Throwing the football in a forward direction down the field for major gains wasn’t a problem at all for the 2011 edition of the Detroit Lions. That’s what happens when your offense is led by Calvin Johnson, a freakish athlete who averaged 105.1 receiving yards per game and had 16 regular-season touchdowns, and Matthew Stafford, who was one of three quarterbacks to throw for over 5,000 yards.
An explosive passing attack was the recipe for offensive destruction that mercifully ended over a decade of futility in Detroit. But what made the Lions’ first playoff appearance since 1999 a short one is that small matter of stopping the opposition when they attempted to throw the football in a forward direction for major gains.
The Lions allowed an average 239.4 passing yards per game (22nd), and during their Wild Card Weekend loss to New Orleans, Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns. Eric Wright, Detroit’s best cornerback, left for Tampa Bay through free agency, making that glaring weakness shine a little brighter.
We walked to Sean Yuille, the managing editor of Pride of Detroit and SB Nation Detroit, and he thinks the value is right at the Lions’ No. 23 overall slot in the first round to take a quality cornerback.
1. There are a few directions the Lions could go in the first round, but let’s start with cornerback. Wright left a secondary that was a weak point last year. Is that a need that will be addressed in the first round? Stephon Gilmore could be available at No. 23, and Dre Kirkpatrick could fall too…
The past few years, the Lions have been able to fill needs at cornerback through free agency and trades. This year, however, it’s apparent that the draft will have to be utilized to add depth and talent to the position. Based on where the Lions are picking in the first round, it especially seems likely that a talented cornerback will be on the board. As you mentioned, guys like Gilmore and Kirkpatrick could be there, and I think either would serve as a big upgrade to the Lions’ secondary.
2. The Lions are aggressively trying to secure Cliff Avril to a long-term deal, but if that effort falls short he’ll be playing under a one-year contract, and Kyle Vanden Bosch will turn 34 this year. Could defensive end be a priority as Detroit looks to make sure its front four remains among the elite?
The Lions have built their defense around a dominant defensive line. As they showed last year by picking defensive tackle Nick Fairley, they aren’t afraid to select a player at a position that doesn’t seem to have any apparent needs. Defensive end seems like it could be in a similar situation this year.
Are there any pressing needs at the position right now? Not really. However, if somebody like Whitney Mercilus or Nick Perry is there at No. 23, the Lions might not be able to resist going D-line in the first round for the third year in a row. After all, you can never have too many pass rushers, especially with Vanden Bosch getting up there in age and Avril’s situation up in the air beyond 2012.
3. Offensive tackle is another possibility too with Jeff Backus aging. Could Jonathan Martin’s name be called?
Backus re-signed with the Lions for two more years, so the thinking is that they have two seasons to find somebody who can eventually take over for him at left tackle. Currently, I don’t see anybody on the team as being in position to replace Backus.
For that reason alone, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Lions go with an offensive tackle in the first round, and somebody like Martin would fit the bill perfectly. While the Lions do seem like they would rather gamble on finding a tackle later in the draft and going with a player who can make a more immediate impact with the 23rd pick, they’d certainly have to consider Martin if he’s still on the board.
4. What about a running back in the mid to late rounds? Or are the Lions confident in their depth right now despite Mikel Leshoure’s recent legal run-ins and likely suspension?
I honestly don’t think Leshoure’s legal problems have changed anything. I say that because Leshoure is returning from a torn Achilles, so his status for the start of next season was already in question. There’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to play or be effective at the beginning of the 2012 season, suspension or not.
When you factor in the fact that Jahvid Best’s health is also an issue and Kevin Smith’s health is always in question, I don’t think the Lions have ever not been actively scouting running backs this offseason. If they do decide to draft one, I definitely think going that route in a later round is the smart option. The last two seasons, the Lions have used early picks on running backs (Best in 2010 and Leshoure in 2011), and that really hasn’t worked out all that well so far.
I’d rather them go with a running back in the fourth or fifth round or something if they’re going to take one. Between Best, Leshoure, Smith, a draft pick and Joique Bell, who they signed off the Saints practice squad at the end of the last season, I think there would be enough talent to get through the 2012 season.
5. Any other needs you’d like to see addressed?
The Lions are in the unique position of having almost all of their starters set to return next season (only Eric Wright has departed). As a result, there aren’t any glaring needs beyond the obvious ones (cornerback and offensive tackle). That said, the Lions could probably use some extra depth at positions like safety, linebacker and wide receiver. Also, building for the future at center and offensive guard wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.