10 Players Most Responsible for the Detroit Lions' Success or Failure in 2012
The Detroit Lions, like any team, depend on their team leaders to bring them success.
Unlike every team, the Lions actually have a lot of established and emerging team leaders ready to lead this team to the next level.
Sure, the Lions have a bunch of solid role players whose success will be important to the Lions in 2012. But as important as Nate Burleson's contributions will be, they pale in comparison to the of Calvin Johnson. I'd love to see production out of Willie Young, but I don't expect as much as I do out of Cliff Avril.
The Lions had some success last season, but losing in the wild card round of the playoffs is not what the Lions aspired for 2011, and they will surely be looking to better that outcome in 2012.
But if the Lions are going to win more than 10 games, challenge for the division title or win a playoff game, it's their leaders, not their role players, that will have to key that success.
So which guys are those leaders on which the Lions' 2012 success depends more than any other players?
We'll start with one everyone can agree on.
If this requires any explanation, you haven't been watching the Lions over the last two years.
In no uncertain terms, having Stafford available was a difference of four wins, a playoff berth and a whole bunch of passing yards and touchdowns between 2010 and 2011.
Hard as this is to believe, Stafford is still under 25 and very likely only scratching the surface of his potential. Considering the Lions' top two draft picks were an offensive tackle and a wide receiver, it is not unreasonable to think Stafford could take a step forward in 2012.
Of course, if Stafford plays anywhere near the level he showed last year, the Lions will be in good shape, even if the numbers don't reflect it.
OK, now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about tangible things within the control of anyone.
The fact is, unless the curse really is a thing, there is no reason for Calvin Johnson to be anything but spectacular in 2012. He was putting up Pro Bowl-caliber seasons even without Stafford under center (see 2008), his contract situation is taken care of and it looks like the offense as a whole is starting to gel together.
Although Johnson himself wishes for less touches, it's difficult to see his overall impact lessening at all in 2012, even if that means he's blocking more or contributing to Titus Young's breakout season by pulling coverage to the other side of the field.
Ndamukong Suh needed one season to go from one of the most loved players in Detroit to perhaps the most controversial.
Suh plays with a rare fire in his belly that no coach wants to take the chance of snuffing out. And yet that same fire consumed him at times last season.
While Suh's “discipline problems” are wildly overblown (on an individual basis, only the infamous “stomp” is absolutely beyond justification), the fact is Suh's stats were down last year, and his personal fouls were up.
That is a trend the Lions would like to see reverse, not continue. And by all accounts, it should, but it will certainly be interesting to see how Suh tones down (or doesn't) his play from the all-out, high-octane attack that defines him.
It will also be interesting to see whether he develops as a player in terms of technique. Suh tends to lose discipline with his gap assignments in favor of trying to get to the quarterback, and offenses are starting to take advantage of that, especially on run plays.
With every passing day, it looks more like Cliff Avril is going to be making $10.6 million on his franchise tender.
As a result, his performance in 2012 is not only important to the Lions, but to him personally.
With fan sentiment slowly turning against him, Avril needs to go out and prove that he's worth the money by doing what he does best: hitting the quarterback and forcing fumbles.
Avril's penchant for the game-changing fumble-sack changed the complexion of a lot of games last season, and the Lions will be looking for a lot more of those next season, both to determine their team success and Avril's contract size.
To date, Mikel Leshoure has approximately one week of training camp to his name in a professional uniform.
And yet, much of the Lions' success running the ball in 2012 is riding on Leshoure's health and ability to take the ball between the tackles.
Jahvid Best was once considered an all-around threat who could run the ball up the middle if necessary, but he hasn't shown great success in that aspect of his game to this point, and given his concussion issues, it's worth asking if he should be used that way, especially when he's most effective in space.
But it isn't as though the Lions can just ignore running the ball between the tackles entirely. While true 50/50 balance is overrated in today's NFL, it is important to give the defense multiple things to worry about, and Leshoure is the only guy likely to provide a true threat up the middle.
But that's also contingent on another guy...
It's more than a bit unfair to pin the Lions' interior line woes on Raiola alone.
But Rob Sims is pretty solid, and I've given up on Stephen Peterman entirely (plus, who knows what happens to his spot now that Riley Reiff is in town?).
More to the point, Raiola is the guy I see with the greatest potential to regress in 2012. His age is starting to catch up with him, and he is being driven into the backfield with alarming frequency.
I don't expect Raiola to suddenly play at an All-Pro level, but the Lions badly need him to at least not get any worse. Otherwise, we're going to see running lanes evaporate and pockets collapse all season, and the Lions will have no answers in terms of a replacement.
A stretch? Maybe. But in this brave new world of Detroit Lions management, we expect first-round picks to be major impact players.
Nick Fairley wasn't able to perform much in 2012, and when he was, he was limited. But for one quarter against New Orleans, he showed the rare ability to take over a ball game from the defensive tackle position, tossing some of the better offensive linemen out of the way in the process.
If the Lions can get the player Fairley was in that one quarter combined with an Ndamukong Suh closer to what we saw in 2010, the impact of that interior line will be unimaginable.
And so, Nick Fairley becomes one of the Lions' most important players in 2012, not because of what the Lions will suffer without his impact, but because of how much potential impact he could bring.
Stephen Tulloch is the biggest signing the Lions made on a free agent this season (Calvin Johnson was technically under contract, not an FA yet), and he will be expected to deliver like a premier linebacker.
Tulloch played great football in 2011, and in many cases, was the glue that held the entire defensive unit together.
His impact should only grow now that he has a year of experience with the team. He should have been relatively familiar with the scheme, having played in Jim Schwartz's defense in Tennessee, but chemistry and communication with the other 10 guys on the field is equally important.
And since the Lions should be returning as many as 10 of their defensive starters from 2011, Tulloch should already have a pretty good rapport with them.
Perhaps the most frustrating member of the Lions defense is the one we've been calling on to make an impact for years.
Louis Delmas was the first safety chosen in the 2009 draft, with the 33rd-overall pick, and while he has shown flashes in his first three seasons, he has yet to truly step up and become a leader on the defense.
His play has been mostly strong, but inconsistent and full of technical flaws (take better angles to the play and wrap up when you tackle, Louis!), and through it all, the playmaking safety we all expected to see has not yet shown himself in the No. 26 jersey.
Delmas is still a starting-quality player, but there's little doubt the Lions would get a huge boost if he went from starting-quality to star-quality.
The Lions' No. 2 Corner
The man who will perhaps make the greatest defensive impact on the Lions in 2012 is the one yet to be named.
Will this man be Aaron Berry? Jacob Lacey? Rookie Bill Bentley?
Who knows? The position is completely up for grabs, and whatever configuration the team comes out with in training camp will likely not be the one they complete the season with.
But whoever is playing across from Chris Houston this year is going to get picked on routinely, and the Lions are going to need him to be up to the challenge, lest they give up a lot more 400-yard passing games to opposing quarterbacks.