Detroit Lions: Predicting Each Offensive Starter for the 2012 NFL Season

Dean Holden@@Dean_HoldenAnalyst IMarch 8, 2012

Detroit Lions: Predicting Each Offensive Starter for the 2012 NFL Season

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    For once, predicting the Detroit Lions' starting lineup for next season isn't going to involve trying to sort out complete offseason chaos.

    That's kind of nice, really, both for me trying to project the Lions' starters next year and for the Lions, who will undoubtedly benefit from the continuity.

    But this is the NFL, and all "continuity" really means is that the Lions are back to even with most of the rest of the league in that they're only swapping a handful of starters each year—not engaging in annual wholesale turnover.

    So, there are a few spots on the offense that will be no-brainers. You will read them and feel no surprise whatsoever. You might even mutter a, "Well, duh."

    But there are also a number of spots on the roster that have some questions around them. Who will get cut? Who is healthy enough to play? Who will get supplanted by a shiny new draft pick?

    Read on to find out.

    Oh, and try to control your shock when you see the next page.

Quarterback

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    Starter: Matthew Stafford

     

    One thing that has stuck with Lions fans in the months since the 2011 season ended is how the defense gave up 944 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns on the way to losing the last two games of the season.

    What gets overshadowed is that Matthew Stafford had 900 yards and eight touchdowns in that same stretch.

    I think we can bring the search for a 2012 starter to a close.

    On a side note, won't it be nice to see Peyton Manning hit the open market? We get to watch the rest of the league go into a total frenzy for a 36-year-old stopgap (and good as he may or may not be, Manning will be a stopgap QB), while the Lions sit back and enjoy having a record-setting 24-year-old franchise quarterback.

Running Back

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    Starters: Jahvid Best/Mikel Leshoure

     

    Seems like no big deal, but projecting Best and Leshoure as the starters for Detroit implicitly means that I'm throwing a vote of confidence behind their collective health.

    For a guy recovering from numerous concussions and another rehabbing a torn Achilles, that's no small feat. But Best and Leshoure have both been showing some optimistic signs lately, and it seems that both are at least going to attempt a comeback next season.

    Now, nobody can say what their long-term health will be like. I believe that both will begin the 2012 season as Lions starters, but I can't say whether or not they'll finish that way. There's no guarantee Leshoure is fully ready for a complete 16-game season no matter how optimistic he is, and Best might be one more concussion away from retirement.

    Still, if we're talking about guys the Lions are likely to send out in Week 1, these two are those guys.

Wide Receiver

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    Starters: Calvin Johnson/Nate Burleson


    There's no doubt in the mind of anyone that Calvin Johnson will be the Lions' top offensive weapon in 2012.

    Not only will he be the starting wide receiver for the Lions but he'll also probably be the starting wide receiver for the 2012 All-Pro team. I don't feel the need to explain this further, so if you still have doubts, just stare at Johnson's 2011 stats for a while.

    Nate Burleson is the one who might raise a bit of doubt.

    There are certainly two things that would seem to challenge Burleson's starting position with the Lions: One is the Lions' salary cap, the other is Titus Young.

    Burleson has popped up a bit recently as a potential player the Lions could cut to save some money under the salary cap. But the Lions have squashed that possibility, which all but guarantees Burleson to be on the roster in 2012.

    But then there's Titus Young, the talented young receiver who just about matched Burleson's production last season. Young's upside makes him far more valuable to the Lions in the long term than Burleson, and there's no doubt he will benefit greatly from having a full offseason with the team.

    That said, I don't believe Young has passed Burleson on the depth chart just yet. It's hard to say since the two players have completely different skill sets, and it's even possible that, by the season's end, Young will have more impressive numbers than Burleson.

    But as of the season's opening, I don't see the Lions having more trust in Young than they do in Burleson. Neither are terribly consistent, but Burleson is a team leader and far more technically sound than Young.

    Of course, the ideal situation is for them all to start (Johnson and Young on the wings, Burleson in the slot). But that hasn't panned out yet, and I'm figuring starters in terms of the 21 personnel package (two backs, one TE), so there simply isn't room for that.

Tight End

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    Starter: Brandon Pettigrew

     

    I think if Detroit's receivers had caught all the passes they dropped last season, it would have been Stafford breaking the single-season passing yards mark and not Drew Brees.

    Brandon Pettigrew was a major part of that, and he still finished eighth in the NFL with 83 receptions last year.

    Pettigrew still has some kinks to work out in his own game, and in a league where Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski serve as the gold standard for tight ends, Pettigrew may never be the flashiest star at the position.

    But Pettigrew blocks even better than he receives, and he is perhaps a more complete player than any of the flashy WR/TE hybrids playing the position these days. I'm not saying the Lions are necessarily better off with Pettigrew than they would be with Graham, but I don't expect to hear any complaints about what Pettigrew brings to the team.

Center

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    Starter: Dominic Raiola


    For a while there, I was relatively convinced that the Lions would be taking a long look at Peter Konz as a replacement for Dominic Raiola.

    Even at this point, I'm not convinced that isn't still true. But unless they're planning to cut the man (highly unlikely), I don't see any chance that Raiola is replaced in the middle of Detroit's line in 2012.

    Will the Lions draft his successor? Perhaps.

    Will he take over Raiola's job by the end of next season? Almost definitely not.

    Love him or hate him (or like me, love him but hate his run-blocking), Raiola is a fixture along Detroit's offensive line.

    He's aging and needs to be replaced, no question. But Raiola is still good enough and intelligent enough to outplay a rookie, at least for one season.

    Besides, the things a rookie center could learn with a year playing behind Raiola are more valuable than anything the Lions could gain with Raiola's allotted salary cap space.

Guard

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    Starters: Rob Sims/Cordy Glenn

     

    Ah! Finally, I predict a starter who isn't already on the team!

    And, as a result, this is also the prediction in which I'm least confident. There are three components that all need to work together for this to come true:

     

    1. Cordy Glenn is available to the Lions with the 23rd overall pick in the draft.

    2. The Lions select Glenn with that pick.

    3. Glenn supplants the weakest starter between Rob Sims, Gosder Cherilus and Stephen Peterman.

     

    Here's the thing: If the first step happens, I have little doubt that the second and third steps will fall right in line. But Glenn is having a fantastic run up to the draft, and his availability is very much in question as he approaches Top 15 status.

    But hey, Ndamukong Suh was the top overall talent in the 2010 NFL Draft, and they got him with the second pick. The Lions weren't supposed to be able to even get a sniff of Prince Amukamara or Nick Fairley, and both were available when the Lions drafted at No. 13 last year.

    The point is, the Lions tend to get the value players they're looking for, so why not here? It's not like Glenn is projected to left tackle (at least immediately), so he might get passed over by teams looking for a player at a higher-impact position.

    And if the Lions do get their hands on Glenn, they have a lot of options. Since he looks NFL-ready at no less than three positions (both guards and right tackle), they have the option of plugging Glenn in to replace the weakest link at any of those positions. (By my estimate, that means Stephen Peterman, the right guard who has never quite done anything he was supposed to.)

Tackle

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    Starters: Gosder Cherilus/Jeff Backus

     

    I know, this doesn't exactly fill anyone with hope and optimism.

    And just so we're clear, I do think the Lions are ready to start rebuilding their offensive line after pretty much letting it be for the last three years. I just don't expect the starters to be replaced quite yet.

    Cherilus is inconsistent more than anything, but he's in the final year of his rookie contract and isn't likely to be replaced—at least this season. Jason Fox is looming as a potential replacement, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to even practice during the season, much less play in a game.

    Backus is the big question mark, considering he's currently a free agent coming off a major injury. He is in decline, but there seems to be mutual interest in having Backus back in Honolulu blue next season.

    Backus' injury complicates the situation, but it should ultimately work in Detroit's favor. It's a risky proposition bidding on a mediocre 35-year-old free agent lineman under any circumstances, but when that lineman is recovering from a significant injury during free agency, it doesn't work in the free agent's favor.

    The safest thing right now for both Backus and the Lions now is to re-up with a modest contract to keep the lifetime Lion in the fold. Detroit should be thinking about a replacement for Backus approximately yesterday, but it's a bit unreasonable to expect that whoever will be his replacement will be ready to go from Day 1.

    Backus and Detroit are, at this point, insurance policies for one another. Backus needs a place to fall back if/when he tanks in free agency, and the Lions need a guy to watch Matthew Stafford's blind side until the new kid surpasses Backus in talent.