The Lions had a real disappointment of a season, but one positive thing they can take away is that their rookie class has the look of a very good group.
Of course, that's only if they can stay on the field.
Nearly every player drafted last April contributed in one way or another, but three out of seven players ended (or even started) the season on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list.
That could be a problem.
Still if they stay healthy, there is a tremendous amount of potential in this group, from the early picks to the late-round guys.
It could be one heck of a foundation for this team in the coming years.
Let's take a look at the 2012 Lions draft class after a year of playing.
Round 1, Pick No. 23: Riley Reiff OT—Grade: B-
Reiff came along slowly this season, in part because the team had the luxury of allowing him to with the line the Lions already had. However, in November, when Jeff Backus was injured, Reiff had to step in and play.
His assignments were not easy tasks—taking on the Houston Texans' Connor Barwin mostly, with Whitney Mercilus, Antonio Smith and just-catching-fire J.J. Watt to boot.
Reiff's play was a bit uneven, and more than once Barwin was able to overpower him and force him back. He played better as the game went on, and that can be said for his season overall—the deeper we got into the season, the better he played, whether as a backup or as a starter.
Which is good, because Backus isn't sure he will be back next year and the other player Reiff played behind—right tackle Gosder Cherilus—is a free agent.
Regardless of who comes back, it looks as though Reiff is going to be a starter for the Lions next year, and while he had some uneven moments this past season, his progress showed he's got every chance to be successful at it.
Round 2, Pick No. 22: Ryan Broyles, WR—Grade: Incomplete
It took Broyles until Week 7 to do much after tearing his ACL playing for Oklahoma during the 2011 season, and it might be as long before he has an impact in 2013 after tearing his left ACL in Week 13 of the 2012 season.
When he was on the field during the seven-game span he was healthy (six, since he went down early in the game against the Indianapolis Colts), Broyles looked very good, showing speed, reliable hands and occasional big-play ability.
However, two tears in two years (even if it's not the same knee) is a real concern, and it remains to be seen how he comes back from this injury.
On top of that, the Lions could (amazingly) be in the market for another wide receiver since Broyles will be absent for some time, Nate Burleson is aging and Titus Young just about asked to be let go with his actions late in the 2012 season.
So Broyles could arrive back with the Lions to find he's going to have to fight for his spot all over again.
It's easy to look back at my misgivings with the pick back in April and say "I told you so," especially since Casey Hayward was on the board still—a guy who gets mentioned for Defensive Rookie of the Year and would have addressed some secondary concerns which Dwight Bentley (more on him in a minute) didn't.
However, for a brief moment or two, Broyles looked the part and worth the sacrifice.
Whether he will ever meet that promise again is a question we'll be asking for a long time.
Round 3, Pick No. 22: Dwight Bentley, CB—Incomplete
As with Broyles, it's hard to judge this pick given the injury issues Bentley had this season. First there was the concussion which kept him out of Week 2 after getting the start in Week 1 (in part due to a Chris Houston ankle injury).
Then he injured his shoulder in the Week 6 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and was placed on injured reserve two days later.
Part of four games is impossible to judge a player on fully, though he did look solid in the games he played in.
Bentley should be back and ready to go when training camp kicks off, and while the situation could change via free agency or the draft, as bad as this secondary is, he has a shot to win a starting job for next season.
Then he just needs to stay healthy.
Round 4, Pick No. 30: Ronnell Lewis, LB—Grade: D
Lewis was supposed to contribute on special teams, but instead was inactive for the last seven games of the season.
In a lot of respects, this isn't a shock—the Lions retained everyone on the defensive line from 2011, and both Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch played every game.
Still, you want to see something on special teams which shows you a guy is hungry, and it seems Lewis didn't do that.
All that said, some feel he may be in for a bigger role in the defense next year. Avril and Lawrence Jackson are unrestricted free agents this year, and Vanden Bosch struggled over the course of the season. Willie Young is a restricted free agent, so he should be back, but even if they are able to retain some combination of those other players, Lewis could find some room to get snaps.
He needs to get better though, and needs to improve his technique.
Lewis' lack of playing time at defensive end wasn't a shock this year, but the lack of impact on special teams is disappointing.
Round 5, Pick No. 3: Tahir Whitehead, OLB—Grade: C+
Whitehead impressed during the preseason and training camp, but was always likely to be a role player or rotational linebacker for the Lions in his rookie season.
Inactive in Week 1, Whitehead debuted against the San Francisco 49ers with a very solid game, including two forced fumbles (one recovered by the Lions on a kickoff return—one of the few special teams bright spots for Detroit last year).
That was pretty much the highlight of his year, as he played sparingly over the course of the season (he was active for 14 games).
Whitehead was active on special teams for the most part, and his speed and strength were on display when he hit the field. The linebacking corps is pretty deep in Detroit, but not impenetrable. While it's a lot to expect him to crack the lineup consistently this year, if he plays well on special teams he can get there eventually.
Round 5, Pick No. 13: Chris Greenwood, CB—Grade: Incomplete
Greenwood was placed on the PUP/Reserve list after he had surgery to repair an abdominal tear in May. He started practicing again in October, but then was deactivated for the season when the team decided he just wasn't in good enough shape after missing the whole offseason.
He wasn't supposed to have a large impact last year in the first place. The secondary collapsed due to injury and poor play, and it would have been nice to have him, but how big an impact would he have had?
Suffice to say that if he's healthy, and like Bentley, depending upon what changes the team makes via free agency and the draft, Greenwood might have a shot at a big chunk of snaps come the 2013 season.
It may seem like a tall order, but let's be honest, in a secondary with this many problems, everything is fair game.
Round 6, Pick No. 26: Jonte Green, CB—Grade: B
So in cutting and pasting this piece in from a word document, I dropped Green off and then missed it.
Thank goodness he's not really all that good, right? Sheesh.
Anyway, Green is probably one of the better stories for the Lions this past year, and pretty much the top student in the draft class.
Certainly, he wins most improved. After being pressed into service because of injury (and the release of Aaron Berry), Green struggled and ended up benched.
However, he applied himself both in the film room and on the practice field and soon found himself with another chance to prove he could hack it in the NFL.
Green did that and more, as he contributed heavily with both run support and in coverage. He showed some very good ability in man coverage and while he remains a raw prospect (he was supposed to basically sit out this year and learn before stepping into a big role), he shows flashes of tremendous ability.
I toyed with a A-/B+ but the rawness and benching dinged him a bit. That said, in a secondary with as many issues as the Lions have, Green could be in the hunt for serious playing time if he comes into OTAs and camp focused and ready to go.
I might even make sure he's in the next article about this draft class.
Round 7, Pick No. 16: Travis Lewis, OLB—Grade: C+
Lewis saw very few snaps on defense, but did see the field on special teams when he was active. Like much of the special teams for the Lions, he struggled at times, but showcased determination, strength and tackling ability when he was tapped to go on the field.
Lewis is a prospect who has upside (especially for a late pick) but is still developing. If he can keep his work up on special teams (or better yet, step it up a bit), he should be able to buy the time to continue his development and perhaps see some defensive snaps as time goes on.
Overall Grade: B-
I suppose this is grading on a bit of a curve, since so many players were lost to injured reserve, but I really did like what I saw from Bentley and Broyles, and think mid-to-late round picks like Whitehead and Lewis have the potential to be real contributors—beyond special teams.
Next year will be critical for the players who spent much of this past season injured—it's hard to say how much time the team will be able to spend on guys who can't stay healthy. Whether injuries to Greenwood, Bentley and Broyles are merely freak aberrations, the sign of bad training regimens or something else remains to be seen.
Certainly, it's early to really have a definitive grade on this class, but if healthy, the Lions look like they have done an excellent job and hit on productive players (even if they're just special-teams guys) on nearly every pick.
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