Things are looking up in Detroit

The Detroit Lions haven’t had a winning record this century, a run of crapiness that eerily mirrors the downfall of the entire city. But as the town that took the hardest hit in America during the recent recession rises from the ashes, its football team looks to be leading the charge.

“Upside” is just a term we use to describe bad teams with young players, or bad players who are young. As long as there’s some combination of “bad” and “young,” the term “upside” can be applied. But the Lions have reached that point at which I think we have to stop looking at them as lovable losers with “a promising future” and “a lot of upside.”

At Ford Field, the future might have finally arrived. The team is young, but it’s also extremely talented. The stereotypical Lions no longer exist.

Earlier this month, Scott Bischoff from the SideLion Report was in Las Vegas and discovered that the team has become a trendy futures pick at sportsbooks:

I had a conversation with one of the guys working behind the counter taking bets and he told me what they have seen since the line opened and what they have seen since the draft in late April. He explained that there is a substantial, surprising amount of money being bet on the Detroit Lions.

So much money that he and the four men near him shook their heads when he said that it seemed like every time someone wanted to place a “futures” bet that it seemed like it was coming in on the Lions. They explained that it was interesting to them because the Lions have risen up the boards like crazy this off-season.

They also explained that it is not just post draft money because the odds have steadily improved since the Super Bowl ended. They also dispelled the notion that a lot of local money is coming in from the Detroit area. There simply isn’t enough money from one place to move the number so much, this is a national thing.

The fact that no one in Detroit has money is enough to explain that the phenomenon is national and not just influenced by local bets.

So why all the Detroit love?

It might start with Calvin Johnson, who is a beast of a receiver at 25 and is only going to get better as the team continues to surround him with quality pieces.

Immediate draft grades mean nothing, but it is promising that the Lions once again received tremendous acclaim for their 2011 draft. The already stellar offense added two more weapons to complement Johnson. Second-round pick Titus Young will have a chance to compete for starting reps and should make things easier on Johnson. Running back Mikel Leshoure, selected 13 picks after Young, will be paired up with 2010 first-round pick Javid Best in the backfield.

Or maybe it starts with Matthew Stafford. After all, quarterback is the most important position on the field. Stafford has shown signs of brilliance. The problem is that the 2009 first-overall pick hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He lost almost the entire 2010 season to a shoulder injury, but there’s a belief that Year 3 will be Stafford’s coming out party.

Lions president Tom Lewand recently told NFL.com’s Albert Breer that Stafford’s recovery from shoulder surgery has been “off the charts.”

“The injury that he sustained last year and the surgery that he had is very similar to Sam Bradford’s a year ago,” Lewand told Breer. “And obviously, Sam had a tremendous rookie year, didn’t miss any snaps, and we feel the same about Matthew’s ability to go forward, better than he’s ever been.”

Stafford threw six touchdown passes and only one interception in three starts last year. He wasn’t excellent, but he was definitely on the right path. It’s not like he gets sacked a whole bunch, but he has been known to take quite a few big hits. And that’s what leads us to Detroit’s more glaring offensive weak spot: the offensive line.

It’s not horrible, but the line isn’t good enough to conceal the flaws of the young players surrounding it. Hopefully, Stafford will learn to get rid of the ball faster and the running backs will learn to hit the right holes with the right mentality. But until that happens, the Lions have to do better than Jeff Backus at left tackle and Gosder Cherilus at right tackle. It’ll be interesting to see if the offensive line once again holds the Lions back in 2011, or if the team invests in a free agent or two to shore up the unit.

Regardless of what happens with the line, the offense will be good. It’s really only a question of how good they’ll be. Despite barely having Stafford or an effective running game, the Lions finished in the top of the league in scoring with 22.6 points per game. It was only the second time this century that the franchise averaged over 20 points a game.

Or maybe all of this Detroit enthusiasm starts with the defensive line, which has probably become the best in football. Ndamukong Suh lived up to expectations — maybe even exceeding them — in his rookie season, and is already an All-Pro. The team was laughing when Nick Fairley fell to them at No. 13 in April’s draft, and now they have the most dynamic young duo of defensive tackles in football.

Beyond that, they’re weak on D. They only had two draft picks after choosing Fairley, Young and Leshoure, and while they used those to select a linebacker and an offensive lineman, neither Doug Hogue nor Johnny Culbreath are expected to step in and dominate from the get-go.

Despite recording 44 sacks (sixth in the league) last year, the Lions were ranked 21st in the league defensively. The linebackers and defensive backs need to improve or be upgraded, and that’s where free agency comes into play. If Detroit can just invest in a playmaking linebacker and a quality corner while bolstering the offensive line, they’ll be legitimate playoff contenders.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Maybe the 2013 Super Bowl is a little more realistic.