2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening
At 2-10 last December, the first whispers about head coach Jim Schwartz's job security began to flow through the state of Michigan. A month later, when the Lions finished the season with four consecutive victories — and out of the NFC North cellar, ahead of the Vikings — the talk was that this might be a team to watch in 2011.
Why not? With elite, young playmakers such as WR Calvin Johnson and DT Ndamukong Suh, a dozen or so young foundation players to build around and a nice, veteran backbone on the roster, the prospects are promising in Detroit.
But questions and doubts remain, too. For the Lions to vault over the Packers and Bears, the two NFC championship game participants, and make the postseason for the first time since 1999, they will have to have the potential young stars live up to their billing.
Chief on that list, of course, is QB Matthew Stafford. Through two seasons, he has been able to start only 13 of the Lions' 32 games. It's not a function of toughness but of durability. Schwartz and the Lions continue to say they are not worried about his health, but it's clear Stafford must live up to the very high expectations placed upon him. Although the backups performed well when Stafford was out, this is his team.
Schwartz has a young, swarming defense led by Suh and a great defensive line, and though there are holes elsewhere, this unit has very good upside.
The Lions in the playoffs? They're getting closer to making it a reality.
The job that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan did with three starting quarterbacks, crucial injuries at running back and right tackle and no real third receiving option was fairly commendable. Assuming Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, he has the arm strength and intelligence to lead a fast-paced vertical passing offense. But Linehan and Jim Schwartz also want to pound the ball and beat down opponents with the run, so Jahvid Best's health and finding a replacement for injured rookie RB Mikel Leshoure will be key.
Quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford has the tools to excel. He can command the huddle, stick downfield routes with velocity and make plays when his team needs him most. But aside from his health issues, especially some troublesome shoulder ailments, Stafford also must show he can continue to improve his accuracy and cut down on sacks. But watch the tape of him standing in the face of pressure to make some big throws against the Jets last season — before he got hurt again — and you'll see how talented Stafford is. Backup Shaun Hill was a godsend as a replacement starter. He kept the team close in nearly every game and displayed good leadership and poise in a difficult situation. His smarts outweigh his raw ability, and Hill is one of the NFL's better backups. No. 3 QB Drew Stanton also showed some skill at season's end.
Running backs: The Lions are confident that Jahvid Best will not encounter the same bad luck that he did as a rookie, suffering two turf-toe injuries, one on each foot. Although he came out of college with the reputation of being injury-prone (and perhaps concussion-prone), the team believes it has an electric threat in the mold of the Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who broke out in his second season. Best is an exceptional receiver, can burst through small holes and turn on the jets. He has great movement skills and is working to round his entire game into form. However, Best too often was bottled up inside and might have to battle injuries and miss a handful of games each season. He suffered a concussion in the Lions' second preseason game, but it wasn't regarded as serious, and he was back at practice in less than a week. The team signed Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell after promising rookie Mikel Leshoure suffered a season-ending Achilles injury — a loss that could loom large. Harrison is quick but small and is not a burner. He was inconsistent in Cleveland before being dealt to Philadelphia last October in exchange for Bell, a bigger back who could vie for short-yardage work but lacks speed and gained only 99 yards on 47 carries in 2010. Veteran Maurice Morris stepped in and did a respectable job last season, considering he has no explosion. Stefan Logan, a very good returner, also can play wide receiver. He contributes primarily on special teams. Aaron Brown is also in the mix but must show more. FB Jerome Felton isn't a true hammer as a blocker, but he's versatile.
Receivers: Calvin Johnson has managed to thrive in his four seasons without consistent, elite QB play. Imagine what he could do if Matthew Stafford could stay on the field. Johnson is an athletic wonder who is a mismatch physically for most cornerbacks. He can high-point the ball, run vertical routes faster than most and cross the middle to make the tough, acrobatic catch. If there's a knock on him, it's that Johnson can disappear during some key stretches and doesn't dominate as much as he should, but a lot of that has to do with the constraints of the team's passing game. Nate Burleson proved to be an ideal No. 2 option once he settled in. He's happy seeing 6-8 passes thrown his way per game and a lot of single coverage. Burleson has good straight-line speed and runs well with the ball, but he has had a penchant for injuries in his career. The Lions must develop a third WR option. Rookie Titus Young will get a chance to fill that role. He has rare speed and very good hands but a slight build. The big question for Young is whether he can hold up physically. Veterans Rashied Davis, Derrick Williams and Maurice Stovall are the other WR options. Davis' special-teams work helps his case. Stovall has good size and can help on special teams, too. Williams, a former second-round pick, hasn't shown much in two NFL seasons. Tight end is a major strength. Brandon Pettigrew answered questions in his second season, both as a blocker and receiver. He proved to be a good first- and second-down passing option, finding the cracks in zones and working well underneath, even if he's not a game-breaker or a great red-zone threat yet. Pettigrew also showed his blocking prowess more consistently last season than as a rookie. No. 2 TE Tony Scheffler is a good athlete and seam buster. He did his best work in the slot on third downs. No. 3 TE Will Heller is an excellent blocker.
Offensive linemen: Scouts are some-what divided on the play of this unit's two longtime members, OLT Jeff Backus and C Dominic Raiola. Some believe that Backus is unfairly criticized, having done some of his better work the past two seasons. But others say he is a slow-footed, underpowered left tackle who would be better off moving to right guard. However, he allowed only three sacks and committed four penalties last season. Backus missed the start of training camp with a pectoral injury but has returned to the lineup. As for Raiola, one observer said he thought the center has gotten grabbier the past few seasons and can be overwhelmed by power. But the Lions believe that Raiola still has a lot of good football left and will be a key in Matthew Stafford's development. OLG Rob Sims was a nice addition last season. He solidified the spot with toughness and power. Stephen Peterman, a 16-game starter a season ago, is the incumbent at right guard. Jim Schwartz called ORT Gosder Cherilus the team's most improved offensive player before getting hurt last December, and the tape showed it. Cherilus no longer was fooled by stunts and twists and he didn't look as tentative as in his first two seasons. Now, he must put it all together and become an anchor in the run game. Cherilus is coming back from microfracture surgery on his right knee. Corey Hilliard, Jason Fox, Rudy Niswanger and rookie Johnny Culbreath are among the reserve options at tackle. Dylan Gandy will vie to be the top reserve at center, and Dan Gerberry and Niswanger are also capable of playing in the middle. Hilliard and Niswanger are among the backup options at guard.
Gunther Cunningham and Jim Schwartz want to recreate what the Titans had a few years ago when both men were coaching the defense there. They had a versatile, havoc-wreaking D-line; a group of smart, agile linebackers; and tough, physical defensive backs. The Lions are a few pieces away from that, but they have strength up the middle with DTs Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams, MLB Stephen Tulloch and FS Louis Delmas. The Lions often run a 4-3 "over" front with the ends aligned wide, setting a hard edge vs. the run. They run a lot of zone coverages and blitz far less with the strong DL talent.
Defensive linemen: We could be witnessing the start of a Hall of Fame career for Ndamukong Suh. Is it too early to make such a statement? Absolutely. But few interior defenders have had the kind of success Suh did as a rookie, not only as a pass rusher (10 sacks) but also as a run defender. Although he occasionally freelanced and got out of his gap, Suh has rare hand strength and violence as an upfield penetrator. He wants to be the best player at his position and is highly aggressive, even gaining a bit of a reputation as a dirty player, thanks to a few 15-yard penalties. (He drew a $20,000 fine for a hit on Bengals QB Andy Dalton in the preseason opener.) The Lions will do nothing to temper Suh's enthusiasm, and they know he has the work ethic and desire to get better. He was put in a great situation playing next to Corey Williams, who found a proper home as a one-gapping one-technique. Williams has long arms to bat down passes, can absorb double-teams and even slant in gaps to make an occasional play. The Lions added to their strength up the middle with the addition of DT Nick Fairley. Fairley, who was expected to miss the entire preseason after foot surgery, is an explosive interior rusher with a high ceiling but must apply himself to reach his full potential. His status for Week One is unclear. DLE Cliff Avril enjoyed his best season in 2010. He's a bit light for a closed-end rusher, but he does a good job of crashing hard from outside the tight end. More than a mere inspirational leader, DRE Kyle Vanden Bosch also can still rush the passer. Prior to his neck injury a season ago, he was on pace for his most tackles in four seasons and can be kept fresh with a good rotation behind him. DE Lawrence Jackson has done well when called upon, and fellow reserve DE Willie Young has potential. DT Sammie Hill is a capable reserve, and Andre Fluellen is another option at tackle.
Linebackers: WLB DeAndre Levy is a smart, instinctive and hard-hitting leader for this improved group. He has loose hips and can change direction and take down ballcarriers. He has gotten a little beat up his first two seasons but is a budding leader as well. He began the summer in the middle, but it's expected he'll play on the weak side. Stephen Tulloch, who was second in the NFL in tackles a season ago with 160, is quick and instinctive and should be a nice fit in the middle. Tulloch and Levy appear interchangeable, which gives the defense some flexibility. Ex-Jaguar Justin Durant will start on the strong side. Durant runs very well but has never played a full season. Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer and rookie Doug Hogue will vie for backup roles. Carpenter was productive late last season. Palmer and Hogue fit the mold of Lions linebackers, with speed and athletic ability valued above all.
Defensive backs: LCB Chris Houston was better than expected, locking down some good receivers. One scout was surprised how little Houston was tested last season until he watched how sticky his coverage was. Houston is not big, but he can compete with his light feet, balance and body control. He also is feisty in press coverage and is a willing tackler. Former Browns CB Eric Wright looks like he'll start on the right side. He struggled mightily in 2010 but has flashed good coverage skills and could bounce back in a new setting. Alphonso Smith showed promise a season ago (five picks), but he stumbled down the stretch as his gambles paid off less often. He missed training camp with a broken foot. The team also has Aaron Berry, Brandon McDonald, Nathan Vasher and Prince Miller in reserve. Berry showed potential before suffering a season-ending right shoulder injury that required surgery. FS Louis Delmas is a budding star with good range and blitzing and hitting skills, but he frequently is banged up and must stay on the field as he develops into the leader of the secondary. The staff had praise for CB-turned-SS Amari Spievey, but he remains a work in progress. Spievey still lacks feel in coverage in space. Erik Coleman is a veteran alternative to Spievey. S John Wendling is a good special-teamer, and ex-Giant Michael Johnson, who started 35 games for New York, is another option on the back end, as are rookie Ricardo Silva and veteran Aaron Francisco.
Jason Hanson is the favorite to win the Lions' PK job for the 20th consecutive season. Challenger Dave Rayner kicked well in place of the injured Hanson last season, but Hanson's experience edge could be decisive. Nick Harris is adept at downing punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line and tilting field position. Rookie Ryan Donahue is also competing at punter. Stefan Logan was exceptional as the return specialist last season. He was a contributor in coverage, too. The punt-return coverage could use some tightening up, however.
There are two ways to look at the fact that the Lions won their final four games and dropped seven of their 10 losses by eight points or fewer. One is to say they are on the edge of something great. The other is to say that they are a young, budding team that still needs to learn how to win. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Overcoming the Packers and Bears will be a tough chore, but the Lions can make major strides if Matthew Stafford stays healthy and the defense keeps improving. It's a team not to count out in 2011.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.