Behind Enemy Lines: Detroit Lions

Our NFC North experts join forces for this four-part series. Our insiders discuss the legitimacy of Detroit's off-season hype, Matthew Stafford's future, the Nick Fairley impact and more!

Free agents

Based on the assumption that players with four-plus years of experience will be unrestricted and players with three years will be restricted.

Unrestricted: DE Jared DeVries, OL Dylan Gandy, CB Chris Houston, LB Landon Johnson, QB Drew Stanton, K Dave Rayner, CB Brandon McDonald, CB Tye Hill, DB John Wendling, LB Bobby Carpenter, LB Vinny Ciurciu

Restricted: DE Cliff Avril, FB Jerome Felton (tendered), DTAndre Fluellen (tendered)


Franchise player: None
Transition player: None
Players re-signed: CB Nathan Vasher: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
Players acquired: S Erik Coleman: FA Falcons; terms unknown.
Players lost: CB Eric King (released), LB Julian Peterson (released/failed physical).

Five burning questions

As asked by's Nate Caminata and answered by's Tim Yotter,’s Jeremy Stoltz and’s Bill Huber

The Lions appear to be everyone's surprise playoff contender for the 2011 season. Is there still cautious skepticism because of the team's past, or do you include Detroit in the conversation?

Yotter: I include them in the conversation, but they would be more legitimate in a different division in 2011. I just think there is too much competition in the NFC North to expect the Lions to be in the playoffs this year. I could see them seriously contending for the playoff into December if they didn’t have to play each of the other divisional opponents two times. When they can keep Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson healthy on a consistent basis, they can be considered true contenders.

Stoltz: Detroit added some solid pieces to the offense in the draft, yet the success of the group is completely dependent on Matthew Stafford staying healthy. With the weapons he has around him, the offense has a ton of potential. Yet the selections of Young and Leshoure didn't allow the team to address its two biggest needs early in the draft: left tackle and cornerback. If the Lions can fill those two positions in free agency, and Stafford stays healthy, they can definitely make the playoffs.

Huber: Aren't the Lions always everyone's surprise playoff contender? This time, though, I think they've got the goods, though I still don't know about that coaching staff. I know the players play hard for Jim Schwartz but are the coordinators good enough to build a winning plan week after week after week? Nothing too enlightening here, but the Lions will go as far as Matthew Stafford can stay healthy. The Packers haven't seen a healthy Stafford even once so I honestly have no clue if he's good enough even if healthy. Just because he can throw it a mile doesn't make him a championship-caliber guy.

Matthew Stafford is said to be completely recovered from shoulder surgery, with rehab giving him noticeable upper-body bulk. In terms of a division strong at quarterback play, where do you rank Stafford on the NFC North QB ladder?

Yotter: Third. Aaron Rodgers is far and away the best in the division right and Jay Cutler is a solid second. Stafford would likely be right there with Cutler if he could stay healthy. If Stafford has his full complement of weapons, including Jahvid Best to keep defenses somewhat honest, then he might be as good as Cutler, but you can’t earn first or second billing if you’re not on the field.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford saw action in just three games last season after suffering two shoulder injuries. (getty images)

Stoltz: In terms of potential, Stafford has it all. He's a big, smart, strong-armed player who shows a lot of passion on the field. Yet his inability to stay healthy hasn't allowed him to reach that potential, yet. For that reason, I place him behind both Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler right now. In a few years though, he could leapfrog one, or even both, of them.

Huber: Stafford is clearly a distant third in the pecking order behind Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. How can you even consider ranking Stafford ahead of those guys when he can't stay healthy? Quarterback play is about availability, first and foremost, and starting 13 of a possible 32 games just isn't getting it done. Upper-body bulk sounds good; we'll see if it gives him some protection when he gets planted on his shoulder. Like the Packers with Chad Clifton, I'd worry about left tackle Jeff Backus holding up over the long haul.

Much attention has been given to Detroit's defensive line, especially with the addition of Nick Fairley. Is this group more hype than substance? What are you expecting out of that defensive line in 2011?

Yotter: With most things in Detroit, I believe it is just a matter of time and proving it. There should be hype and excitement about the possibilities for the defensive line. Fairley and Ndamukong Suh next to each should be a challenge for interior offensive lines, but I’d also like to see how they hold up if solid running games try to consistently test the middle of that line.

Stoltz: The Lions already had a great defensive line before drafting Fairley. Ndamukong Suh is the real deal, and a future NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Cliff Avril was great last season, as was Corey Williams. Kyle Vanden Bosch is past his prime, but is still a quality veteran. Lawrence Jackson came on late in the season as well. If Fairley is anywhere near as good as many project him to be, Detroit could wind up with the best D-line in the league.

Huber: All substance in my mind. Just turn back the clock to that defensive line overwhelming Green Bay's blockers at Ford Field on Dec. 12. It was a whupping that reminded the old-timers of that Thanksgiving day in 1962 when Detroit thrashed Bart Starr and Co. for 11 sacks. That unit was superb without Fairley. Frankly, I'm not sure they needed him but a dominant front four makes the back seven look so much better. That's going to be a ferocious defense.

The lockout has obviously curbed some enthusiasm, but can it affect the actual quality of the season? By the end of the year, will the 2011 campaign be defined by what transpired during the summer months, or will the lockout become a distant memory?

Yotter: As far as fans are concerned, the lockout will be a distant memory in December because it won’t affect the number of regular-season games. However, I do think you will see it influence games early in the season, giving the advantage to teams with the most stability, especially those with the same schemes. The problem will be judging just how much influence the lockout had on early-season successes or failures, and whether those teams would have struggled either way. By the end of the season, I could see the early-season results influencing a few teams who might get in the playoffs or get kicked to the curb.

Stoltz: The lockout is going to create some sloppy football in the first few weeks of the season. It might also force teams to simplify their playbooks. Yet by mid-season, I believe it will be the same level of NFL football we've grown accustomed to, and everyone will have long forgotten the lockout.

Huber: Distant memory. I've always wondered if control-hungry teams put way too much stock into things by keeping the players around throughout most of the offseason. I guess we'll find out. The Packers kick off the season a few days before everyone else, but yet they'll still have five-and-a-half weeks to get ready to go. These guys are professionals. While there are always exceptions, the vast, vast majority of the players will report in shape and ready to go. The teams that are hurt are the ones with new coaches, new schemes or new quarterbacks. So, good luck to Minnesota. For the rest of the NFC North, I think the quality of play will be high from the get-go.

For fun: Was Calvin Johnson's ruled drop in Week 1 at Chicago a catch, or not?

Yotter: By rule it was not a catch. By logic it was. In other words, referees make judgment calls all game long and most would think that was a catch. But when going by the letter of the law, it wasn’t. In the end, I think it’s a good lesson (that unfortunately will be quickly forgotten) for players who want to get rid of the ball as soon as they think the play is done. I’m sure every fan can think of a few instances where a player is haphazardly quick to drop the ball as he crosses the goal line. It’s a dangerous move, but celebration rules the era.

Stoltz: He caught it, no doubt. That said, I do believe Johnson started celebrating too early by sticking the ball out. If he tucks it to his chest as he goes down then there's no controversy and the Lions win the game.

Huber: No. A rule is a rule, no matter how stupid the rule.

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