How soon will that change produce real results? Will it ever? The Patriots will get a first-hand look, visiting Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, just four days after another epic showdown with the Colts. It’s hard to say where the Lions will be then, but to look at them now, we’ve enlisted Detroit News reporter John Niyo (check out his work here and here) for help in Part 10 of our pre-camp series …
Where they’re good: The defensive line still has questions at defensive end. Can a healhty Kyle Vanden Bosch regain the form he had in Tennessee when he was playing alongside Albert Haynesworth? Is this finally a breakout year for Cliff Avril? And if a starter goes down, is there enough depth there to apply pressure in a division where the opposing QBs are Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler? But with the addition of No. 2 pick Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams (acquired from Cleveland via trade), the interior of the line suddenly packs a punch. And that’s a big key for a team trying to protect a suspect secondary.
Like a lot of teams, the Lions plan to use more two-tight end sets on offense. The April trade that sent linebacker Ernie Sims to Philadelphia brought in a big, pass-catching tight end in Tony Scheffler who’ll create matchup problems for opposing defenses when paired with last year’s rookie first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew. Don’t be surprised if Scheffler posts the kind of numbers he did in Denver in 2007-08 with Jay Cutler.
The big camp questions: Is rookie first-round pick Jahvid Best really ready to be a featured NFL back? The Lions’ coaching staff threw the entire playbook at him this spring, and the hope is he’ll prove to be a do-it-all runner and receiver from Day 1. There’s little doubt his big-play ability will help a team that managed only five rushes of 20 yards or more last season. (Two of those belonged to quarterbacks.) But with last year’s starter, Kevin Smith, coming off ACL surgery, and given the durability concerns about Best coming out of college, can the rookie handle a full load?
Smith and Pettigrew, who also suffered a torn ACL last season, both appeared to be progressing well in their injury rehab this spring and are expected to be ready for the start of the season. But the injury front — safeties Ko Simpson and Daniel Bullocks and cornerback Jack Williams also are coming off major knee surgeries — will be a key storyline in camp.
Simpson, acquired in a preseason trade last fall, emerged as the starting strong safety last season. But he was a bystander during OTAs, and it’s anyone’s guess who’ll lay claim to the starting job opposite Louis Delmas, one of the league’s better young defensive playmakers. The Lions opted not to bid for free agent O.J. Atogwe this spring, but if one of the veterans — C.C. Brown was brought in after the Giants cut him loose — doesn’t step up, one of last year’s glaring holes for a league-worst defense remains unfilled.
This needs to happen to win big: Matthew Stafford needs to stay healthy to lead an offense that suddenly shows signs of life. Last year’s rookie No. 1 overall pick had his season derailed by a knee injury in Week 4. And while his miracle finish to beat Cleveland with a separated shoulder cemented his status as a gamer, it effectively ended his season. A full offseason has helped Stafford build some chemistry with No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson and newly-acquired Nate Burleson. And with the other new pieces — Best and Scheffler — there’s reason to believe this offense could put up some points in 2010. But it’s going to take a lot of big plays for this team to win big.
Where they stack up: Measuring the Lions’ progress is difficult, mostly because it can’t get any worse. This is a franchise that has just two games combined the last two seasons, and only three of their last 40 dating to 2007. They’re 33-111 since 2001, the start of Matt Millen’s eight-year run as team president. But while the offense might make them more competitive and the upgraded front four should help them avoid big early deficits, it’s hard to see this team winning more than five or six games in a tough NFC North division.