Detroit Lions 2009 Draft Class: What Should Fans Expect from Them in 2011?
The Detroit Lions' 2009 draft was, in many ways, the end of an era.
Though Lions fans were apprehensive about the organizational sense of hiring Martin Mayhew, the apparent understudy of the worst GM in team (perhaps league) history, his first draft produced value at every level.
Now, we find ourselves two seasons removed from that draft, and the components from it will be under the microscope in 2011.
Many of them are facing make-or-break years. Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown are in danger of losing roster spots, Matthew Stafford needs to prove detractors wrong about his health, and the other players from that 2009 draft will have a lot to prove about the ultimate direction of their careers this year.
Of course, this analysis excludes seventh-round picks Lydon Murtha (taken off the practice squad by the Miami Dolphins) and Dan Gronkowski (traded to Denver for Alphonso Smith). Whether those two succeed or not is no longer of any great issue to Mayhew and the Lions, though if they produce, it does speak even more highly of Mayhew's drafting prowess.
So, of the remaining players from the 2009 draft, what should we expect when the 2009 class takes the field?
What the Lions expect from Stafford is in lockstep with what they expect from the franchise in general.
I've made my feelings on the matter clear, but the ultimate question is about whether he'll stay healthy.
Most likely, Stafford misses a game or three. The Lions' offensive line, while not as bad as most make it out to be, is not one of the league's best. Lots of quarterbacks take a bad shot here or there and miss a handful of games, and the law of averages does not seem to favor Stafford avoiding that.
Of course, Stafford doesn't need to avoid injury in general, he just needs to avoid an injury that puts him down for an extended period of time. Most of his injuries thus far have been flukey, and he has had surgery to firm up what needed to be firmed up.
Now, while he's healthy, Stafford should have a lot of fun taken advantage of his newly-upgraded offense, and he might even have a little too much fun with it. Stafford likes to trust his arm, and having receivers and backs running all over the field might activate the rookie within him and cause him to make some bad throws.
Stafford has played less than 16 games, and so in terms of playing time, he is still a rookie. As such, he is going to need some time to work out those last remaining rookie kinks.
That said, Stafford was pretty good as a rookie, so he ought to be pretty good right away. Next season will be our opportunity to see exactly how good.
Brandon Pettigrew really justified his first-round draft grade by being the Lions' second-most prolific receiver as well as one of their most reliable blockers.
Unfortunately, part of Pettigrew's production was a direct result of the Lions' lack of a third wide receiver. That is a problem the Lions have rectified by drafting Titus Young, and the "one-ball" theory would indicate that Pettigrew's production will decline slightly from his 2010 performance.
That has nothing to do with Pettigrew's actual performance. It's just because there will be more open targets, and most likely less passes thrown each week.
But Pettigrew can offset some of that statistical decrease by working on his drops. Drops were a serious problem for Pettigrew last year, but he can avoid a major stat dip if he turns his drops into catches next year.
Louis Delmas has been one of the best players on Detroit's defense over the last two years.
Next season, that might actually mean something special.
Delmas, who was completely overlooked in DROY voting despite a stellar 2009 campaign, has been straddling the line between "pretty good" and "great" for the last two years.
This year, he's going to have to fall to one side or the other. In 2010, Delmas was hobbled by a lingering groin injury. In 2009, he fought injuries and had to deal with opposing offenses shading away from him.
If ever there was a season for Delmas to break out, 2011 is it.
He doesn't exactly have a complete defense surrounding him, but there are enough playmakers on enough areas of the field for him to be able to let loose and wreak havoc.
Delmas needs to work on his positioning and keep himself healthy, and he should be looking at a monster, possibly Pro Bowl-caliber 2011.
And speaking of young leaders of the defense who have battled through injury, DeAndre Levy fits the bill every bit as much as Delmas.
Levy, who became a team star taking over for the injured Ernie Sims on the weak side, transitioned to mike linebacker in 2010 (just as the Lions said he would after they drafted him) and seemed to develop a comfort zone there.
Though critics say he's too small for the position and has a hard time shedding blocks, coaches praise his ability to run the defense, make the right move and communicate with his teammates.
That ability, the communication required to "quarterback" a defense, often gets overlooked. But there is no question that the Lions defense as a whole played better last season with Levy in than with him out, and Levy's ability to break down opposing offenses and call defensive signals is certainly part of that.
Some think Levy would perform better on the outside, and that may very well be true. But as the Lions have noted several times, they like Levy in the middle, and aren't likely to move him anywhere.
Levy should have plenty of time to heal up from any nagging injuries and come into the 2011 season fully healthy. If he maintains that health and finishes his first full season at middle linebacker, he should show major progression.
Whether Levy is Pro Bowl starter material in the middle is yet to be seen, but he is at the very least effective and might make a name for himself around the league if he grows to be as good as his potential.
Derrick Williams is in a fight for his career.
After two lackluster seasons as a WR/KR hybrid for the Lions, he has done neither with any real proficiency.
The Lions' drafting of Titus Young is a referendum of Williams' performance. Young has much the same skill set as Williams, and yet, the Lions spent a second-round pick on Young.
This is Williams' time to shine. He needs to show some kind of improvement or some potential, whenever the season decides to get off the ground. The fourth roster spot on the team is open, and it's going to be filled either by him, Mike Moore or Tim Toone.
Williams has more raw talent than either of the other two, but if he doesn't come to realize it soon, he'll be looking for a chance somewhere else, as the first draft bust of the Martin Mayhew era.
Sammie Hill has been the subject of a lot of trade talk since the Lions drafted Nick Fairley.
On one hand, it's understandable. Hill is fourth on a depth chart of four extremely talented defensive tackles. Conventional wisdom says to trade from your strengths to fix your weaknesses.
But that philosophy runs counter to the whole reason Jim Schwartz drafted Fairley in the first place.
Ndamukong Suh played 90 percent of the Lions' defensive snaps in 2010. That's a higher percentage than any other defensive tackle in the league. And he was handling double-teams on most of those plays.
That means Suh was trying to fight his way through 600-700 pounds of aggressive blocking on just about every play. And why? Because Schwartz didn't have enough options on the defensive line to swap him out as often as he wanted.
Fairley gives Suh another strong partner on the line, but he also allows the Lions to swap in Hill and Corey Williams and not see a major step down in effectiveness.
Last year, Andre Fluellen was a major step down in effectiveness. If the Lions trade Hill, they're in the same situation.
Therefore, expect Hill to stay on the roster as a reserve. And expect him to thrive in that role, getting somewhat limited snaps, but using his energy to make the most of them.
Hill will get more playing time than most reserve linemen, because Schwartz loves to rotate in fresh linemen.
With Schwartz's current configuration, the studs, Suh and Fairley, can start and wear down the offensive line. Then Schwartz can send a pair of fresh starting-quality lineman in Hill and Williams to take advantage of the offensive line's fatigue and go in for the kill.
Because of that, look for Hill to put up big numbers in limited snaps and Williams too.
Whatever chance Aaron Brown had to stay on the roster probably flew out the same door Mikel Leshoure walked in.
Brown has relied on his speed to take him where he needed to go, and for a while, it worked. But at this level, running backs also have to commit themselves to the playbook.
Brown never really did that, and as a result, his playing time has been in a slow decrescendo.
He has been able to keep his roster spot thus far because of his physical gifts. But he is now looking at Jahvid Best, Leshoure and Maurice Morris as locks to remain on the roster ahead of him. Jerome Felton may or may not stay on at fullback, and the Lions will probably devote a RB slot to return specialist Stefan Logan.
Where does Brown fit in that jumble?
Answer: He probably doesn't.
Brown should have gotten a playbook from his coaches during the 35 seconds that the lockout was lifted, so maybe he's using it as reading material during the lockout.
I'd guess he's not, and if that's the case, he'll probably be saying goodbye to his roster spot when final cuts come down.
Follett's 2011 season is in his own hands.
The subject of a frightening neck injury in 2010, Follett is faced with the impossible decision of whether or not to continue playing the game that he loves, knowing that another injury like the one he suffered last year would put him at heightened risk of permanent paralysis.
If Follett decides to come back in 2011, don't expect to see him on kick coverage. Even with the NFL's new "kinder, gentler" kickoff rules, the plays are still extremely dangerous.
In addition, Follett was getting time with the defense before his injury last year, and with the Lions extremely thin at outside linebacker, I would expect to see the Lions try developing him there, rather than putting him at risk on the kickoffs.
It's true that Follett excelled in kick coverage, and it's also true that football is dangerous no matter where you play. But kickoffs are the most dangerous plays in all of football, and the Lions would almost certainly rather see if they have something in him on defense, rather than risk his long-term health on special teams.
The Lions have made it clear that they want him back, but Follett himself isn't so sure.
If he comes back, he might not be the reckless hard-hitter he was before. There might be some tentativeness there, and understandably so. He is being faced with his own mortality out there.
Sadly, his recklessness and "take you out" attitude are what endeared him to the Lions and their fans, so that could turn into a major problem.
That is, of course, if he decides to give it another go at all.