It probably shouldn't come as any surprise the Lions are going to walk into 2012 with the same strengths and the same ultimately fatal weakness they had at the close of the 2011 season. After all, they returned 21 of 22 starters and made no major offseason acquisitions.
"Just because we have a nucleus of players doesn't mean the nucleus is stagnant," president Tom Lewand said. "The nucleus continues to develop. There's no question we have a lot of progress to make, but we have the raw materials to do that."
On offense, yes; but on defense, that's debatable.
Powered by the arm of quarterback Matthew Stafford and the hands and legs of a diverse group of receivers led by Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson, the offense should again be one of the most productive in the league. Even if they don't significantly improve the run game -- and with Jahvid Best out until at least Week 6 and Mikel Leshoure suspended for the first two games, the jury is still out -- the Lions can still light up a scoreboard.
And they will have to. Because the secondary is still full of holes and question marks.
Some eight months since they were rudely expelled from the playoffs by the Saints, through the draft and free agency, through a full offseason program and now through three-fourths of the exhibition season, the secondary is still in disarray.
Has there been even the slightest bit of evidence to suggest tangible improvement?
You certainly couldn't see any Saturday watching Carson Palmer and Terrell Pryor pick it apart in the third exhibition game last week. It was grossly reminiscent, actually, of the late-season losses to Green Bay and New Orleans -- playing without Louis Delmas (knee) and Chris Houston (ankle), watching Alphonso Smith gamble and get beat, watching rookies (Bill Bentley and Jonte Green) and castoffs (Jacob Lacey, Justin Miller) scuffle.
The uncertainty will carry into the regular season.
Who knows when Delmas is going to be ready to play? He hasn't practiced since having his right knee surgically cleaned up on Aug. 7. Coach Jim Schwartz last week said Delmas wasn't even ready to be on a progression toward returning. That didn't seem to bode well for his return for Week 1.
With Delmas down and Amari Spievey's mysterious regression, the Lions have essentially started from scratch at the safety spot.
Veterans Erik Coleman and John Wendling have outperformed expectations. Coleman, especially, has been solid and Wendling, a career special teams ace, has been a revelation. That most likely will be the starting duo.
And you would be hard-pressed to call them an upgrade over any duo that included Delmas.
The depth is shaky, too. Spievey, who had some good moments as a starter last season, is playing as tentatively as he did his rookie season two years ago. He has not been the same player since late last season when he tried to play through an injured ankle and then suffered a concussion against the Saints.
Veteran Sean Jones, brought in to compete for a starting spot, was a clanging disappointment and was cut on Monday. Reshard Langford, signed just last week, and second-year Ricardo Silva have had to log a lot of playing time.
And then there's the cornerback spot. As much as Lions' nation was holding its breath when Stafford went down with a broken blood vessel in his non-throwing hand last Saturday, it was Houston's ankle injury that put a rock in the coaching staff's stomach.
The Lions have no band-aide big enough to cover any extended absence of Houston, no matter how dominating the defensive line plays. They are having a hard enough time trying to fill the right cornerback spot vacated first by Eric Wright (lost in free agency) and then Aaron Berry (contract terminated).
Houston did not practice this week and Schwartz is hopeful he will be ready for Week 1, but there are no guarantees. In the meantime, the Lions gave up a conditional draft pick on Tuesday for cornerback Kevin Barnes, who was about to be released by the Redskins.
He will be given every chance to start at right corner. Presently, rookie Bill Bentley is holding that job. He won't play in the final exhibition game because of a shoulder injury.
So, general manager Martin Mayhew still has some work to do, but don't expect any miracles. Top end corners and safeties don't typically fall out of the sky. If there was an unsigned free agent available that Mayhew thought could help, he would have signed him by now.
There will be plenty of defensive backs released or be made available for trade between now and Week 1. Whether any of them could step in and help is the question. Mayhew has traditionally done some of his best prospecting at this time of year. He'll need to do it again.
Jim Schwartz, fourth year, 18-26.
2011 record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North); lost in wild-card game to the Saints, 45-28.
2012 regular season record, 9-7 (third in the NFC North). No playoffs.
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