Issue No. 1: Should Matthew Stafford play right away?
Answer: That's the typical question when looking at first-round pick quarterbacks. Should the team wait or play him right away?
The coaching staff will have to evaluate these key issues when making that decision:
1) Where is he at in his knowledge of the playbook?
This simply means, can he run the offense properly without hesitation? Does he know where the ball is supposed to go?
2) How are his mechanics?
Specifically, how are his footwork and balance? Can he throw the ball accurately?
When head coach Jim Schwartz confers with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton to decide if Stafford is ready, it's those listed facets above that should be at the top of the list.
It's not like Stafford won't have enough talent around him to work with.
Second-year RB Kevin Smith was solid as a rookie and showed better than expected versatility. Calvin Johnson is quickly emerging as one of the NFL's best receivers, the team added veterans Ronald Curry and Bryant Johnson, third-round pick Derrick Williams also should contribute this season. Additionally, first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew was viewed as the top tight end coming out of the draft. While the offensive line certainly isn't great, it's serviceable.
No one can question one particular area with Stafford and that's his ability to make every throw. The issue with Stafford's throwing is accuracy. That will be something to watch during training camp.
If Stafford isn't ready to play right away, the coaches will have a capable replacement for at least this season in Daunte Culpepper. Back when Culpepper and Linehan were with the Minnesota Vikings from 2003-2004, Culpepper threw for 64 TDs and for over 8,000 yards. Linehan, who called the plays during those two seasons, understands what Culpepper's limitations are at 32 years old. The good thing is that Culpepper supposedly is in the best shape he's been in since very early in his career.
The pressure to play Stafford right away shouldn't be there. Back in 2003 when the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Carson Palmer, a team source said that Palmer clearly didn't have a strong knowledge of the playbook and clearly wasn't ready to play. Jon Kitna, who started at quarterback that season, put together a career-high 26 TD passes and it seemed like a certainty that he would start in 2004. However, the decision was made to play Palmer the next season despite Kitna's success. After head coach Marvin Lewis made that decision around the NFL combine in late February, the move was made with some skepticism because of the success of their offense, previously. How would he sell the move to the veterans, who may view the offense as having to take a step back? As it turned out, Palmer had an up and down season as did the team overall, but he showed the players why the move was the right one. The big difference between Cincinnati then and Detroit now is the Bengals had an 8-8 record in 2003, the Lions didn't win a game in 2008. So, what kind of pressure could the Lions have really to play the rookie signal caller?
One school of thought is to play the rookie and let him take his lumps early on, much like Peyton Manning did with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. But mentally, Manning could handle the tough times. No one can say with conviction that Stafford will be able to handle the losing and pressure from week to week. That's why others will say Culpepper should start and only play Stafford late in the season assuming the team is out of the playoff picture.
Issue No. 2: Can this defense show improvement under Gunther Cunningham?
Answer: Some would argue that much of the personnel left over from the Rod Marinelli regime is tailored to fit a cover-2 scheme. However, only three players remain on the Detroit roster that played for Marinelli in Tampa Bay that were brought over to the Lions. Of course, a bunch of draft picks in his three years as head coach were selected to play in Marinelli's system.
Cunningham will run Schwartz's system which is what Schwartz ran with the Titans. That scheme puts more of an emphasis on man coverage in the secondary, which is a departure from the previous mostly zone scheme. Cunningham is familiar with the Tennessee system due to his three years coaching the linebackers with the Titans.
Second-year DE Cliff Avril noted in a recent interview on Sirius NFL Radio that the front-four will be going to more of an "over" look which means the ends are lined up outside the tackles. In the cover-2, the ends lined up more inside. It's apparent there will be a huge change in scheme this season on defense.
Also, expect the defense to blitz more under Cunningham, who believes in being aggressive. While his defense with the Chiefs last season only posted 10 sacks, he had next to no talent to work with in his front-seven. With Detroit, he'll have Avril, Dewayne White, Julian Peterson, and some other developmental players.
The secondary such be much-improved with the additions of veteran CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon along with second-round pick S Louis Delmas, who should start right away.
The bottom line is this defense should take on a more aggressive approach with Schwartz and Cunningham leading the way and look for better results right away.
NFC North Issues/Answers-Detroit Lions
Issue No. 1: Should Matthew Stafford play right away?