essential inconsequentials

>> 5.14.2009

On Thursday, the Lions held an OTA (just for veterans, since rookies couldn't yet report).  I love these things, partly because of the stories, the rumors, and the hype that comes trickling out.  There is actual football happening in Allen Park, and every tidbit that makes it to the public--no matter how insigificant--will be pounced upon, hoarded, and nibbled upon for weeks by the information-starved Lions fans.  So far, there have only been a few tasty morsels that have leaked out.  Of them, I'm most intrigued by this one, from Calos Monarrez at the Freep:

"The Lions finished off a spirited practice session at Allen Park with Drew Stanton throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Will Heller that elicited hoots and hollers from players — and a nod from coach Jim Schwartz."
We're not told about the nature of this play--the formation, the personnel package, the down-and-distance--nor of any of the plays before or after it.  However, given that the target was Will Heller--the block-first TE acquired in free agency--I'm willing to bet this was in short yardage drills, or possibly at the end of a drive.  It's not a SportsCenter moment, but it brings up a point I've been meaning to make for quite some time: Drew Stanton's a gamer.

There are some athletes that look fantastic in practice, but never seem to bring it in games.  Most reading this blog will remember Matt Millen famously referring to an unnamed Lion as a "devout coward"--a player who looks like a legit impact player all week, but disappears on Sunday (PFT, back in the day, reported that it was WR Scotty Anderson).  But Drew Stanton?  Drew's the other way around.  It seems as though every year, we hear reports of Drew having some rough throws in pracice, having difficulty throwing a spiral, or still needing a lot of polish.  However, the tiny scraps of pre- and regular-season action he's seen have been superlative.  This meshes with career at Michigan State, where he was often the only player going out there and giving it his all.  

I wonder--emphasis on wonder--if Drew has to be in a competitive situation in order to perform like he's capable of performing.  Though he's rarely a standout in shorts-and-T-shirt work, Drew always brings it when he's given the ball and told to go make a play.  The problem is that Drew's almost never been given the ball--especially not when the lights are on and the ammo is live.  On Thursday, I hope he had one of those moments: eleven on eleven, practicing short-yardage, the offense and defense jawing at each other, the last play of a long practice session--did it bring out the Drew we saw at MSU?  Did the playmaking instincts kick in, and guide him to find the open man for the score?  All we really know is that that there was a lot of hooting and hollering, and the coaches liked what they saw.  Maybe it was a weight placed on the "Drew is our #3 Quarterback" side of the scale.  Maybe the decision's already been made one way or the other.  At the very least, it didn't hurt.

Again, this is all extrapolated from one little quote about one little play in a veterans-only OTA months before the season starts--but that's the magic of this time of year: trying to snare wisps of hints of rumors of football out of the ether, and weave them into something we can wrap around ourselves until autumn.


meet the cubs: derrick williams

>> 5.12.2009

Here is what you need to know about Penn State WR Derrick Williams.  To me, that Rivals profile is the most intriguing, damning, and promising thing about the Lions' latter third-round draft pick.  Coming out of high school, Derrick Williams was ranked by Rivals as the #1 overall recruit in the country . . . as an "ATH", or athlete.  This designation is typically used when an astonishing athlete is utilized all over the field in high school, and so doesn't have a pure position--typically when a kid plays QB in high school to terrorize defenses, but doesn't project as a D-I signal caller.  At Eleanor Roosevelt High, Williams played at least a little bit of basically every offensive skill position, as well as some cornerback.  At an eyelash under six feet, running a mindblowing 4.37 40-yard dash at a Nike camp before his junior year in high school, there was no doubt that Williams had all the physical tools to dominate the college game, no matter what college he chose to attend.

Unsurprisingly, there was something of a to-do surrounding Williams' recruitment and committment.  Penn State?  At the nadir of the recent Paterno era; after four losing seasons in five years?  The #1 overall recruit in the country, a phenomenal spread option quarterback prospect, and a multi-talented athlete?  Exactly the kind of kid that Paterno "couldn't" or "wouldn't" recruit?  Penn State?

Yes.  Williams' father, Dwight, explained:

"This is a decision we're going to make, and it's not just about football," Dwight Williams said. "We feel like there's a strong commitment there, not only for athletes and their athletic ability, but there's a commitment for people to be successful in life. People can laugh or do whatever they want, but this is our decision."

The decision thus made, Derrick Williams went to Penn State (over Florida, Texas, et. al.), and immediately made an impact.  With 22 receptions for 289 yards and a score, and 22 carries for 105 yards and three TDs, Williams's pure physical talent made him a contributor.  A broken arm suffered against Michigan cut his debut season short, but there were high expectations for the remainder of his seasons at Penn State.

Unfortunately, he never quite lived up to them.  Over the next three seasons, Derrick Williams played in every single game, and started all but one--and continued to produce largely at the same rate.  His sophomore year, he hauled in 40 catches for 440 yards and 1 TD, while carrying 36 times for 145 yards and another score.   His junior year, the recieving saw an uptick: 55 catches for 529 yards and three scores--but the rushing fell off; just 16 carries for 101 yards and one score.  In his senior year, he really did well on the ground, getting 43 carries for 243 yards and three touchdowns--but the recieving cooled off again, to 44 catches for 485 and 4 TDs.

Now, there are some very encouraging trends there; the touches and yards went generally up from year to year, and the TDs went WAY up his senior year.  Also, none of these stats include his return yardage or touchdowns, which were significant (115 punt returns for 721 and 3 TDs, 50 kick returns for 1,115 yards and 2 TD).  But really, the stats alone show how Williams was used: as a "slash" type weapon; a player who's great with the ball in space, but not necessarily great at just getting it done as a position player.  That role doesn't particularly translate well in the NFL.  Devin Hester, Reggie Bush, Peter Warrick . . . these players have tried to make hay in the margins in the NFL, trying to translate great open-field ability into productive north-south offensive play.  They've all been variably successful for varying periods. In my opinion, Derrick Williams' production in college points to a low ceiling for him in the NFL; he'll be never be an elite wideout like his 6'-0", 194#, 4.40 speed* would suggest.

The good news in all this?  The Lions have no expectations that Derrick Williams will develop into an elite wideout.  They don't particularly care that he does not boast amazing hands, nor incredible strength, nor surgically precise routes.  He's an athlete, a playmaker, and a gamebreaking return man--and that's exactly what they want him to be.  The question isn't whether he can overcome his lack of production as a college WR to become an excellent pro WR--the question is, can he be exactly what he was in college, in the pros?  The answer, as always, is tough to divine.  Quoth the Grandmaster:

“We need a returner. My philosophy on special teams is not to be safe and to find a guy that can catch the ball and fair catch it. We’re going to try to get some explosiveness, try to score. So a guy like Derrick Williams brought great value there.”

Issue #1 is his speed.  Tremendously fast for a high school player, it appears as though Williams got no faster in six years.  It's possible that the Nike camp time was somewhat inflated (er, deflated?), but from the summer before your junior year of high school and the spring after your senior year of college, you typically grow, strengthen, and mature physically.  To show zero improvement whatsoever is a little odd.  *By the way, to clear up some confusion, Williams cut a horrid 4.58 at the combine, then (rather lamely, I thought at the time) blamed it on a case of the flu.  However, he proved me--and the doubters--wrong by cutting a 4.37 and 4.41 at PSU's Pro Day.  Moreover, the straight-line track speed doesn't necessarily translate to pad-laden in-game speed.  For proof, I offer the one YouTube highlight reel:

We saw a lot of very very positive things on that highlight reel.  Williams displays great vision, burst, and instincts.  He shows a knack for finding daylight, setting up his blockers, and hitting a seam.  There's a wonderful quality he displays of running north-south unless he has to make a move, and then making just enough of a move to get back to running north-south.  That's an absolutely vital skill in a return man, and one that you don't often see in college.  

Unfortunately there are two things we didn't see him display on that tape: great hands, and elite speed.  That might sound a little odd, as he just clearly ran past a lot of defenders--but if you watch carefully, you'll see he's not covering ground at a breathtaking rate.  Skip to the 0:58 mark and watch carefully.  As the play progresses, note his progress as compared to the other white helmets.  After he hits the first pile, you'll note that he doesn't gain much ground on the players around him, even after he's broken into the open field.  Once the way is clear, he should hit another gear and streak to the house--but instead, he flies in formation with the tight ends and linebackers assigned to block for him.  Now of course, this doesn't mean that he's not faster than those guys, it just means that his shorts-and-t-shirt speed doesn't always translate to the field.  It should go without saying that the overall speed of the NFL blows away the college game . . . can he even be effective as a returner without that top gear?

Actually, deep speed might be the single most overrated attribute of pro prospects.  Especially as regards returners--there's a reason why "kick return" was listed as a separate ability on Madden for years.  Return ability isn't a value that can be derived from knowing a player's "speed" and "agility" ratings; it's something else entirely.  It's vision, it's instincts, it's an awareness of lanes and holes and angles.  Even without true home run speed, I'm pretty confident that Derrick Williams can step right in and be a very good NFL return man, maybe even a great one.  Most Lions fans over the age of 25 or so still light a candle every night for legendary returner Mel Gray, whose moves were electrifying, return averages through the roof, and return TD numbers pedestrian.  Just because Mel rarely took kicks or punts all the way to the house, didn't mean that he wasn't outstanding--nor did it invalidate the fact that he was an enormous asset to the Lions while he played.  Field position is extremely important, especially for a young offense struggling with consistency and third-down conversions.

In fact, let's look at that for a minute.  If you look at the 2008 numbers, the Lions were the 23rd-ranked team in kick return yardage, with 21.8.  The #1 team, the Titans, averaged 25.4.  This might not sound like a lot, but the Lions were kicked to an NFL-high 83 times; an increase of 3.6 yards per kick return translates to 298.8 yards!  If we do the same for punt returns, the Lions were ranked 24th with an 8.0 yards-per average.  The #1 team, the Bills, averaged 15.5.  The Lions didn't exactly force many punts, but even with just 21 returns, that would be 157.5 yards' difference.  Now, don't get too excited over this number, because kick and punt returns are different disciplines, and there are a lot of factors other than "Madden KR Rating" that go into this . . . but that's a difference of 456.3 yards.  The Lions left over four entire football fields' worth of field position on the table, just by having a below-average return unit instead of a great one.

I would be very curious to see the percentage of 2008 Lions drives that contained more than three third-down conversions.  Further, I'd be willing to bet that the number of Lions drives that contained more than four first-down conversions could be enumerated with a single digit.  Just think about Jason Hanson's incredible season last year, where he hit 8 of 8 50-plus yard field goals.  How many of those 456.3 yards would be needed to scoot how many failed drives to within his prodigious range?  How many of those 456.3 yards would be needed to make how many field goals touchdowns?  How many of those 456.3 yards would be needed to keep the other team's offense off the field for one or two more crucial minutes?  How many of those 456.3 yards would translate into how many wins on an 0-16 team?  Food for thought . . .

Derrick Williams might or might not be a great return man.  What about being a wide reciever?  It's absolutely indisputable that the Lions need a true slot wideout.  With Mike Furrey off to the Browns, and Shaun McDonald joining the Steelers, the Lions have signed a slew of warm bodies.  They're all going to audition for the role of Wes Welker: the quick, opportunistic playmaker working in the space created by the elite deep threat working the deep outside routes.  Derrick Williams has the exact frame and toolset to absolutely explode in this role.  However, his hands and route-running will hold him back.  He does not appear to be a natural pass-catcher--and his role at Penn State backs that up.  When you are a 6'-0", 194-pound, 4.40 wideout who was the #1 overall high school prospect in the nation, and you are in your senior year at a marquee school, and they're still using you primarily on screens, draws, reverses, and kick returns . . . there must be some pretty big holes in your game.  Then again, several sources I've read have speculated that his toolset is better suited to the pro game.  That his "slash" nature isn't his nature at all--it's due to his college coaches trying to maximize what they got out of his talents while he was there--not maximize his ability to play the wide reciever position.  It's entirely possible that with NFL coaches (Scott Linehan, Shawn Jefferson) focussing him in on being the best slot reciever he can be, he can in fact be a great slot reciever.

However, with early word out of rookie minicamp being that he really struggled to catch the ball, I'm guessing not.  Of  all the picks I've reviewed so far, this is the one I'm most disappointed with.  I absolutely think that this is a position of need--in fact, in one mock draft I did, I selected UNC WR/KR Brandon Tate with that 3.18 pick; a player with a practically identical skill set and resume.  In real life, Tate went with the very next pick, the 3.19, to the New England Patriots.  Soon enough, history will judge who's better at talent scouting: the Lions' front office, or me and Bill Belicheck.

Yes, that was a joke.


the lions congregation, week ten

>> 5.11.2009

It just occurred to me that I'm way overdue in linking you folks to the latest installment of The Lions Congregation!  The good Reverend is taking a few weeks' sabbatical--I don't blame him--so his parishioners tried to send him off on a high note.  As added incentive, Big Al from the always-entertaining The Wayne Fontes Experience has had the scales fall from his eyes; he'll be sharing his testimony with the rest of the most noteworthy Lions scribes (and me) every week from now on.  Topics discussed by the newly-expanded flock:

1) Are there any undrafted rookies that you expect to be on the team this season?

2) If you can pick one remaining free agent on the market for the Lions to sign, who is it?

3) What retired Lion (if any) deserves Hall of Fame consideration?

I'm going to beg a bit of forgiveness on this week's answers; I was emailing from my BlackBerry, so my answers were slow in creation--and looked a lot better on the smaller screen!  Mea culpa; the rest of the roundtable happily picked up the slack.


thoughts defensive

During the coaching search, I took a hard look at the 2008 Lions, and found that what was supposed to be the strength of the team--the defense--was not only the weakness of the team, it was absolutely rotten.  Miserable.  Historically, epically, shockingly bad.  Here's what I said at the time:

"I think this speaks to the crucial point: as awful as the Lions' woes at quarterback and offensive line have been, it's been the wet-newspaper defense that's really pounded the nails in the Lions' coffin. Just look at the numbers:

* Scoring Defense: Ranked 32nd--and it isn't close for 31st--with 517 points allowed (32.3 per game!). That's over double the amount of points that either the Steelers or Ravens allowed.

* Yardage Defense: Ranked 32nd, with 6,470 yards allowed.

* Passing Defense: Allowing a mere 3,716 yards passing slots the Lions' D 27th here, but that's highly misleading, as no team had fewer passes attempted against them (an average of only 27.7 attempts per game against). Opposing QBs, on the average, had a passer efficiency rating of 110.9--just think about that; every quarterback in the league becomes Steve Young at his peak when facing the 2008 Lions.  

* Rushing Defense: Ranked butt-naked last. 2,754 yards allowed on 536 carries; despite getting run at more times than any other defense save Seattle and Oakland, the Lions still allowed a mind-boggling 5.1 yards per carry. Every running back in the league became Jim Brown against the 2008 Lions.

I knew the defense was dire . . . but looking at the numbers, this is simply unbelievable. What's worse is that the numbers can't show how inopportune this defense was; stuffing the run on first down, getting the sack on second down, allowing the 35-yard completion on third down. Over and over and over and over, the Lions defense would show flashes of what they were meant to be for a play or a series or even a quarter--but when it mattered, the Lions defense could be absolutely counted on to play like they had forgotten to put a few guys out on the field."

Thus, the news of the hiring of Jim Schwartz, a incredibly well-respected defensive coordinator, as the new Lions head coach was welcome news.  The big question became, what would the new philosophy be?  The new direction?  What base alignment would the defense use?  How much of the Millen/Marinelli defensive player would be kept?  How much turnover would there have to be?  How long was this going to take?

I thought that the hiring of the defensive coordinator would answer most, if not all, of those questions . . . instead, the news that it would be former Chiefs DC Gunther Cunningham answered none of those questions.  Cunningham, in his first tour of duty as the Chiefs DC, had overseen one of the most agressive, effective, physical defenses in the history of the game.  He was promoted to head coach--and for a variety of reasons, the defense became less effective.  After being summarily replaced by Dick Vermeil, he landed as the linebackers coach in Tennessee, working under then-Titans DC Jim Schwartz.  When KC's defense struggled under Vermeil's replacement Herman Edwards, the organization offered Gunther his old coordinator's job back, and he accepted.  Though it was expected that Cunnignham would return with a dumpster full of his scrappy, hard-edged defensive knowhow, instead the defense barely changed.  With very little talent on the field, and Edwards' Tampa 2 fingerprints evident on the defensive gameplans, it was assumed that Gunther had either lost his fire--or had no juice.  As a result, the Kansas City defense was nearly as awful as the Lions' in 2008.

Since Cunningham had executed a Tampa 2 scheme in Kansas City, and the Lions' defense had been built to run Rod Marinelli's Tampa 2, would Gunther simply pick up where Marinelli left off?  Would the Lions' hirings herald a return to "Guntherball", or merely represent an attempt to slowly build upon what little Marinelli had achieved?  Cunningham, in his introductory press conference, immediately squashed all doubt:

"I've gone through three years of playing zone defenses because I was loyal to Herm Edwards, that's what he wanted. People here in town knew that I was different than that. My idea is to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, always has been, always will be. I think Jimmy knows that and I think he's a lot like that, although he was more zone conscious this year than he's ever been. But like I said at the beginning of this conversation I think the two of us will sit down and we'll decide what is the best thing that we can do and that's going to involve the organization's part of whatever Tom (Lewand) and Martin (Mayhew) decide on who we draft on defense and who else we get and how we do it. But my idea of coaching defense, it's explosive, it's aggressive, it's to go after people and make the players do things that they don't think they can do.[emphasis mine]

I think that all sounded great to everyone at the time, but I'm not sure we really understood the fundamental shift in philosophy that was happening.  Some speculated that a shift to the 3-4 was in the offing, some pointed to the relatively conventional (though excellent) 4-3 scheme that Schwartz employed at Tennessee, and both Schwartz and Cunningham repeatedly said that the alignment and scheme would be fitted to the personnel, and not the other way around.

We knew that the Lions would try and get bigger and tougher along the defensive front--Martin Mayhew said as much the day he and Tom Lewand assumed power.  We see this in the signing of Grady Jackson, the drafting of Sammie Lee Hill (who I've decided to tag "The Candyman" due to the similarity of his name to Sammy Davis, Junior, his jovial nature, and his apparent love of food), and the courting of free agent SDE Kevin Carter.  We also see this in the signing of edge-rushing OLB Julian Peterson, the drafting of downhill smash-up artist DeAndre Levy, and in Ernie Sims's recent WDFN interview where he talks about being freed up to blitz, to play instinctually, and to make plays.  Further, we have Cunningham himself talking about the same thing: Ernie Sims' abilities being unlocked once freed from the shackles of the Tampa 2 system.  This jibes exactly with what I speculated back in January:

"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'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."

I think the final piece of the puzzle comes in Jim Schwartz's recent 77-minute appearance on WRIF.  No stenographer, or similarly gifted typist that I could find has gone through the hours of drudgery required to actually transcribe this thing, but there was an absolutely illuminating quote buried in the middle of this "interview":

"Here's what we do.  We run a 4-3, but it's a little bit of a hybrid 4-3 in that there are some 3-4 principles.  Meaning this: you're going to see the defensive ends lined up really wide, like a 3-4 outside linebacker.  Their body shape is going to be really similar.  You know, like a 255, 265-pound guy, not your typical 280-, 290-pound defensive end.  They're going to set really really hard edges on the run, they're going to eliminate the boot, they're going to eliminate the stretch play, and we're going to funnel everything back down inside.  So, it has some 3-4 principles in it, but we're going to be based out of a 4-3."

This is really interesting.  This quote ends literally months of speculation as to the Lions' planned defensive scheme.  He says they'll run a 4-3, but will feature smaller--as in Cliff Avril small--defensive ends lined up very wide.  This explains the Lions' rumored heavy interest in 256# Connor Barwin, but doesn't quite jibe with the tire-kicking session they had with massive DE Kevin Carter.  It also doesn't mesh with Martin Mayhew's contention that Cory Redding "would have played outside for us anyway"; even if Redding lost 10-20 pounds to get back to his college weight, he'd still be a "typical 280-, 290-pound defensive end".

My guess is that Schwartz is describing the "design goal", if you will, of the new Lions defense--what the defense should look like after three seasons of cutting out deadwood and acquring talent that fits.  You'll have two two-gap DTs, two natural 330-pounders, clogging up the entire middle of the line.  Outside of them, you'll have two DE/OLB 'tweeners, 265-pound pass rushers, lined up wide of either offensive tackle.  The DEs' job on run downs will be to never let anyone with the ball get outside of them.  They'll push ball carriers back inside, where the Williams Wall-esque tackle pair will eat them.

Behind that front, you'll have three big hitters, three downhill run-and-hit guys.  On running downs, they will fly upfield and pop anybody who slips through the cracks up front--and on passing downs, they will fly upfield and try to bring down the quarterback.  Obviously, some pass coverage by the OLBs will be happening too--but again, like a 3-4, opposing defenses will never know where the blitz is coming from.

I like this.  I really do.  The Lions already have the linebackers for this: Peterson, Sims, Foote, Levy, Dizon, et. al. should be able to execute this defense at a pretty high level right away--and are even in decent shape in three years, with Foote and possibly Peterson gone, and Sims, Levy, and Dizon fully matured.  I like the safeties both now and for three years; Delmas and Bullocks can both cover and both hit.  They should clean up any mess that's left past the front seven, and will also help bail out the corners.

The corners, however, are in very rough shape.  Anthony Henry is dangerously close to being too slow to play corner in the NFL.  Philip Buchanon is a reclamation project who most recently turned in a B+ performance from within the Tampa 2 system--which we all know far too well doesn't ask much of its corners.  Buchanon has the natural talent to be an elite shutdown corner, but we haven't seen that Buchanon in years.  Behind them are Tennessee depth guy Eric King--who Jeff Fisher says can probably "get the job done" as a starter--and nothing but scrubs like Keith Smith and Ramzee Robinson behind them.  In today's NFL, you have to have three solid corners on defense--especially when your system is predicated on pass rush, and your pass rush blows.  The Lions currently have three guys with (in my estimation) 65%, 60%, and 35% chances of playing like "solid corners" in 2009.  The probability that all three will "hit" is low, so CB can be counted on to be a critical weak spot.

Then, of course, there is the small matter of the big guys up front.  The Lions have no Williams wall, or even one Williams.  They have a 36-year-old Williams-type currently going through intense personal pain, and just drafted a proto-Williams who is probably two years away from being ready for prime time.  They also have Chuck Darby, who is not now and will never be a Williams, and Andre Fluellen, who has never been a Williams, but has the frame and athleticism to get there in another year or two.  Darby and Jackson should be able to get away with being a pretty decent run-stopping tackle tandem for about 20 snaps a game, but after that the Lions are down to crossing their fingers and hoping that either Fluellen, Hill, or both miraculously step up. 

So, where does this leave the Lions' defense?  It's going to be better than last year; much better.  Frankly, it has to be--the 2008 Lions' defense was just about as bad as an NFL defense can possibly be.  Practically by definition, there has to be some improvement.  On top of that, the new scheme, as I've pieced together above, should maximize what legitimate NFL talent the Lions have: the pass rushing skills of Cliff Avril, Dewayne White, and Julian Peterson; the hitting ability of Ernie Sims and Larry Foote; the (presumptive) playmaking ability of Louis Delmas.  It should also hide some of the weaknesses: the heavy blitzing should take pressure off the corners, and the hard-hitting linebackers should help make up for some of the lack of talent up front.  Combine all this together, and the Lions defense should be no worse than "signifcantly better but still bad", and--if everything goes perfectly and all the stars align and all the acquisitions work out--could be ranked as high as 10th in the NFL, in terms of scoring defense.

Either way, this defense promises to be entertaining.  When it's successful, it will garner sacks, fumbles, picks--and big hits by the dozen.  When it's unsucessful, it will still be blown off the ball, still be unable to stop the run, still be unable to get off the field, and still susceptible to the deep pass.


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