen years, the Lions never even had a .500 record, so reaching the point where the playoffs are a realistic annual expectation represents major progress for the Lions.
But the NFC North will be a tough division, with the Packers entering the season as the favorites and the Bears probably a step ahead of the Lions for one of the wild-card spots, and so the Lions may find themselves falling just short in a competitive conference. This is a much better roster than any team Millen ever assembled, and there’s real hope in Detroit, but this looks like a year in which the Lions will find themselves right around .500, and probably just missing out on the playoffs.