Even with a surprising 10-6 record last season, there are seven reasons the Detroit Lions will be better in 2012.
The steady improvement of the Lions over the past three years has validated all the changes the franchise has incurred since they cleaned house in 2009.
Jim Schwartz has instilled a winning attitude that has been fueled by a nucleus of young talent, and Martin Mayhew has been just as instrumental in procuring the talent and flipping the 53-man roster in just a few short seasons.
Let’s not forget Tom Lewand and how he was able to re-sign Calvin Johnson this offseason.
I could reiterate how important Calvin is for the Lions' improvement next season, but that would be no more beneficial than if I reminded you that a smaller bikini on Kate Upton would improve her look.
Some things just don't need to be said.
But how can the Lions put together their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1995?
The following are what I feel are the seven most important reasons the Lions will improve on last year’s surprising campaign and why the best is yet to come.
Ask any quarterback from high school right up through the NFL’s best signal-callers, and they’ll all tell you the same thing—there is no better classroom than the field itself.
Coming off a sophomore season where he started only three regular-season games before Julius Peppers used his shoulder as an irrigation device; Stafford was viewed by many as a player with loads of potential but was saddled with a perceived yoke of fragility and less-than-perfect physique.
It's amazing what a full year in the classroom can do for perception.
Stafford proved the doubters wrong, completing all 16 regular-season games at a pace only three other signal-callers in the history of the NFL can claim to have surpassed.
All while taking more than his fair share of beatings from the opposition and playing through a broken index finger on his throwing hand.
Additionally, Stafford got his feet wet in his first playoff game and showed he was up to the challenge competing admirably against Drew Brees in his postseason debut.
There should be no doubt Stafford’s grasp of Scott Linehan’s offense will improve this offseason. There's no lockout this year, and Stafford has access to Linehan and the Allen Park facility throughout the year.
The improvement may not be seen in fantasy football stats, and truth be told, if this team improves across the board, Stafford shouldn’t need to throw for 5,000 yards.
What should be the goal is a more efficient Stafford who keeps drives alive early in the game and puts points on the board throughout the game. An improved third-down conversion percentage, 15th in the league last year at 37.39 percent, would go a long way towards sustaining drives and eliminating the fourth-quarter heroics that were necessary last year.
Combine the record-setting 2011 campaign with a full offseason program and even the most pessimistic of Lions’ fans should be able to forecast a better year for Stafford.
The Detroit Lions wide receiver who garnered the most media coverage this offseason was Calvin Johnson and rightfully so. But the wideout who should improve the most from 2011 to 2012 is Titus Young.
A training-camp injury stunted the development of the Boise State rookie last year, but after his youth-driven meltdown in New Orleans, Young responded with the best four-game stretch of his young career.
Catching four touchdowns in four games, Young proved the Lions scouting staff was right in snatching the slight receiver blessed with a generous wingspan as the 44th overall selection.
Young will continue to work both in the slot and opposite Calvin Johnson. With the continual focus of opposing defenses concerned with Megatron and to a lesser extent Brandon Pettigrew, who was second on the team in receptions, Titus could take a titantic leap forward.
Expect Titus Young’s numbers to improve and possibly surpass the production of Nate Burleson with a full year of experience pooled with an offseason of bookwork and an injury-free training camp.
There is no better city in the NFL to play the second or third receiving option that Detroit. With less coverage than a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot, playing opposite Calvin Johnson or lining up in the slot alongside him is a developing receiver’s dream; Titus Young should be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Lions will return 10-of-11 starters on defense next year, but beyond that, it will be the overall health of the squad that should improve the defense.
Eric Wright packed his bags and headed south for “The Big Sombrero” in Tampa for a payday the Lions were unwilling to match.
Can’t blame him though, he found somebody willing to pay a premium for something—nothing more than average; similar to a jumpy storage facility bidder willing to part with $700 bucks for a couple pressboard dressers and a pleather loveseat.
Regardless, the defense should be improved with a healthy Nick Fairley and Louis Delmas.
Fairley showed flashes of dominance last season, but the toe injury kept him from creating a buzz similar to Ndamukong Suh in his rookie year.
Putting Fairley into the regular rotation up front for Detroit will keep the pressure on the opposing quarterback and keep the front four fresh—a principle pillar in the Lions' defensive philosophy.
Louis Delmas will be playing for a new contract next season as he will be an unrestricted free-agent heading into 2013 and his ability to cover the ever increasingly important receiving tight end is not lost on Jim Schwartz.
"There is no more strong safety or free safety. There are just safeties, and a prototype guy is Lou Delmas. He's 6-0, 205 pounds. He covers, he can play in the box, he can play deep zones, he's got great range and he can cover a tight end."(detroitnews.com)
With premier pass-catching tight end Jermichael Finley in the division along with Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Jason Witten in the conference, the ability to cover the tight end has become vital.
Much has been said and written regarding the lack of interceptions for Delmas, but what many fail to see is the drop in production from the tight end position when Delmas is in the game.
When comparing the four games against the Packers and Saints, both Finley and Graham had their productivity nearly cut in half when Delmas was on the field. These numbers are not abirations; they are a result of Delmas’ ability.
There’s nothing better for a team than a player with something to prove. Whether it’s a young player who wants more playing time or a veteran playing for a new contract; both scenarios should benefit Detroit when Nick Fairley and Louis Delmas hit the field next year.
Do you realize when Jim Schwartz coaches his 10th game of the 2012 campaign, he’ll have the longest tenure since Wayne Fontes?
It’s true. Both Rod Marinelli and Steve Mariucci lasted only three years. Marty Mornhinweg had a pair of disastrous years, and Bobby Ross got to three years and nine games before he gave himself a bus ticket out of town.
Stability on the sidelines cannot be minimized. The carousel of coaches over the last decade not only reiterates the foibles of Matt Millen, it also confirms the lack of talent on previous rosters.
As coaches come and go, so do their systems, and accordingly, the players that best fit those unsuccessful schemes.
Jim Schwartz has been the catalyst of the franchise turnaround, and he has no need to look over his shoulder, cautious as to when his ax will come.
He’ll soon receive a contract extension, and his coordinators Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham have also remained constant.
Detroit appears to be Cunningham’s final NFL stop, and although Linehan may again have head-coaching aspirations in the future, his prospects will only get better by staying in Detroit and further developing Stafford.
They have lost assistants, but that is to be expected from a successful coaching staff. What is important is that the trident of Schwartz, Linehan and Cunningham remain intact along with their philosophy and terminology.
Although Tom Lewand will probably never be mistaken for a bloated Elvis Presley, he has victoriously utilized the King’s personal motto, Taking Care of Business, this offseason.
With the ink dried on the long-term deals of Calvin Johnson and Stephen Tulloch, combined with the re-signing of Jeff Backus, Tom Lewand fulfilled his requirements as the Lions’ “numbers guy” with flying colors.
Additionally, getting Megatron’s cap number down has given the Lions more time to eliminate the franchise tag for Cliff Avril and get him into a multi-year deal as well.
Either way, expect a motivated Avril next season, whether he is playing for a new contract or showing gratitude for the Lions following through on what they promised him previously.
Drafting young talent is difficult; keeping young talent for the long-term has increasingly become more difficult as the NFL has put financial limitations on all 32 teams to avoid the dynasties of the 90s like the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
The Lions' books are in balance, and the product on the field has not suffered; Tom Lewand continues to get things done in the difficult salary-cap era.
Mikel Leshoure, Mikel Leshoure, please report to the NFL. Mikel Leshoure, please report to the NFL.
It’s not the way we expected the bruising running back from Illinois to start his career, but the memory of last season can quickly be erased with a successful red-shirt rookie year.
The Achilles is healed, but normally, this type of injury takes more than a year for a running back to fully trust for the movements required by the position.
That said, the running back spot is up for grabs, and at only 23, the odds are in Leshoure’s favor to return quicker than most from his injury; he will be given every opportunity to be the bell cow this year.
Kevin Smith has been brought back on a one-year deal, and although he has performed well when healthy, his prospectus for next season is similar to playing Russian roulette; you just never know when the next carry will put him back on the shelf.
Those banking on Jahvid Best returning to form and playing a full 16-game schedule are probably the same people cashing significant portions of their weekly paychecks for Powerball Easy Picks.
Concussion problems are no longer swept under the rug in the NFL. With multiple concussions already on his resume, one hit, regardless of how routine it may appear, could end his career—Best needs to be viewed as a luxury, not a necessity.
With a healthy Mikel Leshoure, Smith and Best can be used intermittently, and that should help to minimize their exposure to injury. A young horse with plenty to prove in the running back stable should make for an improvement in the Lions' offensive backfield.
The NFL draft used to be referred to by Lions' fans as their “Super Bowl.” Now with the turnaround of the franchise, it might just be the last piece of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run.
The Lions will head into the 2012 draft with a nearly full chamber of bullets as they take aim at several 20-somethings who could help their football team.
Detroit has a pick in each of the first five rounds and two picks in the seventh and final round.
With 21 of the 22 offensive and defensive starters returning, the Lions would be happy coming away from the draft with one or two starters, a couple situational replacements and a few developmental projects.
This regime has proven their ability to turn second and third-day selections into viable contributors as opposed to the past when most players drafted after day one were destined for the scrap heap.
The Lions were rumored to have tried to trade from Samuel last year, but the Eagles’ asking price of second-day draft picks was too high.
Samuel’s $9.5 million salary would keep the Lions out of any potential trade this year, but Samuel is reportedly willing to renegotiate his deal to get himself out of Philly.
Could the Lions sneak in and get Samuel for a fourth-round pick with a Sammie Lee Hill or Corey Williams kicker?
Absolutely. The Eagles are looking for another defensive tackle, and RFA Hill would be a cap-friendly move for Philly. Corey Williams would make the deal more palatable for Detroit by sending $5 million back east, even though Mayhew has publicly stated he has no intentions on trading Williams.
The Lions know they need help at corner and are willing to make moves come draft weekend. In last year’s draft, Mayhew tried to move up and get Patrick Peterson in the first round, but he ultimately went to the Cardinals with the fifth pick.
Situations change, and if the Lions still think Samuel at 31 can help the team, they will make a play for him but don’t expect any movement until closer to the draft as most teams have recoiled to see how the draft will shake out before they make any more significant free-agent moves.
Nevertheless, this year’s draft is deep in both the Lions’ position of need, cornerback, and their favorite position to draft—defensive tackle.
Expect Martin Mayhew and his staff to add value to the team again this year and churning the bottom of the roster with young talent should continue to help improve the Lions.