Detroit Lions 2008 Preview Report

Kitna

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 4th

2007 Record: 7-9 (3rd NFC North)

Head coach: Rod Marinelli (3rd year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Jon Kitna Righteous leader but must take fewer sacks and have fewer turnovers.

RB: Kevin Smith* Only a third-round pick, but feebleness at RB position could land him a starting job right away.

FB: Jon Bradley Converted defensive lineman who, not surprisingly, is powerful on contact. Still, should be a specialist off the bench.

WR: Roy Williams Remarkable hands and sinewy frame make him a freak of nature. No. 1 receiver but needs to be more consistent.

WR: Calvin Johnson Far from spectacular as a rookie, but is now healthy and out of the ridiculous Mike Martz offense. Should still live up to the hype.

TE: Dan Campbell On the downside of his career and coming off elbow surgery. The hope is that he can remain an excellent blocker.

LT: Jeff Backus Not as good as his reputation indicates; struggles in pass protection.

LG: Edwin Mulitalo Limited athleticism, but when he gets a hand on a guy, he’s effective. Intelligent run-blocker.

C: Dominic Raiola Gritty player who plays like a bare knuckles fighter. Ruthless in run-blocking, but doesn’t extend well in space. Mediocre pass protector.

RG: Stephen Peterman Fringe starter who looked good last year largely because Damien Woody looked so bad.

RT: Gosder Cherilus* Has a massive frame (6’7″, 318), and is an aggressive space-clearer. Some scouts question his awareness and footwork in pass-blocking.

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QB: Drew Stanton Rookie year was wasted by knee injury and Mike Martz’s alterations to his throwing mechanics. Won’t see the field in ’08 unless Kitna gets hurt.

RB: Tatum Bell Was benched for the final 11 games last season but surprisingly opted to re-sign for one year, $1.6 million. Expected to rebound running behind familiar zone blocking.

WR: Shaun McDonald Led the team with 79 receptions for 943 yards and six TD’s in ’07. Quick feet allow him to redirect extremely well.

WR: Mike Furrey A No. 4 WR who, just two years ago, led the NFC with 98 receptions. Excellent possession guy.

TE: Casey Fitzsimmons With Jim Costello’s new offense, his H-back position no longer exists. Might not make the team.

OL: George Foster Horrendous pass-blocker, but re-signed to a one-year contract. Days in Denver gave him experience in Detroit‘s new zone blocking scheme.

Defense

LDE: Jared DeVries More of a backup, though he did record 6.5 sacks last season. Doesn’t make an everydown impact.

NT: Chuck Darby** Fringe starter who was brought in because of his familiarity with Rod Marinelli’s Tampa 2 system.

UT: Cory Redding Dropped off the map after signing a mega contract last season. Still, coaches aren’t too discouraged about him.

RDE: Dewayne White Another one of Marinelli’s former Bucs. High motor, moves well against the run and pass, but needs better players around him.

SLB: Paris Lenon Was in over his head at MLB in 2007. Better outside, but not physical enough to line up across from tight ends.

MLB: Jordan Dizon* Grossly undersized (6’0″, 225) but was a highly productive tackler at Colorado.

WLB: Ernie Sims One of the league’s bright young forces. Covers a remarkable amount of ground. Only area of his game in need of improvement is pass coverage.

CB: Brian Kelly** Whatdaya know:.another former Buc. At 32, trying to prove he’s not washed up.

SS: Dwight Smith** And another ex-Buc. Not exactly a role model, but at least he brings some much-needed toughness to the backfield.

FS: Daniel Bullocks Showed positive signs as a rookie in ’06, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL.

CB: Leigh Bodden** Got picked on at times in Cleveland, though also led the Browns with 6 interceptions. Marvin Lewis said he’s one of the best CB’s in the league.

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DL: Shaun Cody Yes, he’s miscast as a NT. But it’s not like he’s done anything as a one-gap guy.

LB: Alex Lewis Special teams maven who has good speed. Has never been able to cash-in on defensive opportunities.

NB: Travis Fisher Was steady as a starter last year but probably doesn’t have enough flair to keep the job from Bodden.

Key Players Added

CB Leigh Bodden (Cle)

DT Chuck Darby (Sea)

TE Michael Gaines (Buf)

LB Gilbert Gardner (Ten)

G Corey Hulsey (FA)

CB Brian Kelly (TB)

S Kalvin Pearson (TB)

RB Artose Pinner (FA)

S Dwight Smith (Min)

Key Players Lost

LB Boss Bailey (Den)

CB Fernando Bryant (NE)

RB T.J. Duckett (Sea)

DE Kalimba Edwards (Oak)

RB Kevin Jones

S Kenoy Kennedy

LB Teddy Lehman (TB)

QB J.T. O’Sullivan (SF)

DT Shaun Rogers (Cle)

OL Blaine Saipaia

OL Damien Woody (NYJ)

The Lions were busy during the offseason. And you should see the list of players they tried to get but couldn’t (Jonathan Vilma, Randall Gay, Drayton Florence, among others). The biggest addition is Dwight Smith. He has questionable character but excellent experience in the Cover 2. Smith is one of four newcomers who played for Rod Marinelli in Tampa Bay (Pearson, Darby and Kelly are the others). Pearson comes with baggage, as he was arrested over the offseason for allegedly choking the woman carrying his baby. Darby is a serious downgrade from Rogers, but he’s cheaper and works harder. Bodden is better than Kelly; both can start. Besides Rogers, everyone who left Detroit was either old, injured or no good.

2008 – Detroit Lions

Rd

Sel #

Player

Position

School

1

17

Gosder Cherilus

T

Boston College

2

45

Jordon Dizon

OLB

Colorado

3

64

Kevin Smith

RB

Central Florida

3

87

Andre Fluellen

DT

Florida State

3

92

Cliff Avril

LB

Purdue

5

136

Kenny Moore

WR

Wake Forest

5

146

Jerome Felton

FB

Furman

7

216

Landon Cohen

DE

Ohio U.

7

218

Caleb Campbell

DB

Army

Cherilus fills a gaping hole at RT. Even if he struggles early on, he’ll almost certainly be better than George Foster. Dizon was immediately moved to MLB. He’ll likely learn under fire as a rookie starter in 2008. Smith could also start right away. The Lions were entranced by his numbers in college and traded up to get him. Fluellen and Avril have a chance to earn meaningful snaps right away, though both have some development to do. It’s hard to see how Moore will find playing time with Detroit‘s rich receiving corps. Campbell made the most headlines of any of these picks. A change in policy put his career on hold, as he’s required to serve two more years in the Army. He asserts that his country comes before football.

Detroit Lions 2008 Preview Report

Hey come on, take it easy. You know, it would take the Egyptians 20-30 years to build a pyramid. And that was with some 7,000 people working. Things can’t simply be built–or rebuilt–overnight. This isn’t Dubai. This is America. More specifically, Detroit.

The good news is that William Clay Ford’s Lions are actually making progress this time. This is technically Year Eight of the Matt Millen rebuilding project (Year Eight:.that’s hard to believe), but really, the wheels have only been churning in the right direction for the past two.

That’s how long the Lions have been under the guidance of throwback head coach Rod Marinelli. The longtime Bucs defensive line guru took over in 2006. Like a true Lion, Marinelli led the team to a 3-13 record his first season. But last year, Detroit finished a respectable 7-9. The promising, or discouraging, part–depending on how you look at it–is that the Lions started 6-2.

What happened down the stretch? Well, for one, the defense was very Detroit-esque. It gave up more yards and points than any unit in football. The offense wasn’t too good either. It ranked ninth on paper, but that was because control-freak coordinator Mike Martz called about 300 runs plays. That’s less than half the number of passes he radioed in. Martz is gone now, and Lions players have been breathing sighs of relief.

A lot of them have reason to. With new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto installing a simpler scheme, superhuman receiver Calvin Johnson can make more of an impact in 2008. Veteran quarterback Jon Kitna can now call audibles at the line of scrimmage–a modern luxury that is afforded to virtually every other quarterback in the league. Kitna’s backup and heir apparent, Drew Stanton, can go back to throwing with the mechanics that made him a second-round pick last year. (Martz foolishly altered Stanton‘s throwing style.) Running back Tatum Bell can play again. Last season, Bell‘s agent criticized his client’s role with the team. Suspiciously, Bell was benched for the final 11 games. And finally, the offensive line can do much more of the only thing it really does halfway well: run block.

It will still be a slow process offensively. After all, an improved scheme does not equate to improved players. But at least the Lions are headed in the right direction.

Defensively, the onus is on Marinelli and his former Tampa assistants, Joe Barry (defensive coordinator) and Jimmy Lake (secondary coach), to correct the mistakes that caused this group to give up an astonishing 70.1 completion rate in 2007. The thinking is that part of what needed correcting was the personnel.

Last year’s starting secondary was a young, patchwork unit. Second-round rookie Gerald Alexander started at free safety after second-year pro Daniel Bullocks tore his ACL in August. Alexander did alright–for the most part–but lacked strength in run support and anticipation in coverage.

The other safety, Kenoy Kennedy, had to constantly play deep because Detroit didn’t trust the cornerbacks. One of those cornerbacks was Stanley Wilson, who suddenly stopped developing. Veteran Travis Fisher filled in as a starter for Wilson down the stretch. Though coaches were pleased with Fisher’s output, he looked, well, pretty much like a fill-in. The man opposite Fisher, Fernando Bryant, wasn’t so hot either.

With this in mind, Lions coaches sat down with Millen and made the easy decision of revamping the whole defensive backfield. With Bullocks healthy, Alexander moves to the bench. Kennedy was released. This made room for Dwight Smith, an off-field head case but Tampa 2 connoisseur. Smith brings some muscle to the strong safety position and, unlike many of his predecessors, he won’t lose his jock in coverage (though he’s far from flawless). The Lions also brought in a B-grader to back up Smith: Kalvin Pearson (another ex-Buc).

At cornerback, Wilson remains benched–clear down to the third string, in fact. Former Brown Leigh Bodden, a gambling cover corner, was brought in as part of the Shaun Rogers trade. To support Bodden and replace Rogers, Marinelli and company once again dug up their Buccaneer roots. They signed 32-year-old cornerback Brian Kelly (author of 58 interceptions during his decade in Tampa), and 32-year-old defensive lineman Chuck Darby (a Marinelli favorite during their time together).

Is there anything sparkling about the rebuilding project going on in Motown? Not really. There are a lot of middle-tier veterans. But what do you want–more high-profile rookies coming through here? To get those, you have to be drafting near the top. That’s something the Lions finally didn’t do this past offseason.

Offense

Offensive line coach Jim Colletto was promoted to the coordinator position in January. His arrival brings forth a simplified, more traditional playbook, along with a substantially greater emphasis on the run.

Under Martz, quarterback Jon Kitna posted back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. The Lions ranked in the top 10 in passing both years and routinely spread the field with a terrific quartet of receivers (most recently, Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson, Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey). However, Detroit also surrendered sacks and turnovers at an alarming rate. Kitna’s interception totals trumped his touchdown totals in ’06 and ’07. And the Lions never ranked higher than 31st in rushing.

After installing a zone-blocking system, Detroit is poised to hit the ground in 2008. Little-used running back Tatum Bell surprisingly re-signed (one-year, $1.6 million), with the hopes of recapturing the 1,000-yard form that he flashed in Denver. Bell is a shifty, one-cut runner who relies on acceleration to compensate for a dire lack of power and grit. He is an excellent fit for a zone scheme.

Throughout Bell‘s career, there has always been an unlikely competitor gunning for his starting job. Such remains the case this season with the Lions drafting Central Florida‘s Kevin Smith in the third round. Though critics lament that Smith is not particularly poignant in any one phase of the game, Matt Millen and company were taken by his solid all-around athleticism and deceptive burst. Also not lost on Millen was the fact that Smith was just 62 yards shy of breaking Barry Sanders’s all-time single season NCAA rushing record (2,628 yards).

Smith has a unique build (6’1″, 211) that makes him a bit of a tweener. His running style could determine the fate of fullback Jon Bradley. The 310-pound former defensive lineman is, as you might imagine, a power-blocker between the tackles. Bradley, however, is outrageously limited in other facets of the game. This might create an opportunity for fifth-round rookie Jerome Felton. Backup tight ends Casey Fitzsimmons and Sean McHugh are H-back type players who could also compete for occasional fullback duties (both men are on the roster bubble though).

After struggling under Martz’s burdensome pass-blocking demands, Detroit‘s front five is set to surprise a few people in 2008. Still, curb your expectations. This is a decent run-blocking group, but guards Edwin Mulitalo and Stephen Peterman do not have the mobility to prosper in a zone. Both will compete valiantly. The soon-to-be 34-year-old Mulitalo has a spectacular ability to veil his limitations with ingenuity and determination. Peterman is a hard-worker who simply needs to fend off Frank Davis and converted second-year tackle Manuel Ramirez for his job.

Center Dominic Raiola struggles in space but performs admirably everywhere else. He is the emotional leader of the O-line and a sadistic competitor. At the all-important left tackle position is eighth-year veteran Jeff Backus. Backus is looking to rebound after a particularly poor season (injuries may have been partly to blame). He does not have the quickness that a six-year, $40 million pass-blocker should have, but the Lions can aid him with one of the leagues best blocking tight ends, Dan Campbell (assuming Campbell, who is coming back from elbow surgery, is healthy).

Of course, Campbell may be needed more on the right side. First-round rookie Cherilus Gosder is a beast who possesses long arms to accentuate his 6’7″, 318-pound frame. He is said to be a Marinelli-type guy. His stigma, however, is pass protection (Gosder has questionable footwork). One way he can alter his pass-blocking reputation is to make sure people don’t forget how bad backup right tackle George Foster is. The Lions were expected to let Foster leave over the offseason, but when the zone-blocking scheme was installed, the ex-Bronco returned under a one-year, $1.1 million contract.

Jon Kitna will enjoy the freedom of audibling this season, though improved play selection alone won’t mollify the flaws in his game. Kitna has to do a better job of getting rid of the ball under pressure. Last season, he took 51 sacks and threw an NFC-high 20 interceptions. This season, the soon-to-be-36-year-old has his heir apparent behind him (Drew Stanton). Stanton probably won’t push for playing time in ’08, but, like Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, he could be awarded Kitna’s job by default next spring.

Kitna’s life in the pocket will be much easier now that his receivers aren’t all running deep, slow-developing routes. At full strength, the Lions might have the most intimidating four-man receiving corps in football. Fifth-year pro Roy Williams is a freak. He has enormous hands and a limber 6’2″, 220-pound frame. Of course, his athletic prowess is docile compared to second-year stud Calvin Johnson. A back injury and poor understanding of Martz’s system encumbered Johnson’s rookie season. Things will change. Fast and a flexible 6’5″, 235, the 23-year-old (in September) could soon become the most fearsome wideout in the game.

Two years ago, Mike Furrey led the NFC with 98 receptions. His play has not tapered off–he’s still an excellent short-area route runner and consistent pass-catcher–but speedy ex-Ram Shaun McDonald has developed quite a niche in the slot. With McDonald’s opulence and Johnson’s arrival, Furrey is stuck in a No. 4 role.

Defense

There’s almost no point in even talking about last season’s 32nd-ranked defense–not with six new starters in 2008. The remake of the secondary should help coordinator Joe Barry’s unit. Barry, Rod Marinelli and defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake all hail from Tampa Bay, which is why they sought free agents familiar with a Cover 2.

Their headlining acquisitions were former Bucs Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith (Smith has spent the past two years playing in Minnesota’s Cover 2). Both are on the wrong side of 30, though both have been prolific interceptors throughout their careers. Kelly has started just six games over the past two years, thanks in part to injury (he missed 14 games in 2006). He should have no trouble beating out agile but disappointing fourth-year pro Stanley Wilson, or common backups Ramzee Robinson and Dovonte Edwards.

Smith will work ahead of Kalvin Pearson at strong safety. Though he weighs only 201, Smith is an aggressive, hard-hitting run defender.

Free safety Daniel Bullocks is back after missing his sophomore season with a torn ACL. Bullocks offers fine range in coverage. The Lions will need him to be more physical than the suitable but unpolished Gerald Alexander (a second-round pick who filled in as a starter last year).

The other starting spot in the secondary is right corner, where newly-acquired Leigh Bodden is likely to beat out Travis Fisher. The Lions grew to like Fisher last season, but that was in part because there was so little to like about the underperformers around him. Choosing a starter may simply come down to the coaching staff’s predilection for big plays. In Bodden, they have an aggressive guy who makes a lot but also gives some up. In Fisher, they have a conservative defender who produces few but surrenders hardly any. Though Bodden is the more enticing player, he doesn’t offer Fisher’s experience in the system (Fisher played for the Cover 2 Rams prior to joining Detroit).

Improving the defensive backfield is only part of the formula; the Lions still need a more dynamic pass rush from the front four. They registered 37 sacks last season, but seven of them came from Shaun Rogers (who, by the way, also commanded double teams). With Rogers gone, Detroit is hoping that under tackle Cory Redding elevates his game to the level it was at in 2006 (when, coincidentally or not, Rogers missed time with injury and suspension, and Redding was nearing free agency). Redding is a high-energy player who can pressure the passer, though his best work comes against the run. Offenses must attack Redding head-on; the 295-pounder absolutely devours plays in his peripherals.

Taking Rogers’s place is Chuck Darby, a favorite of Marinelli’s. Darby only has 297 pounds of meat on his bones, but his solid first step and leverage, as well as his ground-holding lower-body strength, should make him serviceable at the nose. He may still split time with third-round rookie Andre Fluellen (an oft-injured yet intriguing prospect out of Florida State). Former second-round pick Shaun Cody is also in the mix, but he hasn’t been effective as a miscast nose tackle over his previous three years.

Even with the options inside, the Lions do not have enough vibrant defensive ends to generate a formidable pass rush. Sixth-year veteran Dewayne Whiteanother former Buccaneer, and one of the more unheralded players in the game–is bogged down by constant double teams and protection slides that are inherent with lining up opposite mediocre teammates.

If White’s nonstop motor is to reap more rewards in 2008, ends Jared DeVries and Ikaika Alama-Francis must step up. DeVries has alright speed and is capable of getting separation. He hustles and plays hard; he just needs to be more consistent from down to down. Alama-Francis just needs to be more anything from down-to-down. As a second-round pick last season, he spent 10 games on the inactive list. He finished his rookie year with 12 tackles and zero sacks.

Alama-Francis will have competition in training camp. Corey Smith is a good run defender who is deserving of time off the bench. Also, the Lions traded up in the third round to draft Cliff Avril, a 252-pound pass-rushing specialist from Purdue. He could see action on third downs.

Consider this to be a case of saving the best for last, as roughly 2,400 words into this report, we come to weakside linebacker Ernie Sims. Drafted 10th overall out of Florida State in 2006, the “next Derrick Brooks” has thus far lived up to towering expectations. While the 24-year-old, understandably, can’t yet match Brooks in leadership and pass coverage, he evokes thoughts of the future Hall of Famer when it comes to playing the run. Sims led Detroit with 134 stops last season, despite opponents making a conscious effort to avoid his area of the field. The phrase “sideline-to-sideline speed” does not do justice here.

Most impressive about Sims is the ferocity he shows at the point of attack. Detroit would love for strongside linebacker Paris Lenon to take a page from that book. Lenon was miscast in the middle last season and struggled making quick reads and aggressive plays on the ball. A strongside job is not ideal for his finesse style of play, but it at least puts him in a more-fitting subsidiary role.

After being unable to trade for Jonathan Vilma, the Lions drafted Colorado outside linebacker Jordan Dizon in Round Two. They’re moving Dizon to the middle and throwing him to the wolves. It almost seems cruel, considering the little guy stands only 6’0″, 225. But Dizon’s high-octane demeanor and nose for the ball is exactly what the Lions are looking for inside.

Besides, they have no one else. Former Colt Gilbert Gardner is not good enough to start, and even if he were, he’d have to line up on the outside (which puts Lenon back at Mike). Alex Lewis plays with great energy, but he is more of a special teamer. And diminutive second-year pro Buster Davis hasn’t shown the work ethic to compete at the professional level.

Special Teams

Kicker Jason Hanson is in his 17th season and still going strong (3/4 from 50 yards-out last year, 29/35 overall). Hanson has been with the Lions since 1992. Strong-legged Nick Harris consistently gets good air under his punts.

The Lions must find some options in the return game. Backup running back Aveion Cason handles kickoffs, though with third-year tailback Brian Calhoun healthy, Cason might not be worth a roster spot. The only player on the team with a semblance of punt return experience is Mike Furrey, and that’s fudging the concept of “experience.”

The coverage units were awful last season. Detroit ranked 31st against kickoffs and 30th against punts. Special teams coordinator Stan Kwan could soon be out of a job if things don’t pick up.

Bottom Line

The Lions believe that their improvements over the offseason have them in line for a 10-win campaign in 2008. However, this team overachieved last year by capitalizing on timely turnovers en route to a 6-2 start. Their 1-7 finish was closer to reality. Given Detroit’s upgrades, six or seven wins seem likely for 2008. Frustrating as it is, Lions fans need to stay patient; this team is finally forming some building blocks.

Myth Buster

Roy Williams is needed to complement Calvin Johnson in the long haul

The seventh-overall pick in ’04, Williams has just one 1,000-yard season in his career (2006, when he had 1,310 yards on 82 catches). He’s suffered a slew of minor injuries (two games missed in ’04, three games missed in ’05, four games missed in ’07). His incessant celebrations and outlandish quotes could lead some to believe that he’s a “prima donna.”

Williams’s reputation is a little unjust. The man cares about winning a lot more than people give him credit for. But ushering in a new era with Jim Colletto’s scheme and Drew Stanton likely to take over for Jon Kitna next season, Detroit has an opportunity to solidify an identity on offense (something that’s been missing since Barry Sanders left). Calvin Johnson will be a star at some point. He’s likely to command the type of attention from defenses that Randy Moss receives. If you look at Moss’s history, his teams thrive when there’s a solid possession receiver complementing him (see Carter, Cris or Welker, Wes). The Lions have a guy like this in Mike Furrey.

Given that Williams is only 26 and insanely talented, his trade value is peeking. The Lions would be wise to cash in now by leveraging Williams to fill other holes.

Open Thought

Imagine the courage it must take for Matt Millen to live his life. The once-adored television commentator has become vilified during his turbulent eight-year run as the Lions GM. No one will argue that Millen isn’t a great guy. And, no one with any rationale will argue that he isn’t trying to do the best job he can. Whether or not you’re among the many who believe that Millen should have been fired long ago, you can’t help but admire the man’s character and class in enduring the heat.


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