In all likelihood, the Lions will be busy in the off-season, both in the free-agent market and on draft day. Now that coach Rod Marinelli knows what he has and what he still needs, he and president Matt Millen have a lengthy shopping list.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Lions will make a big splash on the first day of free agency or even that they will use the No. 2 pick in the draft. Marinelli is looking for a certain kind of player -- especially on the defensive side of the ball -- and it doesn't always involve a big name. He wants players who are committed to the game, will work relentlessly and can fill a specific role in his defense.
Although the Lions have not drafted particularly well under Millen, he has done a good job of maximizing his draft choices via trades. Considering the team needs, don't be surprised if he trades down for additional picks again this year.
The most pressing needs include offensive linemen, a strong pass rusher, a running back (in case Kevin Jones' Lisfranc injury lingers into the 2007 season), a No. 3 (or No. 2) receiver, a stud middle linebacker and yet more help in the defensive secondary.
Below is a unit-by-unit analysis of Detroit's current position situation on the offensive side of the football. A defensive analysis will be posted on Friday.
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Jon Kitna. Backups -- Josh McCown, Dan Orlovsky.
Kitna had a career year in several respects in his first season under offensive coordinator Mike Martz but he had no more success turning the Lions into a winner than his successor, Joey Harrington. With career-highs of 372 completions in 596 attempts for 4,208 yards, Kitna was among the NFL's most productive quarterbacks. He took every offensive snap of the season, his chemistry with the team was exceptional and he handled the leadership responsibilities well. But he was intercepted at least once in 13 of the Lions 16 games and his interceptions outnumbered his touchdown passes, 22-21. He also had a problem with fumbles (nine). The problem for Kitna, as it had been for Harrington in four previous seasons, was a lack of help. His offensive line was in a constant state of flux due to injuries, he was sacked 63 times, the running game was spotty at best and the Lions never had an established No. 3 receiver. McCown's only game action came at wide receiver, where he caught two passes for 15 yards in two games. No. 3 quarterback Dan Orlovsky's only experience came on the practice field with the scout team.
FIX: Despite an opportunity to take either Brady Quinn (Notre Dame) or JaMarcus Russell (LSU) at the No. 2 pick, the Lions likely won't pursue any quarterbacks in either the draft or free-agency. Marinelli was rather vocal with his support of Kitna during the regular season, and the team believes strongly that both McCown and Orlovsky are suitable reserves.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Kevin Jones, FB Cory Schlesinger. Backups -- RB
Shawn Bryson, RB Arlen Harris, RB Brian Calhoun, RB Aveion Cason, RB Lamar Gordon.
Coach Rod Marinelli's hopes for a balanced offense never materialized. The Lions' running game was the least productive in the NFL, averaging a meager 70.6 yards per game and providing scant help for QB Jon Kitna. Just about the time Jones was hitting his stride with mid-season 100-yard rushing games against Buffalo and Atlanta (both wins), he was beset with injuries -- first an ankle and then a Lis Franc foot injury that eventually landed him in the operating room and ended his season prematurely. Jones' backups -- Shawn Bryson and rookie Brian Calhoun went on injured reserve earlier in the season, so the Lions finished the season with a mishmash of players signed off the street carrying the ball. If Jones is not fully recovered from the Lis Franc surgery, the Lions could face the same problem again in 2007. Schlesinger could be finished. By the end of the season, the 12-year veteran was getting virtually no plays with the offense, although he was still a special teams contributor.
FIX: The news regarding Lions' running back Kevin Jones continues to improve (he has stated he could return by training camp), but his stability -- like his backups -- will continue to be questioned. Although not improbable, it is unlikely that the Lions will consider spending an early pick on a player like Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson. However, if they could trade down and snag a player like California's Marshawn Lynch, or spend a second round pick on Auburn's Kenny Irons, they would help solidify and add competition to a troubled backfield.
TIGHT END: Starter -- Dan Campbell. Backups -- Marcus Pollard, Casey FitzSimmons,
Campbell turned out to be a prize free-agent catch. He not only gave the Lions the blocking ability they expected when they signed him last spring, he delivered as a receiver as well with 21 receptions for 308 yards and four touchdowns. Pollard saw his receiving numbers tumble from a team-high 46 for 516 yards in 2005 to 12 for 100 yards in 2006 as Martz utilized him primarily in H-back duties. FitzSimmons, who had started the season as the No. 1 TE, was hampered by injuries, caught just seven passes for 71 yards and finished the season on IR. McHugh spent more time as a blocking FB than at TE in the closing weeks of the season.
FIX: Not a pressing need for the Lions, although a younger, more durable tight end could be picked up in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL draft or in free-agency.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Roy Williams, Mike Furrey. Backups -- Mike Williams,
Devale Ellis, Eddie Drummond, Corey Bradford.
Roy Williams and Furrey had outstanding seasons but, aside from that, the Lions' receiving corps was a mess. Charles Rogers, the second player taken in the 2003 draft, was cut before the season started; Mike Williams, a first-round pick in 2005, spent most of the season in Martz's doghouse; Bradford, who was expected to be the No. 2 or 3 receiver last summer, was cut early in the season, then re-signed and finished the season with 14 catches for 164 yards; Az-Zahir Hakim was signed and released; Ellis caught just four balls for 41 yards. Fortunately for Kitna, he had Roy Williams and Furrey. Despite his occasional drops, Roy Williams had a Pro Bowl caliber season with career-bests of 82 catches for 1,310 yards. And Furrey, who had been playing free safety at St. Louis a year earlier, blossomed into a solid No. 2 receiver with an NFC best 98 receptions for 1,086 yards and six touchdowns.
FIX: This is where things could get interesting. After one good season, and his first as a starting receiver in the league, Furrey is looking for No. 2 receiver money in the free-agent market. He isn't going to get it from the Lions -- or any other team in the league. The dilemma for Detroit is that, if Furrey departs, they are essentially left with Roy Williams and a collection of players better left on a practice squad or, even more suitable, the waiver wire. With Georgia Tech standout Calvin Johnson staring them directly in the eyes with the No. 2 overall pick, does Matt Millen avoid the humiliation that goes along with selecting yet another wide receiver, or does he swallow his pride by pairing Johnson -- a 6-4, "can't miss" prospect -- with Williams?
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Ross Verba, C Dominic Raiola, RG
Damien Woody, RT Rex Tucker. Backups -- G Frank Davis, T Jonathan Scott, T Clint Stickdorn, G Stephen Peterman, G/T Barry Stokes, G Rick DeMulling, C Dave
Pearson, G Blaine Saipaia.
The Lions gambled that they could get a season out of three free agents with a history of injuries and lost, big time. Verba, Tucker and Stokes all finished the season on injured reserve with a grand total of 23 starts among them, including 11 by Stokes. And if that wasn't bad enough, even the backups were beset with injuries, leaving the Lions with a patchwork line that included Davis, an undrafted free agent, Peterman, a player signed off the practice squad, and Stickdorn, who had been cut from the practice squad earlier in the season, at the end of the season. Backus and Raiola played reasonably well but the revolving door lineup at the other three positions left the Lions ineffective in every way. They could not pass protect well (Kitna was sacked a league-high 63 times) and their run-blocking was good for an average of only 3.7 yards per carry with the least-productive ground game in the NFL. The offensive line will get major attention in the off-season.
FIX: Jon Kitna put up scorching statistics in 2006, but you will have to excuse Martz if he's nagged by the thought of what Kitna would have accomplished if he didn't become as intimately familiar with the smell of field turf (both natural and artificial) during the season. A traditional enigma in Detroit, the Lions only had a handful of games where they featured the same cast of offensive linemen, preventing Martz's offense from reaching its full potential. The team will certainly address the depth of the offensive line in free-agency, but would they consider spending their top choice on Wisconsin's left tackle Joe Thomas? Maybe. While Thomas isn't a sexy pick, he would certainly be a welcomed addition to the offensive line, although if the Lions are going in that direction, trading down and plucking more than one offensive lineman in the first few rounds seems more plausible.