The 2011 season flashed images of progression, promise and potential for the Detroit Lions before culminating in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Now, the Lions brain trust is fully entrenched in the offseason, where they will take appraisal of their roster and determine the best means of improvement while operating within the league’s salary cap restraints (a number that is expected to be in the neighborhood of $120 million).
Over the next few weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions and hypothesize on what their future plans may be.
Heading into the 2011 season, the Detroit Lions appeared to have finally solidified their running game.
The addition of second-round draft pick Mikel Leshoure would provide the ideal complement to 2010 first-round draft pick Jahvid Best. The intention was to use a combination of Best and Leshoure to balance the running game with an effective dose of both game-changing speed and pile-moving power.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the envisioned backfield never materialized -- Leshoure tore his Achilles tendon in his left foot early in training camp and Best finished the season on the Injured Reserve list – appearing in only six games -- after suffering a concussion.
Heading into 2012, the Lions backfield will likely depend on the health of Best and Leshoure.
Best provides the Lions with game-changing speed and pass-catching ability. The Lions still have high expectations for the soon-to-be 23 year old but there must be lingering concerns about his ability to withstand the punishment of a 16-game schedule.
During his six starts in the 2011 season, Best registered 677 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. He is signed through 2014 and remains to be a significant part of the Lions future plans in the backfield. He will need to prove he can remain on the field and stay relatively healthy, but all signs point to a full recovery during the offseason.
Leshoure was drafted due to his abilities as a between-the-tackle runner and looked to be every bit of what the Lions hoped early in training camp. However, he was unable to see any game action, suffering a season-ending injury before the team’s first preseason game.
Leshoure did spend time around the team during the season, participating in team meetings, walkthroughs and other activities.
He should be fully recovered once his rehab is complete and be prepared to contribute before the opening of the 2012 season. While his time spend learning the offense and acclimating himself with life in the NFL should help him hit the ground running – both literally and figuratively. He is signed through 2014 and the Lions still expect much from the 21 year old.
The Lions were forced to test their backfield depth this season and ultimately turned to a familiar face in former draft pick Kevin Smith.
Smith was an original draft choice of the team in 2008 and showed promise during his rookie campaign. However, after two injury-riddled seasons, the Lions chose to let Smith walk when his rookie contract expired.
The team eventually re-signed Smith after a mid-season tryout and the fourth-year pro ended up starting four games. Unfortunately, he once again suffered through injuries, missing one game and playing with limited effectiveness in others.
Smith’s contract is set to expire and – despite his value when healthy – it isn’t likely the Lions are willing to commit to a third running back with injury concerns.
Maurice Morris has been a reliable veteran since arriving in Detroit and the coaching staff trusts him. However, with an expiring contract, the Lions may not be interested in retaining the 32-year-old runner’s services due to his increasing age and declining ability.
Williams played sparingly, rushing only 58 times and finishing with as many fumbles as he did touchdowns (two).
Williams is signed through 2012 and it wouldn’t be surprising for him to have an opportunity to earn a roster spot in training camp, but his long-term prospects with the team do not appear to be strong as he never fully earned the coaching staff’s trust due to his ball security issues and pass-protection deficiencies.
Lastly, the Lions have Joique Bell, claimed off of the New Orleans Saints practice squad late in the season. Bell is signed through next season. He did not appear in any games as a Lion and has only appeared in eight games, with no carries, in his career.
The team's coaching staff had the opportunity to work with Bell in the 2010 Senior Bowl and kept note of his professional progress.
If Bell figures into the Lions 2012 plans – and that remains to be seen – it is primarily as a special teamer.
The Lions backfield is filled with as many questions marks as it is exclamation marks.
There is undeniable talent – namely Best and Leshoure – but also a history of injuries.
It wouldn’t be surprising for the Lions to acquire a veteran runner through trade or free agency as depth or use a mid-to-late round selection in the draft on the position.
However, the Lions 2012 backfield fortunes figure to rest on the health of their top two young backs.