In a surprising development, the Detroit Lions finished yet another season below .500 and out of the NFL Playoffs. But, at 7-9, it was their best record of Matt Millen's tenure. Is this a sign of genuine improvement, or simply a high-water mark that won't be reached again? If you are a Lions fan, you probably already know the answer. I'm going to take a position-by-position look at the team, first offense, then tomorrow defense, to see what Detroit can do this spring.
Dan Orlovsky, restricted free agent
Unrestricted FA- J.T. O'Sullivan
This is one of the most uninspiring crop of quarterbacks in the league. While Kitna is certainly not awful (he completed over 60% of his passes the past two years), he turns the ball over far too many times to be a starting QB. He has thrown more INTs than TDs the last two years and will be 36 when the 2008 season starts. A 36-year-old might be okay for a team actually in contention, but Kitna offers nothing to a team like Detroit. We should be building for the future, developing younger players. Instead, as Lions' management continues to inform us, Kitna will once again be our starter in '08. What could it hurt to try Stanton or Orlovsky? Although, I'm not as high on Orlovsky as I once was, considering he couldn't beat out J.T. O'Sullivan for the backup spot last season. Stanton should be given every opportunity to win the starting spot in camp. A young, mobile QB like Stanton would be great for the Lions. Behind our putrid offensive line, someone with Stanton's legs would be much more useful than Kitna (sacked 114 times in two years). Look for Detroit to go into camp with Kitna and Stanton 1-2, but don't I anticipate Stanton getting a fair shot.
UFA- Aveion Cason, Tatum Bell, T.J. Duckett
When healthy and used properly, Jones is one of the best backs in the league, I firmly believe that. Unfortunately, he's only played one full season, in 2004. When active, OC Mike Martz frequently overlooked him for the passing game. But, in the five games that Jones got 15+ carries in 2007, he averaged 87.4 yds. He's proven he can catch the ball out of the backfield, with 61 catches in 2006. It's his injuries and Martz's offense that have held him back. If healthy, and without Martz, Jones can put up 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. But, the Lions will need a soldi backup as insurance. Our other young back, Brian Calhoun, has also been injury-prone however. He's played 11 games in two years since coming out of Wisconsin. He's a decent guy to keep around for returns and third-down plays because of his speed, but we can't count on him much longer. Look for the Lions to bring back Duckett as Jones' backup. His size is a perfect complement to Jones and Calhoun. Something changed with Duckett in 2007. He resurrected his career, averaging over five yds/carry for the first time as a pro. Even with Duckett, we should still look at drafting a back in the middle rounds because of Jones' and Calhoun's injury history. I can't see Martz favorite Cason sticking around, same with Bell. He has good talent, but something never clicked with him and the Lions' management. Chalk that one up as another bust for Millen: Dre Bly for Tatum Bell and George Foster? What did that get us? Foster was in and out of the lineup and Bell was inactive most of the year. All of this while Bly started all year for the Broncos.
At fullback, a position neglected by Martz, we have former D-lineman Jon Bradley and H-back Sean McHugh. Neither is a typical fullback, but combined the two are productive enough. Bradley is a bruising blocker that is good for short-yardage situations. McHugh is more of a pass-catcher at 6'5". Depending on which direction our new offense goes, we may need to pick up a more traditional FB, but for now, I like the platoon we have.
FA- Troy Walters
On paper, this is a terrific wideout crew. We have a solid possession receiver in Mike Furrey, a guy who can over the middle in Roy Williams, and a deep threat in Calvin Johnson. We then have the requisite scatbacks, return-types in Middleton and Ellis. McDonald is expected to be traded this offseason as we look to clear the logjam at the position. Our new offense doesn't seem to require the same amount of receivers, so McDonald is expendable. Really, this group doesn't require much tinkering. Williams is rumored to be leaving after the season when is contract is up, so we might draft a WR in later rounds, but we have much greater needs elsewhere. With Johnson healthy, he and Williams should form a potent combo.
Another position overlooked by the Martz offense. These guys did their job adequately enough in limited time, but as full starters, they might not cut it. Campbell is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, but missed the majority of last season with an injury. FitzSimmons is also primarily a blocking TE and special teams player. I would love to see us pick up a TE that can actually catch, but I'm not counting on it. Again, we have bigger needs on both lines and in the secondary. A TE who can stretch the middle of the field would be amazing for our wideout crew, but for now, having two great blockers might be more beneficial considering our porous offensive line.
FA- Barry Stokes, George Foster
FA - Damien Woody
Right now, our starting line would look like this
Not exactly the mid-90s Cowboys is it? I don't see Woody coming back. He never fulfilled his potential as a free agent and bounced between tackle, guard, and the bench the last couple years. Our tackles are merely serviceable. Backus is nothing special, certainly not worthy of his first-round selection. Scott was injured for the last month of 2007, but would likely have taken over for Foster if not for that. For a Lions' 5th-round pick, Scott has proven to be quite a surprise. I would be shocked if he wasn't our best lineman in 2008. Raiola is probably our best at this point, but that's more of a default choice than anything else. He has played every game since being drafted in 2001, being consistently average or so. Compared to the rest of the people who have lined up around him, that's pretty good. Our guard position has been fluctuating for years now without any consistent play. Mulitalo somewhat solidified the LG spot in 2007. He was an anchor on Baltimore's line for years, but he's near the end of the line now at age 34. I'd like to see the Lions develop a younger guard here for 2009. On the right side, Peterman was a surprise last year. After being a 3rd-rd pick of Dallas in 2004, he experienced injuries and never got a fair chance. Coming to Detroit, he spent most of 2006 on the practice squad. Then, last year he started 13 games. He was an All-American at LSU his senior year, so he certainly has the ability. I need to see Peterman win the job with a full camp after taking over during the season because there were no other options. In the offseason, the Lions need to add depth, especially at the tackles. Even as a Michigan guy, I can't see Backus as a starting tackle for a playoff contender. I've heard rumors about signing the Jaguars' Maurice Williams, a solid guy who could play both sides. He would be a good addition, but I worry Millen will overpay.
With new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto, we should have a more balanced offense. Our receivers are the best part of this team, but we need to establish a running game as well. That way, Kitna isn't getting blitzed every down. Jones and Calhoun have the talent to get yards if healthy and given carries. But, it's tough to get excited about those guys when you know the man running the offense is Kitna. He's a 36-year-old who has never proven himself to be a playoff quarterback. He's a great backup because he has the ability to throw a few TDs and move an offense. But, over a full season, he turns the ball over far too often and doesn't know when to throw the ball away. This is getting depressing fast, so we'll take a break and go after the defense tomorrow.