It hasn’t been a bright 12 months in the Motor City. General Motors went belly up, the city’s mayor resigned amidst an avalanche of controversies and Robocop never showed up.
The city is so far in the dumps that Thomas Jane’s fictional enormous penis in HBO’s “Hung” is Detroit’s crowning achievement of 2008-09. And worst of all, the beloved Detroit Lions made history – of the anemic variety.
So, you’re the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. Where do you go from here? First, say a long overdue adios to team president Matt Millen. And then tell Rod Marinelli to beat it. Next bring in a first-time coach with loads of energy and snag a poster boy quarterback to build around.
Check, and check. Then, pray.
Last season: 0-16, last in the NFC North.
New faces: HC Jim Schwartz, QB Matthew Stafford, TE Brandon Pettigrew, LB Julian Peterson, WR Dennis Northcutt, WR Bryant Johnson, WR Ronald Curry, LB Larry Foote, T Jon Jansen, DT Grady Jackson, CB Phillip Buchanon, CB Anthony Henry, RB Maurice Morris.
Subtractions: HC Rod Marinelli, LB Paris Lenon, QB Jon Kitna, DT Shaun Cody, DT Cory Redding, S Dwight Smith, WR Shaun McDonald.
The Draft: Believe it or not, the Lions actually had a decent draft. It’s amazing what’s possible when Matt Millen is out of the way. OK, do I think Matthew Stafford was the best player in the draft? No. But he was the right pick for the Lions. Any team that goes 0-16 needs a fresh start and that starts behind center. Stafford needs to work on his accuracy, but he’s young and talented and has Calvin Johnson to throw to, which always helps.
The Lions’ second first round pick, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Pettigrew was the best tight end in this year’s class and only has a guy named Casey FitzSimmons in his way. Expect an immediate impact. Safety Louis Delmas (2nd/Western Michigan) is a playmaker and will be needed for a team that produced a league-low four interceptions in 2008.
Getting Penn State speedster Derrick Williams in the third round was good value. He’s got loads of talent and in time can be a perfect compliment to No. 81. And lastly we can’t forget seventh round pick Zack Follett, who had this to say after falling to the final round: “They’re gonna pay for it. I’m gonna go out there and hit their players and take them out of the game.”
The Good: WR Calvin Johnson. Megatron caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Just imagine what he can do with a quarterback who actually knows how deep the end zone is. Detroit’s second-leading receiver last year (the since departed Shaun McDonald) had 35 receptions for 332 yards and one score. That’s quite the dropoff. Johnson was the Lions’ lone target last year and still put up monster numbers.
The 6-foot-5 specimen is downright uncoverable. I got a first hand glimpse when he took a simple slant route to the house with ease against the Colts Week 15. It looked like a Ferrari running away from Chevy Novas.
He’ll have a new quarterback and offensive playbook, but the Lions have done their best to ease some pressure off Johnson by adding receivers Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt in the offseason. The duo had eerily similar numbers last year. Bryant Johnson had 45 catches for 546 yards and three TDs. Northcutt had 44 catches for 545 yards and two TDs. Add rookies Derrick Williams and Brandon Pettigrew to the mix and Calvin might find himself with a little extra room this season. Though if I’m a defensive coordinator, I’m making No. 81 beat me.
The Encouraging: The linebacking corps. Despite losing last year’s leading tackler Paris Lenon to New England, the Lions improved their linebacking corps with the additions of Julian Peterson and Larry Foote. A pass-rushing outside linebacker, Peterson has 26.5 sacks over his last three seasons and will be integral in new defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s blitz-friendly scheme. Foote started every game (80) for Pittsburgh since the 2004 season, and while never an All-Pro standout, he’s a solid veteran who has played his part in big games.
Holding down the other outside linebacker position is Ernie Sims, a tackling machine who struggled at times coping with former coach Rod Marinelli’s Tampa Two scheme. Sims, the ninth overall pick in 2006, led the Lions in tackles his first two seasons in the league and finished last year with 113 tackles, his lowest total in his three-year career. With a more simplified approach from Cunningham, the Lions expect Sims to not only make the plays he should, but also ones that very few can.
Second-year pro Jordon Dizon also may work his way into the mix with rookie DeAndre Levy learning in the wings.
The Ugly: The secondary. Detroit allowed the third-most passing yards in the NFC last season (232 ypg) and allowed quarterbacks an NFL-leading 110.9 quarterback rating. The Lions four total interceptions last year ranked dead last in the league. How did the Lions try and fix that? By bringing in retreads Phillip Buchanon, he of the seven INTs in the last four seasons, and Anthony Henry. Henry started 15 games for the Cowboys, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Dallas had the third-fewest interceptions last season with eight.
Fantasy Island: Calvin Johnson is a top-five fantasy wide receiver. In a 12-team league, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him go mid-to-late second round. I know he may have a rookie quarterback throwing to him, but don’t let that scare you. Remember, the quarterback for most of the year last season was Dan “Which Way Is Up” Orlovsky.
Second-year running back Kevin Smith is definitely worth a look. He rushed for 976 yards last season with eight scores and with the potential of a rookie quarterback, expect Smith to get plenty of touches. Wait and see how the offense progresses before you take a flier on Bryant Johnson or Dennis Northcutt.
Potential breakout player: DE Cliff Avril. It pains to me say it because he’s a Purdue product, but Avril has a nose for the quarterback and on a team with few pass rushers, the second-year man just might be the Lions’ best. Quick and undersized, Avril added seven pounds of muscle in the offseason and is up to 258 lbs. His five sacks last year were second-best on the team behind Dewayne White’s 6.5.
Schedule: On paper, the Lions’ schedule doesn’t look all that difficult (ranked 21st hardest in the NFL). But remember, it’s the Lions. They make things difficult. In the NFL, anything can happen, but the Lions most likely will be winless coming off their bye in Week 7. Detroit’s best shot at a first win is Week 8 at home against the Rams. A home game Week 11 against the Browns could be a W as could road contests against the Bengals (Week 13) and 49ers (Week 16). Other than that, good luck.
Best Case: Matthew Stafford turns water into wine.
Worst Case: Daunte Culpepper starts more than eight games.
Prediction: 3-13, last in NFC North.