Offensive Analysis: Who Stays, Who Goes?

The Detroit Lions are entering a new era -- finally. But with it will come drastic changes to a team that lost every game on the schedule last year. Who will stay, and who will go? Should the Lions target Darren Sproles among others in free-agency to upgrade the offense? We evaluate ...

  QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Daunte Culpepper. Backups -- Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton, Drew Henson, Jon Kitna.
  Culpepper came out of semi-retirement, hopped right into the lineup mid-season and struggled. Then he suffered a shoulder injury. Orlovsky came closest to winning a game, but while he was safe, he was unspectacular. His big blooper - running out of the back of the end zone for a safety at Minnesota - will forever sum up the 0-16 season. Stanton has been set back by injuries in his first two seasons and still has a long way to go in his development. Henson remains a reclamation project. Kitna was unhappy after Mike Martz's firing and never bought into Jim Colletto's offensive approach. When he struggled early, the Lions used a back injury as an excuse to shelve him.


Will Scott Linehan turn to Matthew Stafford, or a veteran to lead the Lions?
Mike Zarrilli/Getty

Under Linehan: This situation could change markedly, or not at all. In fact, of all the positions on a football team, Detroit's quarterback situation is the most precarious. The Lions are working to drop the mid-February roster bonus due to Daunte Culpepper, but have made it clear that they want an open competition among Pep, Jon Kitna, and Drew Stanton. Whether or not another name is added (Matthew Stafford, anyone?) via the draft or acquire a veteran quarterback obviously remains to be seen.

The Lions are not likely to re-sign free-agent Dan Orlovsky, who started 8 games in 2008, managing a 72.6 QB rating.

The "de-Martzification" (thank you, John Clayton) got underway last year, which can be partly blamed for Detroit's offensive implosion, a borderline improper string of ineptitude, and Jon Kitna's public and (and later private) meltdown. This gives Linehan a one year head-start versus his challenge of replacing Martz in St. Louis, only he isn't responsible for an entire team this time, which should allow him to fall seamlessly back into his old gig as an offensive coordinator, where he's always thrived.

Although he might not have an idea of who his quarterback is just yet, he's well aware of how to use the talent around the position.

  RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Kevin Smith. Backups - RB Rudi Johnson, RB Aveion Cason, RB Brian Calhoun, FB Moran Norris, FB Jerome Felton, FB Jon Bradley.
  Smith came on the second half of the season. The more he got the ball, the better he ran. He finished just short of a 1,000-yard season and appears to be a solid building block for the future. The Lions need another runner, though, at a time when two backs is the standard. Johnson never looked anywhere close to his old Pro Bowl form. Cason, after being cut, came back and helped boost an awful return game, but wasn't a real factor. Calhoun spent the season on IR. Felton is a smart player who impressed early, but he lost his job to Norris, who made an impact with his lead blocking. Bradley is a converted defensive lineman whose future is uncertain.

Under Linehan: It's quite possible that Kevin Smith and Jerome Felton are the only holdovers from this group. Although Jim Schwartz and Linehan have barely tested the waters with this roster, the Lions will be in the market for another free-agent RB, and San Diego's Darren Sproles certainly comes to mind.


Kevin Smith adds a flair to Detroit's offensive backfield.
getty images
Sproles can double as a return man, and the Lions have ample cap room to spend a nice portion on its ground game. Expect the Lions to be among the many pursuing yet another LaDainian Thomlinson understudy.

Of any offensive skill player, Smith should be the most amped for Linehan's arrival. Although he gets credit for producing yard-churning quarterbacks, Linehan is just as -- if not more -- successful in maximizing the running game. In Minnesota, he used Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Onterrio Smith to achieve one of the league's more feared ground games. He duplicated that effort in 2005 with Miami, helping Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown rush for over 1,600 yards. His stint in St. Louis didn't achieve many wins, but it did put Steven Jackson on the map among the NFL's top performing RBs.

  TIGHT END: Starter -- Michael Gaines. Backups -- Casey Fitzsimmons, John Owens, Dan Campbell.
  Campbell would have been the starter, if healthy. He is a strong blocker who can make catches downfield. But he continued to battle injuries and was out for the season after only one catch. Gaines struggled and committed two huge turnovers that helped cost the Lions games - one at Chicago, one at Carolina. Fitzsimmons is a good special teams player and can catch the ball, but he isn't a good blocker. Owens is a solid role player.

Under Linehan: Block, block, block. Scott Linehan's tight ends must block if they want to have any success in the running game, or if the tight ends themselves want to participate in ball receiving activity. This will be a challenge for Casey Fitzsimmons and Michael Gaines, who are mediocre blockers. Interestingly, it opens the door for the little used but omnipresent John Owens (a free-agent), who might be the best blocker in the bunch.

It's possible that Dan Campbell could return, but injuries have him leaning towards retirement.


Jim Kleinsasser will be a UFA; could he be in Detroit's cross-hairs?.
Jim Mone/AP

When ran efficiently, Linehan's offense utilizes the tight end extensively; Randy McMichael had 39 catches in 2007 in St. Louis, and 60 in 2005 under Linehan's tutelage in Miami.

The problem is that John Owens isn't Randy McMichael, making tight end a position of need for Detroit as the team enters 2009. So while the draft could provide some later-round talent to be developed, an interesting free-agent possibility is Minnesota's Jim Kleinsasser, who had his most productive NFL years under Linehan. Entering his 10th year in the league, Kleinsasser caught 37 and 46 passes in 2002 and 2003, respectively, and has been relatively ignored ever since. He is a terrific run-blocker, a blue-collar player, and would fit the mold of Detroit's new, tough offensive appeal perfectly.

  WIDE RECEIVER: Starters -- Calvin Johnson, Shaun McDonald. Backups -- Mike Furrey, Keary Colbert, Adam Jennings, John Standeford, Travis Taylor, Reggie Ball.
  Johnson stood out amid the misery. He had 1,331 receiving yards - 999 more than the Lions' next receiver, McDonald. He ranked fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and tied for first in touchdowns with 12, even though he didn't get the ball enough much of the season. He tied for only 20th in the NFL in catches with 78. He is the cornerstone for the future. McDonald and Mike Furrey had lesser roles without Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, and both finished the year on IR. The rest were fill-ins.

Under Linehan: This might be the reason Linehan took the job. Or, "he" might be the reason. The debate is silly: Calvin Johnson is the most talented receiver in the National Football League, and not for his potential as much as what he accomplished in 2008 with what somewhat resembled a professional football team. Under multiple quarterbacks, and an offensive coordinator that clearly had no clue how to manage assets, Johnson caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards, and tied Larry Fitzgerland for a league-best 12 TDs among receivers.

The difference? Fitzgerland had two Pro Bowl receivers beside him and Kurt Warner throwing the ball. Calvin Johnson is simply the best, and if he isn't, he will be very soon -- because Scott Linehan's going to do everything in power to see it through.

The fact that Linehan turned the raw Randy Moss into a 100-catch-per-year, household name has been beaten to death. But he will have the same opportunity with the only player in the past decade that exceeds Moss's rare size and athleticism. It could get interesting.

Furrey isn't expected to return in 2009, and the Lions will evaluate the rest of the WR corps through minicamp, training camp and the preseason. McDonald is a free-agent, but is expected to be re-signed. Regardless, there is a slew of possession receivers this free-agent market period that could come at a cheap price.

  OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Edwin Mulitalo, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups - C Andy McCollum, G Manny Ramirez, T George Foster, G Damion Cook.
  The Lions started eight different combinations, thanks to injuries and ineptitude, which hurt the continuity and consistency. Backus played well against some top pass rushers but also took some killer penalties. Mulitalo lost his job to Cook at times. Raiola brought passion and seemed to play OK, but the Lions actually started to run better when he was out with a broken hand and McCollum was playing. Peterman wasn't exactly dominant. Cherilus struggled to beat out Foster early in the season. While he showed potential, he made too many mistakes.

Under Linehan: Linehan will be the first to tell you that you're only as good as the players blocking for you. While he has publicly supported Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and Gosder Cherilus, that doesn't mean that the three can't be replaced -- or moved.

The Lions have the first pick of the draft, and logic would suggest a tackle to start opposite last-year's first choice, Cherilus. This move, obviously, would spell the end of Backus as Detroit's incumbent starting left tackle. And if you ask any Lions fan that doesn't hail from Ann Arbor, this is a good thing.

Backus has clearly gone downhill as his career enters its twilight, but it isn't far-fetched to to move him to a guard position (both LG and RG are spots of concern) if Linehan feels so inclined. Raiola, meanwhile, has continued to be the best of a bad offensive line, but if nothing else is reliable in the middle.

If the Lions plan to follow through on the "tough" talk that they've spouted, it begins with an intimidating offensive line. Last year, this returning group did little more than pur, meaning drastic changes must be made. There's a handful of experienced free-agent guards available, and the Lions will bring in at least one of them. On the short list? Washington's Pete Kendall, San Diego's Mike Goff, and Jacksonville's Chris Naeole.

It is a good bet that the team will also spend a few of its draft choices on guard, tackle, or both.

RG Stephen Peterman could be re-signed, but it isn't likely.

DEFENSE: Tuesday, February 10.


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