Fear the Lions? Maybe

The Vikings went from first to worst in the NFC North, and this year all three of their divisional opponents have something to build on. The Lions have drafted wisely and have an ascending young core of stars on offense and defense.

As the Vikings prepare for the 2011 season, they have a lot of things to concern themselves with. Aside from major personnel decisions – they could lose starters Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Pat Williams and Ben Leber to free agency and Kevin Williams (and Pat) will likely be suspended for the first four games – they have a lot of competition in the division.

They lost the division title they held high in 2008 and 2009 to the Chicago Bears, and it was Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers that won the championship belt at the end of the season. Both teams are entering 2011 with something to prove – the Bears trying to advance beyond the NFC Championship Game and the Packers looking to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Keep in mind that the Packers haven't won the NFC North since Brett Favre was their quarterback, so they actually have some motivation to be better than they were when they brought the Lombardi Trophy home to Green Bay.

But the team the Vikings (and the Packers and the Bears) may have to concern themselves with could very well be the Lions. They were a horrid franchise that many thought could be set backward for a decade by the inept drafting and talent evaluation of Matt Millen, who was mercifully run out of town three weeks into the 2008 season. For years, a "Fire Millen" campaign was on among Lions fans. To his credit, after three first-round bust draft choices at wide receiver, the fourth time was the charm. He took Calvin Johnson with the second pick of the 2007 draft, although one can wonder if he would still have his job as Lions general manager if he had taken Adrian Peterson.

That prospect boggles the mind. When Peterson came to the Vikings to be viewed as the hands-down best running back in franchise history, he had to surpass the accomplishments of players like Terry Allen, Bill Brown, Chuck Foreman and Robert Smith to climb his way to the pinnacle of success as a running back for Minnesota. In Detroit, they would say, "OK, kid. Here's what Barry Sanders did. Can you top that?" One can only imagine how different the balance of power in the NFC North would be had Millen taken a chance on greatness in Peterson instead of enforcing his will on a dominant wide receiver. Peterson may have been motivated to be "The Show" and, given the dire economic circumstances in Michigan, he could have been a franchise savior on the same level as Sanders.

Casual fans embraced the New Orleans Saints and the team's run to a Super Bowl championship, as they rose from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The City of Detroit has undergone a long-term internal cancer that has seen its population drop when most other major metropolitan areas have grown. It is a financially depressed area that needs something to rejuvenate it – to give those who will live and die in the city something to be proud of. Unfortunately, during the Millen Administration, not only was Millen a stooge, he was Larry – the least funny of the Three Stooges.

Three games into the 2008 season, Millen had a hood put over his head and was scurried out of town in an unmarked van, being released a safe distance away from the season ticket holders that had grocery bags as team head gear for several years. Martin Mayhew took over and the Lions started their ascent from the ashes of Camp Millen.

Thanks to having the first winless team during the era of the 16-game schedule, the Lions obviously had the first pick in the draft. They took quarterback Matthew Stafford. He's only played 13 games in two seasons, but he has a ton of potential, knows the offense inside out and, if he can stay healthy, will live up to his billing. The sad thing is, he is a bust in terms of what the last two post-Millen draft classes have accomplished.

In the 2009 draft, the Lions had not only the first pick in the draft, but the 20th from the Roy Williams trade – one of the few assets the team had that could be traded for value. The Lions used that pick on Brandon Pettigrew. After having his rookie season cut short due to injury, he caught 71 passes for 722 yards and four TDs in his second season. Given the propensity for receivers to explode in their third season (pick any 10 receivers and eight will live up to that Year Three bump), those numbers are benchmarks that likely could be passed.

In the second round of the '09 draft, Detroit used its third pick of the draft on safety Louis Delmas. When healthy, he is scary good. Injuries have slowed him and his toughness has been questioned, but, in an ideal circumstance, he is a legitimate candidate for the "watch list" of Pro Bowl players. He's a poor man's LaRon Landry. If you have NFL Rewind, check any Redskins game and watch Landry. Delmas has many of those same qualities. He can make a difference.

In the third round, Detroit got middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. He became a starter a month into his rookie season and, despite having his 2010 season cut short, he is the one fixture in an admittedly shaky and roster-volatile linebacker corps. He is the rock in the middle, making the line calls and, given his production, he could blossom into a defensive leader in 2011.

Emerging from the charred remains of the franchise, the Lions remained largely a joke in 2009. In the 2010 draft, they dropped from No. 1 to No. 2 in the draft and, without Millen there to take a chance on a wide receiver, Mayhew took Ndamukong Suh. He ended his rookie season at the Pro Bowl – deservedly so. He could be dominant for years to come. All he needed was another stud defensive tackle (SPOILER ALERT!). It would take time for that to happen.

The Lions traded back into the first round to get a second pick (ironically, the trade was made with the Vikings) that, in hindsight, proved to be an epic fail from a plan that could have set the Vikings up for years. 2010 was the first year of a three-day draft. To make the trade with Detroit, the Vikings got the first pick on both Friday and Saturday. All they needed was one team with a sense of urgency – a "can't miss" player (in that team's view) that has no business being on the board in the second round. The same was true for Saturday. Talented players with off-field baggage are the pearls of the final day of the draft. There isn't a pick more coveted after an overnight re-assessment of the draft board. The Vikings didn't get the draft-pick frenzy they expected and used both of their picks – on CB Chris Cook in the second round and DE Everson Griffen with the first pick in the fourth round. The Lions moved up and took Jahvid Best.

A game-breaker at Cal (anyone who saw how he carved up the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium can attest to his skills), Best came out of the gate gangbusters, but finished the season with impressive numbers – not his modest 171-555-4 rushing totals, but his 57 receptions for 487 yards and two touchdowns. He has the ability to be a Brian Westbrook-type running-receiving threat and is being counted on as a difference-maker in the backfield after having a rookie year in which he played in all 16 games despite having turf toe injuries in both feet. Ask any player how painful a turf toe injury is. He could have gone on I.R. very easily. He didn't. You have to wonder why. Because they're building something?

The team added a cornerback-turned-safety project Amari Spievey in the third round and tackle prospect Jason Fox (with the pick they got from the Vikings) to back up Jeff Backus. Both are what they believe to be potential diamonds in the rough.

After winning just two games in two years in 2008-09, the Lions won the season finale against the Vikings to tie both teams at 6-10, Detroit won the tie-breaker and, instead of finishing last again in the NFC North, they finished third. That may not seem like much to fans, but it showed that a team long since eliminated from playoff contention was still laying it out in Week 17 in order to get out of the cellar.

In the April draft, Detroit went from the second pick to the 13th and, for our money, may have made the move that, in time, could shift the balance of power in the NFC North. Nobody questions Suh's ability to dominate his spot. The drafting of Nick Fairley, who was viewed as a No. 1 overall pick at the time of Combine, may be considered a theft in years to come, much like the Vikings getting Adrian Peterson at No. 7 in the 2007 draft. After maneuvering to get two picks in the second round, the Lions drafted wide receiver Titus Young and running back Mickel LeShoure. Young will take time to supplant Nate Burleson, but could easily become a big-play, single-covered option opposite Calvin Johnson. LeShoure is a thunder component who never (yes, never) fumbles and could be the Mike Alstott to Best's Warrick Dunn – bringing out the best in both depending on opponent.

When you look back at what made the Vikings what they were in 2009, a major component was from the drafts that preceded them. In 2007, the Vikings added Peterson, Sidney Rice and Brian Robison. In 2008, they traded away the majority of their early-round picks to get Jared Allen. Peterson, Rice and Allen all became centerpiece players in the team's success. You get the sniff that Detroit may have outdone the Vikings and their rise from the ashes may not take as long as thought.

Do the Vikings have to worry about the Packers? No question. Considering how many players the Packers were missing in 2010, it's a natural assumption they'll be good in 2011. Do they have to fear the Bears? Some still think they're fraudulent, but they're the defending division champs, so respect must be offered. But, if there's a team to keep an eye on in the NFC North, as much as Vikings fans may hate to say it, it may come from the tough streets of Detroit.

They put the Vikings on notice Week 17 of the 2010 season. Not many people listened. They may not be quite so deaf this year.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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