(ALLEN PARK, MI)-- Is this the year the old black and blue division returns to the NFL disguised as the NFC North division? That may sound like a strange question to ask in a division that sports pass happy teams like the Minnesota Vikings, the Green Bay Packers and even the west coast offense of the Detroit Lions.
This time, though, the black and blue part may be coming from a trio of linebackers in the division. Newly acquired Hardy Nickerson in Green Bay, All-Pro and much hyped Brian Urlacher in Chicago and Detroit's Chris Claiborne.
All three have their credentials -- Nickerson and Urlacher tied for 13th in the NFL with 117 tackles -- but despite the hallucinations of ESPN's Len Pasquarelli, who claims the Bears have a clear edge in NFC North at middle linebacker, the man with the most upside and who is poised for a season that will surpass both the aforementioned players is Detroit's own Chris Claiborne.
Claiborne is thought to be an underachiever by some, when really, the only thing really wrong with the fourth-year pro from the University of Southern California is that he was playing out of position. Claiborne had the misfortune of being selected by a team that had three middle linebackers starting in the same corps.
First, there was Stephen Boyd, the incumbent who filled in decently for Chris Spielman, a blue collar player who reached legendary status in Detroit after a couple of Pro Bowl seasons. Second was Allen Aldridge, who was acquired by Detroit after a Super Bowl winning season. Detroit's head coach at the time Bobby Ross, wanted Aldridge so bad, he told his agent to fax him an offer at 12:01am, the moment the free-agency period began.
Without any negotiation sessions, Detroit accepted the offer, signed it and faxed it back. That quickly, Aldridge was a Lion. Then Detroit promptly moved Claiborne out of his natural position, middle linebacker, to the strong side position.
But things changed quickly for Claiborne on the field in 2001. Boyd suffered yet another back injury. No one at the time knew that it was career threatening, but Boyd never would play another down for the Lions.
Aldridge had fallen out of favor with the new regime. Gone was Ross, who overpaid for the former Broncos star, a victim of burnout. Gary Moeller, who was a fan of Aldridge after watching him play on as a defensive assistant for Detroit, was also broomed. In came Marty Mornhinweg and defensive assistant Vince Tobin. After one year Tobin was removed and the disappointing defense was to be revamped.
One thing good, though, came out of 2001 season for Detroit despite the 2-14 finish. Claiborne got back into his natural position and displayed stellar productivity. He ended the year with 120 tackes, three MORE than the Pro Bowler Urlacher, in addition to two interceptions and five passes defensed.
The Lions found out they had a player in the 9th overall pick in 1999.
Claiborne wasted no time this off-season to improve on his impressive season, setting up a rigorous conditioning program to make sure he had what it takes to man the middle for a full sixteen game season.
Claiborne hired a former Olympian, Quincy Watts, to help him with his stamina. Not only that, he lost weight, dropping some 16 pounds in his pursuit of the perfect size and strength required for a breakout season.
Coach Marty Mornhinweg is very appreciative of what Claiborne has done. Mornhinweg told the Detroit Free Press "Remember, he came in at 268 last year, and that was just too heavy for him. Even for a middle linebacker, for his body. So he's down at the right weight. He's about 250 or 251. "We expect him to nail down that spot. He's got to be, he must be one of the anchors on our defense, there's no question about it."
Not to worry coach. In the first week of the Lions training camp, the 1998 Butkus Award winner has been consistenly quick to the ball. He appears poised and ready for the breakout season many expected when Detroit drafted him so high.
This is the season that Lions fans were hoping for when the team passed on the "Freak", aka Javon Kearse, and selected Claiborne instead.
In due time, Detroit will find that they, not the Bears, have the best middle linebacker in the NFC North and maybe in the entire NFC.