The 2010 NFL season has been full of heartbreak and close calls for the Detroit Lions.
The Lions, sitting at 2-10 heading into this weekend's game, are looking at having another top five pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Two things have become abundantly clear while watching the Lions this year.
First, the Lions actually have players who can compete at the NFL level. They have a very good foundation with QB Matthew Stafford (when healthy—more on him later), WR Calvin Johnson, RB Jahvid Best, WR Nate Burleson, S Louis Delmas and DT Ndamukong Suh.
They also have a solid core of veteran role players: Kyle Vanden Bosch, Rob Sims, Corey Williams, Jeff Backus (I know most Lions fan don't like him), Tony Scheffler and a few others.
Young players like DeAndre Levy, Sammie Lee Hill, Amari Spievey and Alphonso Smith are still developing and could become mainstays on the Lions roster.
The second thing is the Lions have glaring holes or need a lot more depth at several key positions, primarily the secondary, linebacker and offensive line. When looking at these needs and looking at the draft, it's possible to see Detroit becoming contenders as soon as 2011, but more likely 2012.
To put it nicely, the Lions secondary is a work in progress. Alphonso Smith, despite the embarrassment known as the Thanksgiving Day game, has put together a solid first season in Detroit. Smith has five interceptions and unfortunately won't be able to add to that number because of the shoulder injury in the loss to the Bears. The Lions as a team last year totaled nine interceptions.
Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey and Alphonso Smith are probably the only Lions secondary players guaranteed a spot on next year's team. This doesn't mean none of the current secondary will be back; however, if upgrades are available, the Lions wouldn't hesitate to make a move.
The 2011 draft is loaded with defensive talent, much of it along the line, but there are two predominant CBs who the Lions could target with their top pick.
Prince Amukamara (Senior, Nebraska)
6'0", 203 lbs. 2010 totals through 12 games: 50 tackles, one sack, 13 pass breakups, 0 interceptions. The key when looking at Amukamara's numbers is how rarely opposing QBs even look his direction. In 2009 he had 102 tackles, three sacks, 11 PBUs and five interceptions.
Patrick Peterson (Junior, LSU)
6'1", 211 lbs. 2010 totals through 12 games: 34 tackles, four interceptions, six pass breakups. An added benefit to adding Peterson is his ability to return kickoffs and punts. In 2009 he had 47 tackles, two interceptions and 13 PBUs.
The Detroit Lions entered 2010 with a very young linebacking corps. Due either to inconsistent play or injuries, the linebackers have been a great disappointment. Adding a playmaker and depth to the linebackers will be a priority for the Lions this offseason.
There is a lot of linebacking depth in the middle rounds of the 2011 draft, especially in the later rounds. Von Miller, Akeem Ayers and Bruce Carter are some of the top regarded linebackers. If the Lions are going to draft a LB in the first round of the NFL draft, they will most likely have to trade down.
Von Miller (Senior, Texas A&M)
6'3", 243 lbs. 2010 stats through 12 games:, 59 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, one INT, six PBUs, three FF.
Akeem Ayers (Junior, UCLA)
6'3", 249 lbs. 2010 stats through 12 games: 68 tackles, 10 TFL, four sacks, two INTs, four PBUs, two FF.
Bruce Carter (Senior, UNC)
6'3", 225 lbs. 2010 stats through 11 games: 57 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, one INT, two PBUs, one FF.
Several later round picks I think Detroit should take the time to evaluate include Justin Houston, Mark Herzlich, Greg Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Quan Sturdivant. Some of these guys are going to be Round 2 prospects, and some might boost their stock and move into the first round.
Justin Houston (Junior, Georgia)
6'3", 258 lbs. 2010 stats through 12 games: 56 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 10 sacks, one INT, two PBUs, one FF.
Mark Herzlich (Senior, Boston College)
6'4", 247 lbs. 2010 stats through 12 games: 60 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0 sacks, four INTs, four PBUs, one FF.
Greg Jones (Senior, Michigan State)
6'1", 237 lbs. 2010 stats through 12 games: 98 tackles, eight TFL, one sack, two INTs, three PBUs, three FF.
Dont'a Hightower (Junior, Alabama)
6'4", 260 lbs. 2010 stats through 12 games: 68 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0 sacks, 0 INT, three PBUs, 0 FF.
Quan Sturdivant (Senior, UNC)
6'2", 235 lbs. 2010 stats through seven games: 49 tackles, 6.5 TFL, two sacks, 0 INT, one PBU, 0 FF.
The offensive line has been solid but not spectacular. For the most part they have provided adequate protection for whichever QB has lined up under center.
However, when games are on the line or the Lions need to gain those two yards on third down, too often the O-line has come up short. Part of this can be blamed on Jahvid Best not being fully healthy this year, but there have not been an abundance of big holes for him to run through either.
The addition of Rob Sims was probably the most underrated move the Lions made this past offseason. Sims has solidified the left guard position, which has been a revolving door for several years.
LT Jeff Backus is getting up there in age. Despite the sack he gave up against the Bears in Week 1 that knocked out Stafford, Backus has played very well this year. Backus tends to be the target of a lot of hatred from Lions fans, but I don't think he deserves it. That being said, the Lions need to find his long-term replacement. The same can be said for the center position.
Fortunately for the Lions there are a number of good offensive linemen in this year's draft. The top players include:
Nate Solder (Senior, Colorado) OT 6'9" 315 lbs.
Anthony Castonzo (Senior, Boston College), OT 6'7" 287 lbs.
Gabe Carimi (Senior, Wisconsin), OT 6'7" 327 lbs.
Rodney Hudson (Senior, Florida State) G 6'2" 283 lbs.
Clint Boling (Senior, Georgia) G 6'5" 315 lbs.
John Moffitt (Senior, Wisconsin) G 6'5" 323 lbs.
Mike Pouncey (Senior, Florida) C 6'5" 320 lbs.
Stephen Wisniewski (Senior, Penn State) C 6'3" 302 lbs.
Matt Reynolds (Junior, BYU) OT 6'6" 322 lbs.
Nate Potter (Junior, Boise State) OT 6'6" 293 lbs.
Cordy Glenn (Junior, Georgia) G 6'5" 320 lbs.
Lucas Nix (Junior, Pittsburgh) G 6'6" 305 lbs.
Mike Brewster (Junior, Ohio State) C 6'5" 293 lbs.
William Vlachos (Junior, Alabama) C 6'1" 289 lbs.
Dominic Raiola is undersized, so adding a player with more bulk who can spend a year learning from the veteran would be ideal. Carimi, Solder, Hudson and Pouncey will easily be off the board by the time the Lions select in the second round, but if the Lions were able to trade back a time or two, they might end up on their radar.
So what do they do? Well, first off, because of their inability to win close games (six losses by less than five points) they will be picking in the top three. If they are unlucky they could be picking in the top three.
The Lions' first priority must be trading back. They have a lot of needs, and I question whether they can afford to pay another top five player. They already have Calvin Johnson (second), Matthew Stafford (first) and Ndamukong Suh (second).
They could end up in the top three with Andrew Luck not yet selected (not likely, but possible in certain scenarios). For example, if Carolina (Jimmy Clausen) and Cincinnati (Carson Palmer) end up ahead of the Lions, Luck might be available. Teams like Buffalo, Arizona or San Francisco might be willing to trade up to get Luck.
It's also possible for a team to fall in love with an A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson or one of the top defensive linemen and be willing to trade up.
If they are unable to trade back, then they have to take either Patrick Peterson or Prince Amukamara. If they are able to move back to the 7-10 range, I think reaching for an OT like Carimi or Castonzo is a real possibility. If they move into the 12-16 range (hopefully getting a couple of second- and third-round picks), then the possibility of a LB increases greatly.
If I'm the Lions, I'm hoping I am able to move back and still land either Amukamara or Peterson. After that I'm looking along the offensive line in Round 2 and the linebacking corps in Round 3.