|Ndamukong Suh should have a bounce-back season, but could use help from the secondary. (Getty Images)|
It's not often the chic team in July turns out to be a good team in January, but the Detroit Lions pulled that off in 2011.
The Lions were picked by many to be a team on the rise before the season and lived up to the hype by earning a playoff berth.
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Now comes the hard part: Getting better to win the NFC North, which is a tough task with the Green Bay Packers in the division.
The Lions have to improve a defense that ranked 23rd last season, including 30th in rushing yards per attempt, before they can be a real Super Bowl threat.
The offense is in good hands with Matthew Stafford at quarterback throwing to Calvin Johnson, but they played way too many shootouts in 2011. The draft has to be focused on improving that defense and also improving the running game on offense.
QB: Stafford finally stayed healthy in 2011 and he lived up to the expectations for a top overall pick. He threw for over 4,000 yards and showed he can carry an offense on his right arm. Stafford is a big-armed passer who has a great feel for the big play. The Lions were fourth in passing last season with very little help from the running game. The backup is Shaun Hill, who has been a starter at times during his career. Hill has shown he is capable of playing well for short periods of time. But it sure must be nice for the Lions to know they have a young star passer in Stafford.
RB:There is a lot of uncertainty at this position because of injury issues. Jahvid Best has concussion issues that could jeopardize his career. Mikel Leshoure missed his rookie season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in August. He is expected back, but how much will the injury impact his ability to return to his old form? Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams and Jerome Harrison are the reserves. If Best can't play, look for the Lions to maybe draft a back at some point.
WR: In Calvin Johnson, the Lions have one of the best receivers in the NFL. He is a big target who can jump over corners and has the long stride to get deep. He is a cover nightmare for a secondary, even when they double him. Nate Burleson is a steady starter opposite him, but look for more from Titus Young in 2012. He flashed as a rookie and an off-season will really help him. There's not much after those three. Stefan Logan is more valuable as a return man.
TE: Brandon Pettigrew is a nice target for Stafford in the middle of the field. He's not a great down-the-field threat, but he's capable of sitting down in the zone or beating safeties and linebackers in man coverage. Tony Scheffler is a nice pass-catching compliment when they go to a two-tight formation. Will Heller is the third tight end.
OL: This is an area of the team that needs an upgrade. Left tackle Jeff Backus played better last season and will return after re-signing with the team. He is getting up in the years, so that has to be a concern. Right tackle Gosder Cherlius, a former first-round pick, is just OK, although he did improve last season. The interior of the line -- center Dominic Raiola and guards Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims -- is solid if not special. Raiola can sometimes have problems with big people on his nose. The backups are raw with little playing experience. Look for the Lions to draft a player early in the draft on the offensive line.
DL: The defensive line has a lot of talent, led by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But he wasn't as good last season as he was as a rookie. Teams used his aggressive approach against him way too much. It didn't help that he got labeled a dirty player. He is a still a top talent, so expect a bounce-back season from him. Nick Fairley flashed late as a rookie and should be the starter next to Suh. He is a strong, quick player. Corey Williams started last season, but I would imagine Fairley will take his spot. If he does, Williams will join Sammie Lee Hill to give the Lions one of the best inside groups in the NFL. Cliff Avril is a pass-rush force on the outside. The team did the wise thing by putting the franchise tag on him. Kyle Vanden Bosch plays hard, but he isn't as good as his reputation. Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young provide nice sparks off the bench at end.
LB: The Lions re-signed free agent Stephen Tulloch to play middle linebacker. He was very good after signing a one-year deal last year. Tulloch is a good run player who was better against the pass than expected. DeAndre Levy moved to the outside with Tulloch in the lineup. Levy didn't play as well as he did in the middle. Justin Durant, who also came over as a free agent, added some much-needed speed. There isn't much in reserve, although they like some of the younger players.
DB:This was a problem area all season for the Lions in 2011. And now they have to move on without Eric Wright, one of their starting corners who signed with the Bucs. That leaves either Alphonso Smith or Aaron Berry in as the starter for now with Chris Houston on the other side. Berry really struggled when he played last season. They need help here in the worst way. Louis Delmas is solid at free safety, but Amari Spievey really struggled at strong safety. They need to be better on the back end. Erik Coleman and John Wendling are the top reserves.