I don’t know if you heard, but yesterday the Lions made a move that shook up the shopping list a little bit . . . but really, only a little bit.
Of course, all eyes are on the Defensive Tackle position. Last season, this was the team’s most desperate need. That draft netted Sammie Hill, an athletic big man out of tiny Stillman College; so raw he’d never attended an NFL game before he started his first. Throughout the season, the Lions got significant contributions from Grady Jackson (since released), Landon Cohen, Andre Fluellen, Joe Cohen, and Turk McBride.
Fluellen and McBride are both inside/outside guys who saw snaps at both DE and DT. Neither are long-term pieces of the puzzle at DT—in fact, I expect them to fight for a roster spot this summer. Same story, I predict, for the Cohen Brothers (they aren’t brothers). They’re similar players—but Landon’s youth, short-area quickness, and breathtaking physical development should give him the advantage.
Then, of course, there's the new guy: trade acquisition Corey Williams. A huge, gifted 4-3 pass rushing DT who blossomed into a franchise player in Green Bay, he went to Cleveland and struggled as a 3-4 end. It’s presumed that a change of scenery, and a return to his natural role, will allow him to pick up where he left off—but that’s just a presumption.
If Williams returns to the form that produced 69 tackles and 14 sacks in his 3rd and 4th years in the NFL, the Lions have a natural starting DT pair: a 320-pound pass rusher, and a 330-pound run stuffer. If he doesn't, the Lions are back to Sammie Hill stuffing the run on most downs—and rotating everyone else through both spots the rest of the way. Either way, Hill and Williams aren’t playing 60+ snaps each, and none of the rotational guys listed above currently pass muster. The Lions need a disruptive, starting pass-rushing 4-3 DT to rotate with Williams and Hill.
The Lions’ Defensive End depth chart is a mess right now, but summer should clear things up a bit. The way I believe this will work is this: Kyle Vanden Bosch will play right defensive end for all three downs, spelled by Cliff Avril as needed. Jason Hunter and Jared DeVries will battle in camp, and may ultimately platoon, at left end; Avril may also see snaps over there in passing situations. In running situations, McBride/Fluellen may rotate in at LE, as well.
KVB is the prototypical end for this defense; the Lions would start one of him on each side, if they could. Avril is slightly too small to play every down at LE, and Jason Hunter isn’t a polished enough pass rusher to play every down at LE either. Jared DeVries would have been a nice match to KVB a few years ago—but between age and injury, nobody knows how much he has left in the tank.
Obviously, with at least four players seeing time at left end, they don't currently have a long-term solution. If either Hunter or Avril takes a big step forward this season, it could be either of them—and if not, they could be gone after 2011. Further, KVB is no spring chicken; defensive ends rarely stay dominant deep into their thirties. The Lions need a starting, three-down, two-way defensive end in the mold of Kyle Vanden Bosch.
The Middle Linebacker spot is a blessed island of clarity in this muddled lagoon of a defense: DeAndre Levy will start, and play well, for a long time. Backing him up will be . . . holy crap! Nobody! The Lions have no other middle linebackers on the roster. The Lions need a developmental middle linebacker.
Now, we get to the spot that was made both clearer, and muddier, by yesterday's trade: Outside Linebacker. Julian Peterson is one starter—and, if my understanding of the defense is correct, the 6’-3”, 245-pound blitz specialist is the prototype for the defense. Just like KVB, they’d love to have two in-their-prime JPs on either side of Levy.
Gunther Cunningham has said before that Jordon Dizon is like JP only a half-a-foot shorter; I’ve never quite believed him, but it’s possible. Cunningham now says that he expects Zack Follett to compete for, and win, that starting role—presuming the Lions don’t draft that anonymous linebacker they’ve all fallen in love with. The rest of the group: Landon Johnson, Vinny Ciruciu, and Ashlee Palmer are all special teams aces who may or may not be in the mix to play OLB. Again, like KVB, Peterson’s getting up there—even if Follett, or one of the others steps up, the Lions need a starting, athletic, blitzing outside linebacker in the mold of Julian Peterson.
Now we get to the really, really hair-raising position: Cornerback. Despite the trade for talented young veteran CB Chris Houston, the Lions still have zero established starters at this position. Houston has been wildly inconsistent in his brief career, and the Falcons signed Dunta Robinson to replace him. After him, the depth chart is a Hogan’s Alley of almost-cornerbacks: Eric King, Jack Williams, DeAngelo Smith, Dante Wesley, Jahi Word-Daniels, and Jonathan Wade.
Most of those guys are pretty young—some very young, and with some measure of upside. However, all of these guys are, at best, young nickel/dime guys with some measure of upside. None of them should be anywhere near the starting lineup. Even if Chris Houston works out just fine, the Lions need at least one starting cornerback; they like ‘em smart and tough.
Finally, we get to the end of this mess: Safety. Of course, last year’s second-rounder, Louis Delmas, exploded in his rookie year, making plays left and right against the pass and the run. unfortunately, the other safety spot was arguably the weakest position on the roster, with Marquand Manuel, Ko Simpson, Marvin White, and some others no longer on the roster saw snaps back there. Again, just like KVB and JP, with the symmetrical Schwartz/Cunningham defense, I think they’d like to clone Delmas and start two of him.
On the other hand, Delmas is so excellent in run support—and the cornerbacks so dire—that if I were the Lions, I’d be okay with taking a more pure free safety to pair with Delmas. Given the quarterbacks in the NFC North, and how badly the Lions struggled to cover the pass in 2009, it only makes sense to have the best possible coverage guys out there. The Lions need a starting safety, who’s very strong in coverage.
So, the complete shopping list:
- A developmental quarterback who could push Stanton in camp.
- A starting, three-down power runningback with speed.
- A developmental power-blocking fullback, to complement Jerome Felton.
- A left tackle, who could be groomed to replace Jeff Backus.
- A power-blocking center, to be groomed behind Raiola.
- A starting, disruptive pass-rushing DT to rotate w/Williams & Hill.
- A starting, three-down, two-way defensive end, a la Kyle Vanden Bosch.
- A developmental middle linebacker.
- A starting, athletic, blitzing outside linebacker, a la Julian Peterson.
- At least one starting cornerback.
- A starting safety, who’s very strong in pass coverage.
What strikes you about this list? How about the fact that it is way too long to completely cross off in one draft. No matter what happens this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, there is no way that the Lions can “fill all the holes” or “get everything they need” or “address every question mark” or however you want to phrase the way drafts are normally graded. When this draft is over, I guarantee that you will look at the list of draftees and exclaim in horror, “THEY DIDN’T GET A ________?!?”
Let me assure you: they know. The Lions know where their roster holes are—maybe, believe it or not, even better than you do! All we can hope for is that their grades are right, and the players they choose actually DO fill those needs, instead of trap the Lions yes-no-maybe-so at that position for three years.
Next up: WHO.