The Detroit Lions had a breakthrough season in 2011, posting a 10-6 record and getting to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. A lopsided loss in the opening round to the New Orleans Saints sent them home early, however—and with a lot of questions to boot.
The Saints gashed the Lions for over 600 yards, 466 of them through the air, rolling up 45 points in the process. Detroit was expected to overhaul its secondary during the offseason, but few upgrades were made.
Another big question mark was at running back—the Lions’ leading rusher against the Saints was Kevin Smith, who carried the ball a measly six times for 21 yards. The lack of production can be partially attributed to Detroit’s efforts to keep pace with New Orleans. However, the ground game (or lack thereof) had been a recurring problem throughout the regular season as well once Jahvid Best ran into injuries.
Detroit’s paper-thin depth can be blamed largely on bad luck, as Mikel Leshoure, last year’s second-round selection (57th overall) was out for the entire 2011 season with a torn Achilles tendon, while Best suffered from sustained concussion problems and Smith is constantly an injury waiting to happen. However, the problems aren’t going away this year, either.
Best has yet to be medically cleared to play, while Leshoure is facing a two game suspension for “violating the league’s substance-abuse policy” while nursing a hamstring injury. Stephfon Green, a new addition, has recently been banged up as well.
Meanwhile, the Lions’ secondary doesn’t look very scary, either. A troubling offseason included the release of cornerback Aaron Berry following back-to-back arrests, while star safety Louis Delmas also continues to be held out of camp with a sore knee. Sure, he should be ready to go for the season opener on Sept. 9 against St. Louis, but his status is still a concern.
While Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston are solid in the secondary, opponents will make it a point of attack to feast on the other players in the back-end of the defense. Amari Spievey had solid stats but was repeatedly burned in 2011, while the losses of Berry and Eric Wright will force Jacob Lacey, Alphonso Smith and rookie Bill Bentley to compete for the starting spot opposite Houston.
Not exactly an encouraging line-up at this point. The team also acquired safety Sean Jones to strengthen the competition on June and added ex-Jets cornerbacks Justin Miller and Drew Coleman a month later on July 25.
But don’t fret, Lions fans—it’s not all gloom and doom. Detroit fans do have a lot of reasons to have high hopes this season.
Matthew Stafford is emerging as an elite NFL quarterback, and he has drool-worthy targets in receivers Calvin Johnson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The passing game looks set for a decade of dominance.
On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will look to rebound from a season that was deemed disappointing simply because he was that much better the year before.
He seems ready to put a season of controversy behind him. He’ll be accompanied by a deep rotation that includes Nick Fairley, Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill (assuming Fairley and Williams are able to put a troubled offseason behind them). The defensive end rotation is arguably just as deep, with Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson taking turns harassing opposing quarterbacks.
The linebackers are solid as well, featuring Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy as the starters.
If the Lions are to take the next step and make a playoff run, however, it is crucial that they develop some depth and generally make improvements in both the offensive and defensive backfields.
It may be reasonable to expect both of these units to improve by default based on their poor performances last year—and perhaps that’s all it will take to get this team over the hump.
But if the Lions have another one-and-done postseason—or miss the playoffs altogether, which is all too possible given the strength of their division—fans had better start deciding who looks like the best cornerback for the Lions to take with their initial selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Heck, they might want to be doing some scouting from the get-go either way. My advice: keep your eyes in the defensive backfields of N.C. State, Mississippi State, Florida State, Alabama, LSU and Michigan State.