Predicting Award Winners for the Detroit Lions' 2012 Season
The Detroit Lions have, over time, become accustomed to being shut out when awards are handed out.
After all, 3-13 teams don't tend to produce a lot of MVP candidates.
That trend is starting to flip, but it's a slow process.
Even though Matthew Stafford has been credited with two Comeback Player of the Year honors (one from the AP and one, more recently, at the ESPYs), he was still considered the sixth-best quarterback in the NFC in terms of Pro Bowl votes.
So maybe regular, positive public recognition is still a ways off for these Lions, but that's just fine. We're perfectly capable of picking our own MVPs and ROYs.
And so we will.
Here are my Lions-based picks for all the awards you're accustomed to seeing at the end of the season (and a few you aren't).
Most Valuable Player: Matthew Stafford
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It's a simple equation, really.
I could break down Stafford's stats or go back into the discussion of whether Stafford or Calvin Johnson is most important to the offense.
But when I think "most valuable," one question pops into my head: "Who would the team suffer the absolute most from not having this year?"
To find the answer, just look at 2010 and 2011 next to each other. The biggest difference between those seasons was having Stafford for 16 games. The result was 10 wins instead of six.
We've seen what the Lions look like without Stafford. With all due respect, it's not great. The offense loses all its explosiveness without Stafford, which is the only reason the Lions were able to pull out all those comeback victories.
Of course, part of the reason Stafford wins this so handily is because the MVP award is already skewed towards quarterbacks. They have so much responsibility on the field, even average quarterbacks are still among the most important players on the field.
So if you're asking whether Stafford is a better quarterback than Johnson is a receiver, the answer is no (yet). But when the question is, "Who is the most valuable player?"
Stafford, by a landslide.
Runner-up: Calvin Johnson
Offensive Player of the Year: Calvin Johnson
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This is an odd distinction to make, but I don't think there's any question that Megatron is the most talented player on the team, at any position.
In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that Johnson could compete, very realistically, for the league-wide OPOY award, much less the team version.
I pick different offensive players for the MVP and OPOY awards for two distinct reasons.
1. It doesn't feel right to pick one of the two and have him win both awards. Stafford and Johnson will almost certainly be equally deserving of both awards, so the least I can do is share the wealth.
2. To me, the MVP award is more a question of "importance to team's success," where the OPOY/DPOY awards are more about "talent/skill level." Under those conditions, Stafford is the most important to the team's success, and Johnson is the most talented.
You may disagree with the way I've devised my criteria, but there should be relatively little doubt that if you go by them, Stafford is the clear MVP and Johnson is the clear OPOY.
Runner-up: Matthew Stafford
Defensive Player of the Year: Cliff Avril
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I know I'm going to get a lot of people telling me how Cliff Avril is overrated, he's not worth the money, his stats are inflated and he wouldn't produce like this on a less-talented defensive line.
Despite all that, though, there is only one player on the defense—one!—who has been a starter with the team for three years or more, has grown within the defensive scheme and has improved his performance steadily every single year.
Avril is that guy. Avril has increased his sack output every year since he was drafted. His efforts culminated in an 11-sack performance in 2011, even as the defensive line as a whole appeared to backslide a little bit.
I expect a resurgent performance from Ndamukong Suh this year, but in the grand scheme of things, he's still just a kid and shouldn't be even close to playing his best football yet.
Avril is on the cusp of his prime, and if he is truly improving, not just piggybacking off his teammates, he should have a year that trumps even his impressive 2011 numbers. At his current rate of improvement, Avril should be in line for roughly 14 sacks and about six forced fumbles in 2012.
If that's the case, he's an easy pick here.
Runners-up: Stephen Tulloch, Ndamukong Suh
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ryan Broyles
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This is almost a default selection.
With training camp almost upon us, it's entirely possible the Lions barely even play any offensive rookies in 2012.
Ryan Broyles is still recovering (albeit very strongly) from an ACL tear, and Riley Reiff has yet to even earn himself a starting job.
There is a very, very good chance that neither of these guys sees the field on opening day.
But between the two, Broyles is the one with the better chance to work his way into the offense as the season wears on.
Where Reiff will have to knock somebody out of their spot (most likely Gosder Cherilus) to get onto the field, Broyles should get in on some situations just because of certain packages or to spell another receiver.
Because of that, Broyles is likely to be more visible as the season wears on. Besides, if Reiff earns the starting right tackle job midway through the season and does a fantastic job, it will be the last anyone hears of him. That's how the offensive line is.
Runner-up: Riley Reiff (who else?)
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Tahir Whitehead
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I'm going out on a limb here.
Most people probably expected to see Bill Bentley's name up there, and understandably so. But I'm not sure the Lions (most notably defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham) are prepared to shake their rookie cornerback phobia just yet.
If that's true, then Bentley will have trouble seeing the field. As it is, the best he can likely hope for is the nickel-corner job in 2012.
Of course, Tahir Whitehead isn't likely to crack the starting rotation either, with incumbents DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant pretty steadily entrenched.
Of course, that's how Levy probably felt in 2009, looking up at Ernie Sims, Larry Foote and Julian Peterson on the depth chart. But when Sims, arguably the best of that bunch (which seems absurd in retrospect) went down with injury, Levy stepped up and filled the role admirably.
In fact, Levy performed so well, that the Lions decided Sims was expendable and traded him in a three-team deal that brought Tony Scheffler to Detroit.
So back to Whitehead.
Injuries are a thing that happens to linebackers. They happen, and they happen often. That means the fourth linebacker is particularly valuable. If the Lions like Whitehead as much as they appear to, he could beat out Doug Hogue to become that fourth linebacker.
Then he's just one injury away from putting his stamp on the team.
You could argue that the same is true of Bentley if he earns the nickel-corner position, and that's true. The difference is that rookie cornerbacks have a lot more to learn and do a lot more struggling than rookie linebackers. So assuming that both Bentley and Whitehead see the field in 2012, I give the edge to Whitehead.
Runner-up: Bill Bentley
Most Improved Player: Titus Young
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The writing is already on the wall for this one.
Titus Young began to establish himself as a consistent contributor late last season, but it appears his first offseason program is doing wonders for his development.
Even if Young wasn't looking incredible in the months leading up to the season, it's hard to argue he's inheriting one of the most advantageous situations in football: the benefit of being "Not Calvin Johnson."
Since he's likely to line up on the opposite side of the field from the only receiver in football to consistently draw (and beat) triple coverage, Not Calvin Johnson is likely looking at an awful lot of single-coverage situations against opponents' second- or third-best coverage man.
That's a good situation to be in, and one a reasonably talented Not Calvin Johnson player should be able to take advantage of, especially considering the Lions' added ability to attack the middle with tight ends.
If Young's improvement combines with his ability to take advantage of being Not Calvin Johnson, we could be looking at not only the most improved Lions, but the birth of the newest NFL star.
Runner-up: Willie Young
Most Disappointing Player: Louis Delmas
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It's a dubious honor, but it's an award nonetheless.
Honestly, I'm starting to wonder about Louis Delmas.
After three years as a pro, it seems like anything positive that's said about him is accompanied by an excuse.
First it was because Delmas was the only decent player in the secondary. Then it was injuries. Then it was more injuries.
But what if it's actually none of those things? What if he just isn't as good as we want him to be?
I mean, Delmas is a talented player, without question. He is absolutely a starting-caliber player and the best safety on the team. But at some point, it may be time to accept that "The Missile" isn't a superstar.
He might just be an above-average, athletic safety who likes to hit, hates to wrap up, does an inconsistently decent job in coverage and takes questionable angles to the ball carrier—whether injured or not.
That's not to say he's terrible and the Lions should cut him. Just that it will be disappointing if it turns out Delmas isn't as good as he was expected to be.
Runner-up: Kyle Vanden Bosch
Comeback Player of the Year: Nick Fairley
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It's true that Nick Fairley, just entering his second professional season, may not have a whole lot of "coming back" to do.
Though if we want to talk about "comeback players" whose careers haven't really launched yet, direct your attention to Matthew Stafford.
And Fairley, despite being only a second-year player, has arguably more to come back from than Stafford ever did. Fairley not only struggled with a lingering foot injury his entire first year, but his first professional offseason has been full of nothing but him destroying his young reputation.
At this point, Fairley has a lot to prove. He has to prove he has the talent to be on an NFL roster, as injuries kept him from doing so in 2011. But he also has to prove that he has the mindset to be successful and also keep himself out of trouble.
That alone will make Fairley the best comeback story of the year, because he's not only rehabbing his foot, he has to rehab his entire public image.
Runners-up: Pretty much every running back
Randy Phillips Award for Preseason Excellence: R.J. Archer
Photo credit: Bob Keroack - William and Mary
The "Randy Phillips Award for Preseason Excellence" (the idea for which I may or may not have co-opted from our own Michael Sudds) is reserved for the player who impresses everybody throughout training camp and the preseason, only to be completely irrelevant for pretty much the rest of the season.
The namesake of the award made the final roster in 2010, but was cut after four games and essentially never heard from again.
The 2011 recipient, Ricardo Silva, was cut after training camp but sat on the practice squad and was brought back for the last four games of the season, to little fanfare.
In 2012, I give the nod to quarterback R.J. Archer, the first non-safety recipient.
There are a number of factors here, not the least of which is the fact that Kellen Moore is unlikely to outclass Archer to the extent that he looks silly. Drew Stanton very well could have.
But perhaps more important is the fact that the Lions have outstanding offensive depth this year, so even playing with the last guys on the 90-man roster at the end of the fourth quarter should give him an opportunity to shine.
Ultimately, though, unless Moore implodes and Archer shows outstanding long-term promise, Archer is nothing more than a camp body to give Moore some urgency. He might go 10-13 with 160 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars, and that's still likely going to be the case.
Runner-up: Ricardo Silva (yes, again)