To say expectations about the Detroit Lions haven’t been this high since Barry was still playing is like saying that Brian Kelly has anger management issues. It would be akin to suggesting to Sammi and Ron-Ron that maybe they would be better off seeing other people. Hell, Peter King of SI/NBC called them a Super Bowl contender. I know, right? While he has since back tracked faster than Nnamdi Asomogha, he still has them making the playoffs. That is still optimistic, but realistic at least. I think that his 10-6 prediction is “best case scenario”, and would be happy with 8-8. This optimism is all based upon Matthew Stafford playing all 16 regular season games, and therein lies the rub. You guarantee a health Stafford, and I am on board with 10 or 11 wins. I just have yet to see anything that makes me believe he can stay healthy. His injuries have been of the freak variety, but they cost him games nonetheless.
For this preview, I will group all the position groups together, before taking a broader view.
This, as I alluded to earlier, should be the difference between playoffs, and draft lottery. Matthew Stafford has killed it this preseason, putting up a 25/33 for 395 yards with 5TD and 0 picks. I know, I know, preseason. But dude showed what he can do. He did that against mostly first team defenses, and with the shortened training camp, they had their foot on the pedal. The biggest stat to look at is that he was only sacked once. Backus and crew have to make this their priority, and it looks like they finally “get it” for once.
So what does that mean for the regular season? Beats me. And anyone who tells you they know what will happen is a flat out, poopy-faced liar. Yeah I said it. I hate to be Debbie Downer, but I doubt he starts all 16 games this year. He has yet to do it, and until I’m proven wrong, I will be cautious.
So I guess it’s all gloom and doom again, right? Not so fast my friend. There is actually a capable backup. His name is Shaun Hill, and he performed well last year in relief. 2686 yards with a 16/13 ratio isn’t too bad considering the run game was essentially nonexistent by the time he took over. Jahvid Best was playing on 8 toes, and he was the highlight. He isn’t Peyton Manning by any means, but he also isn’t Peyton Manning’s neck. He’s a guy that will win you a game or two that you shouldn’t have won. He can also cost you a few in the same vein. He should fill-in admirably should Stafford need a few weeks off.
Drew Stanton is still on the roster. He played well enough for me to not hate his guts (as much) at the end of the year. And I know I keep harping on this, but the Lions benched him in favor of Hill last year, despite the miniscule fact that SHAUN HILL HAD A BROKEN ARM. I thought Zac Robinson should have won the job, but I digress. If it comes down to Stanton, chances are Mayhew is looking for a QB early in the 2012 draft.
This position will be the only copout.
HEALTHY STAFFORD GRADE-B
HURTY STAFFORD GRADE- C
Jahvid Best started out like gangbusters last year. He ended up like Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters 3. He suffered from the dreaded turf toe for about the last 2/3 of the season, and lost his explosiveness. Unfortunately, Maurice Morris, Kevin Smith, Aaron Berry, and company couldn’t pick up the slack. The team addressed the depth issue by drafting Mikel Leshoure in the 2nd round. Leshoure promptly tore his Achilles, and put the team back to square one.
Best and Morris are back, and that’s about it. A healthy Best is an offensive weapon both running the ball, and catching it out of the backfield. But he is not a 25 carry a game guy, and neither is Morris. The team brought in 2 new players to help out in Jerome Harrison from Cleveland, and Keiland Williams from Washington.
They are good depth players, but not the type of guy that will lead you deep into the playoffs. Although, I think Williams is a sleeper.
Had Leshoure been here, I would be happy but not ecstatic about the position. As it stands?
RUNNING BACK GRADE- B-
Calvin Johnson is Calvin Johnson.
Nate Burleson had what could be a breakout preseason both production wise and, more importantly, chemistry wise. He and Stafford looked to be N’Sync, and said “Bye, Bye, Bye” to the questions about his inability to keep teams from double covering CJ. He had 55 catches and 6 scores last year, but I could do that opposite Calvin Johnson, and I’m out of shape and a smoker. It’s a good bet that the team will get better production out of the position this year.
And just to be sure, the Lions hedged their bets by drafting Titus Young in the second round of the draft. Young is a prototypical slot WR who should be most effective on short to intermediate crossing routes where he can use his speed to separate from linebackers.
Other players at the position are Rashied Davis, a special teamer from Chicago. Maurice Stovall, a 6’5’’ 220 pounder they picked up off the scrap heap, and looked impressive. Stefan Logan is the main return guy, who I will cover in the Special Teams section.
Anytime you have CJ, a player like Burleson in his second year with the team, and a speedy second round rookie, you are incapable of anything less than a B+ in my book
WIDE RECIEVER GRADE- A-
Brandon Pettigrew is emerging as one of the best young tight ends in the game. He had 71 catches and 4 TD last year while recovering from a torn ACL. He should be a great ¾ option in the passing game.
Tony Scheffler is the backup, and had 45 catches last year. That is impressive. He could start on a large number of teams, but will still get plenty of time in 2 TE sets when the team tries to establish the run.
Will Heller is an H-back who will play FB when the situation arises. Meh.
TIGHT END GRADE- B
Lest I be considered an imbiber of the Kool-Aid, it gets worse. The skill positions are legit. If this was NFL Blitz, I would pick them over almost everyone. But, in the real world, blocking is important. And blocking is far from this team’s strength.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jeff Backus did not create cancer. He did not fund any terrorist attacks. He did not have sex with your sister. (Ok, I’m 99.9% sure on the first two, and about 50-50 on the third. Dude’s a millionaire.) He is not Jake Long or Joe Thomas, but he isn’t (insert a Raiders or Bills OT here). He’s a serviceable piece that will need replacing soon.
Rob Sims is aboverage (above average) at LG, and is the strongest piece they have. He can be a Pro Bowler if the team succeeds.
Dominic Raiola talks too much, but is still a starter-level player.
Stephen Peterman/Jacques McClendon/Dylan Gandy is the weakest link on the line. The upside is McClendon, but hopes aren’t high.
Gosder Cherilius just got called for a penalty, and he isn’t playing. He is a first rounder that hasn’t developed. He still has time, but not much.
What else can I say? They are the weakest position group on the defense by a large margin. Whether it’s a reflection on the patchwork offense of last year is yet to be seen. The line gets a horrible rep, but actually isn’t as bad as most think. It gets dinged for not keeping Stafford healthy, however.
OFFENSIVE LINE GRADE- D
Like I said, this can vary depending on Stafford’s shoulder. If the deep threats at WR and TE can keep teams from loading the box, Best can have a big year. It would also keep blitzers from having free shots, since they will be in coverage. It will also allow someone other than CJ to have the honor of being double teamed on a play-by-play basis.
I will again hedge my bets, and say Stafford misses 3-4 games in the middle of the year, and Hill fills in adequately.
OVERALL OFFENSIVE GRADE- B-
In years past, coming to the defensive side of the ball is when I would start taking shots of paint thinner until I could convince myself that Jordon Dizon and Paris Lenon were legit NFL linebackers. This year I am just going to refresh my cocktail and try to stay realistic. OK, maybe 1 or 2 shots for having remembered Dizon was once a starter.
The obvious strength of the defense, this D-line is one of, if not THE, best in the NFL. The Suh-Nami was defensive rookie of the year, and could be better this year with a healthy KVB. He gets labeled dirty, but I say he just plays hard. Yes, I named numerous fantasy teams the “Suh-Namis” this year, wanna fight about it?
The other DTs are pretty badass as well. Corey Williams more than held his own, and Sammie Lee Hill and Andre Fluellen are quality rotation guys. And they drafted the most dominating collegiate defensive player since, uh, Suh, in Nick Fairley. He has been injured, but when healthy he should clean up next to the House of Spears.
The Des should also reap the benefits of Suh, but it is dependent on Kyle Vanden Bosch’s health. He can be a playmaker when he isn’t double teamed, and the tackles should ensure that he isn’t. He’s getting older, but is far from done. (Fingers crossed)
Cliff Avril had 8.5 sacks last year, and should be able to improve on that with better linebacker and DB play. He has really emerged as a pass rusher, and should hit double-digit sacks this year.
Lawrence Jackson was a steal after he was waived by Seattle, and Willie Young adds depth.
DEFENSIVE LINE GRADE- A
This is the most revamped unit on the team, and with that comes a Hallelujah. Julian Peterson was a bust in his time here. He put up good stats, but was constantly out of position, and had some bad penalties. He is no longer here.
The holdovers from last year are DeAndre Levy, who looked like the player he was drafted to be. He was out of position playing MLB last year, and luckily will no longer be there. He will move to the weak side, and can hopefully put some pressure on the QB.
Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer, and Isaiah Ekejiuba (yes, I had to look it up….thrice), are also back, and should be special teamers/depth guys who won’t kill you. I like Bobby Carpenter, and seeing as he’s a former Buckeye, that is high praise.
Now here’s where most of my personal optimism comes. The Lions signed two starting linebackers. One is Justin Durant, formerly of the Jaguars. He will start on the strong-side, and will be solid. That is nice to say.
But Mr. Stephen Tulluch could be special. He, well, just read what I said when they signed him. I won’t throw out the S word, but Spielman is the potential.
This is the most improved unit on the field and, assuming the gel sometime before November, could be a real strength when the weather gets cold, and teams want to run the ball. Homer grade coming in 3….2….
LINEBACKER GRADE- B
It starts with Louis Delmas, not only because he led the team in tackles, but he rocks gold teeth, and mostly because he has a pet alligator. He can be a ballhawk when not chasing down receivers that are roaming free 30 yards downfield.
Amari Spievey is a converted corner who will start at strong safety. He should again fit the solid criteria.
The backups at safety are Erik Coleman, Randy Phillips, and special teamer extraordinaire John Wendling. Coleman is pretty good, Phillips is young, and Wendling is a special teamer extraordinaire.
The much-maligned cornerbacks got upgraded as well. Chris Houston probably isn’t a true #1 corner, but he is here. He had one pick, and spent too much time tackling guys after 12 yard gains.
The new starter is Eric Wright, a FA signed from Cleveland. He was a beast two years ago, struggled last year, and is a high-upside question mark this year. He should be somewhere in between, shading towards good. He should be better in this defensive scheme.
Alphonso “Do the Carlton” Smith led last year with 5 picks, but got burned so bad in the New England game, he needed skin grafts. He was pressed into starting last year, and should man the nickel spot this year.
The rest….uh oh. Aaron Berry should be OK. The rest are guys I doubt you have seen play. Let’s hope it stays that way, if you catch my drift.
This is a below average unit that will be helped by a great D-Line, improved linebackers, and an Offense that may make teams press. If I’m wrong about any of the aforementioned units, expect what you’ve seen the last few years.
DEFENSIVE BACKS GRADE- C-
Jason Hanson is back for the umpteenth time, and will be accurate. He’s Jason Hanson.
Longtime punter Nick Harris lost the job to undrafted rookie Ryan Donahue from Iowa. Harris was decent, so I expect the same or slightly better from Donahue.
The new kickoff rules hurt Detroit more than 75% of the teams, since Stefan Logan is one of the best in the league at returning kicks. Expect to see him taking a knee in the end zone more times than not. However, he also returns punts. He averaged 12.1 yards a return last year.
Let’s just hope this unit never becomes front page news. They should be around middle of the pack, which is fine. Or whatever, it’s special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE- C
This is where it gets tough. It comes down to “Do you buy the hype” or “I have seen Lucy pull the ball away right before I kick it, so I am tempering my expectations. Yes, in fact I am Charlie Brown. No, I never understood what my teacher was saying.” The age old question of head –vs- heart. Or in this case, head –vs- liver. I am begrudgingly going with my heart. I always hear about the NFL’s parity, and how it’s cyclical in nature, and herpity derpity derp.
The truth is, this is the most talent assembled on this side of the ball in ages. And, I can’t bring myself to go in halfway. I have to trust in The Schwartz, and hope Suh isn’t negated by suspensions or chop blocks from butthurt offensive linemen.
OVERALL DEFENSIVE/SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE- B
These Lions have a chip on their shoulder. At least they better. They have been the butt of jokes on The Simpsons, The Tonight Show, and countless ESPN studio shows for years now. They will continue to be a laughing-stock until they prove themselves otherwise. The roster only has 10 players that was here when they went 0-16, so let’s hope the new guys can get some redemption for Hanson and the others.
Here’s where the fun starts. Here’s where I throw shit at the wall and sees what sticks.
- · The Lions have 4 Pro Bowl starters. Calvin, Sims, Suh, and Tulluch. Avril makes it as an alternate, despite deserving to start.
- · CJ has a career year, and passes Andre Johnson as the undisputed best WR in the NFL.
- · Tulluch leads the NFC in tackles.
- · Avril has 12+ sacks.
- · Stafford misses 3-4 games, but plays as a top 10 QB when healthy.
- · Hanson is unable to finish the season, and kicking becomes a huge weakness.
The tough part about predicting the record is the uncertainty surrounding so many teams on the schedule. What do you do with Kansas City, who made the playoffs last year, but waaay overachieved? What about Chicago, who made the playoffs with Jay Cutler at QB?
I will go with 10-6. The wins?
· At Tampa Bay
· Kansas City
· At Minnesota
· San Francisco
· At Denver
· At Oakland
· At Green Bay
I just peed a little. I am picking them for the playoffs, but losing in the first round unless the pull the winner of the NFC West, in which case they go 1-1 in the playoffs, and statues of Schwartz are erected outside Ford Field. Also, I just said erected.
Here goes nothin….