But, with the draft upon us, I have to sum up the Lions’ needs. It only makes sense: if the Lions are restocking the cupboard, they need a shopping list, right?
Josh over at Roar of the Lions came up with the perfect description of how the Lions' front office drafts: "BATFAN," or Best Available That Fits A Need. The idea is that you're taking the best available player, but only if that player fits a perceived need. This doesn't involve RANKING said needs. If there are four available players that all fit a roster niche, the one getting drafted will be the best player, not the one fans might think is most needed.
This is why Brandon Pettigrew got taken over a middle linebacker at 1.20 last year: TE, though not a position most fans cared about, was manned solely by Casey FitzSimmons and Will Heller. A two-way TE, a sweet blocker with soft hands, was a definite need, and Brandon Pettigrew was graded by the Lions to be a better player than any MLB on the board.
Of course, nobody outside of Allen Park's innermost sanctum knows what the Lions' true draft grades are. With what we know of the schemes the coaches run, and the qualities they look for, and the performance of the players still on the roster from 2009, we can at least take a stab at what the Lions consider to be their needs.
When it comes to Quarterback, Matthew Stafford is the franchise quarterback, the alpha and the omega, the present and future king. The Lions brought in veteran Shaun Hill to serve as the primary backup, and he's a good fit. With Scott Linehan having coached the eight-season veteran during his formative years in Minnesota, Hill and his lifetime 23/11 TD/INT ratio should walk in the door a trustworthy backup. At 30 years of age, with only 16 career starts, Hill also has a lot of tread on the tires; if he does indeed work out, the Lions will be set at quarterback for years.
I don't know if this is good news or bad news for perennial underdog Drew Stanton. One one hand, Drew is a second-round pick entering his fourth year, and most would be very surprised if he's any higher than third on the depth chart come Week 1. On the other, he has shown a few flashes here and there, and this will be his first time playing for the same OC two seasons in a row. The bottom line is that the Lions could use a developmental quarterback to push Stanton in camp.
At Runningback, the Lions have made it absolutely clear that they plan to upgrade over incumbent (but injured) starter Kevin Smith. They desire a back that has the explosion, deep speed, and big-play ability that Smith lacks. From my position on the couch, there'd be a natural fit: draft an explosive scatback with questions about his ability to run between the tackles, let him show what he can do all summer, and then when Smith comes back you have an effective tandem.
I don't think the Lions agree with me.
It's been said that the Lions were strongly considering drafting Beanie Wells if he'd fallen to them at the top of the second round. Given what we know of the Lions' approach; that they want to build a power-running team, it becomes clear: they’re not looking for a "lighting" to Kevin Smith's "thunder". They won’t be drafting a Reggie Bush-type jitterbug. No, they want Fast Kevin Smith: a power back with speed, not a speed back.
For what it's worth, I thought Maurice Morris ran very, very well last season--in fact, he was much more effective than Smith. If the Lions chose to roll with him, 2nd-year scatback Aaron Brown, and signee DeDe Dorsey, I think they’d get by fine until Smith returned—and the Lions would probably agree. The Lions’ intent with drafting a runningback isn’t to upgrade their backups—it’s to upgrade their starter. The Lions want to draft a starting power back with speed.
Wide Receiver, the bane of the Lions' drafts, may finally be set. Calvin Johnson is the most physically wideout in football. Free agent signee Nate Burleson is a favorite of OC Scott Linehan’s—and is extremely dangerous when working in the space created by a complementary deep threat. Last year’s #2, Bryant Johnson, #3, Dennis Northcutt, and 2009 third-round draftee Derrick Williams round out a very nice five-deep set. I don’t believe they’re thrilled with Johnson, Northcutt, or Williams as long-term solutions, so perhaps they draft a developmental player—but with the lack of 4- and 5-WR sets in Linehan’s offense, they won’t carry six receivers on the roster. The Lions may or may not be looking for a developmental wide receiver.
With 2009 first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew coming back, the Lions know who their #1 Tight End is. He’s a strong blocker, who was developing into one of Stafford’s favorite targets before he got hurt. After him, there’s Will Heller, who was brought in to be a pure blocker—but surprised with his soft, clutch hands. Dan Gronkowski and Jake Nordin are both young, strong, developmental blocking tight ends.
With the retirement of Casey FitzSimmons, the Lions no longer have a receiving tight end with speed. Given the way Linehan likes to use two-TE sets, the Lions could use a developmental athletic, pass-catching tight end.
At Offensive Tackle, the Lions have stalwart LT Jeff Backus, and 2008 first-round RT Gosder Cherilus. Backus, of course, has been a lightning rod for fan ire, with his outlandish contracts and inconsistent level of play. However, his durability, toughness, and intelligence have kept him in the starting lineup for 144 straight games—through four head coaches, a mess of offensive coordinators, and 111 losses. Coming off of his best season yet, with HC Jim Schwartz saying he was worthy of a Pro Bowl nomination, it’s clear that the Lions don’t see LT as a need—for 2010.
Cherilus has been even more inconsistent in his tumultuous two-year career. He’s been “starting” and “benched” and back again more times than I can count, and every time I’ve thought he looks like a star in the making, he’s immediately committed an idiotic mistake that kills the team. I have no idea whether the Lions see Cherilus as a long-term solution at RT, and neither do you (unless you are Martin Mayhew or Jim Schwartz in which case thanks for reading, and what are you doing reading blogs get back to work).
With the release of swing G/T Daniel Loper, the Lions are relying on veteran Jon Jansen to back up both LT and RT . . . and Jansen wasn’t considered to be athletic enough to pass protect on the left, even in his prime. The Lions need a left tackle, who could be groomed to replace Jeff Backus.
The Lions’ Offensive Guard situation is one of the most interesting on the team. The only sure thing is RG Stephen Peterman, who played very well until his ankle injury. On the left side, trade conquest Rob Sims, heretofore of the Seahawks, will be starting—but he’ll be playing on a one-year RFA tender offer. Whether the Lions extend him to a long-term deal, or let him walk in 2011, could depend on the two Lions (and former Texas Tech Red Raiders) who just signed their own RFA tenders: Manny Ramirez and Dylan Gandy.
Ramirez, finally off the bench after languishing under Marinelli, was constantly in and out of the lineup, platooning with the now-released Loper at right guard. The fact that they tendered him shows they still believe in his potential--but then, they tendered Loper, too, and he's now gone. Gandy did okay, but not great, in relief of Peterman. Gandy has the ability to play center, too, so he provides some versatility.
The Lions are set at guard for 2010: Sims and Peterman, with Ramirez and Gandy backing them up. However, if the Lions don’t think either of the reserves has a long-term future as a starter, I could easily see the Lions drafting a guard. The Lions need a long-term answer at left guard—but they may already have one.
At Center, the Lions have the same answer they've had for nine years: Dominic Raiola. Though, like Backus, a popular punching bag for his youthful mistakes, Raiola has been a consistently tough, intelligent, athletic presence in the middle of the line. He’s not a mauler, but he’s excellent at the second level. Therefore, he’s not a perfect fit for what the Lions want to do in the run game, and he will start to decline in the next few years—but for now he’s solid, and Gandy can back him up. The Lions could use a power-blocking center, to groom behind Raiola.So, here's the shopping list:
- A developmental quarterback who could push Stanton in camp.
- A starting, three-down power runningback with speed.
- A developmental pass-catching tight end, with athleticism and speed
- A left tackle, who could be groomed to replace Jeff Backus.
- A power-blocking center, to be groomed behind Raiola.
There are also two positions that are filled for 2010, but—depending on the Lions’ opinion—could be needs for 2011 and beyond:
- A wide reciever with speed, possibly with special teams usefulness.
- A long-term answer at left guard, if the Lions don't extend Rob Sims.