Sophomore (Honolulu) Blues: Which Detroit Lions Risk a Sophomore Slump?

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Sophomore (Honolulu) Blues: Which Detroit Lions Risk a Sophomore Slump?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It's something we don't really like to talk about in Detroit, because we're often not involved, but it's something that happens every year.

No, not the playoffs.

I'm talking about sophomore slumps. Those rookies who gave us some eye-popping moments last year now have a season's worth of work on film, and you can bet that opposing teams have found a weakness in each of them.

Some of them will overcome the sophomore jinx and continue to play well. Some will find that their second year of acclimation to the league is even tougher than the first. And some just might fall out of favor entirely, never able to replicate what success they did have in their rookie season.

So who's who? Here's a rundown of the Lions' sophomore class and how they may fare in 2010.

Matthew Stafford, QB

This is the big one. As Stafford's 2010 goes, so goes the Lions' 2010.

And yet, Stafford may be the one with the most question marks around him. Sure, there's enough film on him to build out a decent scouting report, but there's a lot we still don't know about the kid.

For example: Is his shoulder really okay? Will he learn to properly read NFL defenses? Can he play conservatively with a lead? Will he be more efficient when he has to throw less passes? Will last season's injuries give him "happy feet" in the pocket?

Primarily because of defense and special teams, Stafford typically played from behind last season. That, combined with a suspect (to put it kindly) interior line, typically led to him being flat on his back.

Now, the Lions have acquired Rob Sims, who will likely become an anchor at left guard next to the underrated (but still average) Jeff Backus.

With both the defense and special teams showing potentially vast improvement, Stafford might find himself in a lot more one-possession games this season, which is always a good thing for a quarterback.

In addition, new weapons Jahvid Best, Tony Scheffler and Nate Burleson could open up the entire field and give opposing defenses more to think about than "Stafford to Calvin Johnson."

So, while the stage is set for Stafford to continue to improve, the primary focus is on him to stay on the field for 16 games. For someone who was hurt most of last season, that's no guarantee.

However, if he can stay healthy, he should have a good year, both in terms of growth and statistics.

Slump Risk: Low

Brandon Pettigrew, TE

Brandon Pettigrew enters the 2010 season with perhaps the most to prove.

After being the 20th overall pick in the 2009 draft (at a time when many fans were calling for Michael Oher, who turned out to be a brick wall of a lineman), he spent most of 2009 fairly quietly, then had a couple of strong games which got our hopes up, then shredded his knee on Thanksgiving.

Now, with the solid Will Heller already on the roster, Pettigrew has Tony Scheffler to deal with, the player acquired in exchange for Ernie Sims. This is consistent with Jim Schwartz's love of double tight-end sets, but still has to be a little concerning for a first-round pick coming off season-ending surgery.

Now, Pettigrew was never considered a deep receiving threat. He shows good hands, can catch short to mid-range passes in traffic, and above all, is a fantastic blocker. In that sense, he should perform at a perfectly adequate level in 2010, provided he's fully healthy.

Still, teams don't pick players at No. 20 to be "perfectly adequate," and one has to wonder if his numbers will be affected by Scheffler's presence.

Ultimately, having Scheffler and Heller on the roster will be a good thing for Pettigrew in the long term, as he now his the ability to grow into his role with quality veteran support, rather than be thrown to the wolves.

But in the short term, if Pettigrew puts up unimpressive numbers in 2010, it will likely be labeled a "slump."

Slump Risk: Moderate

Louis Delmas, S

While Stafford's importance to the Lions is greater than that of Louis Delmas, Delmas is probably the slump Lions fans want to see the least.

The Lions have been starved for a defensive identity for years. Every time a defensive leader seems to emerge, he fades just as fast as he rose.

Delmas brought swagger and playmaking ability to a unit that had none of either, and with Ernie Sims gone to Philadelphia, there is no doubt that he carries the most expectations of any young defensive player not named Suh.

With that said, Delmas is one of the most likely to suffer a statistical slump in his second year, and unfortunately, that has nothing to do with Delmas himself.

It has to do with his unit.

Barring the emergence of a major star or two in the Lions' current secondary, Delmas will, again, be the only playmaker out there. And whereas last year he was an unproven rookie with good physical skills, this year he is an emerging playmaker who stands out as the only impact player in the Lions secondary.

In other words, any passing attack worth its salt is going to do whatever it can to make the other three guys beat it. And only when one of those guys (whoever they may be) steps up and starts making plays will Delmas start seeing more plays run his way.

Until then, he'll do what he can, but it'll be hard to be a consistent playmaker with offenses running everything away from him. And with expectations sailing through the roof, he could play every down by the book and still have a comparatively quiet season.

Slump Risk: High

DeAndre Levy, LB

DeAndre Levy was the biggest surprise of all the Lions rookies last season, stepping in for an injured Ernie Sims, and actually outperforming the man once thought to be the Lions' best defensive player.

Of course, times are different now. A position change seems imminent, with Levy shifting from the weak side to the middle—which the front office claimed to have drafted him for in the first place. Expect Levy to have some growing pains as he learns his new position.

Then again, Levy will also benefit from a revamped defensive line. By taking up more of the offensive line's attention, Levy (and the other linebackers on the squad) will see more opportunities to make plays.

The only remaining question is whether he will learn his position fast enough to know how to take advantage of those opportunities. His advantages and disadvantages coming into the season are a wash.

Slump Risk: Moderate

Derrick Williams, WR

If Derrick Williams has one thing going for him, it's that it'll be hard to slump when he didn't do anything last season.

Williams compiled some stats last year when he was one of the Lions' only healthy receivers, but the Lions would have avoided playing him at all if they could have. He was primarily drafted to improve the Lions' shoddy return game, and somehow ended up making it worse.

Even with a good year, Williams will have trouble scratching the playing field this year. There are four receivers (Calvin Johnson, Bryant Johnson, Nate Burleson, and Dennis Northcutt) likely to sit higher on the depth chart than him.

Even in the event one of those players gets cut or injured, a move to fourth on the depth chart won't bring Williams much meaningful time, especially with the strength at the tight end position.

In other words, the only thing that could be a "slump" for Williams at this point is getting cut. Which is not something to rule out.

Slump Risk: Moderate

Sammie Lee Hill, DT

One might be tempted to think that the emergence of Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams spells the end of meaningful action for Sammie Hill.

And indeed, Hill is almost assuredly out of the starting lineup. But it's very possible that his impact will be even greater than last year.

Why?

Because defensive tackle is one of the most exhausting positions in football. They spend the whole game getting pushed around by 300-pound men, and if they win that battle, they're rewarded by getting hit in the gut by a running back going full speed.

So, depth is important. Sammie Hill is now a quality depth player with upside playing for a coach who loves to use his depth at DT. He's probably still a lock to play 20-25 snaps a game.

Only this time, he'll come in fresh against interior linemen who have been getting worn down by an above-average defensive line. It's very possible that Hill's decreased appearances will actually cause him to become a greater impact player on the downs he does play.

Slump Risk: Low

Aaron Brown, RB

Aaron Brown gave us some "wow" moments with his speed last season. When he touched the ball, he could make good things happen.

That's the good news.

The bad news is, he's a lazy problem child whose playbook has probably been collecting dust since October. Brown has done very little to eliminate his reputation of relying on his speed to carry him without committing himself to his system.

The other bad news is, on a good day, Brown is a poor man's Jahvid Best.

Brown ended last season as a kick returner and situational back. If he can prove in training camp that his return skills are worth keeping around, he might make the cut. Otherwise, there's a good chance he's practice squad-bound.

Slump Risk: High

Zack Follett, LB

Like Derrick Williams, Follett is in no danger of a sophomore slump, because his impact last year was minimal.

That is, other than teaching everybody Danny Amendola's name under the heading, "that guy Zack Follett reduced to a smoldering pile of flesh and tears in the Rams game. "

However, unlike Williams, Follett's star is on the rise. He is a dark horse candidate to earn a starting job next to DeAndre Levy and Julian Peterson.

That may be jumping the gun a little, but Gunther Cunningham doesn't mind .

Whether he earns the job or not remains to be seen, but at the very least, he's a lock to make the cut as a valuable special teamer who is as well liked by his teammates as he is by his fans.

Though the Lions have high hopes for Follett, there are virtually no expectations for the former seventh-round pick, which makes it impossible for him to disappoint.

Follett can only go up from here, and there's a decent chance he will.

Slump Risk: Low

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