The Detroit Lions have certainly helped themselves again this offseason, but I still don’t think they are a playoff team just yet. While the return of Matthew Stafford will certainly be a boost to this offense, I think the Lions are overrated offensively.
Mikel LeShoure figured to be an important piece in Detroit’s offense, but we won’t be able to see how he fits in this year. Jahvid Best is a mediocre back, and I think Jerome Harrison will win the starting job. He isn’t a special player by any means, but Harrison is a better rusher than anybody on this roster.
The Lions strength on offense is easily their group of receivers. There’s no doubt that Calvin Johnson is one of the top five most talented and dangerous receivers in the NFL today. Titus Young, Nate Burleson, and Rashied Davis are all serviceable wideouts to compliment Johnson. Although Brandon Pettigrew’s stats are inflated, he is a very good pass-catching tight end who gets a ton of targets. Last year, Shaun Hill proved that he is among the best backups out there in Stafford’s absence. The Lions would obviously really like Stafford to play every game this year, but they can feel comfortable knowing that they have a backup who isn’t all that bad.
Even though the passing attack is solid, the offensive line likely won’t be helping out Stafford and Co. enough in 2011. Left tackle Jeff Backus is decent, but you don’t want your best offensive lineman to be just “decent”. Left guard Rob Sims is poor, Dominic Raiola is mediocre, Stephen Pearman was great in 2009 but was awful last year, and Gosder Cherilus is extremely close to being considered a bust. They are subpar in pass protection and are a horrible run blocking unit.
I count seven players on the Lions’ defensive line who can make a sizeable impact. Collectively, they are one of the best three defensive lines in the entire league. Cliff Avril is far too underrated, and he is the best pass rusher on this line (better than Suh and Vanden Bosch). Avril is athletic and explosive, and he is one of the best third down pass rushers in the game. Lawrence Jackson is a capable backup, and Kyle Vanden Bosch is the veteran who everybody loves.
On the interior, rookie Nick Fairley figures to make an impact behind veteran starter Corey Williams. I am glad that the Lions chose to start Williams over Fairley, even though Fairley has more hype. Last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh is one of the best interior pass rushers in the game, but he definitely needs to work on his run-stopping ability. Sammie Lee Hill will rotate in frequently and is an overlooked player who was terrific last year after a terrible 2009 campaign.
In yet another productive offseason, the Lions completely revamped their linebackers and no longer have one of the worst back sevens in the league. They still have an awful secondary, but they now have a very nice looking group of LBs. Expert run-stopper/tackling machine Stephen Tulloch was signed as a free agent, as well as another great run-stuffing linebacker in Justin Durant. One of those two players will likely be a 2 down linebacker, and that guy is probably going to be Durant. Neither of these two can cover at all, but both are very valuable linebackers.
I have no idea why Chris Houston is currently listed as the starter over Eric Wright. Right now, Wright is the team’s only solid corner. He’s a pretty good player, but I can’t say the same for Houston. Alphonso Smith is listed as the other starter, but Smith is terrible. He can make big plays from time to time, but he is absolutely terrible in coverage. He gambles all the time, and his backup- Nathan Vasher- is even worse. Remember when Vasher used to be good though?
Free Safety Louis Delmas is a little overrated, but he’s still a good player overall. Jim Schwartz says that Amari Spievey is poised to break out next year, and the Lions better hope that he does. They need some more production out of their secondary; although a good season from Spievey will never negate terrible cornerback play.
The Lions have made progress, but they are an overrated team. I think they’re going to end up being 8-8 at best, and I don’t see them making the playoffs. However, they will be a playoff team if they make serious upgrades in the secondary and add a solid tackle and guard to the offensive line.