NFL Draft Advent Calendar-Door #11: The Lions

 We’ve already started opening the doors on TFQ’s NFL Draft Advent Calendar!  This is our Christmas – when NFL teams get to decide what sort of new toys they get under the tree to play with next season.

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 Door #11 – The Lions

Lions

2012 finish: 4-12; missed playoffs

TOTAL PICKS: 8

ROUND 1

5

ROUND 2

4 (36)

ROUND 3

3 (65)

ROUND 4

35 (132) (compensatory selection)

ROUND 5

4 (137)

ROUND 6

3 (171)

ROUND 7

5 (211)

39 (245)

It’s still somewhat surprising to see Detroit having earned the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft after their 11-win season in 2011.  That’s what the Lions get for struggling towards just four wins last season.  At least now they have a high pick to spend in order to address one of the many holes in their roster.

The, ahem, lions’ share of the blame for this free-fall seems to have been put on the franchise’s defense.  In fact, for a former defensive coordinator with an impressive track record who turned this team into a force to be reckoned with on that side of the ball in just two seasons, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz now oversees a D-unit in shambles.  Or does he?  Rather, let’s consider how much the Lions’ defense has fallen statistically:

Lions Defensive change, from 2011-2012 (NFL rank in parentheses)

2011 2012
Overall Yds 367.6 (23rd) 341.1 (13th)
Pass Yds 239.4 (22nd) 223.1 (14th)
Rush Yds 128.1 (23rd) 118.1 (16th)
Points 24.2 (23rd) 27.3 (27th)
Sacks 41 (T-10th) 34 (20th)
Interceptions 21 (5th) 11 (T-16th)
Forced Fumbles 19 11
Turnover Differential +11 (4th) -16 (30th)

What’s interesting is that Detroit saw in improvement last season in all three major yardage stats, but allowed 3.1 more points per game.  For an explanation, one doesn’t have to look very far – check the next four rows.  What you’ll see there is that the havoc-wreaking reputation of the Lions D took a big hit, as sacks and interceptions dropped off noticeably, helping to turn the team’s turnover differential from outstanding to awful.  (Before pointing a finger at the offense for its role in the turnover ratio, know that fumbles went down by 4 – 24 to 20 – and that interceptions thrown only increased by one – 16 to 17 – from 2011 to 2012.)  Players like DT Ndamukong Suh, and rush ends Kyle Vanden Bosch (released) and Cliff Avril (signed by Seattle as a free agent) performed constant disappearing acts during the 2012 season.  What’s more, a defensive backfield that benefitted from the disruptiveness of the front seven had its shortcomings exposed, and as such the DBs weren’t able to ball hawk as successfully as they did during the previous season.

What has Detroit done to address these problems via free agency?  For one, they re-signed free safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston – hardly reassuring.  However, Detroit didn’t exactly sit on their hands during free agency, acquiring SS Glover Quinn from Houston and DT C.J. Mosley.  Neither of those are sexy names, but they belong to underrated players who were added at a very reasonable cost.  In other words, both signings are a definite step forward for a needy defense.   But those two players likely won’t be enough.  The Lions would be well served to look for a pass rusher or two in the middle-to-low rounds (even if those rookies-to-be might be projects, they’d benefit from Suh and Mosley attracting blockers).

As far as the upper selections go, if Detroit opts to address the defense, they desperately need a cornerback – especially given that the NFC North boasts beasts at the wide receiver position such as Brandon Marshall and the multitude of wideouts the Packers can throw at them.  If Alabama’s Dee Milliner is still available at the fifth overall spot, the Motor City will have a hard choice on its hands.  Going with Milliner wouldn’t be an unwise decision.  At this point he’s considered the top CB prospect in the draft because he plays bigger than his 6’0”, 201 lb. size, with great strength and loose enough hips to stay on top of receivers downfield.

The reason that Detroit might have a hard decision if Milliner is still available when they make their first round selection is because as much as defense is an issue on this team, one could argue that the offense needs to be addressed just as much.  For better or worse this team is currently built around its offense as much or more than any other franchise in the league.  Strengthening the offensive line helps protect QB Matt Stafford and also adds to their free agency investment in RB Reggie Bush.  Don’t be deceived by the fact that Stafford was sacked seven fewer times last season than in 2011.  The bottom line for the O-line is that they’ve lost both tackles from last season – mainstay Jeff Backus (retirement) and Gosder Cherilus (free agency) – and the front office can’t afford to ignore that position with at least one of their first two draft picks.  Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher would be a great pick for Detroit at fifth overall.  I watched highlights of his drills during Senior Bowl week and he looked fantastic.  Fisher showed great feet and balance, with his head on a swivel while maintaining good separation from edge rushers.

Don’t overlook the injuries the Lions suffered at the receiver position either.  When Nate Burleson went down with a knee injury early in the season, it left a rotation of failure opposite the record-breaking Calvin Johnson – one that the delinquent Titus Young III only made worse. Sure, Megatron set a new record for single-season yardage, but when Detroit got into the red zone, they looked lost because opposing defenses could double- and triple-team the most obvious option.  Expect a healthier receiver corps and the presence of Bush as an outlet valve in the passing game to help keep defenses honest.

You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t think it will take as many changes as one thinks to get Detroit back into division/conference contention – keeping in mind we’ve just established that a sketchy defense isn’t necessarily the issue.  This team just needs to tap into that oft-elusive big play, both on D and in the red zone.  That might be easier said than done, but personnel changes aren’t the only factor behind getting there.

One closing note – today Lions K Jason Hanson retired after a 21-year pro career.  Amazing.  Yet another void Detroit must fill, along with foreclosed homes, suffering factories, and roster spots.

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STAY TUNED FOR THE REST OF THE DAYS LEADING UP UNTIL THE 2013 NFL DRAFT.  WE’LL TAKE A LOOK AT EACH TEAM, AS WE OPEN THEM UP IN THE ADVENT CALENDAR.  WE’LL ALSO BE DOING A LIVE TWEET-UP DURING THE DRAFT.  

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