For the first time in nearly a decade, the Lions last season played the same offensive system with the same coordinator and the same offensive linemen for consecutive seasons. They are hoping to make it three straight seasons in 2011.
So why the need to draft an offensive lineman?
Left tackle Jeff Backus, though he is coming off one of his best seasons and has started 160 straight games, will be 34 and in the final year of his contract. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is coming off microfracture knee surgery. In fact, Cherilus has had knee surgery the last two offseasons.
“How far (Cherilus) goes in the future is going to depend a little bit on each of those (surgeries), but we all feel a lot better about where he is as a player now,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “He made a really big step last season.”
Cherilus won the starting right tackle spot in training camp last year, after missing all of the offseason work, and played consistently until sustaining another knee injury late in the season.
“The biggest key is how well he can deal with the knee injuries, whether he can put it behind him or whether it is something that’s going to be a constant problem,” Schwartz said. “A lot of players deal with injuries and this might be something he’s going to have to play with. That doesn’t mean he can’t do the job.”
Backing up the tackles are fifth-year Corey Hilliard, who could be a free agent, and developmental second-year tackle Jason Fox. Fox got into the final game of the season, but struggled all season with a knee injury.
The Lions also have some depth issues in the middle. Center Dominic Raiola will be 33 and guard Stephen Peterman played through a nagging foot injury all season.
Veteran Dylan Gandy was the only backup to those two positions last season.
That, plus the fact that the draft is loaded with talented linemen (as many as five could be taken in the first round), could lead the Lions to taking one with the 13th overall pick.
General manager Martin Mayhew, though, wanted it known that just because they may draft an offensive lineman, doesn’t mean he thinks the pass protection was weak last season.
“How many sacks did we give up last year?” he asked. “We gave up 27, which was tied for sixth in the league. I feel like (offensive coordinator) Scott Linehan, (offensive line coach) George Yarno and the offensive line did an outstanding job. I also believe that until you are No. 1 you can always strive to improve.”
Mayhew said he was tired of reading reports about the Lions having trouble protecting their quarterbacks.
“Maybe I am reading too much into it, but it’s like it’s a negative about our team and I don’t see it as a negative,” he said.
That said, all three quarterbacks were injured at various points last season.
Because of the depth of linemen in this draft, the Lions could conceivably wait until the third round and still get a quality player. If they chose to use their 13th pick, they would most likely choose from a group including Southern Cal’s Tyron Smith (who is projected to go before 13 on most mock drafts), Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo or Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi.
If they wait until the second or third rounds, they could pick from a group that includes Villanova’s Benjamin Ijalana, Colorado’s Nate Solder, Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod, Florida’s Marcus Gilbert and Virginia Union’s David Mims.
Most likely, they would take a tackle over a guard or a center, but they have spent some time with Florida center Mike Pouncey.
–In a perfect world, Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara would somehow fall to the Lions at No. 13. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz would be doing cartwheels in the war room.
They acquired Chris Houston from Atlanta last season and that alone was a major upgrade at the right cornerback position. But Houston, a four-year veteran, is intent on exploring free agency – whenever that might be once the new collective bargaining agreement is set.
The Lions have tendered him, but he said he still wants to explore other options.
That leaves a whole lot of uncertainty on both sides. The Lions also re-signed veteran Nate Vasher before the lockout, but they see him more as a nickel back and reserve.
They have three young promising corners – Aaron Berry, Alphonso Smith and Prince Miller, but as Mayhew said before the combine, they showed great promise but didn’t do all that much in the games.
Smith, before injuring his shoulder, posted a team-high five interceptions. But he was also famously torched against the Patriots on a nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game.
So cornerback continues to be a position of need, but the consensus among draft experts is that Amukamara, as well as No. 1 ranked cornerback Patrick Peterson from Louisiana State, will be long gone by the time the Lions are on the clock.
Which brings us to talented but troubled Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Would the Lions be interested in a self-proclaimed shutdown cornerback? One who has great size (6-2, 211 pounds), good speed (4.37), long reach (77 inches) and thrives on playing physical, press coverage?
Of course they would.
But would they draft that same player if they learned he might have some character issues; that he had some minor brushes with the law and four failed drug tests during his college career? That he already fired one agent and hired another before he even competed at the NFL scouting combine?
There are definitely some red flags, but the answer to the question is – they haven’t ruled him out. If the Lions could trade down into the 20s and maybe acquire another pick (they only have five in this draft), they could take a chance on Smith.
“I learned a long time ago that you can’t judge a guy on a quote, on what a guy said or what you heard that he said,” Mayhew said. “If you don’t know the guy, you can’t judge him.”
Mayhew spent some time getting to know Smith recently when Smith came in for a pre-draft physical. As you might expect, the person he met was far different than the one he’d read about.
“I was impressed with Jimmy Smith,” Mayhew said. “He was a guy who made some mistakes but who seems to now realize the mistakes that he made. He’s a young guy who’s very talented. He has a really good skill-level, good size and speed and if you look at our corners, we don’t have that.
“He’s an interesting guy. I have better feel for him as a person now than before he came in.”
Mayhew made it clear that he and his staff still had a lot of research to do before he knew whether Smith would end up on the Lions’ draft board, but he’s certainly still in the discussion.
“I am glad I met with him,” Mayhew said. “I feel better about him. But, in terms of determining who we might take, or is or isn’t worth taking a risk on, we’ve not made those decisions yet.”
The falloff after Smith is pretty steep. Other defensive backs the Lions may have on their board for the later rounds include Brandon Harris, 5-11, 195, Miami; Aaron Williams, 6-1, 195, Texas; Brandon Burton, 6-0, 190, Utah; Corky Allen, 6-1, 197, Citadel; Johnny Patrick, 6-0, 219, Louisville.
–Without question, the Lions’ weakest link in 2010 was their outside linebackers. Thus, it is no surprise that the three players who started most of the games are gone – Julian Peterson was released, Landon Johnson is a free agent and Zack Follett suffered a serious neck injury that has his NFL future still very much in doubt.
That leaves two young veterans – Ashlee Palmer and Bobby Carpenter – as the only outside linebackers on the roster, not including Caleb Campbell, a special-teams ace who spent most of the season on the practice squad.
General manager Martin Mayhew said recently that he thinks both Palmer and Carpenter can evolve into capable starters, but he is still looking to upgrade.
The problem is, this draft is especially bereft of quality outside linebackers, particularly ones that would fit the Lions’ 4-3 defensive scheme.
“The biggest thing, if you are a 4-3 outside linebacker with us, your ability to rush the passer isn’t as important as your ability to play behind the ball, make tackles and play in coverage,” coach Jim Schwartz said.
There is no shortage of pass-rushing linebackers available at this draft and very few that fit Schwartz’s description, certainly none worth the Lions’ 13th overall pick.
“There’s not a ton (available),” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “Teams are going to have to do some very astute scouting to find linebackers in that third- fourth- fifth-round area that would be factors right away.”
The one wild-card in that discussion is North Carolina’s Bruce Carter. Before injuring his knee, Carter was projected as a first-round pick. Post-reconstruction surgery, though, he has fallen off most experts’ boards.
“I think he’s really slipped back,” Kiper said. “I didn’t like him as much (before the injury).”
The Lions, though, haven’t completely given up on him. They brought him in for a physical and were encouraged.
“Talking with our doctors, he is on schedule with his rehab,” Mayhew said. “He’d be like where Kevin Smith and Brandon Pettigrew were last year going into camp. If he was with us, (Carter) would be a guy that might start on the physically unable to perform list, but he’s coming along and moving in the right direction.”
Still, he’s not a guy the Lions would take until maybe the third round, at the earliest.
The Lions might decide to fill one of the outside linebacker vacancies from within. During the league meetings, Mayhew and Schwartz admitted there was a chance that starting inside linebacker DeAndre Levy could be moved to the outside.
Levy might move to the outside next season.
“Part of our criteria for linebackers is that we like multi-dimensional players,” Schwartz said. “That means the ability to play inside or outside and that means being good against the run and pass. That’s one of the reasons we drafted (Levy). Wherever he played, he’s played well. He can move around.”
Schwartz made it clear, though, that moving Levy wasn’t Plan A. Once he was healthy, Levy was a stabilizing presence last season.
“One of his strengths is his ability to control the defense,” Schwartz said. “There is value to having him in the middle. But he’s confident in doing both and he’s had success doing both.”
The only way the Lions would move Levy is if they could acquire a proven veteran to replace him in the middle. One candidate could be potential free agent Stephen Tulloch, whom Schwartz coached at Tennessee.
Among the traditional 4-3 outside linebackers that might have value for the Lions, at least as Kiper sees it, include:
–Mason Foster, 6-1, 245, Washington. Projects to be a low-risk pick and a potential starter on the strong side. He showed good range against the run and the ability to cover backs and tight ends man-to-man. Kiper considers Foster to be rising through the draft process and thinks he would have value as a third-round pick.
–Ross Homan, 6-1, 240, Ohio State. A bit undersized, but could play on the weak side. He showed excellent speed and is considered better against the pass than the run at this point. Another player that could go in the third or fourth round.
–Lawrence Wilson, 6-1, 229, Connecticut. He showed good athleticism, but needs to gain strength. Kiper projects him to go in the fourth through sixth rounds.
–Colin McCarthy, 6-1, 238, Miami. He has been impressive throughout the draft process, though Kiper still considers him to be a late-round pick.
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