In my previous post, I analyzed the makeup of the Lions' 2010 roster and gave grades based on the players we currently have, along with the short term (2-3 year) outlook at the position. Much of these analyses are based on conjecture and potential, so I invite debate on my opinions.
I try to stay as unbiased as possible, but please bear with me, as I do really feel like we're on a really good track at the moment.
So without further adieu, your defense (unless O.J. signs with us tomorrow).
The Defensive Line:
Who would have thought that a mere 2 years after Matt Millen was banished from Detroit, we would have a defensive line resembling one of the best performing units in recent memory? Jim Schwartz has taken the mold he created in Tennessee and made the necessary moves to acquire players who, at least in theory, should be capable of similar things.
There are question marks throughout the group, however - Kyle Vanden Bosch is coming off of a lackluster year and is getting up there in age (he'll be 32 in November). Corey Williams is assuming he can regain the form he had in the 4-3 defense for Green Bay, where he registered back to back 7 sack seasons, and was known as a force inside. After being traded to the Browns' 3-4 defense as an end, he was unable to perform, with 4.5 sacks between the two years. Backing him up is last year's sleeper pick, Sammie Lee Hill. With the size Schwartz and DC Gunther Cunningham covet, Hill could prove to be strong as a rotational, run-stopping DT. The other end of the defense will be occupied by a committee of starters, most likely rotating between 3rd year DE Cliff Avril, Jason Hunter, and Turk McBride, who all performed admirably in spot duty, but are still not proven starters.
The thing that really pulls this line together however, is the #2 overall selection in this past years' draft: DT Ndamukong Suh. One of the most highly touted defensive linemen to come out of college in many years, Suh is expected to anchor this unit for years to come. Much like Matthew Stafford on the offense, Suh has been shouldered with the expectations of an extremely high draft pick, and must perform on a very high level quickly for the maximum effect to be taken from the rest of the squad. If Suh proves to be dominant, we could be seeing the beginning of a very strong defensive line, and in effect, secondary.
This defensive line is, for once, very deep. Many of the players not even pictured above (Landon Cohen, McBride, rookie DE Willie Young) are either solid players in their own right, or in Young's case, a project with a lot of people behind him. The line has lots of young talent, and has been bolstered by strong veteran FA acquisitions. Especially considering the decline of the LB unit, this is the defenses' strongest unit, and has a great outlook, if the coaching staff can get the projects they have taken on to realize their potential. (Grade: B+)
More uncertainty for the linebacker corps. The SLB position is adequately filled by returning LB/DE Julian Peterson, but the Mike and Will positions are all but certain. Yeah, Deandre Levy has impressed, and I do trust the coaching staff, but I am not certain by any means that he will be able to step in after a half year of play and take care of the middle of the field the way he's going to have to. The biggest issue I saw was with his coverage, specifically with tight ends. He's not going to have a ton of help in the middle secondary, and Julian Peterson is not known to be a great defender in space. Levy is going to be asked to do a lot. Backing him up is Bengals/Panthers castoff Landon Johnson, who showed he could start a couple years ago, but languished on the bench and special teams in Carolina after the emergence of Jon Beason. If Levy struggles or Johnson impresses, either player could start in 2010.
The weak side is presumably going to be filled by fan favorite Zach Follett, but the recovery of Titans' LB Keith Bulluck may foil ZF's chances of starting this year. Regardless, if Bulluck is picked up, that could rearrange the whole makeup of the unit. Jordan Dizon is also in the mix at either MLB or OLB, but is proving more and more that he's going to be a special teamer.
After trading Ernie Sims to the Eagles in the deal that brought Tony Scheffler to Detroit, the linebackers have suffered the depth curse. I think we will sign Bulluck and this grade will go up, but for now I'm honestly more worried about these guys than our secondary. (Grade: C-)
About as annually bemoaned as the offensive line, the Detroit Lions have been the laughingstock of the NFL when it comes to pass defense. As every analyst ever has said, the NFL is becoming an increasingly pass-heavy league, and in a division which suddenly contains Brett Favre (2nd in the NFL in passer rating for '09), Aaron Rodgers (4th), and Jay Cutler (21st), a lackluster secondary is a death sentence.
This year, the image above tells quite a story: the majority of our probable starters at CB were not on the team last year (again). Chris Houston was brought in early to be a starter, and we drafted S/CB Amari Speivey in the 3rd round. Eric King has been a nickel back in Schwartz's system since he was in Tennessee, but will likely be competing for the spot with newcomer Jonathan Wade, a former 2nd round pick of the Rams. Depth players like Aaron Berry and Jack Williams have impressed coaches, so the corner situation, much like the rest of the team is filled with unproven youngsters and vets who are looking for the chance to shine.
With the defensive line picking up the slack, we may not see a drop in the secondary's statistics. I personally would rather have young, semi-talented guys like Houston, Wade, and Speivey in the backfield than old, used-to-be-talented guys like Anthony Henry and to a lesser extent, Phillip Buchanon. If the DL can force some throws, these guys are hungry enough to make something happen. We still need a playmaker or two in the secondary, and if Spievey or Houston can step up, it would help the team immensely. The upside is that we do have a lot of quality players here, and in a few years we may have quite a group of defenders on our hands. (Grade: C)
Led by WMU's Louis Delmas, the safety play lately has been hot and cold. Delmas automatically became one of the playmakers and leaders on the defense, and should hold up for quite some time in his position at left safety. The opposite position has been occupied by a left guard-esque revolving door of stopgaps and failed experiments. Ko Simpson performed adequately last year before being put on the IR. Daniel Bullocks could come back this year, but is extremely injury prone and is well-known to be on his last legs with the Lions. Veteran Marquand Manuel filled in to some extent last year, and will stick this year, but all of this will be rendered moot if the Lions do indeed sign Rams' stud S O.J. Atogwe. As of right now it's just a pipe dream, but if we manage to net him, I will change this grade to an A. (Grade: B)
All told, the defense has been slightly neglected since Schwartz and Mayhew took over. The focus has been on the defensive line, and it has shown. Schwartz and Cunningham both know how to use blitzing to confuse offenses, and judging by the players we've gone after (Williams, Vanden Bosch, Suh, Peterson), we could really have a solid front 4 as early as game 1 this year.
The back seven are still a relatively big unknown, with the majority of our starters having been in the league 2 years or less (Delmas, Levy, Follett, Spievey). I believe, however, that the best way to form a solid core for a team is to bring up young players together and let them gel. The growing pains are rough, but this/next year, when you see a group of young, talented players with a firm grasp of the playbook, it will make leagues of difference. I'm optimistic about our future, but we have to make those steps to really change this culture of losing. The thing that I am pleased with is our depth, which should mean less blowouts during the year. (Grade: C)