There has been a lot of early talk, speculation and conjecture regarding the 2011 draft and how the Lions will approach it. This discussion is usually cranked up around Week 8. It is then that the most incurable optimists among us throw in the towel for the season and start looking ahead to the offseason, and the NFL draft.
There is a phenomenon occurring this season, unlike seasons past. Lions fans are looking forward to the offseason with great anticipation for an entirely new reason: Optimism.
They are optimistic with respects to the direction the Lions organization is moving. More than 50 percent of the roster has been turned over in two short years. The Lions have overhauled the defensive line, and added depth at the tight end and defensive backfield units.
The Lions now have a reliable defensive line that has great depth. The Lions have their franchise QB (when healthy, that is), and have filled the need for a reliable backup quarterback with the addition of Shaun Hill.
The Lions are competitive, and have actually held the lead in every game played thus far. They put points on the board, and can hang with the best teams in the league. Competing is not winning, but it is a refreshing change from the hopeless feeling we had after another blowout loss in past years.
This is the Lions we're talking about, and we would be remiss not to point out that they are a 1-5 team heading into the bye week. The Lions lead the league in penalties (67). This trend is alarming when we consider the number of personal fouls absorbed, especially by the defense.
The Lions promised an explosive running game this year behind Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith, Aaron Brown and Jerome Felton. Only the Denver Broncos have fewer rushing yards than the Lions.
We are compelled to shift our focus from the running backs to the offensive line when considering why the Lions cannot run the ball effectively.
Until the Lions have an offensive line that controls the line of scrimmage, they will continue to lose with regularity.
Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz correctly identified the defensive line as a group most in need of an overhaul in 2010. They were successful in this rebuilding effort, and as a result are no longer last in every defensive statistical category, as they were last season.
Can the same attention in the offseason turn the offensive line into a force? I think that it‘s highly unlikely. The problem with rebuilding an offensive line is that you seldom see immediate improvement via the draft.
When you look at guys like Russell Okung, Trent Williams and Brian Bulaga, you see three “can’t miss” studs. All of them are struggling as starters.
More than any other positional group, an offensive line depends on intricate blocking schemes, timing and cohesion among all players as a unit. This is why you see longer tenured players on the offensive line than any other unit.
Typically, teams must groom offensive linemen over two years for them to be successfully integrated into an offensive line unit.
While experienced linemen can be found in free agency, the frequency of finding an impact player here are far less than say, the defensive line. The Lions were fortunate when LG Rob Sims worked out so well for them.
Does this mean that the Lions are doomed to week after week of poor rushing performances? It would appear so unless the Lions can find a way to control the line of scrimmage.
Is it time to start working the younger linemen into the mix? Dylan Gandy and Jason Fox are the only young backup linemen on the active roster. This suggests that nothing will change for another year or two.
Do the Lions target an offensive lineman with a first round draft pick in 2011? There are some fine players projected to go early. Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State) and DeMarcus Love (Arkansas) are modest reaches.
In spite of the obvious need for new talent on the offensive line, the Lions will draft an offensive lineman only if he is, in the Lions view, the best player available.
There are two compelling reasons that make the last paragraph a no-brainer.
First, we will get an idea which needful unit will be targeted for an overhaul in 2011 by observing the Lions during free agency. Whether it’s a linebacker, defensive back or offensive lineman will actually give us insight into who the Lions will target in the draft.
Second, the Lions will know which draft slot they occupy. Any player obtained through free agency will likely be complemented by a first round draft pick.
Complimenting a first round pick with a free agent is a recipe for success.
If the Lions get a linebacker in free agency, look for them to draft Robert Quinn or Bruce Carter (both balled at UNC).
If the Lions get a DB in free agency, they will go after shut down CB Prince Amukamara (if available) or cover CB Patrick Peterson.
If the Lions get an offensive lineman in free agency, the Lions will draft the aforementioned Love or Sherrod.
The important remaining questions are what unit will the Lions target in 2011 for an overhaul, and, if RB Mark Ingram is available, can the Lions resist the strong urge to snap him up?
Ingram, after all, may make that offensive line look better than it really is.