Detroit Lions: Five Players Who Need to Step Up in 2012
Last season, the Detroit Lions exceeded nearly everyone's wildest expectations with a season that ended in the playoffs.
Heck, people are probably starting to lobby for schools to be named after Matthew Stafford and Jim Schwartz, and with good reason. If James Woods can have a high school named after him in Rhode Island, Stafford should get one in Dearborn.
That being said, there were still plenty of players who did not play up to the level that many had hoped, and this accentuates the fact that things have changed in Detroit.
Lions fans are no longer content with being a decent team or even a good one. Fans are ready for the Lions to be a great team.
And in order to do that, everyone is going to have to step up.
In particular, here are the five players who will need to improve in order for the Lions to reach the next level.
Nick Fairley, DT
In all honesty, I was not a huge fan of the selection of Fairley. Sure, ideally he makes the defensive line—already a position of strength—into a better one.
But there were bigger holes to fill, holes that will still need to be filled this year.
That being said, Fairley had a pretty poor rookie season.
Sure, he was limited by injuries and never really got into game shape as a result, but he did not play like a high draft pick.
This year, Fairley will need to play a much bigger role. The Lions will need him to be disruptive in the running game, and he will need to free up Ndamukong Suh to do what he does best—getting to the quarterback.
Fairley doesn't need to get a bunch of sacks, but in the neighborhood of five isn't asking too much. He also needs to challenge for a starting job and show up for camp looking to earn it.
Ndamukong Suh, DT
Speaking of Suh, the second-year defensive stud bounced back to Earth last year after an All-Pro rookie year.
Suh's biggest problems were his temper and an injured shoulder that never truly got enough of the blame for his less-than-stellar season.
Suh must develop his game, and not just rely on the bull-rush and power game. He needs to work on his hand placement and take it to the offensive linemen.
He also needs more help from Fairley and the rest of his defensive tackles in order to keep him from dealing with too many double and triple-teams.
The Lions don't necessarily need Suh to get 10 sacks, but seven or eight would be good to go along with more time on the field and less penalties.
Louis Delmas, S
Alright, I think we all agree that Louis Delmas is the best player in the Lions' defensive secondary. He has the speed, tenacity and tackling ability to really anchor this unit.
So why is he on this list?
Because he can't stay on the field.
Last year, Delmas missed five games and was hobbled in a few others. This resulted in a career-low in tackles as well as no interceptions, forced fumbles or sacks.
The leader of Detroit's secondary needs to make plays, and last year he just didn't.
This year, Delmas will need to not only make the tough tackles but he also needs to become a threat in the passing game as well. Teams need to think twice before challenging him, and if the defensive line bounces back from a middling season, Delmas should get his chances.
Jeff Backus, LT
Let's all end the charade right now—Jeff Backus isn't going anywhere.
The Lions don't have a replacement on the roster, and they aren't likely to get lucky in the draft, so Backus will return.
By most people's standards, he had a solid year last season, but the entire line struggled mightily in run-blocking.
Part of the reason for that was the fragile nature of the running back crew. Jahvid Best can't stay healthy, Mikel Leshoure didn't last the preseason, and even late-season replacements Kevin Smith and Keiland Williams struggled with injuries.
But the offensive line did not find a way to impose their will in the running game.
I'm not picking on Backus only; his mates needed to step up as well. But as the leader, Backus needs to really move the piles. He needs to create holes and lead by example.
Sure, Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Stephen Peterman, Gosder Cherilus and whoever the Lions draft in one of the top three rounds will need to step up as well. But Backus will be the highest paid player on this line, and he needs to push his teammates.
Mikel Leshoure, RB
True, it is kind of unfair to include Leshoure on this list, seeing as how he has yet to play a down for Detroit.
But the Lions were counting on him last year, and he didn't deliver.
Given the precarious health of Jahvid Best and the even more precarious health of the salary cap, the Lions likely will need Leshoure to become the featured back.
Now, I am personally hoping Detroit brings in a big back like Mike Tolbert to shore up the unit. But that could be difficult considering the financial restrictions on the team.
More than likely, we will be looking at a backfield next year that looks like last year's unit.
In this instance, we know that we can't count on Best. He is just too fragile. Leshoure will need to bounce back from his injury, and he will need to carry the rushing game.
More than anything, he needs to take pressure off Stafford and the passing game by making third downs a lot more manageable, and he needs to help in the goal-line scenarios.
Can he do it? If I were a betting man, I probably wouldn't put a lot of money on it. But stranger things have happened.