2007 NFL Preview: Detroit Lions

Looking At 2006 in the Rear View Mirror

Call it bad luck, or coincidence, but the Detroit Lions were once again ravaged by injuries in 2006.

On offense, the whole right side of the offensive line had new faces each week. In the backfield, Kevin Jones didn't surpass 186 carries for a second consecutive season due to injuries. Behind him, Shawn Bryson and Brian Calhoun also endured knee injuries.

On the other side of the ball, between a suspension and a knee injury, Shaun Rogers, the strength of the defensive line at tackle, only made six games. Starting cornerback Fernando Bryant failed to participate in more than 10 games for a third consecutive season.

While the Lions were as brittle as one of Charles Rogers' collar bones, there was a lot of positive progress, which is why Jon Kitna is already brewing the blue Kool-Aid for the coming season.

Roy Williams, who was tagged a player who couldn't play through pain, suited up for 16 games and dominated. With some better protection from the offensive line, we would probably be talking about Williams as one of the five to seven best receivers in the NFL.

As atrocious as Mike Martz is at managing a game, he is unquestionably one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. He unearthed Mike Furrey last season, who thrived as a possession and after-the-catch receiver and also proved that Jon Kitna could run his offense, after many pundits mocked him.

The defense was definitely not as strong, but there were obvious bright spots.

For starters, the Lions finally hit on a first-round pick as linebacker Ernie Sims was a tackling machine. The next surprise was Corey Redding, who shifted inside on the line when Rogers stepped out of the lineup. Redding finished his huge season with eight sacks, the second-highest NFC total for a defensive tackle.

There were other, less exciting positives that the Lions can build on. Outside linebacker Boss Bailey, who was also considered injury prone, finished a full season. He wasn't special, like the Lions hoped, but he did take a step forward. Virtually the exact same thing can be said about Alex Lewis, as well.

Not everything was sunny, though, as the Lions had hoped that Marinelli would spark Kalimba Edwards, but he only finished with three sacks. Kennoy Kennedy, who is making a lot of money to be a top flight safety, didn't take off in the new scheme.

Injuries did impact the Lions in the win column last season, but what is important to learn here is that Matt Millen and this team are no longer at rock bottom. They have past that point, have regained optimism and are on the way to winning.

Using Letters to Break Down Numbers: Offensive Growth

Roy Williams, Mike Furrey, and Jon Kitna had impressive seasons in 2006, but aside from Williams, it was hard to fathom the success of the other two.

Kitna went from being a borderline starter and a useful backup quarterback to being the NFC's third-leading passer.

Kitna had never thrown for more than 3,591 yards in a season, but topped that total by 671 yards. Some of the old Kitna was still there, as evidenced by his 22 interceptions against 21 touchdowns, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt considering he had no running game and little help from the offensive line. He was sacked 14 times more than any other quarterback in the league (63 times) and the Lions rushing game ranked dead last.

Mike Furrey was easily the biggest surprise of the three. A converted defensive back, Furrey flashed reliable hands and good yards-after-catch ability. Furrey finished with 98 receptions, second in the NFL only to Andre Johnson.

His game was more intermediate than Williams, who was the deep threat. 80 of 98 receptions came between the 20s. While most people won't expect him to build on his 98 catches from a year ago, he very well might. In his last five games, Furrey compiled 42 receptions for 436 yards.

Williams was not as much of a surprise since a lot has been expecting from him. That finally came to fruition in '06 as he led the NFC in receiving yards and catches of 20 yards or longer. Even so, the best is still yet to come from Williams. As long as he stays healthy, 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns is reasonable.

Why Jon Kitna Said 10 Wins

The math is simple: the Lions' seventh-best passing offense is in its second season with an improved offensive line and Calvin Johnson in the mix. The deadbeat running game, which failed throughout last season, now has Jones, speedster Tatum Bell, and bulldozer T.J. Duckett to ameliorate their abysmal total.

Those points alone lead many Lions' enthusiasts to believe that like Martz' Rams at the turn of the millennium, the Lions don't necessarily need a good defense since their offense can carry them to the playoffs.

And on top of that, the Lions have a defensive-minded coach who figures to improve the standing of the league's 29th defense.

Here are a few things that have to happen for the Lions to make it to 10 wins:

Indeed, They Can Run It, Run It

The Lions run game finished with 1,129 yards last season, which was the lowest total in the NFL.

Sixteen running backs finished above that number last year.

The Lions didn't invest a lot, but gather some experienced running backs to alleviate some of the burden in the case that Jones is out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time.

If Jones is healthy, he is due for a breakout campaign. Not only is he a capable running back, the reason why he can be a real asset to this offense is his catching ability. Even though he only played 12 games in 2006, he still had 61 receptions and finished fourth in the NFL in YAC.

But the Lions have some versatility now, too. Not that Martz runs the ball a whole heck of a lot, the home run option and the tough yards options are there now. The latter should come in handy.

Can Somebody Block?

Kitna felt a season in the shoes of David Carr last season and if the Lions are going places, the line has to step up.

The good news is that the Lions should have more contributors.

Left tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola are sturdy. Guard Damien Woody, who a disappointment last season because of weight issues, has shed some pounds and could recover his Pro Bowl form. At right tackle, the Lions acquired Broncos castoff George Foster, who is better than what they've had there in the past.

Assuming everything goes as planned, that leaves only one whole. And assuming that hole is fixed by veteran Edwin Mulitalo or prospect Stephen Peterman, the Lions won't allow 63 sacks again.

The Explosive Offense

Don't get it twisted: the Lions offense still has a long way to go to get to The Greatest Show On Turf.

Kitna has to cut down on his interceptions and pick up his efficiency. That is critical for this offense and definitely is not a given considering Kitna has only three more touchdown passes than interceptions in his career.

The other key for this offense is Calvin Johnson. Considering he got into camp a little late and the fact that wide receivers typically take a while to develop as rookies, he won't be Randy Moss right off the bat. In the meantime, Shaun McDonald, another good inside receiver, has to play at a high level.

Martz' offense only becomes dangerous when they are multiple receiving options who can burn opponents on every play. The Lions have the weapons, but they have to get everyone assimilated into this offense and on the same page before we can even conjecture whether they are close to the Rams of recent memory.

And What About the Defense?

Well, if the offense is scary good, then the defense doesn't have to be Baltimore Ravens-good.

Keep in mind that the Tampa-2/Cover-2 type of defense that the Lions are employing puts a premium on the defensive line and places less importance on everyone else.

The Lions could have one of the league's best D-lines, depending on if Shaun Rogers keeps his weight down. If he does, with Redding and Shaun Cody, the Lions will shoot the gaps as good as anyone.

On the ends, the Lions are counting on a couple of unproven guys. Dewayne White got paid like he was a sure thing, but he mostly played as a situational pass rusher in Tampa Bay. The end opposite of him, Kalimba Edwards, has 23 sacks in five seasons and the Lions are still waiting for him to break out. The Lions need a steady pass rushing presence from these two or the defense will fail.

In the back seven, there are a lot of question marks.

At linebacker, Sims is solid, but you can't count on much outside of him. The coaching staff is high on Paris Lenon, who is slated to start in the middle, but he is unproven as a quality starter. The other vacancy will be split by Boss Bailey and Alex Lewis, who should be adequate between the two of them.

The Lions are Nicole Ritchie-thin at cornerback and are relying heavily on Fernando Bryant to stay healthy. He is a good fit for this defense, but he has only played in a full 16 games in three of his eight seasons. The other starting spot will be up to Stanley Wilson or Travis Fisher, both of whom are probably better suited for the nickel role.

At safety, sophomore Daniel Bullocks looks like a keeper, but there are higher hopes for Kennedy. He used to be a body rocker, but didn't make many jarring hits last year.

If the defensive line isn't good, this defense could be worse than last year. The good news is that with a high-octane offense, this unit will get plenty of time on the field to learn and hopefully grow.

Biggest Weakness: Winning Experience — Similar to the New York Knicks current roster, the Lions have a lot of talent, but nobody who has a winning track record.

Offensive X-Factor: Kevin Jones — Bell and Duckett are nice additions, but Jones is the best receiver out of the backfield and needs to stay on the field to make this offense fully effective.

Defensive X-Factor: Fernando Bryant — Take your pick off of this defense, but Bryant's importance to the defense is crucial. At one point in his career, you could argue he was a No. 1 cornerback and if he endures injuries or doesn't play well this season, the Lions will allow more passing yards than they gain.

Fantasy Market: Buy Low

Now before you look at me as if I just told you that subprime mortgage lending is a good idea, hear me out: you can get excellent value with Kevin Jones right now. He is recovering from a Lisfranc foot injury that might take him well into training camp to fully recover, which means that you have to monitor this situation closely, but Brian Westbrook bounced back from this type of sprain to post a huge year last year.

Now here are the facts: in 12 games last year, he finished 689 yards rushing and 520 yards receiving with eight touchdowns while ranking fourth in yards-after-catch. Projected over a full season, that is 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns.

But what gives him more potential than just a poor man's Brian Westbrook is that this offense — and the offensive line — will be improved.

Did Martz use a power back in St. Louis in the red zone? Did Martz ever opt to use running backs that can't catch? Don't worry so much about Duckett and Bell; at the very least, Jones should be an excellent yardage option.

"Vegas" Dave Golokhov hosts "THE Fantasy Show" on Hardcore Sports Radio, channel 186 on Sirius Satellite Radio, beginning September. Send media requests, thoughts, love letters, or hate mail to [email protected].

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August 9, 2007



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