The Detroit Lions Are Already Better Than You Think

Bill PoochContributor IMay 7, 2009

DETROIT , MI - JANUARY 16:  Jim Schwartz, center, head coach of the Detroit Lions poses with General Manager Martin Mayhew, left, and Tom Lewand team president after a press conference to introduce him as the Lions new head coach on January 16, 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

I was a Martin Mayhew believer early on. Perhaps that was naive, considering his affiliation with the previous, um, shall we say, moderately unsuccessful GM.

Many fans are still not ready to believe that the Detroit Lions have actually assembled a competent NFL roster, so the only way to prove just how many upgrades Mayhew has made is a position-by-position analysis of the current Lions vs. the 0-16 version.

And keep in mind, the NFL offseason has three components: free agency after the season ends, when guys like Albert Haynesworth cash in, the draft, and veteran casualties in training camp. I was convinced the Lions would need to add a veteran or seven during those training camp casualties in order to plug the many roster deficiencies of a season ago, but really, Mayhew's work is very nearly done.

Quarterbacks

There is still some debate as to whether a veteran backup/third-stringer will be signed or whether Drew Stanton will cling to his roster spot. Stanton barely played last year, because then-coach Rod Marinelli was desperately trying to win a game and trusted veterans Daunte Culpepper and Dan Orlovsky more than Stanton.

So to keep Stanton, who could actually be a solid NFL quarterback at some point (he was a second round pick, after all), would essentially mean there are two rookies sitting behind the fragile and/or erratic Culpepper.

Although Matt Stafford could turn into the franchise and Mayhew deserves much credit for turning Jon Kitna, who was going to be released anyway, into starting corner Anthony Henry via trade with Dallas, the position is far from a team strength at this point.

Compared to last year: About even.

Running Backs

Although there were no bright spots for the Lions last season, Kevin Smith at least had a moderately productive season, averaging 4.1 yards per carry as the team's leading rusher. He also helped save money on jerseys, since he wore the same number as predecessor Kevin Jones, and the Lions just slapped a "Smith" nameplate on those stockpiled Jones jerseys.

Oops.

While Jones had a solid season, few successful teams go into a season without at least two capable running backs. The Lions replaced the dreadful Rudi Johnson, who rushed for fewer than 300 yards and averaged 3.1 per carry on the season, with the solid Maurice Morris, who ran for more than 500 and averaged 4.3 yards per carry in Seattle last season.

The Lions obviously were interested in Derrick Ward and may be unsure how Smith will fare in new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's offense, running back could be a spot where they bring in someone cut by another team during camp.

Compared to last year: Better.


Wide Receivers

Anyone who writes about the Lions and wide receivers can't ever resist making lame jokes, but on his fourth try, Matt Millen did find a franchise receiver with Calvin Johnson.

He took heat for picking Johnson, who was the best available talent, too. It would have been very easy for Millen to take a defensive player and avoid the jokes, but he did the right thing, and Lions fans get to watch a guy who could become the best in the NFL for, hopefully, the next eight years or so.

Unfortunately, after Roy Williams was traded last season, the team didn't have a NFL-quality pass catcher on the roster to take pressure off of Johnson (where was Scotty Vines when we needed him?).

But arguably, Mayhew has done more to upgrade the talent at this position than any other on the roster. Free agent signings Ronald Curry and Bryant Johnson aren't spectacular, but they are solid, veteran NFL talents. Third round pick Derrick Williams was considered a first round talent by some.

Compared to last year: Calvin has a lot of help now.

Tight End

Lions fans were not all pleased that the team used both first round picks on offense, but it is hard to argue that Brandon Pettigrew does not meet a major need on the roster. Last year, four Lions tight ends combined to catch 44 passes with three touchdowns. It should not be hard for Pettigrew to approach those numbers on his own.

He's also a good blocker who can help tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus, since they did not prove to have the fleetest of feet blocking edge rushers last season.

Compared to last year: Better, but could still use a veteran.

Offensive Line

This ... this could use some work. The one area on the team Mayhew has yet to do much with is the line. Guard Stephan Peterman, who was OK last season, was re-signed, Cherilus looks like he will head into the season as the starting right tackle after getting yanked around a bit last season, and Backus and center Dominic Raiola—two Lions lifers—are back and could be solid if they weren't relied on to be the two best linemen on the team every year.

They also signed journeyman guard Damion Cook, late of the Browns, who is the presumptive starter at right guard. But since Cook has only started 10 games in his 26-game career, I'm sure the team would certainly look for an upgrade.

Compared to last year: Exactly the same, and that's not good.

Defensive Line

The Lions have three defensive ends who are all very solid NFL players in Cliff Avril, Dewayne White, and Jared DeVries. They have two fat guys in the middle in Grady Jackson and Chuck Darby. They also have intriguing fourth round pick Sammie Lee Hill, who is big and was a beast at Stillman and during the combine.

That's certainly not an imposing front four. But neither was last year's, and that squad had undersized, unproductive and overpaid Cory Redding as the key player, so at least the team doesn't have as much money invested in a unit that will have only modest production.

Compared to last year: At least there is a run stuffer, even if he can only play 25 plays a game.

Linebackers

This spot challenges the wide receiver position for the most upgraded. Julian Peterson brings his Pro Bowl pedigree over after the Redding trade, Larry Foote gets to realize his dream of no longer playing for Super Bowls and holdover Ernie Sims is productive and versatile.

Jordan Dizon, last year's second round pick who also suffered from Marinelli's fear of playing young players at key positions, has been impressive to the new coaching staff. Rookie DeAndre Levy could also contribute at some point.

Compared to last year: No Paris Lenon=automatic upgrade.

Cornerback

The secondary obviously wasn't good last year, but with an ineffective pass rush and an undersized group of linebackers, it was hard to evaluate just how good or bad the secondary was. But apparently it wasn't too hard...last year's starting corners Travis Fisher and Leigh Bodden were cut, Anthony Henry was acquired from Dallas to start at one spot and Phillip Buchanon was signed to start opposite him.

Eric King was signed from Tennessee to back up and holdover Keith Smith is also still around to provide depth.

Compared to last year: Better.

Safety

If second round pick Louis Delmas has anywhere near the Bob Sanders-esque ability some say he does, the Lions will have their first impact safety since Bennie Blades and William White were mashing dudes in the 1990s. Daniel Bullocks is a good player and if undrafted free agent Otis Wiley is healthy, he will make the team and contribute.

Compared to last year: Better, but I can't believe Kalvin Pearson is still around.

Special Teams

As long as Jason Hanson is around, things are good.

Compared to last year: Still money.

Coaching

Jim Schwartz is a practical dude (heavy metal fandom aside). I don't know how many games he will win this year. But I am at least very confident he won't do this. Or say this. Or otherwise do the embarrassingly stupid things Lions coaches are known for.

Compared to last year: Like night and day.

Overall

I'm not saying the Lions, as presently constructed, addressed all of their many needs. I'm definitely not saying they are a playoff team, or even a mediocre team yet. But I do think that they have addressed more needs with solid upgrades than most would have thought possible heading into the offseason.

Martin Mayhew has fleeced the Cowboys on two trades (Kitna and Roy Williams). And I would be shocked if the Lions don't get more production out of Julian Peterson than the Seahawks get out of Redding. Lions GMs never get the best of anyone, so that's impressive.

It's hard for fans to get over the embarrassment of last season. The team has given no reason for fans to not be cynical. But taking a realistic look at this team, it should win six to eight games and be extremely competitive.

After last season, I don't think any of us could have reasonably expected that.

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