Outlook for the 2011 Detroit Lions

Outlook for the 2011 Detroit Lions
See all 2 photos
Calvin Johnson earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season, but he will need to earn another in 2011 if the Detroit Lions have any hope of making the playoffs.
See all 2 photos
Ndamukong Suh was named the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading all defensive tackles with 10 sacks.

The Detroit Lions finished third in the NFC North last season with a 6-10 record. The Lions became a pass-heavy team and they lost battle on the ground as a result last year. The Lions lacked a complement to Jahvid Best and they were hit hard with injuries all over their roster.

In an effort to change their losing ways, the Lions decided to keep their coaching staff and if the team can stay healthy, they could have a chance at the postseason.

In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Lions upgraded the defensive line, by selecting Nick Fairley (Auburn) with their first-round pick. In the second-round, the Lions selected a downfield threat in Titus Young (Boise State) and added a complementary back to Jahvid Best with the selection of Mikel Leshoure (Illinois). The rest of the Lions draft was used to fill in the depth chart.

With the addition of their rookies, let’s take a look at the Lions’ current roster and see what positions are still in need of upgrades.

Quarterbacks (3)

Matt Stafford, Shaun Hill, Zac Robinson

Matt Stafford underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason and the operation involved repairing his AC shoulder joint along with having his collarbone “shaved” by Dr. James Andrews. Stafford has fully recovered since the procedure and vows to play 16 games in 2011. In 2010, Stafford completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 535 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Lions plan to throw the ball often in 2011 and if Stafford can stay healthy, he has the potential to have a breakout year.

Shaun Hill underwent back surgery on May 11 to fix a disk problem in his lower back, but should be healthy by now. Hill is in a contract year and has proved to be a capable backup when he had to spot start last season. Hill played in eleven games and completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Zac Robinson joined the Lions last November after they claimed him off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks. Robinson is very athletic, but he has weak overall skills for a quarterback. Robinson likely won’t make the roster, but should be able to land a spot on the practice squad.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit is set at starting and backup quarterback. Robinson isn’t the ideal choice to be the Lions’ third-string quarterback, but they have more pressing needs to worry about. However, the Lions could resign Drew Stanton, since he was once seen as the long-term backup to Matt Stafford.

Halfbacks (5)

Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, Ian Johnson

Jahvid Best is going to be the starter this season because he knows the Lions’ offense and his passing-game skills are crucial to the team’s pass-first system. Best is viewed as a perimeter runner and should also get the majority of the carries because Mikel Leshoure is viewed as a bruiser who will serve as the goal-line back. In 2010, Best averaged 3.3 yards per carry and had 4 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 58 receptions for 487 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air.

Rookie Mikel Leshoure (Illinois) has drawn comparisons to Steven Jackson for his size and burst. The Lions want to use Jahvid Best and Leshoure like the 2008 Tennessee Titans used Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Best figures to be the “get the lead” back and Leshoure will be the “keep the lead” back.

Maurice Morris could get cut because he is set to make $1.625 million, and the Lion’s might not want to pay that much for a third-stringer. Morris has been productive though as he averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season and also had 5 touchdowns

Aaron Brown has had just 44 carries over the last two seasons, but his tenure with the team might be cut short with three solid backs ahead of him on the current roster. His only hope is that the Lions decide to dump salary by getting rid of Maurice Morris’s $1.625 contract.

Ian Johnson signed a reserve/future contract and likely won’t make the team, but practice squad isn’t out of the question for him.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit is set at halfback after using two high draft picks on halfbacks over the last two seasons.

Fullback (3)

Jerome Felton, Jake Nordin, Matt Clapp

Jerome Felton was tender to a contract, but he is unhappy about his role in the Lions’ offense and believes he deserves more carries in 2011. In college, Felton set a school record with 63 career rushing touchdowns. Felton will likely remain a Lion, but he won’t receive many carries with the addition Mikel Leshoure.

Jake Nordin is an exclusive rights free agent, but likely won’t be retained after he suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder last season.

Matt Clapp likely will be cut because he was suspended four games last season for violating an undisclosed league policy. Prior to the suspension, Clapp had been bouncing around practice squads

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit doesn’t need a fullback, but they need to have a discussion with Jerome Felton, to make him happier.

Wide Receivers (8)

Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Derrick Williams, Bryant Johnson, Stefan Logan, Tim Toone, Michael Moore

Calvin Johnson earned his first career Pro Bowl appearance last season with 77 receptions for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns. Megatron became one of the most dominating receivers last year and he should continue to grow on his success in 2011 because he will have more weapons around him and it should take off some double teams.

Nate Burleson encourages the drafting of Titus Young even though Young stands to take away some targets from him. Burleson had 55 receptions for 625 yards and 6 touchdowns last season which is kind of low, considering how many times the Lions passed the ball in 2010. Burleson will still be a No. 2 receiver, but he’ll need to play better for his team to have a shot at the playoffs.

Rookie Titus Young (Boise State) is an explosive playmaker and the Lions will use his downfield playmaking ability to stretch the field and occupy a safety, taking attention away from Calvin Johnson. Young will play outside opposite Calvin Johnson, pushing Nate Burleson into the slot in three-receiver sets.

Derrick Williams hasn’t done much in his two seasons with the Lions and will be on the bubble heading into training camp. Williams was billed as an explosive receiver when he entered the league, but he has yet to produce a score so far.

Bryant Johnson is expected to either be released or take a pay cut once the Lockout is resolved. Johnson is due $3.2 million, but he doesn’t deserve that money because of his lack of production and his tendency to drop passes. Johnson had just 18 receptions for 210 yards in 2010, and it appears that he’ll be looking for a new home.

Stefan Logan is an exclusive rights free agent and will definitely be back as a returner after proving to be one of the league’s top returners in 2010.

Tim Toone and Michael Moore signed reserve/future contracts, but likely won’t make the roster because the Lions have six receivers ahead of them with established roles.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit needs to release Bryant Johnson in order to save more cap room. Once they do that, their receiver position will be set.

Tight End (5)

Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Will Heller, Richard Dickson, Joe Jon Finley

Brandon Pettigrew has dropped 10 pounds since the end of last season and he plans to play 2011 in the 255 range. Pettigrew is hoping that it will help make him a faster tight end and allow him to have the same kind of production he had in 2010. Last season, Pettigrew had 71 receptions for 722 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Tony Scheffler is more of a downfield threat than Brandon Pettigrew, and he should receive an advantage on Pettigrew because Matthew Stafford will be under center and he throws a better deep ball than Shaun Hill. However, the addition of Titus Young will limit the effectiveness of Tony Scheffler because the Lions will use more three-receiver sets and fewer two-tight end formations in 2011.

Will Heller will have a minimal role this season because the Lions are planning to stretch the field and won’t use any three-tight end formations unless they are necessary. Heller is not really a receiving threat, so the only time he might enter a game is on special teams and in goal line situations.

Richard Dickson is probably going to make the practice squad because the Lions have no room for him on their current roster and he won’t beat out any of the three tight ends currently ahead of him.

Joe Jon Finley signed a reserve/future contract, but is going to make the team because the Lions’ top three tight ends are already set.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit is set at this position and their tight ends are perfect for their system because they can catch.

O-Line (10)

Jeff Backus, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman, Gosder Cherilus, Tony Ugoh, Donald Thomas, Jason Fox, Johnny Culbreath, Dan Gerberry

Jeff Backus has a partially torn pectoral muscle and is expected to miss the beginning of training camp. Backus will be 34 years old in September and has played at a respectable level, but is in the final year of his contract. The Lions need to decide if they want to keep Backus for a few more years or start thinking about a different long-term tackle.

Rob Sims has been a valuable trade acquisition for the Lions ever since they trade a fifth-round pick for him. Sims has solidified a longtime trouble spot at left guard for the Lions with his consistent performance in both the passing and running game.

Dominic Raiola has been mostly durable during his career, but he will be 33 years old in December. Raiola is signed through 2013, but the Lions will need to look for a replacement because although he was successful in their old zone-blocking scheme, Raiola will struggle as he gets older when the Lions ask him to power block.

Stephen Peterman played last season with a torn muscle on the ball of his right foot. The injury did not require surgery, but it did cause him “constant pain” throughout the 2010 season. If he can return healthy, it will do wonders for the Lions’ struggling running game.

Gosder Cherilus underwent surgery in the past two offseasons, but his most recent was on a knee injury and it required microfracture surgery. Cherilus participated in the Lions’ player-organized workouts and was reportedly “moving well”, so it appears that he should be able to build off of his promising 2010 campaign.

Tony Ugoh is a former Indianapolis Colt, but never developed as a NFL blindside tackle. Ugoh was a second-round pick, but has been considered a bust so far. The Lions signed Ugoh in December last season to give them more depth after they suffered significant injuries in their offensive line. Ugoh has the potential to become the Lions’ starting right tackle, but that’ll depend on the health of Gosder Cherilus.

Donald Thomas signed with the Lions in late November last season after Stephen Peterman went down with a foot injury. Thomas was a former starter as a Miami Dolphin, but he wasn’t active for any games in 2010. Thomas should make a solid backup in 2011 as he will have a better knowledge of the Lions’ playbook.

Jason Fox was a four-year starter in college, but will be a backup on the Lions for now. Fox has upside with his athleticism and size (6’7’’, 303 pounds), but he lacks the ideal strength of an NFL tackle. Fox had a minor knee surgery as a rookie last season and didn’t play until Week 17, so while he won’t start, he should be give the opportunity to compete for the Lions’ swing tackle behind Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus.

Rookie Johnny Culbreath (South Carolina State) has great size (6’5’’, 322 pounds) and athleticism (4.92 forty), but is considered a developmental project. Culbreath won the 2009 Lineman of the Year Award in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but the talent in that conference isn’t nearly as good as the pros.

Dan Gerberry signed a reserve/future contract, but likely won’t make the roster as the Lions are expected to bring in another veteran backup via free agency.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit has two starting tackles that are coming off of injuries and remain question marks heading into the season. Tony Ugoh is unproven as a starter and the Lions can’t settle for uncertainties if they believe they have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs. Potential Free Agents include: Khalif Barnes, Alex Barron, Sean Locklear, Barry Sims, Langston Walker, and Ray Willis

D-Line (10)

Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams, Lawrence Jackson, Sammie Lee Hill, Willie Young, Andre Fluellen, Barry Turner

Kyle Vanden Bosch had two vertebrae in his spinal cord fused together in early December last season, and figures to see a decrease in snaps in 2011. Vanden Bosch played in eleven games last season and he had 49 tackles, 4 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles, but he also gave the Lions so much more. In addition to helping lead the Lions’ player-organized workouts; he is being viewed as the “turning point” in the team’s attitude and improved play last season.

Ndamukong Suh was named the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading all the NFL defensive tackles with 10 sacks. Suh has great potential and could become one of the greatest defensive tackles all-time, but he needs to work on having more of an impact against the run.

Rookie Nick Fairley (Auburn) will play in a three-man rotation with Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams at defensive tackle. On passing downs, Fairley and Williams will play at defensive tackle and Suh will move to defensive end. Fairley is a good pass rusher and ranked seventh in the nation with 11.5 sacks last season.

Cliff Avril is hoping to get a long-term extension from the Lions after recording 8.5 sacks in just 13 games last season. Avril is a three-year player and received a first- and third-round tender, but he isn’t planning on signing the $3.3 million tender. If the Lions can lock up Cliff Avril long-term, they could have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL over the next few seasons.

Corey Williams only had 2 sacks in 16 starts last year and as a result the Lions went and drafted Nick Fairley to improve their pass rush. Williams’ role will decrease in 2011, but he will still see a lot of snaps since Ndamukong Suh will move over to defensive end in passing situations.

Lawrence Jackson was on the bench in the first half of last season, but he flashed both run-plugging and pass-rushing ability in November and December. Jackson won’t start, but he will be a viable rotational end and should be the player that gives Kyle Vanden Bosch a breather.

Sammie Lee Hill was well above average in pushing the pocket and stopping the run last season. Hill was just a situational run-stuffer last year, but his emergence could eventually make Corey Williams expendable. Expect Hill’s role to be reduced in 2011 though because Nick Fairley is going to take away both Hill and Williams’ playing time.

Willie Young only appeared in 2 games last season, but he had no impact in those games. Young is a former seventh round pick and will have to compete for the Lions’ final defensive end spot.

Andre Fluellen tendered a contract prior to the Lockout, but the Lions will probably release him because they have four defensive tackles ahead of him.

Barry Turner signed with the Lions last December after Kyle Vanden Bosch went down with an injury. Turner is a mediocre prospect and likely won’t make the team due to the Lion’s amazing depth.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit has one of the best defensive lines in the NFL and doesn’t need to sign anyone.

Linebackers (7)

Zack Follett, DeAndre Levy, Ashlee Palmer, Jordan Dizon, Caleb Campbell, Doug Hogue, Isaiah Ekejiuba

Zack Follett originally thought his career was over thanks to a degenerative neck ailment, but has apparently found some optimism. If he can pass a physical, he should be able to make the Lions as a reserve linebacker and as a special teamer. Follett is only listed as a starter because he has starting experience and because he’s a better option than anyone else on the current roster.

DeAndre Levy is expected to be the Lions’ middle linebacker in 2011 after playing hurt all of last season. When healthy, Levy is a good run stopper, but he needs to work on his coverage skills. In 2010, Levy recorded 72 tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 touchdown in just eleven games.

Ashlee Palmer is expected to compete with Bobby Carpenter (once he’s resigned) for an outside linebacker job. Palmer received 5 starts last season, but recorded 55 tackles, 1 sack and 3 forced fumbles in 16 games.

Jordan Dizon likely won’t make the Lions roster after tearing his PCL and ACL and damaging his MCL in the 2010 preseason. Dizon has a long journey ahead of him, but it’s doubtful that he can beat out the other players on the roster.

Caleb Campbell had 3 tackles as a special teamer after spending most of his time on the practice squad last season. The Lions are thin at linebacker, so it would appear his job is safe, but he won’t get a chance to become a starter.

Rookie Doug Hogue (Syracuse) is extremely athletic and is excellent in space, but he is still considered a raw prospect. Hogue needs to add bulk and must improve his coverage skills after frequently getting caught out of position in college. Hogue will be a backup in 2011, but he has plenty of upside.

Isaiah Ekejiuba is a career special teamer and should make the roster in that same role in 2011.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit is very young at linebacker and besides needing two starters, they need experience. The Lions plan to resign Bobby Carpenter, but Landon Johnson or anybody for that matter, would be the better option. Potential Free Agents include: Keith Bullock, Danny Clark, Thomas Davis, LeRoy Hill, Ben Leber, Kawika Mitchell, Mike Peterson, and Pisa Tinoisamoa

Cornerbacks (5)

Alphonso Smith, Nathan Vasher, Aaron Berry, Jack Williams, Prince Miller

Alphonso Smith emerged as a starter last season, but after he picked off a team-high five interceptions, his play began to slip and it started when Tom Brady torched him on Thanksgiving. Smith will start in 2011 unless the Lions are able to resign Chris Houston and sign a starting-caliber free agent.

Nathan Vasher is a starter on the current roster, but once free agency begins, he will likely be relegated to competing for the nickel job. Vasher used to be a starter for the Chicago Bears, but in his first season with the Lions, he only made five starts, producing just 19 tackles and 1 interception.

Aaron Berry played in just one game last season, but he recorded 3 tackles and 1 interception before suffering right shoulder injury that would require surgery. Berry had been in a competition for the nickel job prior to his injury, but he likely will be competing for the fourth corner spot.

Jack Williams missed all of 2010 after tearing his ACL in Week 10 of the 2009 season. Williams would’ve played sooner, but he had scar tissue that built up, preventing him full range of motion in his knee. However, Williams is healthy and has now been cleared for all football activities and should be in the mix for a backup cornerback job this summer.

Prince Miller made 8 tackles last season, appearing in just four games as a sub-package corner and as a special teamer. Miller will compete for the fifth corner spot and possibly as a punt returner.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit needs a shutdown corner if they are going to have any chance of making the playoffs. Resigning Chris Houston would give the Lions a solid No. 2 corner, but they need to sign a starting caliber corner so they can move Alphonso Smith into the nickel role. Potential Free Agents include: Nnamdi Asomugha, Chris Carr, Antonio Cromartie, Jonathan Joseph, Richard Marshall, Carlos Rogers, Ike Taylor, and Josh Wilson.

Safeties (5)

Louis Delmas, Erik Coleman, Randy Phillips, Amari Spievey, Paul Pratt

Louis Delmas played all of last season with a groin injury, but he was still able to lead the team with 84 tackles while also contributing 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Delmas has since recovered and has participated in the teams’ player-organized activities without any limitation.

Erik Coleman was a seven-year starter before losing his job to William Moore last season. Coleman has always been a productive tackler, but he is a coverage liability and hasn’t intercepted a pass since 2008. Coleman will be an upgrade over the Lions’ safeties from last year, but he will eventually get replaced by Amari Spievey once Spievey learns the nuances of the position.

Randy Phillips was an undrafted free agent last season, but that was because of a torn right labrum that made him miss the entire 2009 season. Phillips figures to be the Lions’ backup free safety this season after last years’ safeties proved to be incapable of producing when given the opportunity.

Amari Spievey was inconsistent in his first season as a strong safety, but he didn’t embarrass himself and is still in the Lions’ plans to be the long-term strong safety. The Lions brought in Erik Coleman as insurance, and though Coleman figures to win the starting job, Spievey will be close behind and ready to start if Coleman messes up.

Paul Pratt appeared in two games as a corner last season, but allowed the lone pass thrown his way to be completed for 15 yards. The Lions are going to move him to free safety as a backup, but he won’t see any more playing time there.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit could go out and sign a better strong safety than Erik Coleman, but they believe Amari Spievey will soon become their long-term strong safety.

Kicker (1)

Jason Hanson

Jason Hanson is 41 years old, but he had missed just one game over the last 18 season before spraining his MCL in Week 9 last season. Before his injury, Hanson had converted 85.7 percent of his field goals, so it appears that he is still capable of kicking in the NFL despite his age.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit could bring back Dave Rayner as insurance, but Hanson will likely win the starting job because he is still kicking at a high level.

Punter (1)

Nick Harris

Nick Harris averaged 44.6 yards per punt last season and landed 24 punts inside the 20-yard line with only 8 touchbacks.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit has a good punter signed through 2012 and they don’t want to address the position until then.

Long Snapper (1)

Don Muhlbach

Don Muhlbach is in a contract year, but has done a good job to this point.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit is set at long snapper for this season, and if Don Muhlbach were to get injured, the Lions know that Dominic Raiola could fill in capably as a long snapper.

Kick/Punt Returners (1)

Stefan Logan

Stefan Logan averaged 26.3 yards per kick return and 12.1 yards per punt return in 2010. Logan also had a 105-yard kick return touchdown.

Free Agent Analysis:

Detroit is set at returner because Stefan Logan did a fabulous job last season.

Lions Unrestricted Free Agents (12)

Bobby Carpenter, Dylan Gandy, Corey Hilliard, Chris Houston, Landon Johnson, Turk McBride, Brandon McDonald, Julian Peterson, Dave Rayner, Kevin Smith, Drew Stanton, John Wendling

Bobby Carpenter is expected to compete for a starting outside linebacker job if he resigns with the Lions. Julian Peterson is a free agent and Zach Follett’s (neck) football future is in question, so the Lions need to resign him.

Dylan Gandy will be a backup if he returns to the Lions. Gandy will likely explore all of his options to see if any other teams value him higher than the Lions do.

Corey Hilliard was signed off the Browns practice squad last season because the Lions had too many injuries on their offensive line. Hilliard might come back, but the odds of him sticking on their roster are slim.

Chris Houston wants a long-term deal, but because he had recurring shoulder issues in 2010, the Lions want to see if he can still play at the same level he did last season. Houston is a fine No. 2 corner when healthy, but the Lions will still need to sign another corner even if they resign Houston

Landon Johnson might resign with the Lions this season because they are willing to “let him compete for a starting spot.” The Lions are thin at outside linebacker, so it’s not surprising that they want to retain Johnson despite the fact that he suffered two concussions towards the end of last season.

Turk McBride set career highs last season, racking up five sacks and 33 tackles in 15 games. If McBride were to resign with the Lions, he’d likely be a rotational end, but at least he would get a pay raise.

Brandon McDonald likely won’t be back with the Lions this season because cornerback is expected to be their top priority and McDonald isn’t one of the elite corners despite his starting experience from his time with the Cleveland Browns. McDonald fractured his forearm towards the end of last season and most teams will probably avoid signing him until one of their corners gets hurt.

Julian Peterson won’t be back with the Lions because they released him prior to the Lockout. By letting Peterson go, the Lions saved $8 million in salary cap room. Peterson will be 33 at the end of July and will need to sign a much cheaper contract.

Dave Rayner converted 81.3 percent of his field goals last season and was perfect from beyond 50 yards last season. Rayner wants to resign with the Lions, but only if they cut Jason Hanson. If the Lions choose the latter, Rayner should still be able to find a team in free agency.

Kevin Smith won’t be back with the Lions because they just drafted 2 halfbacks over the last two years. Smith averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, so he might be able to find a backup job somewhere. The Cleveland Browns would be an ideal choice because Montario hardest is coming off of ACL surgery.

Drew Stanton completed 58 percent of his passes for 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in 6 games last season. Stanton would best off if he resigned with the Lions because he would become the Lions’ long-term backup to Matt Stafford, once Shaun Hill leaves.

John Wendling was a good special teamer last season, and could resign with the Lions in the same role. Wendling isn’t great in coverage as a safety though, so he likely won’t attract too much attention on the market.