Williams, Burleson, Vanden Bosch: Gasoline on the Lions' Little Blue Flame

>> 3.05.2010

Corey Williams08-120224319 November 2006: Wide receiver (81) Nate Burleson of the Seattle Seahawks during warmups against the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park in San Francisco, CA.

28 September 2008: Tennessee Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (93).  The Tennessee Titans defeated the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 30 to 17 at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee.

Icon SMI

Last night, I posted, and we liveblogged, in anticipation—wondering, waiting, hoping.  What would the Lions do?  Who would they pursue?  Would their “selective, aggressive” approach net them real building blocks, stopgap solutions, or nothing at all?  Would we have reasons to jump for joy, and rekindle our hope, or trying to get over our disappointment?  Our impatience was rewarded: we didn’t even have to wait for midnight for the first move.

The Lions sent the later of their two fifth round picks to Cleveland, and in return got Corey Williams, and the Browns’ seventh-rounder.  Williams, a 6’-4”, 320-pound defensive tackle, was a sixth-round pick of the Packers in 2004.  He saw spot duty for two years, then—after notching two sacks against the Lions in 2006—took over the starting job.

Williams garnered 7 sacks in both ‘06 and 07, even being named the GMC Defensive Player of the Week for his 2-sack, 4-solo-tackle, 2-forced-fumble performance against Carolina.  Following a tough playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl-winning New York Giants, wherein Williams had 4 solo tackles and 5 assists, the Packers placed the franchise tag on Willliams.

However, the Packers traded Williams to the Browns, in exchange for a second-round pick.  Williams was to move from his natural 4-3 tackle position to a 3-4 end spot, flanking fellow 2008 Browns acquisition Shaun Rogers.  Given his big-body size and pass-rusher speed, Williams seemed to be an ideal fit for what the Browns wanted to do.

Unfortunately, Williams simply failed to produce as an end.  Despite starting every game, Williams only managed a half a sack in 2008.  Relegated to the rotation for almost all of 2009, Williams was mostly invisible, but occasionally flashed his old form.  He got his first start of 2009 against Pittsburgh in Week 14—and responded with 5 solo tackles and 2 sacks, leading the Browns to one of the most improbable upsets of 2009.

Corey Williams, at age 29, with seven years of experience, is the kind of foundational veteran in his prime that the Lions have so few of.  With him as a pass-rushing 3-technique (and despite my confusion last night, that’s what he is), and Hill at the 1-tech, the Lions will have 650 pounds of beef in the middle of the line.  That could be the kind of “you won’t run against us” interior the Lions want to build.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Williams will recapture the form that earned him the Packers’ franchise tag—but, given the pittance they gave up to get him—moving down from the middle of the fifth to the early seventh—it’s a huge win for Mayhew and the Lions.

Nate Burleson is a player I’ve always admired.  When the Vikings were at the peak of their Dennis Green, pinball-numbers, media-fawning-all-over-them, not-winning-anything-ness, Burleson stood out as a smart, tough, talented player who wreaked havoc in the margins between Randy Moss and Marcus Robinson.

In fact, in only his second year since being drafted in the third round, he led the Vikings in receptions and yards (68/1,006), and finished second only to Randy Moss in TDs (9 to Moss’s 13).  This was partially due to him taking over for Moss for a few games when Moss tweaked a hamstring—but production is production. 

Then, there was the whole Poison Pill fiasco.  Seattle, whose All-Pro guard, Steve Hutchinson, had been pilfered by the Vikings—because the Vikings had included a clause that made Hutchinson’s entire contract fully guaranteed if he was ever not the highest-paid offensive lineman on the roster.  Since Seattle was already paying LT Walter Jones more than Hutchinson’s offer, they “couldn’t” match the offer sheet.  In retaliation, the Seahawks signed Burleson to an offer sheet with a clause making the entire contract guaranteed if he played more than five games in one season in the state of Minnesota.

Burleson didn't quite match his 2004 performance in his first year as a Seahawk--but catching 50 balls for 694 yards and 9 TDs wasn’t too shabby.  He showed the burst and open-field moves that a receiver needs in the Bill Walsh offense; he took short passes from Matt Hasselbeck and stretched them out to an average 13.9 yards per catch.

In 2008, the sky was the limit—until Burleson tore his ACL in the season opener, putting him on the shelf until 2009.  He was on pace for an excellent ‘09 campaign, until he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 13.  Still, he finished with 63 catches for 812 yards and 3 TDs—right in line with his career pace.

When Burleson's healthy, he produces at a pace that’d net him 60-80 catches for a year, at 12-14 YpC.  This is a world apart from Bryant Johnson’s miserable 35-catch, 417-yard performance in 2009.  Moreover, Burleson has the quickness, route-running ability, hands, and toughness to make teams pay for single-covering him with their #2 corner.  He’s the perfect weapon to exploit the aerated coverage he’ll see when playing with Megatron.

With his tough-as-nails approach to the game, and his intelligence, Kyle Vanden Bosch is Jim Schwartz’ kind of player—and Jim Schwartz’s kind of man.  At Nebraska, he was a three-time Big 12 All-Academic selection, and finished his bachelor’s degree in finance with a 3.82 GPA.  He was also Nebraska’s three-time Lifter of the Year.  His 6-4”, 270-pound frame is a prototypical match to Schwartz’s ideal.

Perhaps, then, Vanden Bosch wasn’t surprised Schwartz arrived on Kyle’s doorstep at midnight.  They spent all the wee hours together sharing some vino, and talking some football:

"He said, 'We want to bring you in to be a big-time player,'" Vanden Bosch said. "Not a figurehead. ... He said, 'I watched the tape last year and you're still the same player you were two years ago [when he had 12 sacks for the Titans]. It's just one thing here or there.' ... It was good to hear that again."

The stats, of course, don’t really bear that out: Vanden Bosch had 31 sacks in 2005, 2006, and 2007 combined--but only 7.5 in 2008 and 2009 combined.  Part of that was due to a groin injury robbing him of 10 games in 2008, but as I said before: production is production.

Was Vanden Bosch just a beneficiary of the Titans’ great DT play?  Is he a shadow of his former self?  Will he be a teacher’s pet, a "system guy” whose skills have left him?  According to Tom Kowalski, the answer to those questions is “no”.

Obviously, we’ll find that all out soon enough.  For now, what matters is that the Lions have addressed three of their most important needs: DT, DE, and WR, with veterans who aren’t perfect—but are perfect fits for what the Lions want to do.

The Lions can’t—shouldn’t, anyway—be done.  With the release of Philip Buchanon, the Lions have exactly zero legitimate starting cornerbacks.  The free-agent pickings are somewhat slim there, with only Lito Sheppard catching the eye as a possible step-in-and-start UFA.  There are, however, a few interesting safeties available, and the Lions may yet make a move at left guard.

The National Football Post is reporting that the Lions are in the running for Houston G Chester Pitts, who's a huge, experienced veteran coming off of knee surgery.  Pitts has played both left guard and left tackle, making his versatility a bonus. 

Regardless of who else the Lions pick up--or who else they acquire by trade--today was a huge, huge win for the Lions.  They were selective, they were aggressive, and they made their football team much, much better.  Here’s to more of the same—and a sold out home opener.


Detroit Lions Free Agency Live Blog Bonanza

>> 3.04.2010

I've always wanted to do this . . . it's a free agency live blog!  Tomorrow, we can gather around to talk about all the amazing, incredible players that Mahyew and Lewand have conspired to bring in.  I've never pulled one of these things off, so please be patient with me.  I'll probably throw it open at midnight, but comment moderation is going to be (extremely) sporadic until reasonable morning hours.

Again, please, patience with me, and civility towards others, will be the keys to this going smoothly.


The Detroit Lions On the Eve of NFL Free Agency, 2010

Lion_at_night_fs Lions fans have gotten used to going to bed on this night knowing that the Lions won’t be making headlines in the morning.  Last year at this time, the mantra was “right player, right price”—and we saw that mantra repeated as players like Grady Jackson and Philip Buchanon were signed to modest, short-term deals.

In fact, this has always been the plan.  At the press conference introducing Mayhew and Lewand as the new GM and Team President, Mayhew said:

We will build this thing through the draft - okay. We're not going to be jumping out there in free agency and throwing 30 million bucks at somebody on the first day at midnight. I think the way to do it is through the draft and we do it through young guys and you develop your guys, and you spend time training your guys. You don't give up on your guys. You hang in there with them and a lot of the good organizations in this league - that's what those teams do.

That sounded pretty trite and tired to Lions fans desperate for change.  It was true that the Lions’ roster was devoid of young, quality veteran talent —and truer that such talent is rarely available, or affordable, in free agency. 

After all, free agents are by definition players whose original teams didn’t think they were worth the money.

Still, Lions fans had to either accept that this would be a long, slow process, wherein rookies and veterans would try to bridge the gap between 0-16 and competitiveness, or get all ARGLBARGL about why the Lions aren’t going after any difference-makers.

The 2009 draft class offered little in the way of victories, but a lot of hope for the future.  The youngsters even beat the would-be Pudge Of The NFL, Albert Haynesworth, when he and his $100M contract came to town in Week 3.  By now, most Lions fans have come to realize the shocking dearth of talent on the Lions’ roster can only be rebuilt the slow, steady way: through several years of consistently excellent drafting.  Tom Lewand told Killer so just today:

We'll be ready to be on the phone after midnight.
Wait, what?
We'll see where it takes us. We're prepared. We've done a good job of getting ready and we're looking forward to it starting.
Wow.  That’s far from the “right player at the right price” bargain-hunting philosophy that’s been the hallmark of the last several free agent signing periods.  It’s partially due to a hearty stock of talent at a couple of key need positions: runningback, and defensive end.  It’s partially due to the strides the Lions managed to take with just one draft class, and where they hope to be after one more.  But partially, it’s due to this.

The Lions are struggling to sell tickets.  They’re cutting prices.  They’re going All-You-Can-Eat.  They’re coming up with every scheme under the sun to get people to come to Ford Field.  But after a decade of complete and total futility, many fans won’t invest their emotions, their time, or their money, until the Lions prove that they’re competitive.

Let me be clear: the Lions have a direction.  They have a foundation.  They have a brand-new coach, staff, quarterback, and front office.  These men have a ‘pass’ for at least this year and next; they’ll be justly given a chance to succeed before they can be blamed for on-field failure.  Ownership understands that these men cannot produce instant results with the tools they’ve been given.

But while the coaching staff answers to the front office, and the front office answers to the ownership, ownership answers to the fans—and we fans have reached the limits of our grace; we have no free passes left to give to anybody.

Above all, the Lions are a billion-dollar business, and you and I are the customers.  We buy the tickets, the gear, the brats, and the beer that keeps the lights on at Ford Field.  If we don’t go to the games, there’s no money coming in the door--and we won’t go to the games unless we have hope of seeing a win.

I’m not saying that the Lions are looking for a “quick fix”—they’re not about to ditch their long-term construction project and put up a yurt.  But the timetable is accelerated: they’re going to have to go over budget, bring in more contractors, and maybe lobby for some tax breaks or bribe an inspector or two.

They can’t cut corners—they won’t weaken the concrete or cheap out on the fixtures—but the Lions are going to push with everything they’ve got to prove to you and to me that they really are building something special under all those tarps, and all that scaffolding.

Tomorrow is going to be a very interesting day.  The salary cap will evaporate; that the old barrier to trades, the accelerated cap hit of prorated signing bonuses, will be gone.  Players and picks can be swapped at will, and the only financial considerations will be if the team can afford to pay the players’ game checks.

You may or may not see the Lions drain the piggy bank to sign a Kyle Vanden Bosch or a Thomas Jones; Mayhew indicated they have a couple of specific targets and will be aggressively pursuing them.  But Killer and I both think the real headlines will come from the trades that Mayhew has doubtlessly been pursuing.

Either way, I am positive that 24-48 hours from now, the Lions’ roster will be different—perhaps very different.  Will that help rekindle the blue flame in the hearts of those who’ve turned away?  Will it inspire the fans to go on shopping spree for gear and season tickets?  Will it ensure the Lions play before a full house, and a full TV audience, game after game after game?

We can only hope.


Goodbye: The Church of Schwartz

>> 3.02.2010

congregation Though it's been scarcely a year since I began writing here, it seems like it's been much longer.  I find myself looking back through the archives more and more often, to remind myself of “how I did it last time”, or to check up on how my old predictions came out.

As exciting as it is to begin drawing from my blog’s ‘history’, this is still a very young site.  For the most part, the friends, readers, and commenters who’ve gathered here have stayed—if for no other reason than they just got here.  The Lions in Winter simply hasn’t been around long enough for the natural cycle of an Internet community to make a complete trip around; very few regular commenters have come, stayed, grown close, grown distant, and then left.

However, while TLIW hasn’t been around that long, the Lions blogosphere has . . and today, we say goodbye to The Church Of Schwartz.  As you can see, hackers have eviscerated the site—and its archives.  The authors, Reverend Spielman and Deacon Blades Boyd, have elected not to try to recreate from scratch what they’d spent the last year building.

The email from the good Reverend to the members of The Lions Congregation, the CoS’s weekly Lions writer roundtable, saddened and depressed me.  The number of truly dedicated Lions fans is relatively small; that of the excellent, frequently-updated Lions blogs even smaller.

We won't be losing Rev or the Deacon as fans, of course—and the Reverend assures me that they’ll continue to read and comment on Lions blogs and forums as they always have—but now, there’s one less place on the Internet that Lions fans can go for thoughtful, well-presented analysis and discussion, and for that we’re all worse off.

Reverend, Deacon, if you’re reading this, I’m pouring two mugs of hot, hard cider, and keeping two seats by the blue bonfire open for you.  You’re welcome to sit and drink here any time.


Antonio Cromartie Being Traded to the Lions?

>> 3.01.2010

03 January 2009:  San Diego's Antonio Cromartie #31 breaks up a pass intended for Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne #87 during the San Diego Chargers' 23-17 playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA. Last August, Gunther Cunningham was “flat pissed off” about Lions defenders wimping out on making tackles:

We had four guys on that play last week turn it down. Not miss it, turn it down, in my opinion.  You can coach and teach and all that, but it's about building an attitude. It's about an attitude that we're going to build on this defense, or they're going to have to deal with me, and I don't think they want to do that.

So it surprised me a little, and Tom Kowalski too, to hear that the Lions are at the forefront of the Antonio Cromartie derby.  Why would that be surprising?

Well, there's this: a brilliant, and hilarious, mock Facebook page that savagely lays bare Cromartie’s lack of tackling effort in the AFC playoffs.  How could Gunther, a lover of old-school, hard-nosed defense, possibly be okay with trading for a corner whose clean-jersey play is the stuff of Internet legend?

Here’s a scouting report on Cro, at the time of his draft:

We are all familiar with the fact from a personal standpoint that I like big corners. This young man definitely fits the criteria. He’s a unique physical talent. We looked at the opportunity at bringing a guy in here that is going to give us playmaking ability in the secondary. When you watch the tape on him you see his ball skills and it’s very impressive . . .

When you look at the skills and you see the body of work he was involved with you feel very confident and comfortable that the only think that it comes down to is the medical. The medical came back absolutely fine. I’m confident it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. It was very evident that he was the one guy there that was clearly our choice.

Who said that?  The Chargers’ then-Head Coach, Marty Schottenheimer.  Remember when Gunther built those legendarily nasty Chiefs defenses in the mid-to-late 90s?  Yeah, that was with Marty at the helm.  Marty is not only a longtime friend and colleague of Gunther’s, they share a passion for old-school football.

In 1997, when Marty and Gunther’s Chiefs had the #1 defense in the NFL, they did it with corners James Hasty and Dale Carter.  Hasty was a little smaller, and a little feistier, but take a look at Carter: 6’-1”, 194 pounds, didn’t put up great tackling stats (when they managed to even keep track of his tackles) . . . but picked off 21 passes in his first seven years in the NFL.

These numbers look very, very much like Antonio Cromartie’s career to this point, and I’d think Cunningham would consider Cromartie & Buchanon, with King competing with James and/or a rookie for the nickel spot, a big upgrade over Buchanon, James, and a street free agent. Remember, it wasn’t tackling that Lions corners Philip Buchanon, Anthony Henry, and Will James couldn’t do last season—it was covering opposing wide receivers.

The other thing you have to consider is the price.  Tom Kowalski and Michael Schottey are both saying that Cro might be had for as little as a fifth-round pick—and that’s simply a must-do deal.  There’s no way that the Lions could add a corner of Cromartie’s physical skills in the fifth round—and, as I’ve said before, cornerback is a spot where rookies almost never provide drop-in upgrades; the learning curve is very steep.

This trade would add a talented veteran at a position of extreme need for a minimal price.  Given Martin Mayhew’s penchant for pulling these types of deals off, is it really that surprising?  All we can do now is wait for the beginning of the league year (Friday), when Cro’s salary becomes tradable, and hope.


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