Identifying Potential Breakout Players for the Detroit Lions' 2012 Season
We're in that somewhat slow spot where we are just getting OTAs and "voluntary" workouts under way and the last of the rookie contracts are trickling in.
Now is a good time to start looking at players who could be about to take their talent to the next level.
The Lions have a ton of great players—Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Cliff Avril—and more than few up-and-comers.
Some of these guys have the ability to be special.
The following are some players who, if things go right, could be in for a great 2012.
Nick Fairley, DT
We're not far into OTAs and voluntary workouts, but so far the word on Nick Fairley is positive. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch told MLive's Anwar Richardson that the young defensive tackle from Auburn is "in good shape."
Fairley struggled with a foot injury in 2011, so being at the workouts, running and staying around the team is a very positive sign. Add to it Lions.com reporter Tim Twentyman's opinion that Fairley was the most impressive player at OTAs today.
Very, very encouraging.
Certainly Fairley has some hurdles before he really can take off, but it's possible he can have a very good season.
Of course, he needs to show better judgment off the field. As I have said numerous times about the Lions' players, you cannot have a positive impact on the field if you aren't actually on the field.
Secondly, he needs to stay healthy and consistent. Again, if you're hurt, you can't have an impact of any sort. Consistency is part of the same thing—if they can't trust you to do your job when they ask you to, they won't use you.
Finally—and really this is the biggest hurdle—he needs to find a way to climb over the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill. Hill shouldn't be too big a challenge, and Suh just isn't going to happen—the key might be getting past Williams.
Last season was an off year for Williams as his tackles dove from 32 in 2010 to just 19 in 2011. He had the same amount of sacks (two) but no passes defensed (he'd had four each of the previous three years) and didn't force a fumble for the first time in four years.
If Fairley plays as well as he looks, Williams' spot could be ripe for the plucking.
I've long said a pairing of Suh and Fairley would be scary. We might just see how scary this fall.
Aaron Berry, CB
Chris Houston is doing pretty well on one side of the field—but who will pair up with him?
Really, to me the best choice is second-year player Aaron Berry.
Berry plays a solid, physical corner, and with a year of experience under his belt, he's poised to take a huge leap forward.
Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood and Dwight Bentley are rookies, and while it's possible they could jump ahead of Berry, it's unlikely, especially early.
Alphonso Smith had a good 2010 followed by a decent 2011, but he's not untouchable, and at one point the rumor was that he was on the trading block. He's had a tendency to get torched as well as make plays so, really, that's not surprising. Ross Weaver is bench depth, no more, no less.
Jacob Lacey is an interesting hurdle for Berry. An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State in 2009, Lacey stacks up tackles but spends too much time hurt. Of course, so does Berry. The Lions were bullish on Lacey when they signed him, and felt like he could be the one to replace departed Eric Wright.
I believe Berry to be the superior overall defensive back, but if he can't stay healthy, Lacey will get more reps.
Still, we're looking at a guy who has the skill to compete and, if he gets on the field, could have a huge impact in a division where people love to throw the ball.
Mikel Leshoure, RB
If only he can stay out of trouble off the field, Mikel Leshoure is going to be the closest thing to a "bell cow" back as you get in the league these days.
I like Jahvid Best and he is a dynamic back, but the two concussions in two months is a concern, and frankly, he's just not a big back.
Leshoure is a durable, versatile back who, while he lacks Best's straight-out athleticism and playmaking ability, is no slouch.
Leshoure can catch the ball, run between the tackles, get outside and is tough to bring down.
The biggest issue right now is whether he'll get suspended for his two drug arrests this winter. We already know he's now in the NFL Drug Treatment program, mandatory after an issue like this. What we're unsure of is what, if any, punishment the NFL will hand down.
If Leshoure avoids suspension, he should have no problem putting together some great games in this offense.
Titus Young, WR
This list looked better before Titus Young took a poke at Louis Delmas in a workout last week and was asked not to show up at OTAs today.
I've made my feelings on Young clear—the kid has a ton of talent but no judgment skills. And yes, I called him a kid. Normally I don't call grown men "kids," but when you act like my 6-year-old, that's what you get.
The worst part of the Delmas incident? Delmas likes to talk and likely got under Young's skin. Now the whole league knows that you can do it.
If Young can wake up and grow up, this is an offense he can truly excel in. His six touchdowns were tied with tight end Tony Scheffler for second on the team. He lagged behind Nate Burleson in targets and catches, but that's to be expected for a rookie third wide receiver.
He's shown speed and good hands, as well as a knack for touchdowns.
If he can show a knack for being smart, he'll see a big increase in his stats this year as well as his presence in the offense in the coming years.
If not—well, rookie Ryan Broyles will be healthy at some point.
Riley Reiff, LT
Why is Riley Reiff here?
Because he has to be.
If you put a rookie at left tackle, he's going to have to have a breakout year. Next to center, it's the most critical position on the line, and there are even some centers who will call it more critical.
Reiff is a great pass blocker and an athletic run blocker, and he has the ability to get to the second level.
He's going to have a learning curve, that's for sure. How big a curve he has will determine what kind of year he has.
If he sticks at left tackle—and I truly believe he will—he's going to be a solid addition to this line and have a great year.
Now, I know Rob Sims thinks Jeff Backus is going to be the left tackle, but coming off a torn bicep might make it hard for him to hang onto that spot.
Further, I think Backus would be well used elsewhere as well—the offensive line isn't so good that Backus at any spot wouldn't be an improvement.
Reiff is, in my opinion, ready to go. By season's end, he'll have solidified his spot at left tackle.