The most remarkable thing about the Detroit Lions' playoff berth this season is that it comes only three years after they went 0-16. In just a few years, the Lions went from being one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL to one of the 12 teams that will fight for this season's Super Bowl title.
The Lions' road back from the dark ages wasn't easy, but everything came together pretty quickly (in the grand scheme of things) once Martin Mayhew became the general manager. When Matt Millen was finally sent packing, Mayhew put a plan in place to assemble a roster filled with talent. He also filled his coaching staff with talent after being named the permanent GM by hiring Jim Schwartz and an excellent group of assistants that includes Gunther Cunningham and Scott Linehan.
Obviously, there is no specific guide for how to turn around a franchise that has been down in the dumps for almost a decade. If there were, it wouldn't have taken the Lions this long to make it back to the playoffs. However, the Lions have followed a plan from the very second Mayhew took over as the general manager. It revolved around upgrading the talent on the roster, and Mayhew has executed it through a number of different methods. In three years, he has overturned the roster so much that only 11 players from the 2008 team remain (seven on offense, two on defense and two on special teams). He has taken a team that couldn't win a game and transformed it into one that has 10 wins in 15 games and is filled with playmakers on both sides of the ball. Here is an overview of how the Lions have gotten to this point and how the roster has come together.
Establishing a core
The 11 players still on the roster have been kept for a reason -- they bring something to the team. Although Millen left the roster in shambles, he did draft some players that have value and even some that are rising stars in the NFL. It was a case of a blind squirrel finding a nut every once in a while, though. Mayhew didn't have much to work with when he took over as GM, which is why only these 11 players have been able to maintain their spot on the roster:
- QB Drew Stanton (selected in second round of 2007 NFL Draft)
- RB Kevin Smith (selected in third round of 2008 NFL Draft; re-signed this November after being a free agent first two months of season)
- WR Calvin Johnson (selected in first round of 2007 NFL Draft)
- OT Jeff Backus (selected in first round of 2001 NFL Draft)
- OT Gosder Cherilus (selected in first round of 2008 NFL Draft)
- OG Stephen Peterman (signed off Lions practice squad in December 2006)
(selected in second round of 2001 NFL Draft)
- DE Cliff Avril (selected in third round of 2008 NFL Draft)
- DT Andre Fluellen (selected in third round of 2008 NFL Draft)
- K (selected in second round of 1992 NFL Draft)
- LS Don Muhlbach (signed as free agent in November 2004)
The headliner of this group of players, of course, is Johnson, who is the best receiver in football right now. Avril is quickly becoming one of the best defensive ends in football, and Fluellen is a solid depth player. Hanson has been ol' reliable for two decades now, and I suppose the same could be said about Backus at left tackle the last decade. He has started all 175 games of his career, and although he has been inconsistent at times, he has been pretty good the last few years. Other offensive lineman like Peterman and Raiola also have been inconsistent, but they occupy two of the starting spots. Finally, the others in this group -- Stanton, Smith and Muhlbach -- are contributors as well (solid backup quarterback, currently the starting running back after being brought back and the starting long snapper, respectively).
With only 11 players from 2008 still contributing to the team, Mayhew has obviously been quite busy assembling talent that is new to the team in the last three years. Much of this talent has come from Mayhew's first few drafts as Lions GM, especially the 2009 and 2010 drafts. Take a look:
- QB Matthew Stafford (selected in first round of 2009 NFL Draft)
- RB Aaron Brown (selected in sixth round of 2009 NFL Draft; re-signed this November after being a free agent first two months of season)
- WR Titus Young (selected in second round of 2011 NFL Draft)
- TE Brandon Pettigrew (selected in first round of 2009 NFL Draft)
- DE Willie Young (selected in seventh round of 2010 NFL Draft)
- DT Ndamukong Suh (selected in first round of 2010 NFL Draft)
- DT Nick Fairley (selected in first round of 2011 NFL Draft)
- DT Sammie Hill (selected in fourth round of 2009 NFL Draft)
- LB DeAndre Levy (selected in third round of 2009 NFL Draft)
- LB Doug Hogue (selected in fifth round of 2011 NFL Draft)
- S (selected in second round of 2009 NFL Draft)
- S (selected in third round of 2010 NFL Draft)
Out of these 12 players, 10 are either starters or regular contributors. The only two that aren't at least regular contributors are Brown and Hogue. Brown was just brought back last month and Hogue does contribute on special teams, just not defense. The 10 players who do contribute or start include several very talented players, including Stafford, Pettigrew, Suh and Delmas, who are among the best young players at their respective positions.
A big part of Mayhew's rebuilding plan has been bringing in a combination of some big-name free agents and many lesser-known guys who contribute to the team. Here's the rundown:
- RB Maurice Morris (signed as free agent in February 2009)
- WR Nate Burleson (signed as free agent in March 2010)
- WR Maurice Stovall (signed as free agent in August 2011)
- WR Rashied Davis (signed as free agent in July 2011)
- TE Will Heller (signed as free agent in March 2009)
- OT Corey Hilliard (signed off Browns practice squad in December 2009)
- OG Leonard Davis (signed as free agent in November 2011)
- C (signed as free agent in April 2009)
- DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (signed as free agent in March 2010)
- LB Stephen Tulloch (signed as free agent in August 2011)
- LB Justin Durant (signed as free agent in July 2011)
- LB Bobby Carpenter (signed as free agent in October 2010)
- CB Eric Wright (signed as free agent in July 2011)
- CB Don Carey (signed as free agent in October 2011)
- S (signed as free agent in August 2010)
- P (signed as free agent in November 2011)
The six players on this list that start are Burleson, Vanden Bosch, Tulloch, Durant, Wright and Graham. Burleson and Vanden Bosch signed around the same time in the 2010 offseason and have played big roles both on the field as players and off it as leaders. Tulloch, Durant and Wright signed this past offseason and have been a big part of the defense this season. Finally, Graham was added during the season after Ryan Donahue went down with an injury, and he has played quite well.
The other players on this list are mainly special teams contributors or backups. They have been important in either filling in when starters are injured or in trying to keep the special teams units at least somewhat respectable this season. Although for the most part the non-starters go unnoticed, there's no doubt that having quality backups is a big difference between a successful team like this year's squad and a team known more for its awfulness (2008).
Adding talent via trades
Aside from the draft and free agency, the Lions' best method for adding quality starters has been making trades. In the 2010 offseason, Mayhew made seven total moves that were key in this team's turnaround:
- QB Shaun Hill (traded from in March 2010 for seventh-round pick)
- TE Tony Scheffler (traded from along with seventh-round pick in April 2010 for , who went to as part of three-team deal)
- OG Rob Sims (traded from along with seventh-round pick in April 2010 for and fifth-round pick)
- DE Lawrence Jackson (traded from Seahawks in August 2010 for sixth-round pick)
- DT Corey Williams (traded from along with seventh-round pick in March 2010 for fifth-round pick)
- CB Chris Houston (traded from in March 2010 for sixth-round pick and conditional seventh-round pick)
- CB Alphonso Smith (traded from Broncos along with seventh-round pick in September 2010 for and sixth-round pick)
These trades were so important because Mayhew was able to fill several holes on the roster by moving low-round picks. The Lions solidified their offensive line by acquiring Sims, and they helped make the defensive line one of the best in the NFL by adding Jackson and especially Williams. Houston filled one of the starting spots at cornerback, and Smith has been good for the most part when he has been on the field. Finally, Scheffler serves as yet another weapon for Stafford on offense, and Hill is one of the best backup quarterbacks in football and is a nice insurance policy to have.
Scouring the waiver wire
When the Lions were consistently at the top of the waiver priority list during Mayhew's first two seasons as general manager, he had the ability to kick the tires on many players who were let go by other teams. This is what allowed the Lions to find some contributors that are still around today. Right now there are a total of five players on the team that were claimed off waivers in the last couple years:
- RB Keiland Williams (claimed off waivers in September 2011)
- WR Stefan Logan (claimed off waivers in September 2010)
- LB Ashlee Palmer (claimed off waivers in February 2010)
- CB Brandon McDonald (claimed off waivers in October 2010)
- S Chris Harris (claimed off waivers in October 2011)
Williams and Harris were added this year, but Logan, Palmer and McDonald joined the team in 2010. Logan had an outstanding season as a returner last year, and although he hasn't been able to do as much this season, he is still considered a valuable special teams player. Palmer is also a solid special teams player, and he is a good depth player at linebacker as well. Finally, McDonald has seen playing time in nickel packages. He was brought back this past week after briefly being off the team.
Finding hidden gems
The two players on the Lions roster right now that haven't been accounted for just yet were both signed as undrafted free agents:
- CB Aaron Berry (signed as UDFA in April 2010)
- S (signed as UDFA in July 2011)
When healthy, Berry sees a good amount of playing time and seems like a favorite of Gunther Cunningham. Perhaps that is what we will be saying about Silva in a couple years when he has more of a chance to play and gains more experience.
Don't forget the injured players
In addition to the 53 players currently on the roster, the Lions also have a lot of talent on injured reserve. For example, running backs Jahvid Best (selected in first round of 2010 NFL Draft) and Mikel Leshoure (selected in second round of 2011 NFL Draft) are both on IR right now. Best has been dealing with concussion issues, but when he's healthy he is one of the more exciting running backs in football. What Leshoure will bring to the table remains to be seen, but if he can come back strong from his Achilles injury he could become an immediate contributor to the offense.
The other players on IR (or the non-football injury list) are as follows: RB Jerome Harrison (signed as free agent in August 2011), OT Jason Fox (selected in fourth round of 2010 NFL Draft), OT Johnny Culbreath (selected in seventh round of 2011 NFL Draft), LB Isaiah Ekejiuba (signed as free agent in July 2010), S Erik Coleman (signed as free agent in February 2011) and P Ryan Donahue (signed as UDFA in July 2011). Although some of these players may not contribute to the Lions a whole lot in the future, guys like Fox and Culbreath could be important pieces on the offensive line down the road.
Where to go from here
Although this roster is light and day compared to the 2008 team, there is still room for improvement. The good news is that room for improvement means adding quality depth and maybe a new starter or two. It doesn't mean completely revamping every other position and having a seemingly endless list of needs.
The Lions are in a position where they are a good team that can become great with another couple of quality offseasons. Based on what Mayhew has managed to do the last few years, I have full confidence that this will in fact be a great team much sooner than anybody would have expected at this time three years ago.