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Last year, the Detroit Lions' linebacker play was pathetic. Running backs had field days against this horrid defense. Fourteen running backs ran for 90 yards or more against the Lions last year, and the Lions allowed a league high 31 rushing touchdowns. While all this cannot be attributed to poor linebacker play, even the most inattentive viewer of a Lions game would notice the likes of Alex Lewis, Paris Lenon and even Ernie Sims running in the wrong direction. While poor defensive line play gave running backs gaping holes, the play of the linebackers turned six or seven yard gains into huge, game-changing plays.
In the offseason, the Lions added pro-bowler Julian Peterson in a trade with Seattle. Peterson is a nine-year veteran who is still playing at a high level. In 2008, he had totaled 86 tackles and forced the most fumbles (4) in his career. Peterson adds talent and leadership to a core that is still trying to find its identity. Sims returns for his fourth year after a very disappointing 2008 season. Sims had a career-low in tackles last season and failed to cause a turnover. Some blame Sims' poor play on his lack of confidence in his teammates, others fear he is just another name in the list of Detroit's draft busts. With the addition of Peterson, Sims has a chance to win back the trust of Lions fans. He will need to improve his vision, as his troubles last year were not with tackling, but positioning. Hopefully head coach Jim Schwartz, who stresses preparation, will be able to teach Sims to trust his teammates and instincts more.
But the biggest problem with this unit is the lack of a middle linebacker. Last year, it appeared the Lions were trying to plug this hole by targeting Jerod Mayo in the 2008 draft. Unfortunately, Lions fans (myself included) were enraged when Mayo's name was called seven picks before the Lions had a crack at him. Scrambling to find a replacement, the Lions drafted Colorado linebacker Jordon Dizon in the second round. Dizon failed to replace Lenon as the starting middle linebacker and appears to be more suitable on the outside (while Mayo went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year). There still may be a chance at him in the middle, but it looks more likely that he will simply be a special teams and depth guy on the roster. With Lenon unsigned, the Lions have little options at middle linebacker currently. Free agent acquisition Cody Spencer was running the middle in mini-camp this weekend, but he has never started a game at any position.
Clearly, middle linebacker needs to be a priority again in this years' draft. The Lions have plenty of options early in the draft. First, obviously, is the "safest pick in the draft" Aaron Curry. Curry has a tremendous combination of size and speed and will most likely make a huge immediate impact on this defense. The concern with Curry is that he did not predominantly play the middle position in college and it would be wasteful to spend the first overall pick on someone whose position you plan on changing. However, Curry played the middle in some formations at Wake Forest and has the physical capabilities to make the change. If the Lions decide to pass on Curry, there are still a couple options the Lions have with their 20th pick. USC linebacker Rey Maualuga may be there at 20, and he has shown he is a hard-hitting leader. However, based on his highlight reel and his performance at the Senior Bowl (even though he forced a fumble), I do not believe he has the instincts to be a stud. Other options at 20 or 33 are OSU's James Laurinaitis and USC's Brian Cushing. Laurinaitis is a more prototypical middle linebacker who has great instincts, but is not as hard hitting as Maualuga. Some worry that his tackling problems will only intensify in his transition to the NFL, while other believe his positioning and smarts are too hard to pass on. Cushing, who played the outside at USC, has the versatility to move inside. However, he was more noteworthy of his pass-rushing abilities in college and is probably better suited for the outside.
Overall, this position may be the most improved by the end of the offseason. It is highly likely the Lions pick up a middle linebacker in the draft, and if they do, they'll have two new starters including a pro-bowler.
The Lions secondary, too, played at an epically bad level. Defensive backs only accounted for one interception all season. This is especially terrible, considering Ryan Nece even managed to tally a pick. Leigh Bodden, who was acquired in a trade from Cleveland, led the team in underperformance. Bodden was touted as one of the most underrated corners in the league, but he never met his potential in Detroit. Whether he was being misused under Rod Marinelli's Tampa Two system or whether Bodden just doesn't have the talent everyone thought he did is up for debate. Bodden was released in the offseason, according to Schwartz, 100% because of financial reasons.
In this offseason, the Lions have already made a handful of moves to improve this unit:
CB - Phillip Buchanon - Free Agency
CB - Eric King - Free Agency
CB - Anthony Henry - Trade from Dallas
CB - Leigh Bodden - Released
CB - Stanley Wilson - Free Agency
SS - Dwight Smith - Free Agency
The biggest acquisitions in that list are Buchanon and Henry. Buchanon is a former first round draft pick who played all 16 games for Tampa Bay last season, amassing two interceptions and six passes defended. He has strong cover skills and apparently stuck out in mini-camp. Henry is a solid addition to the secondary as he can play both corner and safety. While he is slated to be a corner here in Detroit, the results of the draft may change that. Both players are getting up their in age, and their better days may be behind them. Therefore, an upgrade is in order.
At the safety position, two youngsters return: Daniel Bullocks and Gerald Alexander. Bullocks broke out last season, putting up an impressive 94 tackles. He's proven that he is an excellent open-field tackler, but his coverage skills remain in question. In his two-year career, he has yet to tally an interception and has only defended four passes. Alexander, also a two-year player, missed most of last season with a serious neck injury. His rookie season was fairly impressive (81 tackles, 2 interceptions), but he got very little playing time last season even before he was injured, as Dwight Smith beat him out for the starting job. Now that Smith has been released, Alexander has the opportunity to shine. Because of the uncertainty with both of these players, the Lions could use some more depth, but given the holes elsewhere, safety should not be a high priority on draft day.