With the bulk of the offseason taken care of, much of the focus for the Lions and every other NFL team has now switched to preparation for the upcoming season. While we can all speculate on the Lions' W-L record (the new 'Berry v. Suh' thread) at the end of the season, a lot of my considerations are regarding future moves we may/will have to make to continue the upward trend we've seen the last two years.
Ever since Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew basically steamrolled the roster and started bringing in anyone who was worth anything, we've seen plenty of turnover in Detroit (when haven't we?). Some faces have stuck, and may continue to as we improve. This is meant to be an analysis of where we are, who we're here with, and where we're going.
The QB position is now (thankfully) more or less a moot point, with Matthew Stafford entrenched with difficult mantles such as ' the face of the franchise', 'savior of Detroit', etc.. We acquired a gem of a backup QB in Shaun Hill for just a 7th round pick, so if the injury bug strikes Stafford again, we won't have to turn to Daunte Culpepper to steer the ship right off a waterfall. Drew Stanton has basically gone past the point of starting... ever... so most Detroit fans are content that a hometown product gets to get paid to hold the clipboard. There is definitely the chance Stanton bolts to try and get an actual NFL job, but even in that case, the implications are extremely minor.
Our quarterback position is basically set. We have a franchise QB (Stafford), a starter-caliber backup (Hill), and a hometown 3rd stringer (Stanton). This is basically the best quarterback situation you can have, and in my opinion we have one of the best setups in the league in that regard. Moving forward, the focus is and will be on Matthew, and I don't see much changing here in the next few years. (Grade: A-)
The Running Backs:
With the addition of Jahvid Best, many Lions fans breathed a sigh of relief. Kevin Smith tore his ACL late last season, and although his demeanor and work ethic has won over some who believe he can start for the majority, if not all of this year, there are still very large question marks over him. Maurice Morris is in the same vein as Shaun Hill - a player who may not tear up the league, but knows what he's doing, and uses his opportunities to shine. I don't see any reason the Lions will get rid of Morris before his contract is up (in 2012), though I don't see him being resigned beyond that. After turning 30 in December, it seems likely that he will ride it out here, and guys like Jahvid Best and Aaron Brown will take over.
Jahvid Best and Aaron Brown are interesting prospects on this team. If Best really explodes, I don't necessarily see Brown sticking around for long. Best is what Jim Schwartz wanted in Brown last year: an extremely speedy, gamebreaking style runner who the defense HAS to account for. Aaron Brown, to say the least, disappointed in his rookie year. I see the coaching staff allowing him a year to develop, but if Brown can't crack some sort of lineup, I would assume he is cut after this year.
As far as fullbacks go, Felton looks to be the starter again this year. Richard Dickson may also have a shot at it, but as we transition into the vertical passing/rushing attack, a fullback becomes less and less necessary. Eventually, I see Felton being moved to RB and using Heller or someone similar as a spot-duty FB.
With Kevin Smith's status still up in the air, everyone crossing their fingers that Best doesn't have more concussion problems, Brown's difficulty in development, there is a decent amount to be excited for and anxious about at the RB position. Over the next 2 years or so, I don't see too much change going on here - Smith and Morris will combine to be the workhorse backs, and Best should contribute to the big play mechanism of Scott Linehan's vertical passing scheme. (Grade: B-)
The Wide Recievers:
Potentially the biggest joke in all of Lions' history is that of our WR corps. Millen drafted four 1st round wide recievers: two have been out of the league for years, one is now a 3rd WR in Dallas, and the 4th is the single best player on our team. 25% ain't bad, right?
That said, with the addition of Nate Burleson to Calvin Johnson, we may have a legitimate 1-2 punch in our passing game. Both are prototypical at their positions, and Burleson has the added bonus of having played under Linehan and as a #2 to Randy Moss when the Vikings had one of the best offenses in the league. After signing Nate to a 5-year contract, I believe our top wideouts are entrenched for quite a while.
Beyond that, however, things begin to get shaky. Both Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt struggled mightily last year. Both are still on the team as of now, but with draftees Marko Mitchell and Tim Toone having quite a bit of upside and last year's pick Derrick Williams in his 2nd year, my opinion is that one of the two will be gone. Johnson has shown worth in the past, and I really do believe last year was just a bad adjustment year for him. He was solid for Arizona, and I think will stick as our #3 reciever. Mitchell, Toone, and Williams will probably have to compete for the 4th and (potentially) 5th spots on the roster, but odds are 2 of those three are also just camp bodies.
In our offensive scheme, the impetus is placed on having two huge WR's and a decent slot guy. You rarely see 4 WR packages, and carrying 5-6 on the team is unnecessary, due to the importance of TE's in Linehan's system. Our WR situation is set, with lots of options for the coaching staff to assess. We are very young here and have lots of talent. (Grade: B+)
The Tight Ends:
What a great unit we've got here, and you can tell that Linehan has been attempting to load this area of the team with talent. After drafting Brandon Pettigrew, trading for Tony Scheffler, and picking up blocking/special teams beast Will Heller (check out that picture!), we've seen a resurgence in many areas of play. True, both Grew and Scheff have had injury problems, but if and when they are healthy, I would rather see any 2 of our 3 main tight ends on the field, rather than our 3rd or 4th wide recievers. I'm extremely excited to see what these guys can do for our scheme (remember, Linehan's system is extremely favorable to big TE's). I highly doubt any of these guys are going anywhere anytime soon, and we should expect big things from this group. (Grade: A)
The Offensive Linemen:
Last and least, the offensive line. This one I'm going to break down by position, due to the impact and scrutiny the unit has recieved recently.
Tackle: Presumed starters are Backus and Cherilus. Gosder was expected to make a jump in his 2nd year, but disappointed, losing the starting job several times during the year to aging veteran Jon Jansen. Backus should hold his starting position through this year and possibly next, but sooner rather than later it will be time to replace the stalwart LT. A move inside to G seems less likely now that we've picked up Rob Sims, so maybe Backus has just been given some time. Cherilus will start at RT due to the fact that we have no one to replace him, but he needs to produce in order to be given the slack to hold down his starting job.
Guard: Everyone, and I mean everyone loved the Rob Sims pickup. Youngish, hard working, got him for cheap... Filled the biggest hole on the entire roster... So let's hope he can hold up his end of the bargain. Peterman was possibly the best offensive lineman on the squad before he got injured, so here's to hoping he can return to form next year. Both of these guys are a huge need here, and there is no one to replace them, so unless we draft someone in the next draft or two, I'd get used to seeing 67 and 66 on either side of the o-line for a while.
Center: Dominic Raiola. The middle-finger hurling, Matthew Stafford-loving, undersized center with a load of heart. I've never been entirely convinced that Raiola was the answer, but he has always played much bigger than he is, and you really couldn't ask for much more stability at the center of the offense. Eventually he'll have to be replaced (around the same time as Backus, I'd imagine), but for the time being, I think Raiola is going to enjoy the offense that's been placed around him, and his new buddy Rob Sims helping him out.
So all told, the offensive line is on the up. As long as our guys come back from injuries and surguries alright, and they perform to what they're expected to, we'll be leagues better. If they surprise us and actually play their hearts out... well ladies and gentlemen, we may see something we haven't seen in many years - a winning season. It starts and ends with these guys. Luckily they're improving for once. (Grade: C+)
Ultimately, our future will be decided by what happens this year. It always is. Overall, the offense is definitely the strength on our team. We've dedicated three 1st round picks at skill positions on the offense (out of 4) in the past two drafts, and picked up almost 10 more starter or near-starter quality players via free agency and trade in the same span of time. This is a passing league, and you're either the hammer or the nail here. Schwartz and Co. seem to be of the opinion that we should be hammering the league with a stellar passing attack, and I for one am extremely excited to see what our offense can accomplish this year.
That said, we also need to be making extremely long strides in the development of our players this year. Key players have not performed to expectations (Cherilus, Pettigrew, Bryant Johson) and even Matthew Stafford struggled mightily in his first year. The future is looking very bright for our offense, but we have to realize that potential for us to get anywhere.
I leave you with this quote from author Marilyn Ferguson:
“Your past is not your potential. In any hour you can choose to liberate the future.”