Detroit Lions: The 5 Biggest Threats to Success in 2012
After their first winning season in over a decade, the Detroit Lions are doing everything in their power to avoid becoming the NFL's version of Right Said Fred—a one-hit wonder who eventually faded into irrelevance.
Their goals for 2012 extend well beyond the wild-card berth they achieved last season. If you listen to team president Tom Lewand, the Super Bowl is not an unrealistic expectation.
They certainly have the talent to make such a run.
The road to the Super Bowl is fraught with obstacles, though. Some are within the team's ability to avoid, others are not. Their ability to avoid—or overcome—these pitfalls will determine how far they go.
Here are five of the biggest threats to derail the Lions' season in 2012.
5. Cliff Avril's Contract
Regardless if you think Cliff Avril deserves a long-term deal or not, there are two factors that everyone can agree on.
1. Avril is an important cog in the Lions defensive machine. His absence would be a huge loss.
2. Avril is no closer to being signed than he was a month ago.
Needless to say, he still has not signed the one-year franchise tender of $10.6 million and has no immediate plans to do so (via Detroit Free Press). As a result, he will not be able to participate in the Lions' offseason conditioning program which starts next week.
In the meantime, Avril and the Lions continue to negotiate a long-term deal but are not close.
If he doesn't have a deal in place by July 15th, he will be forced to play the season on another one-year contract.
I don't believe Avril will miss time because of the contract issue, but it could impact his performance. I think Avril is a professional, but when it comes down to it he's not happy with the situation.
As the regular season gets closer that will not change. Particularly during training camp, the media focus on Avril's deal—or lack thereof—could become a serious distraction.
The last thing the Lions need is a player sulking in the locker room, disrupting team chemistry and positivity.
That was the old Lions, not this team.
4. Martin Mayhew Loses His Mojo
The Lions have many key pieces in place to make a serious championship run—franchise quarterback, elite receiver and a dominating defensive line. They even have good depth at most positions.
Yet, the importance of this year's draft cannot be understated. They need one or two players from this year's crop of rookies to have a significant impact.
Martin Mayhew has been successful with this so far. He's been able to do what his predecessor—Matt Millen—could not: have success in the NFL draft and earn the trust of the fans.
Take a look at the Lions draft history starting in 2009. Not only are the majority of these players still on the team, but most of them are starting or at least playing a major role.
Despite their young and talented roster, the Lions still have several holes that need to be filled. The lack of depth in their defensive backfield is the main one. Mayhew needs to find the right balance between addressing these needs and drafting the best players available in order to truly be successful.
Can his hot streak drafting talented players continue? It certainly needs to if the Lions want to build on their 10-6 record from last year.
3. Jeff Backus and Company Suddenly Show Their Age
The performance of the Lions offensive line has been a hot button issue for years in Motown.
On one side are the fans that think this current unit is the worst assembly of blockers in the NFL. These fans usually think that cutting everyone, especially Jeff Backus, is the best solution to the problem.
On the other side are more realistic fans who think that the current unit could be better, but is actually pretty decent. They believe that cutting Backus, who is one of the better left tackles in the NFC, would be disastrous.
Their plan usually involves improving the O-line through the draft or high value free-agent signings.
The truth is the offensive line was a big part of Detroit's success last year. Their most important job was to protect Matthew Stafford and they did that.
The concern for this group is the age of their keystones. Backus is 34 and Dominic Raiola is 33. These are ages when injuries and wear-and-tear really start to impact performance. We haven't seen it yet but 2012 could be the year.
If that happens the Lions would be in real trouble. Despite their efforts, they don't have anyone capable of replacing those two.
They've drafted linemen in the last two drafts but they are unproven.
The Lions cannot afford for this unit to take a step back in 2012. Their biggest asset—Stafford—relies on their success.
If they do regress, then fans will really have something to complain about.
2. Mikel Leshoure Fails
Thanks to a season-ending Achilles injury in training camp last year, the Lions have not been able to get a good read on what kind of player Mikel Leshoure is.
In 2011 they traded up in order to drafted him in the second round. Obviously they thought highly of him. However, he hasn't played in a single game yet.
What he has done is garner two marijuana related offenses in two months. That's not the best way to endear yourself to a team and fanbase that has high expectations for you.
What's worse is the Lions desperately need him to play a major role. They cannot rely on Jahvid Best—with his serious concussion history—to shoulder the load again.
Nor can they rely on a patchwork unit of waiver wire pickups to improve the running game. Make no mistake, it needs to improve if the Lions hope to take the next step.
They can certainly make the playoffs again with middle-of-the-road rushing, but if they expect to go further they need a running game that can have a significant impact on the game.
Leshoure has the potential to be that kind of rusher. That is why the Lions drafted him.
He appears to be fully healed from the Achilles injury. What he needs to do now is get his head on straight, stop smoking—and eating—pot and prove to Detroit what kind of player he is.
If not the Lions will be hard pressed to repeat their success in 2011.
1. Sidelined Stars
To borrow a quote from Reggie Jackson, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are the straws that stir the Detroit Lions drink.
Without either of them, the Lions hopes of surpassing last year's success disappear faster than Rex Ryan's lunch.
Detroit has a very good defense, but last year's wild-card run was possible because of the outstanding and historic performances of their quarterback and star wide receiver.
Without this dynamic tandem you might compare Detroit's offense to a Ford Mustang—if it had its original engine replaced with that of a lawnmower.
Especially when you consider the Lions poor rushing attack. There is simply no one who can make up for Stafford or Johnson's production.
In 2010 we saw Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill take over for an injured Stafford and perform admirably. They won four games at the end of the year and started a winning momentum that eventually carried over into 2011.
Realistically you can't expect second- or third-string players to improve upon a 10-6 record. The Lions need their big guns healthy and playing every game if they expect to go further in the playoffs.
With Stafford and Johnson in the lineup the sky really is the limit. Without them, the Lions will be lucky to get off the ground.