2011 NFL Predictions: Detroit Lions Overall Record and Award-Winners
Okay, I've put it off long enough. Roster cuts have taken place and we have a 53-man roster to carry into the season.
I no longer have any reason to hold off on my season predictions. I know you've been holding your breath, so you may exhale now.
Because I'm fair and willing to admit when I'm wrong—sometimes very, very, wrong, like a crazy person or a Bears fan—I think this is probably a good time to recap last year's predictions.
But I implore you, be gentle. I don't have to do this, you know, I could just let you look these things up yourself (or more likely, decide you don't care) and actually have to put some work into making fun of me. Instead, I'll make it easy for you.
All you have to do is click to the next slide.
Recap of My 2010 Predictions
Last year, I predicted not only the Lions' overall record, but MVPs and breakout players for both the offensive and defensive sides.
You can view that travesty here. Or you can just watch me tear myself down below.
I predicted Matthew Stafford as offensive MVP and Jahvid Best as offensive breakout player. Boy, I went out on a couple of limbs there, didn't I?
In my defense, I predicted that both players would have to avoid succumbing to their known health concerns to fulfill these great destinies. I may very well have been right on both counts, but both players ended up injured and ineffective (or in Stafford's case, inactive).
In a way, I ended up right. Except for how I was totally wrong. In retrospect, the offensive MVP was undoubtedly Calvin Johnson and the breakout player could justifiably be Brandon Pettigrew (Nate Burleson might pull some votes as well).
But it's the defensive side where things got crazy. As Ndamukong Suh was busy showing us greatness, I picked Kyle Vanden Bosch as defensive MVP and the breakout player as...Randy Phillips.
Now, Vanden Bosch may have been the MVP of the locker room, but Phillips had a hard time breaking out of the practice squad, much less anything else.
Ultimately, Suh deserved both accolades and earned several more on the league-wide stage. That's what I get for trying to get cute.
My record prediction of 6-10 last season was spot-on, but I couldn't have predicted the path the Lions took to get there.
I also predicted that they would go 3-3 in the NFC North and snap either the Lambeau or Metrodome losing streaks. Those things didn't happen, though the Lions would have gone 3-3 in the NFCN if not for the "process of the catch" game.
But then I would have missed on the overall record, so it's a wash.
Done snickering yet? Do I have any legitimacy left? Did I have any in the first place? Would you just click forward out of pity?
I added new categories, so I can't possibly be wrong on all the same stuff I was last year.
Offensive MVP: Matthew Stafford
Yeah, I know. Big stretch. But the only thing that can derail this prediction is Stafford’s health. If he stays upright most of the season, Stafford looks primed to have a breakout season.
Whoops. Just plagiarized myself. I said the exact same thing last year.
But so what? It's still true. I'm well aware I might be slamming my head against a wall with this, hoping the wall breaks first.
Maybe I've been watching the Lions for too long, but Matthew Stafford's accuracy looks otherwordly. This 2011 Stafford isn't the guy we all thought was a Favre-esque "gunslinger."
Stafford threw 16 passes against New England. And 16 passes hit receivers in the hands. One was knocked away by a flawless defensive play and one bounced off Nate Burleson's hands in the end zone.
It didn't matter whether his target was three yards away and stationary or streaking 30 yards down the sideline. He put 16 passes exactly where he wanted them.
The only pass a little off target was an underthrow to Calvin Johnson as Stafford was being hit. The "underthrow" traveled about 25 yards, and Johnson made an incredible adjustment across his body to pull it in.
I made this prediction about a week ago, and I will repeat it here: If Stafford plays 16 games at the level he shows in the preseason, he will be a lock for the Pro Bowl. Not a favorite, but a lock. A guarantee.
Defensive MVP: Ndamukong Suh
Allow me to make up for past transgressions by making the easiest call possible here.
Last year, I warned everyone to keep the sky-high expectations down on young stud Ndamukong Suh. It wasn't so much that I didn't think he'd be great, it's that I didn't think he'd be so great so soon, especially given his relatively low-profile position.
Frankly, I expected Suh to be a prime candidate for breakout player this year. As reigning Rookie of the Year and a first-year Pro Bowler, I think he's probably disqualified from that now.
Still, he should continue to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and open up plenty of opportunities for his linemates in the process. The defensive line is so talented. Even if Suh gets blocked, somebody else will break through because of the attention he's getting.
If Suh had peaked last year, he would still be amazing. To think of him as a rookie with a lot left to learn is just plain scary.
Special Teams MVP: Jason Hanson
I know not many are fond of the NFL's rule change to send kickoffs up to the 35-yard line.
Jason Hanson is likely among those who are.
If there was any reason to doubt Jason Hanson's status with the team, it was his inability to boom kickoffs into the end zone. Most of his kicks last year landed between the goal line and the 10.
After a rule change (and an extended offseason), Hanson appears to have returned some power to his kicks. Against New England, he popped up a bunch of kicks and still got them to the goal line. The result was the Patriots starting a large percentage of their drives inside their own 20.
On top of that, Hanson is, as usual, practically yawning as he drills 50-yard field goals through the uprights. Never mind the end of his contract, Hanson looks like he could kick effectively for another five years. At the rate he's going, he could assail a few more all-time records before he's done.
At this point, every kick he makes is another step towards the Hall of Fame.
Offensive Breakout Player: Maurice Stovall
Watching Maurice Stovall in preseason, I have to wonder why Tampa Bay used him on special teams.
Actually, let me rephrase that. I can completely understand why they used him on special teams, he looks like a stud in coverage.
I just can't understand why the Bucs didn't use him more as a receiver.
With the understanding that many of his plays were against second-and-third-string defenders, and that it was the ever-overblown preseason, I still can't help but watch Stovall and be shocked that this is the first time I've heard of him.
Over all four games, little doubt should remain that Stovall was the most consistent receiver. Calvin Johnson is the most talented, Nate Burleson was the flashiest and had the biggest games, but Stovall consistently made plays every time out.
Stovall's integration into the offense was helped along by Titus Young's hamstring injury. Young looks like he will be a valuable weapon eventually, but he got a late start in camp, and the learning curve for receivers is higher than most realize. He will see reps this season, but his breakout year might be 2012.
Stovall looks more prepared to make an impact immediately, especially as a downfield target. If the Lions give him reps, he can use his size (and the consistent double-teams Johnson will bring) to hurt opposing defenses anywhere on the field.
Putting Stovall on the wing opposite Johnson will not only cause matchup nightmares (how do you stop a pair of 6' 5" receivers?), but it will also allow Nate Burleson to thrive in a slot receiver role, which is perfectly suited to his skill set (though he has shown the ability to make plays down the field, as well).
Defensive Breakout Player: Willie Young
Willie Young does one thing well. He can speed rush.
As a defensive end listed at 251 pounds, what else would you expect from him?
But as you can see here, that often tends to be enough. The poor tackle who missed his assignment (Nate Solder, perhaps?) looks like he had about enough time to turn around and take a half-step in pursuit in the time it took Young to bury his helmet in the small of Brian Hoyer's back.
The knock on Young is that he's too small. He worked to put on some muscle last year, but he's still smaller than Bobby Carpenter.
And the fact that he only has speed makes him a bit vulnerable. It's easier for an offensive lineman to stop a defender when he doesn't have to worry about a power move.
Still, Young has been a bringer of chaos to opposing backfields so far this year. Even when he misses, he affects the play.
An effective tackle is able to stay inside Young and force him to take a wide angle to the quarterback. But even in this case, the quarterback tends to step up to avoid the pressure, and considering how good the Lions are at bringing pressure up the middle, that's sometimes a very bad idea.
We saw lots of sacks happen this way last year, with Cliff Avril forcing the quarterback to step up into the pocket and the quarterback finding Ndamukong Suh instead of an actual pocket.
Young has shown the ability to do the same thing.
Because of his size, it's unrealistic to think of Young as someone who can hold the line on a run play. But as a situational pass-rusher, he could be incredibly valuable.
Special Teams Breakout Player: Maurice Stovall
Is this cheating? Picking the same player for two different areas?
Maybe so, but Stefan Logan has already had his breakout season. Who did you want me to take, Nick Harris (Too soon?)?
Anyway, Stovall has been a monster on special teams throughout the preseason—to the point where he had as many tackles in some games as receptions.
I don't know if Stovall is going to have a Wendling-like impact on special teams, and he won't light up returners like Zack Follett once did, but he seems to be one of the first guys to the ball on every kick and with his length, he has proven to be a great open-field tackler.
Most Likely to Be Overrated: Stephen Tulloch
I've been a little rough on the linebackers (particularly those not named Carpenter) this preseason, and I'll admit much of it has been a little unfair.
Though in my defense, maybe if Stephen Tulloch had made some plays in the preseason, Getty Images would have a picture of him in a Lions jersey.
I hesitate to put Tulloch in this spot, because this could go either way. For the offseason, he was free agent target No. 1 (maybe No. 2 after the crazies who wanted Nnamdi Asomugha). Because of that, expectations for him are understandably high—especially since he's playing in a self-designed contract year.
But because of all the attention Tulloch is likely to get, I wonder if his achievements might get blown out of proportion.
Will we all think he's the greatest linebacker in football every time he makes a stop at the line of scrimmage? Or will we instead blow expectations for him out of proportion and call him a hack if he doesn't notch 15 tackles and an interception every game?
Because he'll be playing under intense fan scrutiny, his name is likely to come up whether he's a big playmaker or not, and so the needle of fan opinion is likely to swing wildly one way or the other, never stopping in the middle.
Ultimately, if the defense as a whole plays well, Tulloch will probably be seen favorably, and that might be the correct way to think about it, given he'll be making the defensive calls on the field.
But DeAndre Levy made those calls, too, and he got relatively little credit as a MIKE linebacker.
This is the core of the problem. If Tulloch plays at the same level this year as Levy did last year, he'll probably still be seen more favorably, and that's why there is so much potential for him to be overrated.
But hey, Levy played well last year too, so as long as everybody is performing up to par, who cares, right?
Most Likely to Be Underrated: Nate Burleson's Blocking
Most NFL fans don't consider blocking when they look at wide receivers, and admittedly, it's not their primary job. There's a name for receivers that block first and catch passes second: tight ends.
Still, it has been absolutely impossible to watch a Lions game this preseason and not see Nate Burleson's blocking prowess. All preseason, Burleson has either been making some kind of absurd catch on a sideline or engaging a cornerback and driving him 20-30 yards down the field while his teammate runs through the space said defender used to occupy.
Blocks are the single most important but least showcased act on a football field at any given point. Even most fans of a team can't name their starting offensive line. The only time you see a great block on a highlight reel is when somebody gets knocked off his feet.
And so credit is due here to Burleson, who figures to continue his unselfish all-around team play into the regular season. He isn't likely to get much attention for his blocking in the regular season, so I'll bring attention to it now.
NFL (Not for Long) Award: Dominic Raiola
This dubious honor can also be known as the "starter most likely to be replaced" award.
Look, I don't know that the Lions have any ideas about signing a new starting center on the eve of the season-opener, but let's take a look here at some of the Lions' players of interest during the preseason.
Andre Gurode has been in for a visit. So has Leonard Davis. Chris Morris was called in a couple weeks ago and made the team, and Rudy Niswanger made an appearance as well.
What do all these players have in common? They're all interior linemen. Davis is the only one who isn't a center.
The Lions brain trust can say what it wants about Dominic Raiola and its trust in him, but it's obvious it is not thrilled with his performance. Nobody really is right now.
Raiola has been the head of a group of interior linemen who have failed to generate any push in the running game for a couple of years running. This preseason looked no different.
At this point, the Lions are pretty much stuck with what they have. But it should be fairly obvious that finding a successor to Raiola is a priority. He has been a great leader and a brilliant tactician on the line for over a decade. But he's aging and no longer shows the ability to compensate for his lack of size and strength with his intelligence.
The Zack Follett Practice Squad Impact Award: Ricardo Silva
Remember in 2009, when we all got really excited about Zack Follett, then he stunk it up in training camp, got cut and was called up off the practice squad a few weeks later to become a special teams stud?
Well, to give him his due for his brief-but-exciting time in Detroit, I've named the award for practice squad hero after him.
And this year, it looks like Ricardo Silva.
Now, keep in mind this is coming from the same guy who said Randy Phillips would be the Lions' 2010 defensive breakout player. Maybe I just like UDFA safeties, I don't know.
After all, Silva and Phillips share a lot of similarities. Neither of them look very good in practice. Both of them play with their gut, making high-risk/high-reward decisions that occasionally get them burned. And both of them played their entire preseason spending seemingly every play somewhere hawking around the ball.
The big difference is, the Lions look a lot stronger at safety than they did last year, and Phillips still got cut last year. The same fate awaited Silva, but he should be the first guy the Lions look to pull up if they have a need on special teams or in the secondary.
Final Record Prediction
If the past is any indication, this might be the only thing here I get right, so pay close attention.
There has been a whole lot of talk about the Lions making the playoffs this year, and it is actually a realistic goal this year for the first time in a long time. Even when Jon Kitna made his "10-win" prediction in 2007, the reaction was a mix of patronizing encouragement, stifled laughter and eye rolls.
This year, nobody is laughing.
So will the Lions make the playoffs? Will they break that long streak of irrelevance?
In order, no and yes. I do believe the Lions are poised for a breakout season, but having a breakout season isn't the same as making the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a breakout season in 2010. They won 10 games, and, partly because of the Lions, they missed the playoffs. The New York Giants also missed the playoffs at 10-6. Had the "Process of the Catch" game turned out differently last year, the Chicago Bears would also have missed the playoffs at 10-6.
Winning 10 games is a very optimistic result for a team that hasn't even been .500 in over a decade, but with the strength of competition in the NFC right now, there is no guarantee that will be enough to secure a playoff spot.
With the strength and depth of the Green Bay Packers, it almost certainly won't be enough to win the division.
The Lions are also looking at one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year. Winning eight games against the competition they face will be tough enough, much less 10. But then, if this team is going to turn that corner, it has to start beating stiff competition face-to-face.
This is the year to start doing that consistently. Good teams expect to win every week, regardless of who the opponent is. The difference to them between a tough schedule and a soft one is just a matter of who the wins come against—not whether or not they'll happen.
The most important thing for the Lions this year is not making the playoffs, but rather developing that identity of a team that expects to win football games, week in and week out, regardless of the opposition.
With that in mind, I expect that the Lions will take a positive step forward, meet and break the .500 mark, play meaningful games in December...and fall just short of the playoffs.
It's just as well, they'll be better equipped to make a deep run next year, anyway.
Final Record: 9-7 (4-2 NFC North)
I won't make predictions about specific games the Lions will win or lose, except for one. That Metrodome losing streak is toast. Write it down.