In their first season under new head coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions improved, but not by much. The team that set an NFL record for ineptitude with a winless season a year earlier tallied two victories in 2009 as they produced the league’s worst statistical defense and the 26th-ranked offense. They even lost to the only team picking ahead of them in the 2010 draft, becoming the lone win of the 1-15 St. Louis Rams.
But fear not, Detroit, for your future lies in the hands of a bright young passer named Matthew Stafford. The rookie QB was handed the reins out of the starting gate and showed leadership and toughness beyond his age. He went through all the growing pains expected out of a young quarterback, throwing 20 interceptions in 10 games, but flashed the talent that convinced the Lions to make him the top pick in the 2009 draft. At one point, he returned to a game after suffering a shoulder injury and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to lift the Lions past Cleveland in legendary fashion.
This offseason, Detroit will continue to overhaul a roster that was one of the NFL’s most talent-depleted groups. They’ve already begun adding pieces through free agency, signing defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch to a four-year, $26 million deal. He’s expected to increase the effectiveness of a defensive unit that registered the fourth-lowest number of sacks in 2009. They further strengthened a front four that allowed the eighth-most rushing yards per game by acquiring versatile defensive tackle Corey Williams in a trade with the Browns, then traded for former Falcon Chris Houston to help sure up the secondary.
In his first draft as general manager, Martin Mayhew added a group of prospects whose early returns look promising. He grabbed a franchise quarterback in Stafford and a defensive leader in safety Louis Delmas. He also added quality young talent in tight end Brandon Pettigrew, linebacker DeAndre Levy and defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Mayhew will look to continue rebuilding this franchise with another strong performance this April.
Many experts are projecting the Lions to select a franchise left tackle with the second overall pick, but think again. That spot’s occupied by Jeff Backus, a solid and consistent player who’s started every game for Detroit the past nine seasons. “He was consistent from start to finish,” Schwartz said. “He’s available for every single game. He was our best run-blocker this year … We had issues on this team, but left tackle wasn’t one of them.’’ Backus is highly underrated and very well liked by the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan went as far as to say, “He’s a reason we have a chance on Sundays.’’
The Lions have seven draft choices with selections in every round except the sixth. They currently hold picks No. 2, 34, 66, 100, 133, 214 and 255. Mayhew’s focus this year should be to continue reconstructing a defense that gave up 494 points last season, the fourth-highest total in league history.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None
TRANSITION PLAYER: None
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: TE Will Heller (re-signed for three years), S Marquand Manuel (re-signed for one year), T Jon Jansen (re-signed for one year at $860,000), LB Vinny Ciurciu (re-signed for one year), CB Anthony Henry (was not re-signed), QB Patrick Ramsey (was not re-signed), CB Williams James (was not re-signed), LB Larry Foote (was not re-signed, signed with Pittsburgh), QB Daunte Culpepper (was not re-signed), T Damion Cook (was not re-signed)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DE Jason Hunter (received second-round tender at $1.759 million and signed offer sheet), S Daniel Bullocks (received original-round tender at $1.176 million), CB Kevin Hobbs (received right of first refusal tender at $1.101 million and signed offer sheet), S Ko Simpson (received original-round tender at $1.176 million and signed offer sheet), G Dylan Gandy (received original-round tender at $1.176 million, G Daniel Loper (received right of first refusal tender at $1.226 million and signed offer sheet), G Manny Ramirez (received original-round tender at $1.101 million and signed offer sheet), DE Copeland Bryan (was not tendered, but re-signed as unrestricted free agent), LB Cody Spencer (was not tendered)
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: RB Cedric Peerman (received one-year tender and signed offer sheet), G Corey Hilliard (received one-year tender and signed offer sheet), TE Jake Nordin (received one-year tender and signed offer sheet), LB Zack Follett (received one-year tender and signed offer sheet), CB DeAngelo Smith (received one-year tender and signed offer sheet)
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: TE Will Heller, S Marquand Manuel, T Jon Jansen, LB Vinny Ciurciu, DE Jason Hunter, S Daniel Bullocks, CB Kevin Hobbs, S Ko Simpson, G Dylan Gandy, G Daniel Loper, G Manny Ramirez, DE Copeland Bryan, RB Cedric Peerman, G Corey Hilliard, TE Jake Nordin, LB Zack Follet, CB DeAngelo Smith, DE Jared DeVries (cut, then re-signed for one year at $1.7 million)
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: RB DeDe Dorsey, LB Landon Johnson (signed for one year), DT Corey Williams (via trade with Cleveland), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (signed for four years at $26 million), WR Nate Burleson (signed for five years at $25 million), G Rob Sims (via trade with Seattle), QB Shaun Hill (via trade with San Francisco), WR Brian Clark, CB Jonathan Wade (signed for one year), CB Chris Houston (via trade with Atlanta), CB Dante Wesley (signed for two years)
PLAYERS LOST: CB Phillip Buchanon (signed with Washington), DE Dewayne White, DT Grady Jackson, DE Robert Henderson (via trade with Seattle), LB Larry Foote, QB Daunte Culpepper, T Damion Cook, LB Cody Spencer
CORNERBACK — The Lions defense ranked dead last against the pass last season. In his rookie campaign, Louis Delmas was the only bright spot in a pitiful group. The team parted ways with their top two cornerbacks, Will James and Phillip Buchanon, in the offseason and acquired Chris Houston from the Falcons in a trade. However, Atlanta was desperate for cornerback help and was still willing to give up Houston, which should tell you something about his effectiveness. Detroit plays in a division that features Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and, in all likelihood, Brett Favre. They need to upgrade the secondary if they expect to compete with the NFC North’s passing attacks.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE — Detroit allowed the eighth-most rushing yards per game in 2009 and released starter Grady Jackson in the offseason. Sammie Hill was a nice find in the fourth round last April, and Corey Williams was acquired in the offseason, but they could still use more help. Adrian Peterson gashed Detroit for a 6.8 yard per carry average in two games last year. The Lions lack quality depth and need a dominant inside presence. Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy have already visited the team, and the popular belief is that Detroit will opt to select Suh with the second overall pick.
DEFENSIVE END — Kyle Vanden Bosch was signed in the offseason, but he’s been largely ineffective throughout his career without a dominant Albert Haynesworth playing next to him. In fact, he collected just three sacks last season, his lowest total in five years. Cliff Avril’s been decent in his first two seasons, but an edge rushing end who can pressure the quarterback is a critical need.
RUNNING BACK — Detroit’s rushing attack ranked 24th last season, as the team averaged 101.0 yards per game on the ground. Kevin Smith wasn’t explosive to begin with and is now coming of an ACL tear. Maurice Morris remains on the roster, but he’s no more than a backup. The Lions desperately need a dynamic back to jump start the rushing attack and take pressure off Stafford. The draft isn’t overly deep at the position, so expect the Lions to spend an early round draft pick on an explosive runner.