The Lions' Den: Does Detroit Possess a Top Five NFL Linebacking Corps?
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Detroit has transformed their pathetic linebacking corps into a formidable unit with the additions of Pro Bowler Julian Peterson and two-time Super Bowl Champion Larry Foote.
Peterson, a Michigan State graduate, returns to Michigan after previous NFL stops: San Francisco and Seattle.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz had previously identified Peterson as a player he would love to coach and ranked him higher than Keith Bullucks on the Tennessee Titans draft board during the 2000 NFL Draft. At the time, Schwartz was the Titans linebackers coach, before spending eight years as defensive coordinator starting in 2001. When Peterson was selected No. 16 overall by the 49ers, the Titans snapped up Bullucks at No. 30.
Even though Bullucks and Peterson were friends, Bullucks never let Schwartz forget that he ranked Peterson higher.
Schwartz spoke about it, stating, “So every time Keith would make a play, he’d bring the ball over to me and say, 'Hey, let’s see Peterson do that.' Well, now we’ve got a chance.”
Schwartz and Peterson have a chance to produce similar stats to what Bullucks did in his time in Tennessee. Bullucks registered 930 career tackles, 18 sacks, and 15 interceptions, while starting every game from 2002 onwards.
The Lions picked up Foote after his mutual release from the Pittsburgh Steelers. His leadership and two Super Bowl rings will help solidify the middle linebacker position, a position that has lacked a playmaker since Stephen Boyd.
Detroit’s acquisitions will give Ernie Sims help at the linebacker position while bringing up the question: Where does Detroit rank among NFL linebacking corps?
Pittsburgh and Baltimore are the cream of the crop, while other superior units attract top-five consideration.
Seattle is a strong contender with Lofa Tatupu providing worthy 2008 stats: 94 tackles, one forced fumble and an interception. Leroy Hill added 84 tackles and highly-touted rookie Aaron Curry will etch Seattle’s name into the top five corps.
The New York Jets, Chicago Bears, and Carolina Panthers have superstar players, yet lack legitimate starters at all linebacker positions.
The Jets added Bart Scott to play alongside Calvin Pace, but do not have the talent to round into to be considered elite. David Harris makes up for a lack of premium talent with an incredible passion for the game. Fellow linebacker Vernon Gholston disappointed in his rookie season and will need to prove to be more than a workout warrior.
Carolina may have filled their void at outside linebacker by adding Everette Brown to the likes of Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, a group that combined for 251 tackles, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions. Brown will stay at defensive end if Julian Peppers is moved. A swap to linebacker is possible.
Chicago has tremendous linebackers in Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, though another genuine starter is lacking.
The biggest difference between these other teams and Detroit is simple: the Lions have three quality linebackers in Peterson, Foote, and Sims.
Peterson ended 2008 with 86 tackles, five sacks, and four forced fumbles, while Sims may have been the only bright spot on the Lions defense, which ranked last.
Foote still contributed 63 tackles and a forced fumble, while splitting playing time with Lawrence Timmons and will be looking for a productive season and a long-term contract after the season.
The 2009 season will have to play out before it's known if Detroit’s linebackers can demand the respect of a top unit, but the outlook looks substantially brighter than in 2008.
A Little Story About a BIG Man: Toniu Fonoti
Toniu Fonoti signed with Detroit during the offseason, after weight issues kept him out of football the last two seasons.
Fonoti is 6’4” and is generously listed at 340 pounds. His weight has earned him the nickname “Two Ton,” while his play at Nebraska earned him another nickname, “God.”
His college teammates nicknamed him “God” after he continually destroyed Big 12 defensive lines.
As a sophomore in Lincoln, he set a school record with 155 pancake blocks, a mark he shattered his junior season. During his junior season, Fonoti racked up 20 pancake blocks against Baylor and another 32 against Texas Tech in two consecutive weeks.
While Fonoti demonstrated remarkable talent in college, it has not translated to the NFL.
He has potential and started two seasons in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers. Fonoti's former NFL employers is a lengthy list including: Minnesota, Miami, Atlanta, and Carolina before Detroit. This opportunity with the Lions may prove to be his last shot at sustaining an NFL career.
Hopefully, 2009 will prove to be a turning point in his career, a 340 pound mauler next to Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola sounds spectacular to Lions fans.
If Fonoti can resurrect his career, he could be the answer to Detroit's offensive line problems.
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