Lions draft needs: It starts with a healthy Stafford

by | Senior Writer

When you put out an APB on teams that could surprise this season, I suggest you start with Detroit. The Lions lost 18 players to injured reserve last season, yet still won their final four -- including defeats of Green Bay and Tampa Bay.

They're young. They're talented. And they're due. The club hasn't had a winning season since 2000. Worse, it has gone 39-121 (.243) since and couldn't produce a single victory in 2008. That's not just bad. It stinks, with nobody worse over the past decade.

So, where's the hope? Well, start with quarterback Matt Stafford. If he can stay on the field, the Lions can stay in the picture. Stafford last season had six touchdown passes and one interception. He also had three starts. With wide receiver Calvin Johnson outside, tight end Brandon Pettigrew inside and Jahvid Best in the backfield, he's surrounded by weapons. But they don't fire if the quarterback doesn't show up for work, which is another way of saying this season rests on the shoulders of Stafford.

OK, so the club has issues with a porous defense -- particularly its back seven -- but that's where Stafford comes in. If he sticks around, the offense improves. And the more the offense improves the longer it stays on the field. And the longer it stays on the field, the less the defense ... I think you get the idea. If I'm a Lions fan, I pray for the health of Matt Stafford.

Five possibilities: Lions
Tyron Smith, OT, Southern California: He might be the best prospect at his position. He's young, he's raw but he has a ton of upside. In short, he's the perfect guy for Jeff Backus to mentor.
Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: When you play in a division with Aaron Rodgers you can never have enough cornerbacks. The Lions' secondary is weak. Help is needed.
Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri: Von Miller won't be here, so you try the next best option. Smith's stock has fallen, but the Lions have a glaring need at this position.
Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: With Backus turning 34 this season, the Lions must find someone to groom as the next bodyguard for Matt Stafford. Castonzo should be there when they pick.
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: The Lions need help at CB and OLB, but it drops off quickly after the top two. Tackle is deeper, and the Lions must find more protection for Stafford.
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QB: There's little doubt Stafford can excel at the pro level. The only question is: Can he last? He missed part of his rookie season with knee and shoulder injuries. Then he missed most of last season with another shoulder setback. In two seasons he missed more games (19) than he played (13), and yes that should be a concern. For now the Lions are saying they're not worried. Here's hoping they're right. Their future rests with him. "He doesn't have anything we expect to be issues in the future," said coach Jim Schwartz. Maybe he's right. Nevertheless, Stafford should be watched. The guy looks fragile, and quarterback is no place to play if you must be handled with care. Backups Shaun Hill is adequate but Stafford is the key to everything. If he isn't damaged ... that is, if he can play an entire season without something going wrong ... the Lions are in good shape here for a long, long time.

RB: There hasn't been a big-play threat here since Barry Sanders retired, but Jahvid Best might be that guy. He sure looked like it in the first two games last season when he scored five times. But then he hit the wall -- correction, his foot hit the wall -- and he was handicapped the rest of the season with turf-toe injuries. Not only did he fail to score another rushing touchdown; he scored once, period, the final 14 games. Nevertheless, the Lions liked what they saw, and it's easy to see why: Best is explosive, elusive and a threat to score from anywhere -- when he's healthy, of course. But he could use a reliable backup, and I don't see one here. With the Lions failing to tender Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris looks like the logical choice -- but he's nothing more than ordinary. Jerome Felton shows promise but he doesn't run with power. And that's what Detroit needs: Someone to move the pile. Depth is an issue here, which means the Lions are in the market for a third-day back.

WR: We had a Faceoff segment last season where Pete Prisco and I were asked which receiver we thought was the best in the game. I took Calvin Johnson, and I took him for a reason: Because he is. He has size. He's physical. His hands are sure. He's fast. He's virtually impossible to single cover. And he can score from anywhere. With second- and third-string quarterbacks aiming at him most of last season he still wound up with 77 catches for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns. Nate Burleson is a solid second receiver, but the depth drops off from there -- with kick returner Stefan Logan the most intriguing option. The Lions used him as a running back and wide receiver, and he was effective. Still, depth is needed.

TE: No need to apply here. Brandon Pettigrew is everything the club imagined, setting club single-season pass-catching records for his position. Pettigrew is one of the best young tight ends in the business, and he has a reliable backup in Tony Scheffler, whom the Lions sometimes used as a slot receiver. Both are known for their hands, while Will Heller is a solid blocker, with the Lions' rushing attack perking up when he was on the field.

OL: I can't remember a time when the Lions' offensive line wasn't an issue. When Matt Millen was GM he promised to make the club bigger, meaner and more effective on both sides of the ball but the plan never materialized. Instead, the offensive line had more holes than the Pistons' bench, with the Lions struggling to do something, anything, running and passing. Now, however, they look close. There is a lot of experience up front, with tackle Jeff Backus coming off his best season in years. Backus turns 34 in September, so the Lions can start grooming a replacement. But his play improved last year, and that probably has something to do with guard Rob Sims, who plugged a weak link that has been there for years. Dominic Raiola is rock solid at center, and the right side of the line could be OK -- provided, of course, that tackle Gosder Cherilus recovers from microfracture surgery for a season-ending knee injury. The Lions can always use depth with their offensive line, though Corey Hilliard looked decent as a backup tackle.

DL: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was regarded as the best player in the 2010 draft, and the Lions were fortunate that the team choosing ahead of them -- St. Louis -- wanted a quarterback more than Suh. A dominant defensive lineman, Suh not only was named to the Pro Bowl but was voted the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was also part of a defensive line that was as strong as it was consistent, with recent acquisitions Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosh providing boosts and defensive end Cliff Avril having the best season of his career. Behind the starters, Lawrence Jackson, Sammie Lee Hill and Willie Young are capable reserves at a position of strength. The biggest difference here was the pressure the Lions applied to quarterbacks -- 26 sacks in 2009, 44 in 2010, with Suh and Avril combining for 18½.

LB: The Lions ranked 24th vs. the run. OK, so the defensive line can take some of the heat there, but not most of it. Un this defense they're charged with getting to the quarterback while linebackers are responsible for running down opposing backs. They didn't, and they didn't because they weren't very good. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy was solid and is the only certainty to return ... but where? He could go inside or outside, and that's a reflection of how needy the Lions are at this position. Shortly after last season ended the club notified starting outside linebacker Julian Peterson that he wasn't needed. Then it released him in March. So there's one opening. Fan favorite Zack Follett is the other outside starter, though he was forced to step aside when he suffered a season-ending neck injury. The Lions re-signed him, but you have to wonder how he responds to a career-threatening injury. Landon Johnson replaced him last season, but the Lions probably make a change there. In either case, the Lions must upgrade the position -- and maybe Ashlee Palmer is the answer. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham seems to like him, and he's only 24. All I know is the unit must improve.

CB: Along with linebacker, this is the team's most pressing concern. The Lions surrendered way too many passing touchdowns, and that's a knock on a porous secondary. The first order of business is to re-sign Chris Houston, the team's best cornerback. Alphonso Smith, who underwent shoulder surgery, should start at the other position, but nothing here is set in stone -- nor should it be. The Lions absolutely, positively must get better. Smith is small and vulnerable (see Thanksgiving Day meltdown), but he has a knack for takeaways -- leading the Lions in interceptions with five. Neither backup Nathan Vasher nor Brandon McDonald is the answer, but Aaron Berry -- the starting nickel back until bowing out the first week of the season -- could be. Louis Delmas is a fixture at free safety, but there is nothing fixed about the strong-safety spot. Amari Spievey has talent, but he needs to develop. The Lions acquired C.C. Brown to mentor him, but he's not the solution, either. Plus, the Lions didn't tender him. I think you get the idea: Help is wanted.


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