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Roster Roundouts: A Detroit Lions Preseason Report

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flickr.com/Dancing Gollum

flickr.com/Dancing Gollum

On December 4, 1977, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ all-time record dropped to 0-26.  No team in NFL history had ever lost that many games in a row.  The Detroit Lions have a chance to make history this year.

The Lions’ losing streak currently stands at 17.  If the Lions are still winless on November 22, the Browns will head to Ford Field and try to become the 27th consecutive team to beat the Detroit Lions.

How likely is this?  On average, it’s about every 2 or 3 years that any team in the NFL loses it’s first 10 games in a season.  The 2007 Dolphins and 2008 Lions have done it in back to back seasons.  Ultimately though, it’s incredibly improbable that the Lions will not win one of their first 10 games.  In fact, they’re more likely to start 6-4 than they are to start 0-10.

You can break down the Lions’ season into it’s four quarters by the quarterback who took most of the snaps in each month: Jon Kitna, then Dan Orlovsky, then Daunte Culpepper, and finally Orlovsky again, and see a very different team under one guy than the others.  When the Lions got close to wins, it was because they had Dan Orlovsky staying in the field of play, and making plays with his arm while limiting turnovers.  The Lions lost by a combined 21 points in four consecutive games between Weeks 6-9, which is more unlucky than bad.  The Danute Culpepper midseason signing was made out of part desperation and part attribution error: quarterback was the least of the Lions worries last year.  Culpepper was obviously unprepared to play immediately, and no game demonstrated this better than a Thanksgiving Day thrashing at the hands of the Titans.

Going forward, having Culpepper on board makes a lot of sense, he’s an established passer with a lengthy history of success in both good and bad situations, and there’s thinks that 2009 first overall pick Matthew Stafford can learn from him.  It might have made more sense to go with Orlovsky for the next few years, but new sheriff Jim Schwartz’ message is clear: he’s not in it to win it one year and call it a career.  He wants sustainable winning in Detroit.

In many ways, so much of this franchises’ future fortunes is tied to Stafford, in the sense that there’s no way that the team can succeed if Stafford personally fails.  There’s no safety net in this plan, “well, if our 80 million dollar man fails, we can always stall with x veteran and try to win without him.”  That may have worked for Schwartz’ last team, but the Lions’ plan B will be to win despite Stafford, not with him on the bench.  Of course, plan A for the Lions is much, much stronger than that.  It’s to surround Stafford with the best talent so that his development hardly hits a snag and he can realize his true potential very early in his career.  So what do you do with a team that already has Calvin Johnson to throw to and Kevin Smith to run the football?  If you’re thinking like Jim Schwartz, then you wanted to add the biggest, nastiest Tight End in the draft, and they landed Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th overall pick.  He’s like both an offensive tackle and a receiver out there, the kind of player who makes those around him better.

You have to wonder if Schwartz and team president Martin Mayhew are simply going to use the Bill Polian method to rebuilding an awful defense: focus the rebuilding effort on loading up the offense with superstars, and use you late round draft picks on the defense as they carefully add pieces towards a gradual improvement.  Of course, if FS Louis Delmas is who they think he is, it may speed the process a lot.  The 33rd overall pick has wowed in camp.  They’ll need all the help they can get–no defense in NFL history struggled as much as the Lions’ did last year.

Despite all the major flaws with a team on the longest losing streak in  the last 32 years, it’s not all that inconceivable to suggest that the Lions could use the automatic playoff bid offered to the division champion in the NFC North to pull a Dolphins-like turnaround.  They aren’t quite as good as the Dolphins were going into last year, and although the career stories between Pennington and Culpepper are similar, Culpepper is not capable of playing like Pennington over 16 games.  Furthermore, Matt Stafford is likely not capable of immediate success with the current team.  But the running game should hit the ground running so to speak, and we’ll get a good look at Jim Schwartz’ re-tooled defense early in the year: they get the Saints in week one, then the Vikings who were the only team that the Lions defense looked good against last year, and in week four, they get their first look at Jay Cutler (who was injured when the Broncos came to town in 2007) with the Bears.

We’re probably looking at another last place Lions team, but the hope that Lions fans have towards their team is legitimate.  They’re not a threat to do anything in the postseason get there, but quirkier anomalies have resulted in more ridiculous things than a team like the Lions sneaking into the back door of the playoffs following the worst season in their less than stellar history.

Lions Camp, Allen Park, MI

The Lions, as you would expect from a team that lost all of it’s games last year, will decide many things in training camp.  Only the quarterback situation was solidified in the offsesaon, and while there is the “who will be the opening day starter” question, there’s no doubt it’s  some version of “Culpepper now, Stafford later.”  Once they go Stafford, they won’t go back.

Wide Receiver: Eric Fowler vs. John Standeford vs. Keary Colbert

Colbert has the lead in this camp battle, and he’s the vet of the group, but he’s also proven to be very limited physically in prior stops.  Standeford was the Lions’ No. 2 receiver down the stretch last year, but being the incumbent on this team means very little.  Fowler, on the other hand, is a local kid out of D-II Grand Valley who is running with the threes right now, but is stronger physically than Standeford or Colbert.

Tight End: Dan Gronkowski vs. Casey Fitzsimmons vs. Carson Butler

Gronkowski was a 7th round pick by the Lions out of Maryland, who has been more impressive in camp thus far than fellow rookie Carson Butler, which says more about the ability of this team to make late round draft picks than anything about Butler.  Fitzsimmons is the Matt Millen binky who has made it this far, which means he’ll probably get picked up after he gets cut by the Lions.  My what a difference 5 months makes.

Right Tackle: Jon Jansen vs. Gosder Cherilus

If Cherilus is ready, Jim Scwartz will get him on the field, but as far as one or two year stop gaps go, Jansen is a pretty good one.

Offensive Tackle: Lydon Murtha vs. Ephraim Salaam

Murtha was another one of those intriguing late round picks made by the Lions.  I like the ingenuity the Lions showed by taking a mammoth player in the mold of Ravens LT Jared Gaither.  Salaam has been around forever, but he’s playing for a different team every year now, which means this is Murtha’s spot to lose.

Outside Linebacker: Darnell Bing vs. Jordon Dizon

Here’s the Matt Millen era in a nutshell.  One year into Dizon’s career, we’re talking about his place on the team.  He basically has no shot at a player of the future role with the Lions.  Darnell Bing, of course, has already had his two chances to play into a team’s future and right now, profiles as a stop gap.  Detroit doesn’t need a stop gap.  They need a savior.

Safety: Stuart Schweigert vs. Daniel Bullocks

Bullocks has been embarrassing thus far, and he’s strictly a fourth safety at this point in his career, though that should qualify him for a roster spot over Schweigert, a system guy who can’t find the right system.

Surprise Cuts?

  • WR Bryant Johnson
  • OT Jon Jansen
  • DT Ikaika Alama-Francis
  • CB William James
  • S Kalvin Pearson
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