Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions, Aug. 12
For many teams, this time of year is sort of a dress rehearsal for the regular season, where they acclimate the free agents and rookies to the organization, coaches, and teammates while keeping the majority of their starters in place.
This is great for continuity and consistency, but is also only prevalent on teams that have been winners. Year in and year out, some teams make long playoff runs and win divisions, while others languish at the bottom of the standings and have high turnover every year.
The latter is the case for the Detroit Lions, who have tried numerous times over the past decade to find a winning formula. They've been through five head coaches since the great Barry Sanders retired and have posted a 35-100 record over that time, including an epic failure 0-16 season last year under Rod Marinelli.
The city of Detroit has been clamoring for a winning football team for decades and have blindly supported the team while being dragged through the mud of countless disappointing seasons, with very few high notes.
Signs of Change
All of those past failures though, have seemingly set the stage for the Lions to have a renaissance of sorts, and creep back into football respectability led by new head coach Jim Schwartz.
Since he took over (along with front office changes), the Lions have assembled the most impressive coaching staff in recent memory, made trades to bring in dynamic players, drafted a franchise QB, and signed some quality free agents.
More importantly though, was changing things up. Letting the players know that it wouldn't be business as usual under his guidance. He preaches technique and accountability and vows to let people compete for depth chart position. Nothing will be given to anybody. That is a welcome change and one that already appears to be paying dividends.
Schwartz put incumbent quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, on notice shortly after being hired that he was way too fat and then drafted Matthew Stafford with the #1 overall pick in the draft. Culpepper responded by showing up to this years camp at 260lbs, 30 lbs lighter than last year and the lightest he's been since starring for the UCF Knights in college.
The locker room was changed, mixing offensive and defensive players and trying to build chemistry while avoiding cliques in the locker room. One unit, One team, One family!
The New Staff
Martin Mayhew, after being appointed as GM in the wake of the Matt Millen firing, has quietly done a masterful job. He traded away Roy Williams for multiple draft picks and traded a backup QB (Jon Kitna) for a starting defensive back (Anthony Henry). He also swung a deal that brought All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson to town, while only giving up a mediocre and inconsistent Cory Redding.
He then hired Jim Schwartz as Head Coach who was a top assistant under Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
Schwartz hired Gunther Cunningham to run the defense, a coordinator with many, many years of experience and an aggressive, attacking defensive scheme that is sure to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The defense is also fun for the players and fit their skills, particularly defensive ends Cliff Avril and DeWayne White and linebackers Ernie Sims and Julian Peterson.
On offense, he hired Scott Linehan who is well known for the prolific offenses he has coordinated in the past. The most intriguing one being the Minnesota Vikings, who were quarterbacked by Daunte Culpepper and had a dynamic receiver in Randy Moss. Detroit has one of the most talented and dynamic wide receivers in the NFL today in Calvin Johnson and are hopeful that they can post similar numbers under Linehan.
The Lions also put together a very nice draft that brought in playmakers and filled areas of need. Going into the draft, the Lions were projected to go after Offensive Lineman, Linebackers, Defensive Lineman, and Defensive Backs (not necessarily in that order, although those were the biggest needs).
With two first round selections and a high second round selection, many rumors had them going for a bookend LT or a dynamic OLB with the first two picks. Mayhew decided instead to select Matthew Stafford at No. 1 overall, which wasn't a stretch, however he surprised many by selecting tight end Brandon Pettigrew with their other first round pick.
They followed those two offensive selections with two defensive picks in safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Then they selected a playmaker in wide receiver Derrick Williams to help out a lackluster return game, followed by a massive defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill.
The rest of their draft included running back Aaron Brown, offensive tackle Lydon Murtha, linebacker Zack Follett, and tight end Dan Gronkowski.
Stafford has looked great in camp and in "ahead of the curve" according to coaches and players alike, although it's not certain that he will be the starter this season as Culpepper has also been impressive.
Pettigrew was the best tight end coming out of college and gives the Lions the best weapon at that position since Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders played the position back in the 1970s.
Delmas was also the best player at his position going into the draft and has been very impressive in camp. He is projected as the opening day starter and the team is counting on him to be as good as advertised.
Third round selections Levy and Williams and fourth rounder Hill, are expected to contribute right away, although they may take some time to develop into regulars.
Sixth-round selection Aaron Brown has showcased excellent speed in camp and is expected to be the teams primary kickoff returner, and is in a battle for the No. 3 spot at running back with veteran Aveion Cason and fellow youngster Allen Ervin.
The surprise of camp has been seventh-round selection Dan Gronkowski (dubbed Gronk), who because of injuries to other tight ends on the roster has been given opportunities.
By all accounts, he has made the most of them hauling in numerous passes and learning quickly. He appears to have a decent shot at making the roster, which is impressive for a guy who was one pick away from "Mr. Irrelevant."
In addition to an improved Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford, third year signal caller Drew Stanton has improved nicely and has been performing well in camp.
This group now appears to be more of a strength than a weakness. The front office and coaches were looking into bringing in another veteran quarterback, but the performance of Stanton recently appears to have changed their mind.
Last season, rookie running back Kevin Smith was one of the few bright spots for the Lions. He posted solid numbers rushing for 976 yards and eight touchdowns, while also hauling in 39 catches for 286 yards.
Most encouraging was that he improved as the season went on and didn't seem to tire as rookies often do late in the season. He also has worked tirelessly in the offseason to improve and has the work ethic and attitude of the great ones.
Adding to the mix at running back is veteran Maurice Morris, who came over from Seattle. Morris is a solid back who started 11 games over the past two seasons and racked up over 1,200 yards during that time. While not expected to start, he will be able to spell Kevin Smith when needed and could fill in adequately as starter if pressed into that role.
One of the biggest additions this year is fullback Terrelle Smith, who has paved the way for six 1,000 yard rushers over his nine-year career. Having such a capable veteran at fullback will only help and improve the Lions' run game this season.
Calvin Johnson is a bonafide superstar at wide receiver. Unfortunately, aside from Johnson, the rest of the Lions' receiving core is unfamiliar and unproven. The Lions brought in former first round pick Bryant Johnson, who despite significant talent, was unable to perform when given the opportunity to be a No. 1 target in San Francisco.
He was productive and impressive as a No. 3 for the Arizona Cardinals high flying attack prior to joining the 49ers. The Lions are banking on Bryant Johnson performing at a high level opposite Calvin Johnson, due to the sheer likelihood of single coverage he'll be seeing as defenses try to defend Calvin. Bryant should be productive for the Lions but has been sidelined for the entire camp with a golf cart injury sustained in the offseason.
Veteran wide receiver Dennis Northcutt was acquired via trade in June and is projected as the primary slot receiver for the Lions this year. Northcutt has been productive, registering 44 catches in his last two seasons and also provides punt return ability for the team.
After those top three guys, it's a mixed bag for the Lions with veterans Keary Colbert, John Standeford, and rookie Derrick Williams jockeying for position.
At tight end, the Lions have Brandon Pettigrew who is massive and has shown immense ability thus far along with veterans Will Heller and Casey Fitzsimmons. Dan Gronkowski will have to unseat Heller or Fitzsimmons to make the final roster.
The Lions return four of five starters from last season, along with Manny Ramirez who received significant time as well. Unfortunately, the group performed poorly for the majority of last season. To most observers, this group needed significant upgrades in the offseason, but the Lions' brass apparently disagreed.
They only selected one offensive lineman in the draft and that wasn't until the seventh round (Lydon Murtha). They brought in three veterans in tackles Ephraim Salaam and Jon Jansen, along with guard Daniel Loper.
Loper has zero regular season starts in his career and only one playoff start, however he's a versatile lineman and the staff think he has the ability to be a quality starting guard.
Jansen, a Michigan product, returns home after a illustrious 10 year career with the Washington Redskins. Over that time, Jansen started 123 of 126 games where he helped paved the way for pro bowler Clinton Portis. Jansen is currently projected as a backup at guard and tackle, although I believe he will emerge as a starter somewhere on the line.
Starting tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus look to improve as well. Cherilus has an up and down rookie season but should do much better in his second season and Jeff Backus figures to benefit from Pettigrew, Terrelle Smith, and a more mobile quarterback.
Starting center Dominic Raiola is a very solid pro. He continues to play well year in and year out despite not having a great group around him. His only issue is with bigger nose tackles that are able to drive him backwards at times.
All in all, the line should be improved this year and if they can keep the defenses at bay long enough for the QBs to execute, the Lions offense has the potential to be very good this season.
The Lions only amassed 30 sacks last season and that is an area of immediate concern for Coach Schwartz and Coach Cunningham.
The Lions brought in defensive tackles Grady Jackson, Shaun Smith, and draft pick Sammie Lee Hill to join Chuck Darby and a trio of youngsters in Ikaika Alama-Francis, Andre Fluellen, and Landon Cohen. This group is large and has the ability to occupy space while plugging up the running lanes, which should free up the ends and backers to blitz the opposing quarterbacks.
At defensive end, the projected starters were DeWayne White and Jared Devries, with pass rushing specialist Cliff Avril flexing in with them, however Devries has been lost for the season to injury. The Lions will likely bring in another veteran to add depth but will rely on Avril, White, Jason Hunter and some of the younger tackles like Fluellen and Francis that have the ability to play outside.
The defensive end position is definitely an area of concern for the team going into the season.
This group has a lot of fans excited and with good reason. Last year, the Lions linebackers had a hard time stopping anybody and with players like Ryan Nece and Paris Lenon playing alongside Ernie Sims, the whole unit was terrible.
What a difference a year makes. Ernie Sims is re-energized by the aggressive defensive scheme that Gunther Cunningham has brought to town along with the acquisitions of talented veterans Julian Peterson and Larry Foote.
Peterson and Foote both played collegiately in Michigan and combine with Sims on an imposing linebacking corps. They both bring experience, production, and winning pedigree to the Lions. They will be backed up by talented youngsters Jordon Dizon, Darnell Bing, Cody Spencer, DeAndre Levy, and Zack Follett.
The Lions only had four interceptions last season, and amazingly only one was by a defensive back! That lack of production is what led the Lions to overhaul the unit once again in the offseason.
The newcomers are Anthony Henry, Phillip Buchanon, Marquand Manuel, Eric King, and rookie Louis Delmas. Holdovers from last year are Keith Smith, Kalvin Pearson, Ramzee Robinson, Daniel Bullucks, Stuart Schweigert, and LaMarkus Hicks.
The starters figure to be Anthony Henry, Phillip Buchanon, Louis Delmas, and Marquand Manuel (or Kalvin Pearson), although corners Keith Smith and Eric King figure to see plenty of time. Henry may also move over to safety if Smith or King emerges.
This group will likely take time to gel but has enough talent to succeed.
The Lions have Jason Hanson, who has quietly put together Hall of Fame worthy career since being drafted by the Lions in 1992. Punter Nick Harris is also very solid. The Lions have been lackluster in the return game and defending the opposing return game and will need to get better this season.
To that end, they have brought in Derrick Williams, Dennis Northcutt, and Aaron Brown who figure to be the returners. In addition, some of their draft picks and backups on the defensive side of the ball will likely be contributors to the special teams coverage units.
The Lions didn't get any favors from the league after the first 0-16 campaign in league history. The Lions first six opponents of 2009 had a combined record of 53-43 in 2008. That includes teams that appear better than their record would indicate (Saints 8-8, Packers 6-10).
A lot will depend on the start they get and how the team chemistry is when they break camp. Also, they will have to avoid anymore significant injuries as their depth isn't great.
I believe that if they can avoid the injury bug and grasp the concepts of the new coordinators, the Lions could realistically find themselves in contention well into December.
I am going to project a final record of 7-9.
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