Point No. 1: The Lions need a middle linebacker, but they don't need to spend the No. 1 pick on Aaron Curry.
“We’re going to need a big thumper. I mean a strong thumper in the middle for base defense. I don’t want to put height and weights – but, big, strong, physical player that can play between the tackles (and) that can take on offensive guards even though they’re outweighed by almost 100 pounds on some occasions.” - Jim Schwartz at mini-camp.
And everything that Schwartz just described doesn't exist on Detroit's roster. Enter the debate regarding Aaron Curry.
Curry is aggressive, fast, smart, a sound tackler, and he has a nose for the ball. He is considered the "Fan's Choice" to go No. 1 overall, and it's a legitimate argument. He would come a bit cheaper than Matthew Stafford or even a tackle at No. 1 overall, and would fill a need for the quarterback of the defense.
Wake Forest's Aaron Curry is a dominating specimen, but is he No. 1 material for Detroit?
However, while Curry is a standout athlete, it's difficult to say he's that much better (as in "19 spots better") than the other talent in the draft. At No. 20, the Lions will have their pick of the litter at the position, where USC's Rey Maualuga or Ohio State's James Laurinaitis could be available.Some have even argued that in terms of value, Laurinaitis -- who has patrolled the inside during his college career -- makes more sense than Curry, who would have to transition to the inside after spending his career on the outside.
Also, don't assume that Jim Schwartz needs the best linebacker available to run his defense. Schwartz's dominant Titans defense from a year ago was led by a former fourth-round pick, Stephen Tulloch.
Furthermore, a linebacking core is typically only as good as its defensive line. The Lions are entering the draft looking to shore up the defensive tackle position, where they front just two elderstatesmen (Chuck Darby and Grady Jackson) and two inexperienced second-year players (Landon Cohen and Andre Fluellen).
Point No. 2: Culpepper Looks Solid, But What Does It Really Mean?
In the words of one RoarReport.com user, Daunte Culpepper looked "positively svelte" during the team's three-day minicamp this past weekend. Besides his "Biggest Loser" style weight loss (he dropped thirty pounds), Culpepper was the most efficient quarterback at the camp. The veteran had zip on his passes, was vocal with teammates, and simply looked the part of a bonafied starting quarterback.
"I feel like (it’s) my rookie year again," Culpepper said. "I’m very excited – very excited."
Culpepper looked solid at Detroit's mini-camp, and is ready to lead the team in 2009.
Besides nullifying a hefty bonus, the team also added a provision for 2009: keep the weight off. Culpepper has simply followed the guidelines.
Culpepper's off-season resurgence has been nothing short of impressive, however. He doesn't need the money, so he could have continued his retirement, instead demonstrating the heart of a true competitor. That shouldn't go unnoticed. Yet while his talents will help give the Lions a starting quarterback in 2009 that should be taken seriously, he is by no means the future of the ball club at the position.
They'll look for that next weekend.
And how would Culpepper feel if he had to assume the role of mentor?
"That’s a possibility," he admitted. "I feel comfortable no matter what. I’m here to help the team be the best we can be. Honestly, that’s how I’m approaching it."
Point No. 3: Detroit's Receiving Core Looks Tight
Anytime you can add "Calvin Johnson" to a depth chart, the value of a position will invariably skyrocket. But if Detroit's stable of field receivers is able to collectively gel under coordinator Scott Linehan, it could be the most physically gifted and productive set of receivers since the Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton era.
Just don't expect fans to hold their collective breath. The Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams experiment was disastrous, and only pointed out the regrettably clear difference between "paper" and "proven." But while Johnson's exploits are proven (many consider him the most talented receiver in the league), his support group is solid.
Bryant Johnson is a former first-round pick (2003), and has managed to collect over 40 passes in each of his last five seasons despite not being a regular starter. The 6'3, 211-pounder also creates matchup problems for a defense that will be consumed with stopping Calvin Johnson.
Former Oakland receiver Ronald Curry, meanwhile, will play the slot. The veteran remains an athletic phenom, and although he had just 19 receptions a year ago, his two previous campaigns boasted 62 and 55 catches, respectively.
Curry played in the slot during each of those two years.
"He’s had a lot of production in the slot," said head coach Jim Schwartz. "With Calvin (Johnson) and with Bryant Johnson outside, we have a need for a slot receiver and he’s had production there; he’s strong. As a defensive coach, I’ve gone against him a lot of times and he fits there.”
William Franklin, a third-round pick from a year ago (Kansas City), has to prove himself. He was cut from the Chiefs when the organization's new management wasn't impressed with his work ethic, but if he wants a future in this league, he understands this is likely his last chance.
Franklin is a speedster, and will compete for return duties with Curry and veteran defensive back Phillip Buchanon.
Each receiver looked solid and in shape during the team's minicamp.
Point No. 4: Regardless of Reports, Lions Aren't Desperate For Left Tackle
Something that has caught momentum since last season has been Detroit's troubles at left tackle.
And with good reason: The statistics claim that incumbent LT Jeff Backus gave up 9.25 sacks in 2008, the fourth most at his position.
But those stats can also be misleading, especially when you're a left tackle playing on an island, at a position where everyone would rather review your statistics instead of film.
For example, Buffalo's Jason Peters (recently traded to Philadelphia) allowed a league-high 11.5 sacks, yet still made the Pro Bowl.
It it isn't because of a fluke: it's that those statistics are subjective to the point that they should be considered invalid.
If you review the film, Backus, while not spectacular, was certainly solid. The nine-year veteran, who has started every game since his rookie year in 2001, turned in strong performances against Carolina and defensive end Julius Peppers, and owned Houston's Mario Williams for the better part of the two team's Week 7 matchup.
Backus was no doubt affected by the poor play and extremely poor decision-making at quarterback, which could be shared equally amongst Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, and Daunte Culpepper. His signal callers made bad decisions (amazing, considering they went 0-16, eh?) on a regular basis, and the running backs failed to pick-up blitzing assignments on numerous occasions.
Detroit wouldn't mind the help at offensive tackle with Jason Smith, but they don't necessarily require a tackle at No. 1 overall.
Detroit has flirted with the notion of moving Backus to left guard, but he didn't practice one snap at the position during the mini-camp.
“Jeff’s a pro," said Schwartz during the mini-camp. "He’s been through a lot in his career and he’s a good, solid, steady guy that you don’t really need to worry about.”
To help solidify the left tackle spot (perhaps giving Backus more incentive to maintain his job), the Lions went out and signed former Titans reserve tackle Daniel Loper. Loper is a more than adequate NFL offensive lineman, and he was considered a major departure in Tennessee.
While a common-thought is to draft a dominant left tackle in next week's draft, it simply isn't a desperate issue for the Lions. Furthermore, next week and next year's draft is deep with first-round tackle talent. If Detroit doesn't select Baylor's Jason Smith or Virginia's Eugene Monroe, there will be a formidable talent at No. 20 (and even No. 33), and it isn't a reach if they waited until next year, where Iowa's Bryan Bulaga and LSU's Ciron Black (among others) are considered top 15 picks.
Point No. 5: Five-O hasn't been forgotten
A second-round pick two years ago, defensive end Ikaika Alama-Francis -- a favorite of former coach Rod Marinelli -- hasn't gone unnoticed by Detroit's new coaching staff.
The 6'5, 280-pound Hawaii product performed at the camp, and although he wasn't in pads, Detroit gave him several different looks: both at defensive end, and as an outside linebacker. Alama-Francis is still considered an athletic "freak" by many in the organization, and the team is excited to see how he responds to Detroit's defensive scheme.
"A defensive end in this scheme is a little bit like a hybrid 3-4 outside linebacker: he doesn’t need to be real big," said Schwartz over the weekend. "But what he does is he gives you a guy that can sort of swing down inside. Multi-dimensional defensive linemen can be a plus. Typically on the left side of the defense, your left defensive end is a little bit bigger because he gets the tight end most of the time.”
Although they plan on maximizing veterans Dewayne White and Jared Devries in 2009, the Lions will look to find a defensive end within the first three rounds in the draft. They like Tennessee's Robert Ayers (a self-proclaimed Lions fan) if he were to slide to No. 33, but he could jump into the first-round.
Point No. 6: Rome wasn't built in a draft
The Lions are entering the NFL draft with many holes. During the mini-camp, Schwartz was quick to caution that rebuilding an 0-16 team isn't exactly a one-year process.
"I mean, you’d hope to be able to fill (all the holes), but is it realistic?" he said. "Maybe, maybe not. I think you’d be interested to be in some other draft rooms at this time of year from playoff teams and hear the way that those guys feel about their teams because I think at this time of the year, there’s nobody that’s 100 percent happy with their team and says, ‘Hey, we’re one player away.’ It’s sort of the nature of the personnel people in this business; the scouts in this business always want to go and improve the team. So yeah, it’s important for us, but I don’t know if that’s much different than other places.”
Schwartz added that there's a natural urgency when it comes to building a team, especially when the Lions are competing with 31 other teams -- most in a better position than Detroit. He said his lack of patience will help build Detroit properly.
"Coaches never want to look two or three years in the future," he said. "There is a balance and that’s organizational vision and different things like that. But coaches always want immediate satisfaction and we’ve seen people get it done before.”
Point No. 7: Detroit is content at cornerback
The Lions entered the mini-camp with (count 'em) 10 cornerbacks.
Only three -- Travis Fisher, Keith Smith and Ramzee Robinson -- return from last year's squad. But none are guaranteed to land a spot on Detroit's final roster. New faces included veterans Philip Buchanon and Anthony Henry (both are expected to be the team's starters), along with former Titan Eric King, and veteran Dexter Wynn.
Considering the Lions allowed opposing quarterbacks to accumulate a record high in passing percentage would explain the position flip, but is more work needed to upgrade the position?
Some have the Lions drafting a cornerback as high as round two, but with the current stable of defensive backs, it might not be necessary to draft the position -- at all.
“This (mini-camp) was a good start," said Schwartz. "I think they took a big step today. I think you guys all saw that. We were getting our hands on some balls in the first couple of practices; today they were taking more advantage of some of them. We’ve got a lot of players with experience here and a lot of guys that have started a lot of games.
"I sort of like what I’ve seen so far. You always look, but I think if we had to play a game today, I think I would be confident with the guys that are on the roster right now.”