|C'mon, Lions fans. You know your boy would have gotten killed...|
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.
We continue the previews with one of the most fearsome post-game handshake teams in the league, the Detroit Lions. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:
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*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Estimated cap is $124 million.*
2011 Record: 10-6
PPG For: 29.6 (4th)
PPG Against: 24.2 (23rd)
2012 Cap Number: $122,760,121
Draft Position: #23 Pick
Well that was fun, wasn’t it, Lions fans? From Week 9 of the 2007 season to the end of the 2010 season, your team won 10 whole games and scored 30 or more points just six whole times. In 2011, just one season, your team won 10 games and scored 30 or more points a whopping seven times. So yeah, I can see why you would be pretty excited about your team. Best of all, it wasn’t a random fluke and it didn’t involve a 70 year old Dave Krieg! No, the Lions are legitimately good, and barring an absolute catastrophe (don’t pretend like you aren’t terrified, Detroit fans!), this team looks like it has the makings of a future power. And by future I mean pretty much right now. A few tweaks here and there and a commitment to better on-field discipline, and the sky is the limit for this group.
Matt Stafford. Blew up. Like a supernova. And no, I don’t think I’m exaggerating. As with all rebuilding projects, everything rests on the QB you pick. There were some struggles in Matt Stafford’s rookie season, and there were some uncertain times regarding his penchant for getting hurt, but there remains no doubt that Stafford was the right pick to lead this team back to contention. At age 23, and with just 13 starts under his belt, Stafford put up a historic season, amassing 5038 yards and 41 TD’s. Those numbers are great, but it’s the improvement in rate numbers that most impresses me.
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Looking at his numbers through two seasons, it’s easy for me to remember why I doubted Stafford. He had major accuracy issues, he couldn’t consistently drive the ball downfield, and he made poor decisions. I mean, you’re talking about a guy who, according to Football Outsiders’ charting, had a similarity score through his first two seasons comparable to Matt Leinart!
Now, to be fair, his early numbers are skewed a bit due to being extremely young (21 as a rookie) and struggling with injuries. Also, being thrown into the fire for a 16 loss team can’t help either. Still, the type of across the board improvement in Stafford’s game is remarkable. To me, it not only speaks of his immense talent level, it speaks of the type of work ethic and commitment to excellence that every championship level QB must have. Now, instead of wondering whether Stafford is a waste of a #1 pick, we’re all wondering if he belongs in the Tom Brady/Aaron Rodgers class of QB. I’m not ready to open that door to him yet, but I have a feeling he’ll be beating it down very soon.
Speaking of being elite, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Calvin Johnson is, without a doubt, the best receiver in football. I’ll never forget watching him clear three Cowboys or an impossible TD. Just amazing.
The nice thing about the Lions is that there really isn’t a major flaw. The offense is obviously good, the line is pretty good, the defense is alright – there isn’t one big thing that makes you want to throw up in the corner. So, instead of closing off a section of the team with bright yellow caution tape, let’s nit-pick a few things and figure out what Detroit needs to focus on in order to take the next step.
A.) Discipline – The Lions led the league in personal fouls with just over 79 per game (I actually made that up…they led the league with 28 total), and were third in the league with 7.9 total penalties per game. That’s just ridiculous that they would be so dumb, and it has to stop. The problem starts with Schwartz. His fiery personality is clearly an asset to the team, but the fact that Detroit is second in total penalties since his arrival in 2009 is just unacceptable. I watched every member of the team simultaneously pull out a gun and shoot themselves in the foot on Thanksgiving Day, a game which they actually had a chance to take control of early on. No way around it, the penalty thing has got to stop.
B.) Third down offense – 35.8%, 20th in the league. The Lions consistently failed to get big first down conversions in key situations. This honestly isn’t a big deal, and I feel certain the team’s performance in this area will be solved through further development of Stafford and the return of Best (or a real RB who can actually stay healthy).
C.) The secondary – This is the biggest problem area for the Lions, and it’s one that needs immediate attention. That’s not to say that it’s a HUGE problem, but none of the guys they have are really #1 type guys.
D.) Division – I’m well aware that anything can happen in the NFL, but barring a meteor striking Aaron Rodgers directly in the temple, this looks to be his division for the time being. Doesn’t mean the Lions can’t surpass them, it just means that it will be very, VERY difficult.
(Note that I didn’t list ‘running game’ as a weakness. I don’t care if they don’t run the ball that well. There’s very little correlation between a good running game and winning the Super Bowl. The Giants won last year and struggled to run most of the year, and the Packers won the year before with James Freaking Starks. So no, I don’t care. Carry on, Lions fans.)
Key Free Agents: DE Cliff Avril (franchised), T Jeff Backus, LB Bobby Carpenter, S Chris Harris, DT Sammie Lee Hill, LB DeAndre Levy, RB Maurice Morris, RB Kevin Smith, LB Stephen Tulloch, CB Eric Wright
3 Key Questions:
#1 – Are they going to get killed in free agency?
Look, I don’t have a grand insight into every team’s cap situation, so I can’t say for certain where the Lion stand. With contracts and bonuses and escalators…well, the whole thing is far too complicated for my simple mind. One thing that everyone, and I do mean everyone, agrees on is that the Lions are up against it cap wise. Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford hit all kinds of bonuses with their huge seasons, and the team has a bunch of players it needs to bring back. The question is, can they actually afford them all? If not, who goes?
First and foremost, the team has complete control over Cliff Avril and DeAndre Levy. Avril was tagged last week, and the team has consistently maintained that they will not, under any circumstances, let him go. That’s a wise move since he might be the best young pass rusher in the league. Levy is a restricted free agent, which means the Lions also have complete control over him. That’s also a good thing since, at 25, Levy is just now hitting the peak of what should be a terrific career.
But where does that leave Chris Harris, Jeff Backus, Stephen Tulloch, and Eric Wright? All were starters last season, and all would be extremely difficult to replace. Tulloch would be the most difficult to replace, in my estimation, and it would be a tough blow to see a talented young player like him depart. GM Martin Mayhew has proven that he’s very good at what he does, but he’s going to have to get extra creative this offseason to keep as much of the team’s core intact as possible.
#2 – Who steps up as the complimentary pieces on offense?
We all know that this is Matt Stafford’s and Calvin Johnson’s team, but the offense can’t simply run off two players. For his part, Brandon Pettigrew had a nice year with 83 catches, but the team still needs a RB and a #2 WR to emerge. Nate Burleson and Jahvid Best were supposed to be those guys last year, but it just didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. The easy explanation for Best is injury, but I honestly just think he’s not that good of a player. In 22 career games, Best has only had 5 games where he’s averaged 4.0 YPC or more on at least 10 carries, and has exactly one 100 yard rushing game. So other than his ability as a pass catcher, I’m just not sure what he brings to the team. As for Burleson, he was always miscast as a #2 receiver. He caught plenty of passes, but averaged just 10.4 YPC and made very few plays in the red zone.
So, is there anyone that can pick up the slack next year? Titus Young had a nice rookie season, and showed enough playmaking ability to be considered a possible solution at WR. He definitely seems more comfortable in the slot, but his after the catch talent could make him a good counter to Megatron’s downfield exploits. As for RB, who knows how that will shake out? Even if Best comes back at full strength, it won’t be long before he’s back on IR again. Kevin Smith played really, really well in his brief stint, but he too is an injury waiting to happen. However, don’t sleep on Mikel Leshoure. The 2011 second rounder suffered a preseason injury that kept him out the whole year, but reports indicate that he’s already back at full strength. He’s a really talented player and he could make a big impact if he’s ready to go.
#3 – What is the next step for Matthew Stafford?
My biggest criticism of him last year was that he looked to be too easily rattled. For example, when things started to roll downhill in the Thanksgiving Day game, Stafford got caught up in it and compounded several errors. Before you knew it, the Lions were out of the game. This happened in several other games, causing the team to face some big early deficits. It’s a testament to their ability that they were able to bounce back and win a lot of those games, but it’s one thing to come back on Romo, it’s another thing altogether to come back on Aaron Rodgers.
Mel Kiper has them taking Janoris Jenkins, and I wholeheartedly agree. Given the team’s cap situation, there isn’t going to be an opportunity to go out and land a guy like Cortland Finnegan (who, by the way, would be perfect for this team). Jenkins has massive amounts of talent, and he represents a big opportunity for a playoff team like the Lions to steal a #1 CB for pennies on the dollar.
If Jenkins is gone, then there is one of two ways they could go:
1. Address the offensive line: This would be my preferred option, as the line was quietly not all that great. Jeff Backus, in particular, struggled against good competition, and it’s fair to wonder whether he has much left in the tank. Mike Adams is a decent prospect at this stage in the draft.
2. Replace Stephen Tulloch: This, of course, depends on if Tulloch actually leaves. Since there’s a good chance he will, I’ll go ahead and mention it. Vontaze Burfict has fallen on draft boards, but he’s immensely talented and could wind up being the Janoris Jenkins of linebackers.
I picked the Lions to win 5 games last year, and that was clearly a huge, huge error. They’re good. By the end of last year, it was clear that they weren’t quite ready to play with the big boys, but that day is coming very soon – maybe as soon as 2012. In many ways, this offense reminds me of the Saints offense, and if the pieces fall into place then we might actually see them surpass the Saints. After all, the Saints never had a receiver like Calvin Johnson. So hey, why not the Lions in 2012? I mean, if the Giants can win the Super Bowl…