I find it a bit funny that many observers and fans alike see the Lions decision to ignore their defense with last Saturday's first round selection as a mistake. For the first time in a decade, the Lions went into the draft with the ability to select the best available player on the board.
Contrary to what many believe, outside of the free safety spot and possibly quarterback, the Lions no longer have any glaring weakness on the roster. With the health questions surrounding Charles Rogers and the butterfingers of Az Hakim, the selection of Mike Williams shored up one of Detroit's biggest pre-draft need; which was to find a solid complement to current #1 receiver Roy Williams. With Mike's arrival, and last week's free Agent signing of veteran wideout Kevin Johnson, the Wizard of Az was sent to Kansas to find Judy Garland and Toto Monday afternoon.
Texas OLB Derrick Johnson was the nearly unanimous mock draft selection for the Lions last week. When all was said and done, Johnson had slipped to #15 where he was chosen by the Kansas City Chiefs. Johnson is a very good player, and would very likely have been an upgrade for the Lions at weakside linebacker (WLB). Nevertheless, while I agree that the Lions have some holes and depth questions defensively, the linebacking core wasn't one of them.
Boss Bailey is expected back at 100% to man the Lions' SLB spot. The underappreciated Earl Holmes will be back once again at MLB, and the young trio of Teddy Lehman, James Davis and Alex Lewis are currently expected to battle for the starting WLB spot. Throw in Wali Rainer and Donte Curry as sold reserves and special teamers, and it is clear that Detroit's LB core is a strength rather than a weakness.
With or without a top-ten defensive pick last Saturday, the Lions' defense will be better this season. It has to be when you consider that the Lions will add three players who were picked, at one time or another, in the first two rounds of the NFL draft (Kenoy Kennedy, Boss Bailey, Shaun Cody) next season.
Bailey and Kennedy of course will be starters. Cody could start as well, although I expect him to be worked into the starting lineup slowly; as he will fit nicely into the DT rotation with the veteran trio of Shaun Rogers, Dan Wilkinson and Marcus Bell.
The pass defense should be stronger too. Don't be surprised if we see the emergence of two young players this season in the Lions' secondary, safety Terrence Holt and cornerback Keith Smith. Holt will likely be the opening day starter at free safety. Many Lion observers have wondered why this development has taken so long; being that he had shown the ability to make things happen during his three years as a reserve. With the release this week of veteran Brock Marion, the Lions' starting FS spot is seemingly Holt's job to lose. If Terrence takes control of the job, he and SS Kenoy Kennedy could make a tremendous impact on the Lions' defense next season.
I like Keith Smith too. This kid, like Holt, showed the ability to make plays last season as a rookie cornerback. He is a hitter with good size and speed. If number-two corner Fernando Bryant's struggles continue next year, look for Smith – the second year player who hails from Joe Dumars' alma matter, McNeese State – to become a starter by midseason. With the arrival of 3rd round pick and former Stanford Cardinal CB Stanley Wilson, veterans Chris Cash and Andre Goodman will both be fighting for a roster spot this summer. Both vets have been plagued by injury during their careers, and those problems have zapped much of the speed and quickness they displayed during their rookie seasons.
Dre' Bly, contrary to popular reports, was a Pro Bowl player last season. While he didn't have the INT numbers of the previous year due to his injuries and missed snaps, he was a very good run defender last season and still collected four interceptions. Maybe I'm blind, but I saw him plenty of times last year come up in the flat and cut a RB at the knees as the D-lineman and linebackers were converging "gang-tackle" style. Bly is a player and a leader, and if he can remain on the field for 16 games next season, the Lions' pass defense will be infinitely better.
Fernando Bryant had an off year last season, no question. Was it a fluke? We will find out soon enough. I think it had a little to do with injury and a little more to do with Dick Jauron's passive zone defenses. Bryant and Bly would both be more effective if they were allowed to play a more aggressive Cover-2 scheme like Tampa Bay or the New York Jets employ. I really hope that it has been made clear to Jauron that he needs to be much more aggressive with his playcalling this season. There is no reason that all this speed has to go to waste in a chicken$#!+ "bend-but-don't-break" scheme.
For the first time in a long time, the Detroit Lions are entering a season with depth and talent on both sides of the ball. The time is now for the Lions to make a move into the upper echelon of the NFC and contend for the NFC North crown and their first playoff birth since 1999. The time for patience has passed. The cry of "wait until next year" will no longer be tolerated – and it shouldn't be.
There is no reason that this team, with relative health and solid QB play, should not contend for a division title, a playoff birth, and even the once unthinkable ten-win plateau. With the draft now over and spring mini-camp now underway, there is a urgent anticipation among long suffering Lions fans everywhere that their team is now talented enough to not only contend, but may even be on the verge of something more.
Let's hope that Steve Mariucci and Dick Jauron coach and create game plans next fall with the same sense of urgency.
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