The NFL football gods have finally looked favorably upon the Detroit Lions. After years of futility and draft failures, the Lions put together an impressive 2011 campaign. For that reason expectations are high.
The Lions' turnaround can be attributed to a core of young and exciting players. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh are Detroit's "Big Three," and they've vaulted the Honolulu blue and silver to national relevance.
Those three guys already had their breakout years—Suh in 2010, and Johnson and Stafford in 2011. While they certainly could have those types of seasons again, they won't surprise anyone this time. They're expected to do well.
Luckily for the Lions they have a bevy of talented players who only have a year or two of NFL experience under their belts and are raring to go. These players—because of injury or limited playing time—have much to prove. They are the ones that could take the Lions to the next level and take the NFL by storm.
Here are five Detroit Lions with the best chance of having breakout seasons in 2012.
This Benton Harbor native and former Wayne State Warrior returned home last December when the Lions plucked him off the New Orleans Saints' practice squad. After bouncing around the NFL—four teams in two years—I'm sure Bell is happy to be back home.
As this article from MLive.com says, Jim Schwartz had his eye on Bell for sometime. He just didn't have a roster spot for him. He's now signed for two years and has a chance to be a Lion for a long time.
Bell's college statistics are astounding. He racked up 6,728 yards and 88 touchdowns for the D-II Wildcats, and his performance in the 2010 Senior Bowl and at the NFL combine proved he has the tools to compete at the highest level as well.
Bell finds himself in a unique position with Detroit. He'll start training camp fourth or fifth on the depth chart, but depending on injuries, he could find himself much higher. Jahvid Best's availability is up in the air, Mikel Leshoure is coming off a major injury and we all know Kevin Smith's history.
Regardless of Bell's performance, it's not crazy to think he'll see a lot of playing time this year. If he does, he might be the NFL's version of Jeremy Lin.
Like Lin, all he needs is a chance.
I'll admit it, I love to watch Willie Young play. I think he's a great story and he's exciting to watch. Whenever he gets in the game, he makes a play. Usually that involves knocking someone on their can or sacking the quarterback.
Playing time is the key factor though. According the NFL Nation Blog on ESPN.com, Young only saw action on 22.7 percent of plays over 14 games. That's not surprising when you consider who plays in front of him—Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Because of this, his numbers won't blow anybody away (four sacks and one forced fumble).
Regardless of numbers, Young's got the tools to be successful. As this scouting report says, he plays bigger and faster than his measurables, and he knows how to use his considerable length to his advantage.
This will be his third year, and it's time for the Lions to turn him loose.
Two factors will impact Young's playing time: Avril's contract status and Vanden Bosch's age. Will Avril even be here? Will Vanden Bosch break down at some point?
Either scenario would result in Young getting more consistent playing time. The Lion's seventh-round steal will surely know what to do with it when he gets it.
He was drafted with great expectations, but an injury to his Achilles tendon halted Leshoure's NFL career before it started.
The Detroit Lions are confident that he'll be ready for training camp. However, it remains to be seen if he'll come back the same explosive runner they drafted in the second round last year.
I think he will be and here's why.
Because the injury happened so early in training camp, he's had adequate time to heal properly. With a complete training camp at 100 percent, he'll have the time to regain the explosiveness that made him the Lions' second-round pick last year.
If he does, watch out. After missing an entire season, he'll be looking to make up for lost time. He won't hurt for playing time either—with or without Best. He'll definitely get his chance.
With this offense, touches and touchdowns will be aplenty, and Leshoure will be right in the middle of it.
As you might expect, Young's rookie year with the Detroit Lions had its highs and it had its lows. First the highs: He was drafted to be a deep threat, and he provided that and more. His first year numbers exceeded expectations.
Now the lows: His mistakes—running wrong routes, dropping balls and committing terrible penalties—were glaring.
Another year wiser, and those mistakes will be corrected. He'll also have another training camp to get on the same page as his all-world quarterback Matthew Stafford.
He's clearly a more dangerous receiver than Nate Burleson, the Lions' current No. 2 pass catcher. Young is quicker and has more big play potential. Yet Burleson had more catches and yards. As a nine-year NFL veteran, he simply was more consistent.
Young made mistakes, but he also learned valuable lessons last season. He got playing time in high pressure situations and learned that throwing a punch in crunch time is frowned upon. As a result of these experiences he will be more consistent and eventually pass Burleson on the depth chart.
If he's able to do this and develop a stronger on-field rapport with Stafford, Young could provide even more evidence for the second-year breakout theory for wide receivers.
This is an easy call to make because Fairley has all the tools to be the second coming of Ndamukong Suh. That's why the Lions drafted him with their first overall pick last year. He only needs to stay healthy, and with a full offseason of recovery time, there's no reason to think he won't.
He's got the potential to have the type of year Suh put up in 2010 on his way to winning the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Injuries robbed Fairley of the chance to get that award, and I'm sure he's motivated to prove that he doesn't play second fiddle to anyone—not even Suh.
He gave the Lions a taste, albeit a brief one, of what he could do when he dominated the first quarter of the Lions regular season contest against he New Orleans Saints. He applied constant pressure on Drew Brees and amassed three tackles (two for a loss) and one sack before re-injuring his foot; and he did this without Suh drawing double-teams next to him.
Fairley has the talent and the disposition to dominate the line of scrimmage. Like Suh, he has a real dislike for quarterbacks. Unlike Suh, his dirty reputation might actually be warranted.
We'll see if he garners the attention of his linemate. If he does, the Lions might find the media spotlight focused on their defensive line yet again, but this time Fairley will be basking in the glow.