After compiling a 31-84 record during his seven-plus years as general manager, Matt Millen was finally, mercifully fired three weeks into the 2008 season. The Lions proceeded to drop their next 13 games, completing the first 0-16 season in league history. They’ll be better in 2009 – they have to be, right? – but it’s going to take some time to clean up this mess.
OFFENSE (#30 total yardage, #30 rushing, #24 passing, #27 scoring):
Jim Schwartz, who spent the last eight seasons as Jeff Fisher’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee, takes on the monumental task of trying to turn around the worst team in the league. For now, he’s sticking with the fundamentals: “You build teams to run the football and to stop the run,” Schwartz said when he was hired. “I know that Ford Field is a great place to play, but I think that when you start a team, particularly in the NFC North, you’ve got to be built for January football, December football, and you’ve got to be big and strong and be able to run and stop the run. You’re going to play an important game in Green Bay in December, or you’re going to play an important game in Chicago in January or in the Meadowlands. I think you need to be built that way.”
So, naturally, the Lions used the first overall pick in the draft on a quarterback, Georgia’s Matthew Stafford. More Millen-style madness? Considering that after Jon Kitna went on injured reserve early in the 2008 season, they finished the year with Daunte Culpepper and Dan Orlovsky at the top of the depth chart, perhaps taking a chance on a potential franchise quarterback isn’t such a bad idea. Stafford and Culpepper were locked in a close race to see who would begin the season as the starter, but that competition may have ended when Culpepper injured his toe last weekend. Combined with Drew Stanton’s third serious injury in as many years, Detroit was forced to bring in free agent Brooks Bollinger to make sure they had enough signal-callers to get through the final preseason game, and the team also put in a waiver claim on former Patriots backup Kevin O’Connell. No matter who else they bring in, though, the job will belong to Stafford sooner or later.
If the rookie is smart, he’ll be throwing the ball to Calvin Johnson early and often. The 6-5, 236-pound Johnson was one of the few bright spots in Detroit’s dismal 2008 season, catching 78 passes for 1,331 yards and a league-leading 12 touchdowns. Bryant Johnson, signed as a free agent after a mediocre year in San Francisco, will start on the other side, with Dane Looker, John Standeford, and third-round pick Derrick Williams (Penn State) all making a bid for playing time while Dennis Northcutt is out with an thumb injury. The Lions used the first-round pick they received from Dallas in the Roy Williams trade to select tight end Brandon Pettigrew (Oklahoma State), but so far, he’s stuck behind veterans Will Heller and Casey FitzSimmons on the depth chart.
The running game actually improved slightly from the year before, but that’s not much of a compliment; four running backs finished with more than the 1,332 yards compiled by the entire Lions team. That said, third-round pick Kevin Smith proved he could carry the load as a featured back, averaging 4.1 yards per carry on the way to a 976-yard, eight-touchdown rookie season. Longtime Seahawk Maurice Morris was signed to back him up, and Detroit also added fullback Terrelle Smith (Arizona).
Considering the massive turnover on the roster since Millen’s departure, it’s remarkable that four of last year’s starters return from an offensive line which allowed more than 50 sacks for the third straight season. The only change is at left guard, where former Titans backup Daniel Loper was signed to replace Edwin Mulitalo. Now in his ninth year with the team, Jeff Backus has never missed a start at left tackle; center Dominic Raiola’s consecutive-games streak was almost as long, but a broken hand ended it at 104 last November. Guard Stephen Peterman and 2008 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus anchor the right side.
DEFENSE (#32 total yardage, #32 rushing, #27 passing, #32 scoring):
After finishing at the bottom of the league rankings in both yardage and points for the second consecutive season, the Lions obviously needed a massive upgrade in talent. And if things weren’t bad enough, left end Jared DeVries, one of the few veterans worth keeping around, ruptured his Achilles’ tendon during training camp and is gone for the season. Former Packers special-teamer Jason Hunter is listed atop the depth chart in DeVries’ stead, but don’t be surprised to see Cliff Avril get a significant amount of playing time; the 2008 third-round pick led all rookies with 5.0 sacks last season, second only to right end Dewayne Wright (6.5). Chuck Darby returns at one tackle spot, but Shaun Cody departed for Houston in the offseason, so Detroit signed free agents Grady Jackson (Falcons) and Shaun Smith (Browns) to bolster the rotation.
How bad were Millen’s drafts? From 2002-06, the Lions selected a total of 39 players. Following Wednesday’s release of cornerback Keith Smith, weakside linebacker Ernie Sims is the only one still on the active roster. Think about that for a minute: ONE player left out of 39. (By comparison, the Bills still have 13 players from that five-year period, including seven projected starters.) DT Cory Redding and 2009 fifth-round pick were sent to Seattle for three-time All-Pro Julian Peterson, and former Steeler Larry Foote takes over in the middle.
Starting cornerbacks Leigh Bodden, Brian Kelly, and Travis Fisher combined for just one of Detroit’s league-worst four interceptions last season, with Kelly, one of Rod Marinelli’s Tampa Bay guys, barely making it to October before being benched. Predictably, all three are now elsewhere. To replace them, the Jon Kitna trade brought Anthony Henry from the Cowboys, and well-traveled Phillip Buchanon was signed to start on the other side. (Neither is likely to play against Buffalo, though, so expect to see old friend Eric King get plenty of work.) Strong safety Kalvin Pearson, yet another former Buccaneer, was the team’s Defensive MVP last season. With last year’s starter, Daniel Bullocks, on IR, veteran Marquand Manuel and second-round pick Louis Delmas (Western Michigan) are battling for the free safety job.
How much longer can Jason Hanson continue to kick? For the second consecutive year, he’s missed part of the preseason with a leg injury. Billy Cundiff was signed to fill in while the 39-year-old Hanson recuperates from knee surgery, but the Lions are hoping the 18-year veteran is ready to resume his duties for the season opener. Punter Nick Harris returns for his seventh season with the team, and is averaging an impressive 46.2 yards per kick.
The coverage teams actually improved from horrible to mediocre last season, but still allowed two punt-return touchdowns, and the Browns’ lethal Josh Cribbs toasted them for another one two weeks ago. Wide receivers Shaun McDonald and Brandon Middleton handled most of the return duties last season. Neither is still on the roster, so Buchanon and Northcutt are the likely candidates for the punt-return job, while backup running backs Aveion Cason and rookie Aaron Brown have been splitting time on kickoffs.
Some positions seem to be set, but there’s plenty of room for movement at others, with some veterans potentially on their way out of town.
QB: Trent Edwards faced the best defense in the league last week, and the outcome wasn’t pretty. For his mental well-being – as well as the fans’ – he could use a touchdown drive or two against the Lions. Will the Bills keep three quarterbacks? Remember that Gibran Hamdan used up his practice squad eligibility last season.
RB: Since Marshawn Lynch is done for three weeks following this game and Fred Jackson is favoring a sore wrist, might as well give Beast Mode some carries to tide him over until Week 4. The only roster decision here seems to be between Xavier Omon and fullback Cory McIntyre.
WR: Putting James Hardy on the in-season PUP list gives him extra time to continue rehabbing his knee, and probably saves a roster spot for special-teamer Justin Jenkins.
TE: Throughout the preseason, fans have been wondering how the Bills could keep Jonathan Stupar ... and how they could possibly afford to release him. Derek Fine’s latest injury may make that a moot point, but the way I see it, Stupar deserves a place on the 53-man roster anyway.
OL: Still more questions than answers with this group, which may not bode well for the first half of the season. If the team truly was considering making a switch at left tackle, Demetrius Bell’s back injury couldn’t have happened at a worse time. And do they really trust the rookie guards to be ready for prime time?
DL: This just in: looks like Aaron Maybin was worth waiting for. With him on one side and Chris Ellis continuing to improve on the other, the Bills may just be able to mount a pass rush even if Aaron Schobel is slow to recover from his elbow injury. (Imagine that ... a Bills pass rush. It’s been a while.) Copeland Bryan may be the odd man out, despite his strong play during the preseason. Marcus Stroud, Kyle Williams, and Spencer Johnson give the team a decent top three at tackle, but is John McCargo still in their plans?
LB: As expected, Pat Thomas didn’t make the cut, leaving the kids to battle for the backup spots. Despite the high ankle sprain which kept Ashlee Palmer out for a few weeks, has the Bills coaching staff seen enough of him to keep him on the 53-man roster, or will they try to sneak him through to the practice squad? Nic Harris is a lock and Marcus Buggs also appears relatively safe, so the sixth spot is up for grabs between Jon Corto and Alvin Bowen. Do the Bills want special teams experience or raw potential? Guess we’ll find out on cutdown day.
DB: Reggie Corner already appeared to be winning the nickel job before Drayton Florence’s knee injury, but the veteran was playing well enough to hold onto a roster spot. Ellis Lankster makes five. With Donte Whitner, Bryan Scott, Jairus Byrd, and special-teams captain George Wilson in front of them, both Ko Simpson and John Wendling could be in trouble. (In fact, in my opinion, Simpson’s as good as gone. Of course, your mileage may vary.)
See you in Lot 1.
Welcome to the Blogosphere:
ESPN AFC East | NFC North
MLive.com Lions coverage – Tom Kowalski, Detroit’s HOF voter
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Detroit Free Press Lions blog – Nicholas J. Cotsonika, beat writer
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive (dot)com.
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