I was excited when the Detroit Lions were on the clock in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The brain trust of Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz et al. had already selected Riley Reiff in the first round. That made a lot of fans that had been clamoring for the Lions to select an offensive lineman early in the draft happy. I am one of those guys myself because I firmly believe that football games are won, or lost, in the trenches. The Lions had gotten their beast of an offensive lineman. Now they needed to help the defensive secondary and draft a cornerback!
When the selection was announced and the Lions took Ryan Broyles in the second round, I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn't have been. Just a week earlier, I had scouted Ryan Broyles as a player that I thought the Lions might select. I just missed by one round and pegged him as a third round possibility. Obviously, the Lions felt even better about Broyles than I did. That is saying something because I compared Broyles to Wes Welker in how he could impact the Lions offense. After thinking about the selection for a few minutes, it quickly became my favorite pick of the entire draft.
Over the first six weeks of the season we did not get a chance to see Broyles play. He didn't even dress for the first couple of games. When he did dress, he sat by himself at the end of the bench and seemed to be unhappy with his situation. I was beginning to question my idea that Broyles would contribute very much to the team this season. That all ended when Nate Burleson broke his leg in the loss to the Chicago Bears.
The Bears loss was a serious blow to the Lions' playoff hopes. It had placed the Lions firmly at the bottom of the NFC North division. The defeats to the Bears and Minnesota Vikings left the Lions as the only team in the NFC North with two division losses on their record. That is a critical tiebreaker in the battle for a playoff spot. Now the Lions had to move forward with the offense struggling.
Calvin Johnson has not been able to get on track and Burleson is out for the season with an injury. It is clear that the Lions need Titus Young and Broyles to step up and help pick up the slack for losing Burleson. This would be the time that Broyles would finally be able to show us what he can contribute.
When Broyles entered the game against the Bears, he started off with some confusion. Matthew Stafford had to correct Broyles, who was lined up improperly on his first play from scrimmage. Broyles soon shook off the butterflies and made a positive impact for the Lions the rest of the game. He caught what he could reach and scored a much-needed touchdown for the Lions.
When you look at Broyles play you can see his skills immediately. He runs clean passing routes and gets open for his quarterback. When the ball comes his way he will catch it, if he can get his hands on it. He is very good at catching passes that force him to go outside the frame of his body. He is exactly the kind of receiver that the Lions need to stabilize the offense.
Prior to the game against Seattle, the Lions had faced a lot of defenses that have dropped both safeties deep in order to prevent the long pass. Stafford has been unable to find enough accuracy to sustain consistent drives. When he did get the ball to his receiver in a good position to catch it, the receivers often dropped it. Broyles has helped turn around that trend since he has gotten playing time.
Broyles has been able to compensate for some of Stafford's accuracy issues by making good catches. He had to jump high in the air to catch a pass near the goal line by Stafford in the game against the Seahawks. He then turned his body in the air and dove to get the ball across the goal line. That was a very important moment for the Lions offense. They needed to score to gain confidence. Stafford seemed to be a different player after that touchdown. He seemed to play more confident after the monkey was off his back.
The big receiving hero against the Seahawks was Young, but we should not discount the contribution that Broyles has made. It is not often that you see a rookie come into the game and add some stability to their team. Broyles has done just that. He has provided Stafford with a reliable target that can work underneath the safeties and make them pay for their deep drops. The Lions have to prove to opposing defenses that they can sustain long drives and punch the ball into the end zone. Broyles has helped the Lions move the chains and do exactly that.
So far we have seen two touchdowns in less than two games from Broyles. He has surpassed the number of touchdowns the Lions have gotten from Johnson all season long. If he can continue to represent a valid receiving threat, along with Young, the Lions will have exactly the weapons they need to draw coverage off Johnson and give him the breathing room he needs to get jump-started.
I like Burleson a lot. He is a great player in the locker room and he helps keep players motivated on the field. Losing him is not really a good thing, but if there is a silver lining then it will be the emergence of Broyles as a weapon in the Lions offense. It allows the Lions to be effective while they wait for Burleson to return.
Since the season has started we have seen the defense perform better than we expected. We have especially seen that the cornerback position has not been the unmitigated disaster that we feared. Certainly, there is room for improvement at cornerback, but that may very well come from the development of the rookies the Lions have already drafted. It is not unusual for a cornerback to be a much better player after two or three seasons of experience.
The Lions appear to have some decent cornerback prospects. Bill Bentley and Jonte Green have shown some flashes of promise despite having some growing pains along with them. We have yet to see what Chris Greenwood can offer. Now, we will have to be patient with them and give them a chance to develop before we start clamoring to draft even more young developmental cornerbacks. The return of Drayton Florence will provide some veteran help at the position soon. The Lions should be settled at cornerback for the remainder of the season barring a trade by Mayhew to shore up the position.
The crazy thing about the situation is that the Lions felt good about their receivers after last season, and that was part of what prompted the criticism of the Broyles draft pick. It has turned out that the receivers have not performed as well as the cornerbacks in many ways.
Bringing in Broyles to shore up the struggling receiver corps may turn out to be the single most important move of the year. It could even save the Lions season. That is a lot to ask of a rookie, but it is the position the Lions are in. I am sure that Young may have something to say about that, as he did so eloquently against the Seahawks. That is great. Nothing will help the Lions more than having two young and promising receivers competing to be the catalyst that drives the offense. Then again, there is this other guy named Calvin Johnson, too. You may have heard of him.