With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lingering lockout, we are taking a tour around the league and looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we offer our take on where the Lions stand.
Top three story lines
1. QB Matthew Stafford has all the ability to be a star in this league, and yet he only has started 13 of 32 career games because of injuries. Few question his toughness; it's his durability that is a concern. For the Lions to compete this season, Stafford must stay healthy and be the leader of what could be a dynamic offense. The early reports about Stafford's shoulder are positive.
2. What kind of DL combinations might we see from this potentially dominant group? Coordinator Gunther Cunningham and DL coach Kris Kocurek have spent the past few weeks coming up with ways to utilize their bevy of talent up front after drafting DT Nick Fairley. The way head coach Jim Schwartz figures, there are about 130 DT snaps per game, and divvying them up between Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Fairley shouldn't be hard. And Suh can kick out to end, too, joining Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and others to what could be a destructive front.
3. There are three, maybe four defensive positions still up for grabs. The Lions need to settle two of their LB spots as well as perhaps two secondary jobs at right corner and strong safety. CB Alphonso Smith and SS Amari Spievey are young players who could earn those jobs, but the Lions might want to bring in additional reinforcements. Right now, DeAndre Levy is the one linebacker who is guaranteed to start. He could fit inside or slide to either OLB spot if the team chases a free-agent middle linebacker, such as Stephen Tulloch of the Titans. The Lions are not done remaking their defense.
2011 free agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: DE Cliff Avril (3), LB Korey Bosworth (1), S C.C. Brown (6), OLB Caleb Campbell (1), OLB Bobby Carpenter (5), MLB Vinny Ciurciu (8), WR Brian Clark (5), DE Jared DeVries (12), FB Jerome Felton (3), DT Andre Fluellen (3), C Dylan Gandy (5), CB Tye Hill (5), OT Corey Hilliard (2), CB Chris Houston (4), OLB Landon Johnson (7), RS Stefan Logan (2), DE Turk McBride (4), CB Brandon McDonald (4), CB Prince Miller (1), TE Jake Nordin (1), OLB Ashlee Palmer (2), S Randy Phillips (1), CB Paul Pratt (1), PK Dave Rayner (4), RB Kevin Smith (3), QB Drew Stanton (4), DE Barry Turner (1), CB Nathan Vasher (7), S John Wendling (4). [Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after four years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.]
Analysis: Most of the team's key free agents — Avril, Houston, McBride top the list — are third- and fourth-year players, so there's a decent chance they won't be unrestricted. Many of the other players (not including the first- and second-year exclusive-rights guys) are replaceable in the long term. Many believe that the Lions are poised to make a run at CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but they'll have stiff competition. Besides, it might not be financially feasible, but Schwartz did hint that the team would explore improving the secondary through free agency and trades. An offensive lineman also could be in the mix.
2011 rookie class
First-round DT Nick Fairley (No. 13 overall) — A bit of a luxury pick to some, Fairley nonetheless could form a dominant duo with Ndamukong Suh for the next several years.
Second-round WR Titus Young (No. 44 overall) — The Lions believe that they have the solution to their void in the slot with this explosive but smallish playmaker.
Second-round RB Mikel Leshoure (No. 57 overall) — The 223-pound Leshoure could be the perfect complement to speed back Jahvid Best in a remade offensive backfield.
Fifth-round LB Doug Hogue (No. 157 overall) — His lack of LB experience makes him a developmental project on defense, but his athleticism should serve well on special teams.
Seventh-round OT Johnny Culbreath (No. 209 overall) — Culbreath is raw but a quality athlete for his size, and they'll try him at tackle and guard.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Falcons be by the work stoppage?
On scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Lions rate a 4. Getting Stafford working again is important, but the team has rare stability for the first time in years. The offensive and defensive systems are in place, and though there will be some new faces on both sides, the team's core is in place. Still, it's a young group in spots that will need to jell in order to make a run at the postseason.