old mother hubbard: the cornerbacks

>> 1.31.2009

Ever since Bryant Westbrook went down in the midst of a Pro Bowl-to-be season in 2000, the Lions have struggled to find quality cornerback play.  This situation looks like it's unlikely to change for 2009.

Leigh Bodden: When they traded Shaun Rogers for Cleveland CB Leigh Bodden and a third-round draft pick, it was hoped that the young (27) veteran could step in and cover opposing teams' top recievers.  While the Tampa 2 defense relies mostly on short zones--and asks its corners to step up and play run defense--Bodden is more of a traditional man-to-man cover corner.  Still, with his size (6'-1". 193), it was hoped that he'd be able to make a natural transition to the play of a Tampa 2 corner.

 . . . not so much.  Bodden seemed lost early on, neither playing well in coverage nor in run support.  Bodden quickly became a favorite target of the naysayers, especially as the huge hole in the middle of the defense became obvious.  However, in the middle of the season, the light started to go on.  Against Washington he had 8 tackles (7 solo), and in the first Minnesota game he had his sole interception (down from six in 2007).  That, by the way, was the ONLY interception registered by ANY Lions defensive back.  That is . . . that is horrible.

At the end of the season, it was obvious that Bodden disliked the defensive system he'd been shoehorned into--and the coaching staff who did the shoehorning:

“You've got to be unpredictable, and I feel like sometimes we were kind of too predictable in what we were calling -- and that costs you,” Bodden said. “If the offensive coordinator can pretty much tell what you're about to run, then he's going to beat whatever you have.”

Amen, Leigh.  Amen.  I still believe that Bodden is an extremely talented and confident young corner, and will almost certainly be a better starter in the new system than anyone else we can acquire, either through free agency or the draft.  However, Bodden will be due an $8.6 million roster bonus in March, and it seems unlikely that the Lions would want to exercise that bonus.  Most are treating his departure as a foregone conclusion, but don't be so sure--cornerback is probably the thinnest position on the roster.  Bottom line: a talented young cover corner in his prime, horribly misused in the T2, and probably out the door for contract reasons.  Should be excellent in 2009 whether he's here or somewhere else.

 Travis Fisher: Fisher is yet another constant target of Lions fans' ire, yet he's quite good at the things Tampa 2 corners must do: he's stout against the run and provides good short-zone coverage skills; in 2007 he had 78 tackles (60 solo) and two interceptions.  The problem is that he has neither the athleticism nor the deep speed to cover opposing teams' #2 wideouts.  In 2008, he had a very slow start, missed a few games with a knee injury, and then had a very slow finish as well.  I see Fisher as a good nickel back or situational short-zone corner, a guy who can tackle and jump slants.  However, the guy is regularly scorched on medium and deep routes.  I would say that we need to acquire a starter to replace him at #2 corner--yet if Boddenis cut, and he's re-signed, he'll be our #1 corner!


Bottom line: Fisher is cheap depth, forced into a starting role.  His "skills" are best suited to the Tampa 2 we won't be running anymore.  His contract is up, and he is due to be an unrestricted free agent.

Stanley Wilson:  A 2005 third-round draft pick, fourth-year speedster (and Stanford grad) Stanley Wilson exploded at the tail end 2006, earning a starting spot and the team's Chuck Hughes award for 'most improved player'.  It seemed like Wilson was well on his way, and began the 2007 season as the starting RCB.   While he had some great individual games (8 tackles against Chicago!), he was in and out of the lineup due to injury, eventually being put on IR after the Thanksgiving game.  in 2008, Wilson blew out his Achilles tendon in the first game of the preseason.  Wilson at this point is a totally unknown quantity . . . his youth, blazing speed (4.36 @ the combine), decent size (5'-11". 189), and his play at the end of 2006 points to a very bright future.  However, his inability to stay healthy, inconsistency, and the Tampa 2 scheme he played in make him an enigma.  Even if he rehabs to 100%, his contract is up--Wilson will be an unrestricted free agent.  Bottom line: Wilson is a bright and talented young man who can't stay healthy.  Moreover, his contract is up.  If he attracts little interest, the Lions may re-sign him to a "prove it"-type contract to see what he can do in the new scheme.

Ramzee Robinson:  Famous mostly for being the 2007 draft's Mr. Irrelevant, Robinson has been cut, assigned to the pratice squad, signed, cut, and assigned to the practice squad about 237 times in two years.  He got signed for good in the middle of 2008, and made a little noise on special teams and in the dime packages, getting 25 tackles.  As an Alabama starter with a little size to him (5'-10", 186#), Robinson should make the squad next year--due to attrition if nothing else.  Bottom line: a seventh-round draft pick with a smidge of upside, who ought to make the team next year.

Keith Smith: a third-round pick in the 2004 draft, Keith Smith has seen some time at nickel and dime, and has occasionally been pressed into starting duty when others have been injured.  Smith has never made much of an impact, and at age 28 he's probably peaked.  Smith played 10 games in 2008 before being placed on IR . . . he's a placeholder at best.  I believe he's an unrestricted free agent.  Bottom line: Smith never amounted to much, and if he somehow re-signs with the Lions will be strictly a cheap warm body.

SUMMARY:  The situation here is dire.  Bodden is a legit NFL #1 CB who could excel in the new system, but is due a monster bonus they might cut him to avoid paying.  Travis Fisher is a nickel back at best, and is a free agent.  Stanley Wilson has the talent to be an exellent man-to-man cover corner, but he can't stay healthy and is a free agent.  Robinson is depth with a little upside, and Smith is a scrub and a free agent.  If Bodden is let go, we will need three new corners, two of them starters.  I hope Bodden is kept, and we draft a corner with legit speed and excellent return skills--hell, maybe two of them.  A veteran starter would be nice, and Titans fourth-year CB/KR Chris Carr is reportedly interested in getting out from under the shadow of Cortland Finnegan & Co. in Tennessee.  Sounds good to me.  Bring friends Chris; bring friends.


old mother hubbard: the linebackers

>> 1.30.2009

Initially, I was going to break this down into the "middle linebackers" and the "outside linebackers", but . . . who are we kidding?  There isn't a natural middle linebacker on the Lions' roster.  Hence, "the linebackers":

Ernie Sims: coming out of high school, Ernie Sims was the #1 overall recruit (as ranked by Rivals.com).  It's no surprise; even in high school he had an NFL body.  He passes the eyeball test with flying colors--he has truly alarming biceps.  He selected Florida State, and after a very productive career there, was drafted by the Lions with the 8th overall pick of the 2006 draft.    There were a lot of questions about his size (listed at 6'-0", 220; perhaps in platform shoes?), but as Sims said, "When I tackle a person, they don't ask me how tall I am".  Sims was rampantly compared to fellow FSU standout and Tampa 2 LB Derrick Brooks, though Brooks is taller, leaner, slightly faster, and a SSLB--much more like former Lions LB Boss Bailey.  In his first season, Sims was a force, leading the Lions in tackles (124, 81 solo) and often looking like the only guy out there.  The sky seemed like the limit, and I started saving up for an Ernie Sims jersey.  He took a small step forward in productivity in 2007 (134 tackles, 91 solo, 1 sack, 1 INT), but compared to expectations he underperformed.   He also looked like he was freelancing at times, overpursuing in the run game and getting caught out-of-position in the pass game--both cardinal sins in the Tampa 2, which relies on everyone staying home and removing options for the offense.  Sims REALLY started freelancing this season, trying to do everything himself, MUCH to the detriment of the defense.  Sims's productivity fell way off (113 tackles, 71 solo, 1 sack), and he often seemed to disappear out there.  My personal theory is that Sims lost all respect for the defensive coaching staff and the system they taught.  Whether he wasn't going full speed, or he was playing with total disregard for the system, Sims was definitely mentally checked out.  I think a switch to a system where he gets to blitz, to attack, to run downhill and hit people will be MUCH more to his liking.  Sims was named as one of the "three untouchable Lions" by NFL.com's Adam Schefter, and there's a good reason why.  Sims' athletic ability is incredible, and when he's engaged he plays with tremendous fire and passion.  In a traditional 4-3, where the WLB is asked to attack, attack, attack, I think Ernie Sims could be a tremendous force; a perennial Pro Bowl level defender.  In a 3-4, Sims could pair with Cliff Avril to make a vicious OLB combo reminiscent of the Steelers' Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison.  Bottom line:  Sims mailed it in last year, but I expect a Pro Bowl year from him this year, regardless of alignment.  Schwartz and Gunther will know how to use this enormous talent.

Jordon Dizon:  Who knows?  Incomplete.

Paris Lenon:   . . . I'm not going to get away with that one, am I?

Jordon Dizon:  He was the Lions second-round pick in the 2008 draft, one where every early pick was desperately needed to contribute in order to avoid a disaster . . . and he didn't . . . and they didn't.  The confusion, inconsistency of vision, and infighting amongst the Lions over Jordon Dizon was one of the key examples of why the Lions went 0-16.  Dizon was extremely productive at Colorado.  Despite being a little undersized for a Mike, even by college standards (6'-0", 229#), Dizon was a four-year starter who slid between the Mike and Will spots.  He finished at Colorado with 463 tackles, eighth-best in D-I history, and after his senior year was Big XII Defensive Player of the Year (please refrain from making the obvious Big XII/Defense/oxymoron jokes).  Here is what I believe is the timeline of what went down:

* Millen and Marinelli agree that the Lions need a middle linebacker, preferably the kind with "of the future" attached to his position designation.

* Millen and Marinelli agree that Jordon Dizon has the talent, instincts, and frame to someday be a great middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 system.

* Millen drafts Jordon Dizon in the second round.

* Millen presents Marinelli with Dizon and demands he install him as the MLB.

* Marinelli retorts that Dizon will not be mentally or physically ready to play MLB for at least a year, maybe two, and should start off on the strong side while Paris Lenon brings the mediocrity.

* Millen insists.

* Dizon holds out of the first week of training camp, missing the installation of the base defense and killing any chance he had of making an impact at MLB in 2008.

* Marinelli plants Dizon's butt on the third-string bench behind Buster Davis.

* Millen cuts Buster Davis.

* Millen is fired.

* Marinelli immediately switches Dizon to the strong side, where he is promptly injured and lost for the year.

Bottom line:  From what very, very, very little we have seen, Dizon is a short-term project at SLB, long-term project at MLB, and possibly too small for either--essentially the second coming of Teddy Lehman.

Paris Lenon:  Paris Lenon is the man Lions fans love to hate.  Listed at 6'-2", 235 lbs., Paris Lenon is--by far--the biggest linebacker on the Lions roster.  An undrafted free agent who paid his dues in NFL Europe and the XFL, Lenon has been very steady, really hardworking, and totally unspectacular.  He hasn't missed a game since 2002--and even though he's arguably a natural SLB, he's started every game at middle linebacker throughout his tenure with the Lions.  He doesn't posess great size, speed, or strength, but he's one of the few sound tacklers out there for the Lions, and he keeps his wits about him out there.  If the Lions are going to play an attacking 4-3, Lenon absolutely cannot be the starting MLB.  The Lions must acquire a real MLB with a frame that lets him athletically carry 245 pounds or more, let Lenon back him up, or fight Dizon, and Ryan Nece fight for snaps on the strong side.  In a 3-4, the Lions will have to both sign a veteran starter AND burn one of the first five draft picks on an MLB.   Bottom line: Lenon is an okay starter/terrific backup SSLB with a high motor, playing WAY out-of-position at MLB.

Ryan Nece:  Another of the Tampa Bay Misfit Toys, Ryan Nece was signed just before the season opened, and very soon found himself the starting SSLB.  Weighing in at 6'-3", 224 pounds, I completely wrote Nece off--just another skinny OLB off the trash pile, right?  However, Nece is a man full of surprises: his father is Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.  Moreover, while Nece didn't have his pinky finger cut off to stay on the field last year, he played with an impressive amount of fire and tenacity.  He pulled down 68 tackles (45 solo) and 1.5 sacks in just 10 starts.  He's not a long-term solution--at age 29 he'll never be any better than he is right now--but he was more than worth the street FA contract he signed.  He's also a quality special-teamer, many of whom got run off by Marinelli's "I don't waste roster spots on special teamers" approach.  Bottom line: excellent heart, attitude, depth, special teams ability, no contract to speak of.  If he stays on the roster, I don't mind at all--but I'd hope Dizon or Lenon could beat him out for the starting SSLB gig.

Alex Lewis: 6'-0", 230 lbs.  Fast.  Athletic.  Can't tackle.  Good special teamer.

Anthony Cannon: 6'-0", 228 lbs.  Fast.  Athletic.  Can't tackle.  Good special teamer.

SUMMARY:  Sims should be an impact player at the weakside, and between Lennon and Dizon the strongside should be handled as well.  However, the Lions absolutely must address the middle linebacker position, preferably through both free agency and one of the first five picks of the draft.  Paris Lenon is small for an NFL linebacke, but is the biggest of the bunch.  In an aggressive 4-3, the MLB must be a traditional run-stopper like--speaking strictly hypothetically (wink, wink)--James Laurenitis of Ohio State.  In a 3-4, the Lions may have several quality veteran starters on the free agent market to pursue: young standout veteran Dolphin Channing Crowder (who I was rooting for us to draft originally) is one example.  In a bizarre but intriguing piece of news, a close friend of Pittsburgh stalwart ILB Larry Foote told the Free Press Foote would love to come to Detroit--much like his old teammate Earl Holmes did.  Larry, good God, would we love to have you.  The Lions would have to both sign AND draft multiple MLBs to switch to a 3-4, though; Lenon is currently the only "MLB" on the depth chart.


old mother hubbard: the defensive ends

>> 1.28.2009

As we saw, several of the defensive tackles (Redding, Cody, Fluellen, Cohen) have a build, athleticism (or both) suitable for flexing to the outside in a 3-4, or even 4-3 alignment.  Let's now take a look at the ends . . .

Dewayne White: Signed to a moderately lucrative free agent contract after the 2006 season, White was a Tampa Bay understudy who'd shown promise as a situational pass rusher, but hadn't been able to crack the starting lineup.  At 6'-2", 273 lbs, White is a protoypical 4-3 strongside end, reminiscent of Robert Porcher.  He possesses the natural size and strength to not be a liability in the run game, while still being athletic enough to be effective as a pass rusher.  Initially he was supposed to be a bookend to former Lion Kalimba Edwards--but when Edwards couldn't generate the pressure that the Tampa 2 requires, White was frequently used out-of-position on the weakside.  This means that instead of trying to beat bigger, slower right tackles, White was usually lined up against the opponent's best pass blocker.  There were doubts that White had enough speed to be consistently disruptive there--yet, in his first seven games as a Lion, White had 23 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 interception and three passes defensed.  This included a monster performance against his former team, the Bucs: 8 tackles (7 solo), 3 sacks, and 1 pass defensed.  Anyone who watched this game had a hard time not feeling like the Lions might have finally gotten a free agent signing right.  At the pivot point of the season, however, when the Lions were 6-2 and riding high, White injured a tricep.  He missed the debacle at Arizona, and the brutal home loss to the Giants (two of the worst football games I can remember watching).   Though he rushed himself back to help stop the Lions' bleeding, he wasn't as effective.  White finished with 43 tackles and 6.5 sacks--five of those tackles coming in the last game of the year.  In 2008, it was practically the same story: White roared through the first half of the season, including 5.5 sacks and a monster 10-tackle game against Houston--then got injured, missed 4 games, and ended up with just 38 tackles and 6.5 sacks.  White is a fiery competitor and a great 4-3 strongside end, but he has to find a way to stay healthy for 16 games.  If he could keep up his typical first-eight-weeks production, he would be an 80-tackle, 12-sack guy; Pro Bowl material.  Unfortunately, in a 3-4 White would be lost--3-4 ends take up blockers and stop the run, they don't rush the passer.  And at 273 pounds, White may be a good athlete but he's no LOLB.  In the 3-4 he'd be asked to cover tight ends in space, keep contain on screens . . . I don't see it happening.  As a point of pure interest, White played at Louisville, and his freshman-through-junior seasons were during Scott Linehan's tenure there as the offensive coordinator.  Bottom line: When healthy, White is an excellent all-around 4-3 SDE in the Porcher mold, but injuries have hampered his productivity.  His contract alone will keep him around for '09, but a shift to a 3-4 would make him a fifth (fourth?) wheel.

Cliff Avril:  Avril was drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft.  Avril was an outside linebacker at Purdue, though he was pressed into service at the defensive end spot his senior year.  He was ranked as an OLB by just about every scouting service--though most noted that his ability to put a hand down, combined with his size (6'-3", 252#), made his a prime candidate for a 3-4 pass-rushing ROLB.  He expressed suprise to the media at the time (though can't find a quote right now) that an NFL team saw him as a down lineman, but made the commitment to be the best end he could be.  He came through, and then some.  Marinelli seemed to be intent on keeping Avril under wraps--he didn't see the field until after the bye week.  He got his first sack against Washington in Week 8, and kept it up from there.  By Week 14 he was the starting rush end, and he ended up leading all rookies with 5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles.  Avril displayed the rare edge speed and natural burst--what Marinelli disturbingly calls "get-off"--to blow past left tackles and sack the quarterback.  Not only did he get actual sacks, he generated consistent pressure: flushing the QB out of the pocket, forcing a hurried throw, getting him to step up (and be sacked by a DT).  THAT is the kind of pressure that the Tampa 2 requires to be successful.  Had White and Avril been at their peak production at the same time, and the Lions been able to hold a team to less than five yards per carry rushing, you would have seen a lot more of the defense Rod Marinelli was trying to build.  Now, Avril hasn't done it for anywhere near a whole season, and he hasn't had to face double-teams yet.  In a 4-3, he must spend all offseason trying to add upper-body strength and honing his technique.  He's going to have to be able to get and keep hands off of him, and he's going to have to develop a strong inside move to keep OTs honest.  In a 3-4, his upside is practically unlimited--he could easily be the next Lamar Woodley. At Gunther's introductory press conference, he gushed about Avril's potential and how he'll use him in many ways.  Bottom Line: Avril is a real gem, and possesses legitimate pass-rush ability, either as a 4-3 rush end or a 3-4 ROLB.  He should get double-digit sacks in 2009, almost regardless of scheme.

Ikaika Alama-Francis: The man they call "Five-O" (he's from Hawaii . . . GET IT?!?!?!) is a 6'-5", 280 lb. SDE who, theoretically, possesses a rare combination of size, speed, and strength.  He dominated at Hawaii, despite never having played football until then-Hawaii-DC Jerry Glanville (yes, he who used to leave tickets for Elvis at the Georgia Dome) saw him play on the basketball team and invited him to try out for the pigskin squad.  Apparently Glanville called him "the most talented defensive lineman" he ever coached, which is saying something.   Still, when he was drafted in the second round, the Lions staff made it clear that "Five-O" was a long-term project.  Brutally raw in technique and use of leverage, Marinelli thought he could grill this rare slab of meat into a 290-pound DE steak.  We have not seen much of IAF--he barely saw the field his rookie year, and played in 13 games with 2 starts in 2008.  In those two starts, he garnered a mere three tackles combined.  However, he showed up big in two road games, at Houston and at Indianapolis; in both games he had four tackles and half a sack.  I'd like to say this shows flashes of his promise being fulfilled, but . . . well, it doesn't.  Five-O is still completely green, and it remains to be seen if the light will go on in time.  If he somehow put it together, with his frame and athleticism could make him a true force against the run at the 4-3 SDE spot.  He could be a great rotational combo with Dewayne White, possibly flexing to under tackle on obvious passing downs.  For that matter, IAF's frame and game make him a perfect 3-4 DE; perfect for demanding and occupying blockers.  He and Shaun Cody, at the peak of their potential, could be hugely disruptive wingmen if centered by a proper nose tackle.  Bottom Line: Five-O might remind MSU basketball fans of Marquise Gray: a potentially devastating talent who hasn't yet put it together--and may not ever.  For now, throw him on the "4-3 SDE/UT project who'd make a theoretically ideal 3-4 DE" pile.

Corey Smith: a sixth-year journeyman who started his career in . . . take a guess?  Yes, Tampa Bay.  At 6-2", 250", he seems undersized, but he plays bigger than that.  As the backup rush end, I intially wrote him off, but Smith seemed to have a way of getting in on plays.  In just 12 games and 3 starts, Smith racked up 30 tackles, 3 sacks, and an interception; rivalling Cliff Avril's production.  Towards the end of the year, it seemed like I was always mumbling to myself, "Hey, there goes Corey Smith again." However, where Avril was a rookie in 2009, at age 29 Smith is in his theoretical prime.  Smith appears to be a hardworking, high-motor guy who doesn't give up on plays and has good instincts.  He's a valuable reserve who's shown he can come off the bench and rush the passer.  I haven't seen him play in space, but he could probably translate to OLB in a 3-4 quite easily.  Bottom Line: Smith is a low-cost hard worker--and could probably rush the passer out of any scheme.  A depth keeper.

Jared Devries: DeVreis, Iowa's all-time #1 sackmaster, has found a way to stick on the Lions' roster through ten seasons, six head coaches, and an almost unfathomable number of losses.  A third-round pick in 1999, DeVries persevered, and started a career-high 10 games in 2007, and 9 in 2008.  A quintessential case of effort and heart overcoming lack of talent, the 6'-4", 275 lb. Iowa farmboy has put up just 16.5 sacks in his ten-year career, 6.5 of which came in his breakout year in 2007.  However, with Avril and Smith at the rush end spot, Devries will have to go back to waiting for someone (Dewayne White) to get hurt.  Unfortuately, he may not have to wait long . . . Bottom Line: a great guy, all effort and heart.  One of the very very very few pre-Millen Lions left.  I'd love to see him retire a Lion, but he might have to fight for a roster spot next season if the Lions stay in a 4-3 . . . can't see a place for him in a 3-4.

SUMMARY: The defensive ends are a classic case of perspective.  If you put on the rose-colored glasses, Dewayne White and Cliff Avril are double-digit sackers when healthy, and could be very dangerous when paired.  IAF could play a "Justin Tuck"-ish role in the defense, going both inside and outside to maximize his strengths.  Corey Smith and Jared Devries are both high-effort veterans.  OR . . . Avril hasn't proved anything, getting five sacks in some meaningless games, Dewayne White is always hurt, IAF is a project and will always bee one, and Smith and Devries are scrubs.

Given all the other holes, I'm choosing optimism here.  In the middle of the season, I wanted a blazing 4-3 rush end like Brian Orakpo . . . but I've since become an Avril believer.  Considering how all-around awful the defense was, ANY depth or talent added to ANY defensive position would be nice.  If a third-rounder was spent on an eventual Smith/Devries replacement, I would consider it wise for sure--but, I don't see a real need to acquire a starter at defensive end this year.  At 4-3, we're okay, and at 3-4, we have about six possible 3-4 DEs to fight for two starting spots.


old mother hubbard: the defensive tackles

>> 1.26.2009

To analyze the defensive line properly, we're going to have to briefly review whether the pentagonal peg that is the talent is going to be hammered into a square or round hole: a scheme that utilizes four or three down linemen.  Schwartz and Cunningham have actively evaded this question as they're going to try to fit the scheme to the talent and not the other way around.  Since they've only just begun the process of evaluating the talent they currently have, in theory they have no better idea whether they will run a 4-3 or 3-4 than you or I.  Let's evaluate the talent from both perspectives.

Cory Redding: Redding is the highest-paid defensive lineman on the Lions' roster.  Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, he was a strongside DE at the University of Texas, and a linemate of Shaun 'Big Baby' Rogers.  He was drafted as a DE/DT 'tweener, a guy who could dominate against the run on first and second-and-short, and then move inside and rush the passer on second-and-long and third down.  This past season was his sixth, and at 28 he should just be entering his prime.  He's listed at 6'-4", 295, though I thought he looked at least 15 lbs. heavier than that this season.  When Rod Marinelli came to town to install the Tampa 2, Redding was tabbed as an 'under' tackle in the making, a one-gap pass rushing DT in the mold of a young Warren Sapp.    As many know, Redding had a breakout season in 2006, playing like a stud in Shaun Rogers' absence, garnering 8 sacks.  However, when Rogers came back in 2007, rather than pick up where he left off, Redding mostly disappeared.  He took another step back in 2008, even though Rogers was gone once again.  Playing in only 13 games due to a late-season knee injury, Redding was completely pedestrian, getting 38 tackles and three sacks.  Redding is nothing like the force the Lions thought they were getting when they signed him to a monster deal after the 'o6 year.  He's definitely got the athleticism to be a disruptive presence in the middle, but either he has quit on the Lions or he's lost something.  Out of shape?  Less weight work, more twelve-ounce curls?  It's difficult to say.  Of course, it's significant that he's the only Lions lineman that ever commands a double-team, so that can account for some of it--but then he rarely beats the double-team like a premier DT can.  In a 4-3, he is definitely too big and too slow to play defensive end, but with the right motivation he could still be a solid starter at the smaller tackle spot.  In a 3-4, he would make a very good defensive end--he'd just stand there and take up two blockers so the LBs behind him can make a play!  As a 3-4 nose tackle, however, I think Redding would be overmatched.  He could take up a double-team, but not regularly shed it or split it to make plays.  From an off-the-field perspective, Redding is extremely popular in the locker room and is typically voted a captain.  As one of the few holdovers from the pre-Marinelli era, Redding is a rare Lions veteran and a strong, vocal leader.  Even if his play on the field doesn't justify his exorbitant salary, now is not the time to start ditching positive locker room leaders.  Bottom Line: The Lions are committed to Redding money wise for at least 2009 and maybe 2010, so look for him to be starting as a 4-3 UT or 3-4 DE/NT in '09.

Shaun Cody: Four years ago, Cody came into the league as the star of the not-hit reality TV show "Super Agent", a second-round pick in the draft, and the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.  Listed at 6-4", 310, Cody played both inside and outside at USC.  Lacking the speed to be a full-time pass rusher, yet lacking the bulk and strength to throw people around, Cody was prized for being a hardworking, talented football player who was productive at the highest level of college football--sure to find a place in the NFL.   After being drafted by the Lions, Cody immediately got into the rotation, playing in every game, and even started two.  He got 27 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his rookie year . . . up until Redding went down with a knee injury in late 2008, it was Cody's most productive year.  Shaun Cody has been mostly invisible in his tenure with the Lions, not exactly what you want out of a highly touted second-round pick.  Until late 2008, he didn't flash much heart or motor, and even when he did he failed to make an impact.  This year, however, as he matured and his opportunities grew, he was starting to get upfield, make solid tackles, and collapse the pocket.  He didn't get any sacks, but he did get 36 tackles (25 solo) and three passes defensed--all three numbers are career highs.  Of course, these are still very mediocre numbers for a DT that played in every game and started four--but at least the needle moved.  Moreover, Cody's body type and game are ideally suited for the end position in a 3-4 alignment--if the Lions were to move to a 3-4, keeping Cody would make sense--however, this being the offseason after his fourth year, Cody is now due to be an unrestricted free agent.  Bottom Line: the Lions' interest in retaining Cody will probably depend on the chosen defensive alignment.  If they choose a 3-4, they may pay to keep him as an end.  If they stay in a 4-3, he could be allowed to walk.

Andre Fluellen: Fluellen was a rookie this year, a 6'-2", 296 lb. third-round pick from Florida State.  At FSU, he was a tenacious and disruptive interior run stopper--when healthy.  The coaching staff has repeatedly claimed he's a better player than any recent FSU DT, including guys like Darnell Dockett and Broderick Bunkley.  In the NFL, his height, frame, and athleticism projects him as candidate to see time both inside and outside (detecting a theme yet?).  As I posted earlier, "Flu" really started to flash his talent towards the end of the year:

"Andre Fluellen, on the other hand, barely saw the field until the bitter end, but when he did I noticed something. Andre Fluellen was bringing guys down in the secondary for eight yard gains. He was forcing running backs out of bounds. He was wrapping up wideouts on WR screens, after said WRs juked the corners. He wasn't ever collapsing the pocket or throwing guys around, but Fluellen-at 296 pounds mind you--was frequently the second or third guy in on every tackle, everywhere on the field. That speaks volumes about A) his level of effort, and B) his athleticism."

I really like Fluellen's future in the two-years-out timeframe.  His motor and hustle would let him contribute as a 4-3 strong side end, but after adding bulk and strength, I see him as a replacement for Cory Redding: a big, lean defensive tackle with a motor and tackling skills.  In the 3-4, his size would make him seem like an end prospect--but I am not sure he has the point-of-attack strength and bulk to keep the linemen behind him clean.  Also, he wouldn't be used much on stunts or traps, where he could use his lateral and deep speed to get upfield and disrupt.  I think if he could add 20 or 30 pounds over the next several years and work on his strength and technique, his short, wide frame  and high motor could allow him to be a pocket-collapsing nose tackle.  Bottom line: a talented natural one-gap player who could blossom into a force as he goes through NFL training and nutrition.  In 2009 I see him as a 4-3 SDE/UT, or a 3-4 DE.

Landon Cohen:  Cohen was a seventh-round draft pick last year from Ohio.  Not the Buckeyes, the Bobcats.  He was a destroyer up the middle--despite his relatively light 6'-4", 278 lb. physique.  Interestingly Cohen was a 4-year letterman in track at his high school in Spartanburg, SC.  Track!  At Ohio, Cohen played the nose tackle position despite being a little undersized for that, even by MAC standards.  And yet, he was 2nd-team all-conference his senior year, with 59 tackles (27 solo), 12.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks, starting all twelve games.  Despite being a little taller and notably thinner than fellow rookie Andre Fluellen, Cohen is listed on the Lions depth chart as a nose tackle.  He saw time against several teams, setting his career high in tackles against the Colts (4).  I didn't get to see much of him, but from what I can find in scouting reports, he has excellent technique and leverage, helping him make up for his lack of beef.  He seems to excel in initial burst and shedding blocks with quick moves, but doesn' t have the range or athleticism to run around making plays on the edge or in space.  According to the info I can find, he's at his best as a one-gap upfield rusher.  Bottom line: Cohen is a true 4-3 one-gap nose tackle who was born a little too small.  If he could add a lot of bulk he could stay at NT--otherwise, he's another 4-3 UT/3-4 DE project.

Chuck Darby:  The "War Daddy" was one of the system players brought in by Rod Marinelli.  Darby was an undrafted free agent NT who spent 2000 on the Bucs' practice squad, then got signed in 2001, and finished the 2002 season by starting in the Super Bowl.  Darby left for Seattle as a free agent, and they were happy to get him.  By all accounts, Darby was a valued teammate whose intensity and relentless drive helped rally everyone around him.  Seattle wanted to keep him, but Marinelli pushed hard to get him signed first.  Not ideally sized at 6'-0", 297"  (DETECTING A THEME YET?), Darby plays with great passion and motivation.  When able to get the edge on his opponent, Darby can be a disruptive force up the middle on both passing and running downs.  However, he is unable to maintain his extraordinary effort for a great number of snaps, and with the Lions defense often being hung out to dry by the offense, Darby became a situational player.  Also, when facing elite interior linemen, Darby is erased--he posted just three total tackles in two games against Minnesota's Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson--at some point, effort cannot overcome a lack of size and talent.  Bottom line: Darby could make a good 3-4 end, but would be a liability at NT.  No matter the alignment, Darby is a valuable rotational player who brings emotional leadership on and off the field--and comes at a low cost.  If he'll stay, we should keep him.

Langston Moore:  Moore is a 4th-year veteran still coming into his own.  He's made an impression ever since the Lions signed him late in the 2006 season.  A former sixth-round pick of the Bengals, he's on his third NFL roster--which is odd because for a sixth-rounder who's bounced around so much, he's seen plenty o f action.  At 6'-1", 305 lbs, Moore is a little shy on bulk for an NT (is there an echo in here?).  Moore has been an effective rotational body at NT, enough so that he was one of eleven defensive linemen kept on the original 53-man roster.  Moore is an intelligent, enthusiastic young player with burgeouning business interests off the field, but he's already behind Cohen on the depth chart, and I don't see that changing any time soon.  Bottom line: Moore will probably be the first guy cut . . . if he sticks around, he'll be 4-3 DT depth.


Going by listed height and weight, and the roles they typically play, the Lions have 4 guys who are somewhere between a 4-3 strongside run-stuffing DE, a 3-4 DE, and a 4-3 'under' or 'three-technique' DT.  The only natural 4-3 nose tackles they have are both sub-300-pounders.  In case you didn't notice, there is a recurring theme of 'undersized'.  The Lions do not have enough bulk up the middle, and were regularly pushed around in the run game.  This was most evident in the Thanksgiving Day debacle, where Tennesee's excellent offensive line and running backs were absolutely gashing the Lions for 7-, 10-, 20-yard chunks just by running up the middle.  It really looked like the Titans put it in the cooler before the first quarter was out--but just running the same four or five run plays was absolutely blowing holes in the Lions defense.  If the Lions stay with a 4-3, they are going to need to improve upon Chuck Darby as a starting NT, and either Redding is going to have to recapture his 2006 form, or Fluellen is going to have to take big strides and make an impact, or both.  If they move to a 3-4, the Lions will be absolutely destitute at NT.  The biggest body they have is Cody, and IMO he would be worthless as a two-gap tackle.  Redding could pound some cheeseburgers and be subpar there, but nobody else--Darby, Cohen, Fluellen--could even hope start at NT in 2009.  They would have to acquire a starter--either a proven veteran free agent, or a rookie acquired with one of their first three picks.  The good news is that there would be a surplus of young, interesting 3-4 DEs.  If you had a rejuvenated Redding, Cody, and Fluellen rotating between two DE spots, with a big fat dude in the middle, THAT could be an effective DL.

On the free agent market, the "big fish" is Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, a monstrous talent who is practically a run defense unto himself.  Many Lions fans hope that Haynesworth is looking to move with his defensive coordinator, new Lions HC Jim Schwartz, but that runs counter to everything Lewand and Mayhew have openly said about their plans to build through the draft instead of free agency.  Mayhew even explicitly said that the Lions won't be making the huge-money deal for the splashy guy at midnight the first day . . . which seems exactly the kind of deal Haynesworth will be looking for.  There are a few intriguing veterans who may get a look, like Tampa DT Jovan Haye, but I don't see a quick fix out there.  In the draft, the premium talent is a guy I suggested people watch a while ago, Boston College man-elephant B.J. Raji.  Raji is an honest 350 and is exactly the sort of dominating bulk you want as a 3-4 two-gap tackle--yet he shows burst and athleticism too.  His downfall appears to be consistent effort and motivation, but then many physical freaks run into those issues.  How many of you out there are clamoring for Shaun "25 Snaps and Four Tanks of Oxygen" Rogers back right now?  If Raji were available at the 1.20 spot, he'd be very hard to pass up--no matter the defensive alignment we choose.

Next up, defensive ends . . .


. . . and so the poor dog had none

With the Senior Bowl in the history books, all but the international celebration of corporate America that is the Super Bowl behind us, and the Lions having completed the worst season in the history of modern  professional sport . . . it's time.

After three years of stirring the concrete, pouring the foundation brick by brick, then condemning the house . . . it's time.

With a President, GM, head coach, and offensive and defensive coordinators in place . . . it's time.

It's time . . . to take stock of the roster.  With several months yet to argue over players we really know nothing about, let's begin with a real analysis of what we've got.  Since I believe the team needs to be built from the trenches out, and I further believe that this team paired a seven-win offense with a negative-seven win defense, let's start with the defensive line . . .


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