old mother hubbard: the guards

>> 2.19.2009

The combine is upon us.  All the prospects are in Indianapolis right now, getting injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and--in April, with luck--selected.  For maniacs such as myself who want to see a bunch of as-of-last-month college kids run around pylons in shorts and pretend it means anything, the coverage of linemen starts at 2:00 pm EST Saturday and rolls on from there.

Stephen Peterman:  brought in with little fanfare but lots of curiosity, Stephen Peterman was a former third-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys.  Drafted out of LSU by Bill Parcells, Peterman blew out his knee in the last preseason game of his rookie season; he was IR'd and didn't see the field that year, or most of the following year.  The 6'-4", 323 pounder made it back in time to make some special teams appearances in the last few games of 2005, but the Cowboys cut him in training camp the following year.  It's rumored that the injury and his long recovery put him permanently in Parcells' doghouse . . . unable to catch on with another team before the season started, Peterman languished until the Lions' OL situation got (even more) desperate.  In mid-October, Peterman signed with the Lions, and was placed on the practice squad to learn the offense.  In December, he began to contribute, and was soon inserted as the starter.   He capped the year by playing extremely well in a massive upset of his former team, the Cowboys.  Peterman spent 2007 in a duel for playing time with Damien Woody, and eventually won it.  He entered the 2008 season as the starter for the first time in his career, and promptly broke his hand in Week 3.  After the bye and two weeks off, Peterman came back in Week 7 and really helped solidify the line.  I've commented before that for this window--from Peterman's return in Week 7 to the loss of Raiola in Week 11--the Lions' offensive line looked to finally be 'jelling', to becoming something more than the sum of its mediocre parts.  However, even though pass protection really became an issue after Raiola went out, with a line of Backus/Cook/McCollum/Peterman/Cherilus the run game finally had some size and grit up front.  From week 10 on, Kevin Smith's rushing numbers look really, really good.  Excepting for a moment the Tennesee and Minnesota games (because nobody ran on those guys), Smith carred 135 times for 585 yards, which works out to a 4.33 ypc average.  If that was the baseline for next season, this team would be in worlds better shape.  

Peterman is a grinder, a smart and tough guy with decent size; at 323 he's slightly lean for his height and frame.  Depending on what you read, he either lacks athleticism or technique, and from what I've seen it's more like his lack of technique inhibits his athleticism.  I think he doesn't quite know how to apply his agility to get lower, to use his leverage.  It seems like he has two settings, "pull" and "maul", and he doesn't know that if he was as quick and smart while power blocking as he is in space, he wouldn't have to try and maul everybody.  With the hiring of his old OL coach at LSU, George Yarno, as the Lions' new OL coach, Peterman will have every opportunity toacheive his remarkable potential over the five year, $15M extension the Lions just signed him to.  Bottom line: Peterman has the size, grit, and smarts to be a great run blocker.  He just needs to stay healthy and improve his footwork and technique.

Manny Ramirez: at 6'-3", 335#, Manny Ramirez cuts an imposing figure.  A huge, big-bodied guy with tremendous upper-body strength, Ramirez was pigeonholed by all the pre-draft analysis stuff as a raw drive blocker with no pass protection technique or footwoork.  However, Ramirez played at Texas Tech, where they pass sixty times a game, so it seemed like that couldn't possibly be true.  He called the protections at TTU for both his junior and senior seasons, and was known for his intelligence and leadership on the field.  When the Lions got him with their second fourth-round pick in the '07 draft, it seemed like a steal.  A big mean road-grader with many years' experience in a pass-first, pass-second, pass-third offense, plus a thorough knowledge of protections and reading defenses?  Awesome. 

He barely got on the field in 2007, and played only when Stephen Peterman got hurt in 2008.  What the deal with this guy is, I do not know, but he has all the indicators of success, and cannot get on the field on a team absolutely desperate for young, big, talented linemen.  I would love for him to step right in and start for the departed Ed Mulitalo, but it doesn't look like that will happen, possibly ever.  Bottom line: practically limitless potential languishing on the bench while street free agents are signed to start ahead of him.  No idea what the problem is.

Damion Cook:  A street free agent in his eighth year out of Bethune-Cookman; originally signed as a UFA by the Ravens in 2001.   When he got the call for the Lions, Cook had most recently thrown his 6'-5", 330# frame around in the CFL.  He'd last seen an NFL action in 2004--yet when Mulitalo went down, he ended up as the starter.  Cook finished the season atop the depth chart at left guard.  Bottom line: this dude has no business starting in the NFL.  He played commendably, considering, but if he didn't have a relationship with Colletto, he would never have gotten on the roster to begin with.

Junius Coston: A 6'-3", 315#, 2005 fifth-round draft pick of the Packers, the Lions are Coston's third team in as many seasons.  SUMMARY: fungible dude who doesn't even have a bio on the official site.

OVERVIEW:  The guard position is yet another of urgent need.  Peterman is currently a decent NFL starter with the potential to be really, truly good; he will almost assuredly enter the season as our right guard of the forseeable future.  Ramirez has the body and resume of an All-Pro, but can't get off the bench.  Nobody else is anyone we want seeing significant time.  The Lions must acquire a starter at left guard--the current thinking is that the Lions will either draft an LT-of-the-future and shift Backus over to guard, or draft an LT-of-the-future and start that player at guard.  However, don't rule out a mid-level free agent, even if the LT-of-the-future comes to town; the Lions are thin enough inside they could use a third guy who could start.  My current dream scenario is "one of the four LTs" at 1.1, and then Cal's Alex Mack at 2.1, letting Backus and OT handle the right side, Mack back up all three interior positions, and then Peterman and Cherilus hold down the right side.


derek anderson to the lions?

Killer Kowalski put up a speculative piece today on the Lions making a play for Browns QB Derek Anderson.  He made several great points in regards to cap and contracts: Culpepper's renegotiated deal makes him a lot easier to carry through training camp, but cut him before the season.  DA's deal means the Browns are under the gun to get rid of him, if he's not going to start.  As the draft approaches, the Lions have some great ammo to make this thing work.

Looking at DA's size (6'-6", 230#) his arm, and his great success in 2007, he seems to be perfectly tailored to what the Lions hope to do.  Replace Braylon Edwards with Calvin Johnson, Jamal Lewis with Kevin Smith, and Kellen Winslow with . . . well, maybe 'perfect' is too strong of a word.  While I thought that DA and the Browns were, to an extent, doing it with smoke and mirrors, I would take a 26-year-old who did it with smoke and mirrors two years ago over a broken shell of a 31-year-old who did it with smoke and mirrors five years ago.

In an interesting twist, our new Tight Ends coach, Tim Lappano was the offensive coordinator at Oregon State when Anderson was the QB there.  Here's a great piece from the week before DA's first game starting for the Beavers, with some good quotes from Lappano about what he thought of the then-sophomore, as well as this one from Dennis Erickson:

"He's got unbelievable talent," OSU coach Dennis Erickson said. "I've been around a lot of them, and physically he has a chance to be as good as I've ever coached."

Nice.  Like the Karmelowicz hire, the pieces on this possible trade fit together really, really well.  If it happens, I think Mayhew will have done an unbelievable job of shoring up the QB position without leaning on someone we already know can't play (Culpepper) or has gone on a public anti-organization tirade (Kitna), burning the #1 overall pick, or otherwise handcuffing the organization's next five years to the wrist of someone we don't know can win in Detroit.


Karmelowiczed onions . . . er, Jareds

>> 2.17.2009

EDIT: folks, I'm sorry, but blogger keeps mysteriously eating the links.  They are:

killer article: http://www.mlive.com/lions/index.ssf/2009/02/jared_allen_raves_about_lions.html

Star-Tribune article: http://blogs.startribune.com/vikingsblog/?p=2474

Killer Kowalski at mlive.com pointed out a little tidbit in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's a quick little interview/article with Jared Allen, talking about his relationship with the Lions' new defensive line coach, Bob Karmelowicz. Go ahead and check it out; I'll be right here.

Now, I should not have to remind anyone reading this that Jared Allen had an unbelievable 2008: he racked up 14.5 sacks and 54 tackles, and was the lightning rod atop a mountainous Vikings defense. It used to be that you could simply pass over the Williams Wall, but suddenly that wasn't the case. Allen singlehandedly shrunk the field for opposing offenses with his speed, strength, and tenacity.

Yet, 2008 was a tipping point for Jared Allen. His early career had been an almost unbroken string of success; as an up-and-comer for Kansas City, Allen flashed incredible potential and production.  In 2004, his rookie year, he garnered nine sacks in just 10 starts.  His second season, that sack count literally and figuratively "went up to 11" (apologies to Spinal Tap).  This trend culminated with a Pro Bowl season in 2007, where he had 15.5 sacks in just 14 games.  Allen had established himself as one of the premier pass rushers in the game, just as his rookie contract was expiring.  Still, a cloud hung over him: three DUI arrests (one in 2002 and two in 2006) had placed him in deep trouble.  Remember the "14 games" part of that "Pro Bowl season"?  Allen was under the NFL's equivalent of double-secret probation: the third stage of the Substance Abuse Program.  He'd appealed his standard four-game suspension down to two games in 2007.  However, one more incident within two years of his last arrest (September 2006), and he could be suspended for a whole season, and be one more false move away from lifetime banishment.  However, if he managed keep his nose clean until that two-year period was up, his slate would be wiped clean.  The Chiefs decided they couldn't roll the dice on that much guaranteed money for that much risk.  They franchise-tagged Allen, and traded him to the Vikes for a first, two thirds, and a swap of sixth-round picks.  Moreover, Allen got an enormous contract extension at the consummation of the trade: six years and seventy-two million dollars.  The Vikings were paying him an awful lot of money to ensure that people would continue to call them "Super Bowl favorites", no matter how many years in a row they play .500 ball.

Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) all the pressure, Allen had a tough time getting going. After five games, Allen had just two sacks--and for a guy used to more than a sack per game, that wasn't cutting it.  He called up his former position coach, Bob Karmelowicz.  It's tough to tell exactly what happened here--Karmelowicz was hired by then-new Texans head coach, Gary Kubiak, to enthusiastic response.  After one season as the defensive line coach, Karmelowicz was reassigned to "Special Assistant to the Head Coach".  Whether this was a promotion, or a demotion, I can't divine.  Either way, Allen paid out-of-pocket to fly Karmelowicz up to Minnesota every Tuesday for one-on-one coaching. I have amusing mental pictures of Allen's mom trucking him around in a minivan, his head bent up against the ceiling. "Goodbye dear; have fun at pass rushing today! Make sure you work hard and listen to your teacher!" It's eyebrow-raising, to be sure: a professional football player paying to be coached, when the team is both paying him millions to play, and paying other coaches millions to coach him. Yet, Karmelowicz made an instant improvement in Allen's game: Allen recorded 12.5 sacks in the last eleven games, terrorizing other teams on his way to his second straight Pro Bowl and the NFC North crown.  The whole story is really unusual; nfl.com's Adam Schefter wrote about it in a disturbingly-similar-to-the-Star-Ledger-piece blog entry back in December.

Karmelowicz, at first, seemed like one of the several "buddy hires" on the Lions' roster: Gunther's old DL coach from the "glory days" in Kansas City, who happened to not have anything better to do.  Interestingly, however, Karmelowicz has also coached at LSU and Arizona State, which links him to multiple members of the offensive staff as well.  It seems as though he'll be a really natural fit in terms of the culture Schwartz & Co. are trying to build.  Moreover, the Jared Allen story speaks volumes about what Karmelowicz can do as a teacher, motivator, and  defensive line coach.  I cannot wait to see what this guy does with White and Avril, let alone any linemen we choose to draft.

This is one of the things that's hard to see from our perspective, a reporter and an Internet away from anyone who really knows anything about these guys.  We see two or three sentences about an assistant coach guy and go, "Oh, right, he worked with so-and-so back in the day.  *sigh*  I wanted someone good."  The reality is, we know effectively nothing about these guys except what we see on the field on Sundays.  And what this guy puts on the field on Sundays is usually great.


NSS Interblog Mock Draft: Round Two!

The Next Season Sports Interblog mock draft, the subject of much M&I (that's Murder and Intrigue, for those reading who are neither me nor my mother), continues on!  Round 2 is here:

For the second round, since the Lions don't have two second-round picks, my cohort Steve from Detroit Lions Weblog and I collaborated on the initial pick of the second round.  Making this selection was tough; as I whined about with the 1.20, the board had fallen about as poorly as possible for the Lions.  All of the linemen and linebackers that might fall to 1.20 were gone by then, and some of the remainders I thought might be there at 2.1 were also gone.  After a few back-and-forths, we agreed there were two real possibilities: Wake Forest CB Alphonso Smith, and USC LB Clay Matthews.

Smith possesses all the tools of a prime time NFL cover corner: blazing speed, great short-area burst, confidence, and a nose for the ball.  Everyone's favorite free draft site, Scott Wright's Draft Countdown, has this to say about Alphonso Smith:

"Was a four-year starter in the ACC...First team All-American as a senior...Was named All-ACC as a junior and a senior...Holds the ACC record for career interceptions...A true playmaker and ballhawk who will make quarterbacks pay for their mistakes...There isn't much not to like about this guy other than his lack of prototypical height...Would get selected much earlier if he were 2 or 3 inches taller."

To make a long story short, Smith looks like Dre' Bly all over again, minus (offically speaking) one inch of height.  5'-9" is really small, especially since that's an "official" height.  We'll see what happens when he weighs in at the combine, but for now the height gives me pause.  Scott and I were wearing our Martin Mayhew/Shack Harris caps (golly, who was who?), trying to draft as we think the Lions will.  It's been stated multiple times by Mayhew and Schwartz that the Lions are looking to add size, especially on defense, and with Michael Johnson added somewhere in the front seven, we partially addressed that need.  However, since it's now looking like the Lions will primarily run a 4-3 set, Johnson would fit into more of a SDE/WDE rotational mold . . . 6'-7" 260 is truly enormous for an LB in a 4-3, and I don't think he has the coverage skills to play Mike or Sam--and the Will spot belongs to Ernie Sims.  Therefore, there's still a need for size in the middle of the defense.

Clay Matthews goes about 6'-3", 240--and though he played outside at USC, that was only because of the presence of gamebreaking he-beast Rey Maualuga in the middle.  Matthews could play inside or outside, from everything I've read.  He is fleet of  foot, an extremely hard worker, very strong, a great tackler, has a knack for getting after the passer, and excels on special teams.  He's not supremely athletic side-to-side, but his grit, strength, instincts, and motor more than make up for it.  It's tough to say whether playing next to two supremely talented athletes in Maualuga and Brian Cushing--both of whom are first-round locks--made him look much better than he is, or robbed him of some much-deserved attention.  The final piece of the Clay Matthews puzzle is that he's the son of Clay Matthews (17-year NFL vet), nephew of Bruce Matthews (NFL Hall of Famer and 19-year vet), and grandson of Clay Matthews Sr., (also an NFL veteran).  This guy's bloodlines are absolutely impeccable, and if he's half the player his father or uncle were, he'll be a valuable addition to the roster.  As Steve said, if this guy is the pick, the "bromance" between him and Lions fans will bloom . . .

In the end, we chose Smith.  One of the justifications for my controversial selection of Josh Freeman in the first round, was that I thought Smith might still be here for us at this pick--and he is.  Smith is also a dangerous return man, so even if he doesn't start, or begins his career as a nickel back, he'll be have a chance to make an immediate impact in another desperate need area.  Moreover, Smith possesses the attitude--if not the frame--to be excellent in run support.  Despite his size, he's very strong and physical . . . I think he needs to go to the vet, because his pythons are sick (apologies to Colin Cowherd).  Of course, only time will tell with any of these guys, but I think we got one of the, if not THE, best player available at this spot, and one of the better values so far in this draft--and filled two desperate needs (CB & KR) while doing so!  I think Steve and I got the second round off to a great start, and eagerly anticipate the rest of the round as it rolls on.  Keep your eyes on this space, as there is already talk of starting over from 1.1 once all the combine info is in and folks have had time to digest it . . .


old mother hubbard: the centers

>> 2.15.2009

With the combine nearly upon us, it's time to resume the position-by-position roster breakdown.  As with the defense, we'll start with the players closest to the ball and move out.

Is there any more controversial Lion than center Dominic Raiola?  The Hawaiian-born, 6'-1", 295 pounder was Matt Millen's second-ever draft pick, and a prototypical West Coast Offense center.  Coming from a long line of outstanding Nebraska Cornhusker offensive linemen, Raiola was anointed the interior anchor, signal caller, and (to use an apropos basketball term) pivotman of the Lions offensive line for the next decade.  His squat frame (I believe the '1"' at the end of that 6' is decorative) helps open up sight lines and passing lanes for QBs hitting short slants.  His ability to pull, agility in space, and second-level blocking makes him perfect for blocking on the screens and outlet passes that help the WCO stay "on schedule" and keep defenses honest.  So what's the problem?

Well for starters, the problem is that the Lions haven't run the WCO for years.  The other problem is that Raiola is a little undersized for a modern NFL offensive lineman, and has always lacked either the bulk, the strength, or both, to push the pile.  As a rookie, this was painfully obvious; he was absolutely abused in the interior of the line, and was a big reason why Lions power backs, like James Stewart, could never establish a rhythm.  I remember well watching him in his rookie year at the old SVSU open training camp, and cringing.  Lions DTs like Luther Eliss and Kelvin Pritchett absolutely had their way with him; it wasn't a great omen.  In the passing game, Raiola had good technique right out of the block, but his lack of bulk (and lack of experience facing elite DTs in the Big 12) meant that he needed help from a guard to block even average defensive tackles.  Raiola quickly earned the scorn of most fans as the first high-profile Matt Millen 'bust'.  Raiola put his head down and worked, and within a couple of years, his maturing body and NFL strength training began to caulk over some of the gaps in his game.  His toughness, consistency, and heady reads brought what very little consistency there was to an offensive line that has been a revolving door in more ways than one.  When Joey Harrington was on the ropes, it was often reported that Raiola was the only teammate that consistently had his back in the locker room.  Though the offense last year was not geared to his strength--emphasizing the power run game and deep passing game--to me, there was an immediate dropoff in overall OL play when he went out with an injury to his right wrist.  As testament to his toughness and committment, Raiola spent several weeks putting in extra time, trying to teach himself to snap with his left hand.  Keep in mind, the Lions were already approaching 0-16 at that point; Raiola and the Lions had practically nothing left to play for.

I am not going to suggest that Dominic Raiola is an elite center.  However, most Lions fans filed this guy in the "sucks" bin many years ago--and either have not watched for, or have not been able to see, the vast improvement he has made since.  He is among the top half of starting centers in this league--and having already had a cast of thousands be awful on either side of him, with no end in sight, the Lions desperately need him to stay right where he is for 2009.

Andy McCollum is a fifteen-year veteran, the meatiest nine of which were spent with the St. Louis Rams.  McCollum played on some outstanding offensive lines in the late nineties and early aughts with the Greatest Show on Turf, and continued to be a steady force in the middle for years after Vermeil, Warner, Faulk, and company pulled up stakes and left town.  McCollum was one of the many offensive linemen who were crumpled by the St. Louis O-Line Famine of 2007, and was released after the season was over.  The Lions picked up the 6'-4", 300-pound veteran for depth, and for the first time in well over a hundred games, the Lions had need of a backup center.  McCollum stepped and started against Jacksonville, and did an okay job.  Many Lions fans rejoiced at how the running game seemed to pick up--and it's true, it looked like RB Kevin Smith had more daylight up the middle than before.  However, in pass protection, the offensive line was quickly overmatched.  The meager amounts of the cohesiveness and toughness the offensive line had recently begun to show, especially in the Chicago game, evaporated.  Without Raiola calling the protections, it was clear that the offensive line was back to being five ill-fitting parts again, rather than a cohesive machine.  McCollum was definitely decent, and his size and leverage in the middle was definitely a more natural fit for the Coletto/Kippy Brown/Dumpster Fire 'offensive scheme' the Lions ran in 2008.  However, even if he were an overall upgrade over Raiola (he isn't), his best days are long since behind him.  I would not be surprised if McCollum hung 'em up after this season, or even before.

SUMMARY:  The Lions have a solid veteran center in Raiola, and only a veteran reduced by age to mediocrity behind him.  If the Lions were looking to go interior line with the 1.20, 2.1, or 3.1, and an outstanding center prospect with grit and size (like Cal's 6'-4" 316# Alex Mack) were sitting there, I could see them taking him and putting him at RG, with the understanding that he could someday usurp Raiola on the line.  If McCollum retires or is released, I could see the Lions signing a veteran OL with an outstanding special teams resume to take his spot as the 'warm body who can snap'.


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