Thursday, February 23, 2012

2011: the defense in review (with special teams)

Part 3 of my season-in-review series. Yeah, things came up, so this should have been out  a couple of weeks ago, but at least free agency hasn't started yet.

DE: B

Performance: Surprisingly, the Lions' defensive line as a whole dropped off from 2010. Their ASR dropped from 7.7% to 6.5% even though they recorded only two fewer sacks: this was partly a result of not trailing nearly as often and thus seeing a lot more passes, and partly a result of ... I don't know. I would have thought the secondary had improved this year - see my comments below. Maybe the Lions just played teams with better offensive lines. Anyway, while the ends did a pretty good job, they need to get more sacks. If the goal is to contend for a Super Bowl, they have to be able to get to QBs like Rodgers and Brees, and that did not happen enough this year.

Depth here is not an issue. Vanden Bosch, Avril, Young and Jackson are all good players, meaning that the Lions can rest their speed demons and still get comparable pressure. On the other hand, their speed is occasionally an issue much as it has been in Indianapolis with Mathis and Freeney: great if the QB has the ball, not so great if he doesn't. Vanden Bosch adjusts very well to the run – the Lions were best in the league at runs around left end, allowing just 2.22 ALY per play – but Avril was susceptible to counters and draws, as Detroit's ALY at right end (from the offense's perspective) rose to 4.80, third-worst in the league.

Top priority: Obviously, re-signing unrestricted free agent Avril. My faith in his productivity was rewarded this year; even given his struggles against the run, he had a solid year, and his interception against San Diego demonstrated the athleticism that he brings to the position. One of the few players that Schwartz and Mayhew kept from the Dark Times, he's obviously the kind of player they want, so it's up to them to get him signed before the season starts. (Maybe he's figured out that if you do it just right, you can sit out the boring parts of the exhibition season.)

Other needs: Everyone else is under contract, so it's really just a matter of signing Avril. If he somehow gets away, I'm not sure how the Lions could replace him without spending the type of money that he probably wants in the first place.

DT: B

Performance: Again, generally good performance, just not enough pressure at times. The DTs' weakness was trap and wham plays, as we saw in the San Francisco game: those plays basically gave the 49ers the win. The Lions were strong against runs up the middle (3.69 ALY, 7th in the league) and on third-down plays in general, and Suh and Williams were big factors there. 

Hill was a solid backup all year; Fairley joined him once his foot was 100%. Fluellen is adequate, but works fine with the backup unit. (He'd be a liability if he had to start.)

Top priority: Suh is obviously the top starter, but it may be his contract that is the most important issue here. If he's willing to restructure it, the Lions can re-sign Avril. If not, then the Lions may have to cut Williams and hope that Fairley or Hill is ready for full-time duty.

Other needs: Figuring out whether or not Hill can be part of the rotation. He's a RFA, so the Lions have more options with him, but it may turn out that they need to cut him loose to save cap space.

LB: C

Performance: This is actually a pretty significant improvement over the last couple of years. For a change, linebackers were actually closing on the ball and making plays; sometimes they even dropped into coverage correctly. They still don't work together as a unit all the time, but this could be because, well, they haven't played much together, not with Durant and Tulloch coming in as FAs from Jacksonville and Tennessee.

At times, they seem to rely a little too much on the DL: I charted a number of plays where the LBs were passive, letting the play come up to them. Second-level yards weren't quite as much of a problem this year (1.23, 19th) as last year (1.25, 26th), but there's still improvement to be made.

Top priority: Comparing Tulloch's value to his salary demands. As an UFA, he could ask for a contract that Detroit can't afford to offer, and there may be other situations that would be better for him ... but there can't be too many of them, and I believe Schwartz made a point of pursuing him last season. I'm not sure Tulloch will dismiss that easily.

Other needs: A backup or backups, depending on the status of Bobby Carpenter, another UFA. He's contributed both as a backup and on special teams, so he's the kind of guy that could be replaced, but not as easily as people might think. Ashlee Palmer is primarily a ST guy as well, but a RFA: the Lions might choose to replace him if they don't think he can play defense more often.

CB: C-

Performance: When they were good, they seemed very, very good. When they were bad, they were awful. Houston and Wright are the kind of guys who can take advantages of mistakes, but not so much the kind that can force them. Beyond that, the Lions had below-replacement-level performance, to the point that Cunningham rarely used a dime package, even if it meant putting a LB or S on a WR.

On a number of early-season plays, the corners were beaten by taller, athletic WRs (Dez Bryant, for example). There is an argument to be made that even their better plays could be attributed more to QB mistakes (think Tony Romo), so this C- is really like the combination of an F and an A.

Top priority: Getting a good, tall corner. Eric Wright is an UFA; his confidence issues and size may mean that the Lions look elsewhere to fill his spot. Depending on what's available when they're on the clock, this could even come in the draft.

Other needs: Quality backups. Brandon McDonald is an UFA and should probably be released; Berry and Smith are still young, so maybe they'll develop into better corners, but it would be nice to have a couple of CBs on the bench who won't hurt the team if they have to start.

S: C-

Performance: Once you get beyond Delmas, the performance was questionable at best, and when he was injured late in the season, the secondary struggled. Spievey still doesn't play well enough from time to time to justify his starting role, but the lack of depth behind him was a huge issue, particularly when Delmas was out. Wendling was fine as usual on special teams, but a bit out of his element on the field, and guys like Coleman and Harris were basically just fill-ins.

Top priority: Figuring out what to do at SS. Is Spievey really the guy? He's just a third-year player, so it's not likely they'll be able to replace him with a known star, and maybe a full offseason will help him work out some of the problems I saw last season. After all, he did make some pretty good plays as well. The problem is that the Lions will likely be having cap issues the next couple of seasons, so they might be better off finding a new, young SS now rather than trying to get Spievey under the cap with a RFA contract.

Other needs: Getting players who can play on special teams and also play safety. Detroit's ST were bad enough (see below) that it's hard to recommend keeping many of the existing guys, and the play in the absence of Delmas was not good.

K: C-

Performance: I know, worse than I thought it should be, but numbers don't lie, right? Hanson was 5 of 7 from 50 or more this year, kind of: his longest made FG was 51 yards, so his age is starting to show. His one blocked kick was costly, and the efficiency of the offense meant that he had significantly fewer attempts, especially from 40-49, and going 2 of 4 from there was not good. Kicking off from the 35 helped his touchback percentage, but he just doesn't get enough height on those kicks, and the coverage team isn't good anyway, so teams returned kicks fairly well against the Lions.

Needs: A kickoff specialist, at the very least. I haven't read that Hanson was going to retire, or that Schwartz wanted to replace him, so let's assume he returns. He'll turn 42 before the season starts, so his range is going to shrink a little. He's been a great kicker for a long, long time, and kicking indoors will keep him active for a while longer, but kicking indoors would help a young, strong kicker as well.

P: C+

Performance: As with kickoffs, unimpressive at times, but unlike with kickoffs, quite impressive other times. Ryan Donahue replaced the ineffective Nick Harris and was unremarkable for eight games before going out with a season-ending injury; the Lions signed Ben Graham, who turned out to be better than he'd been in Arizona, but some of that may have been the coverage units. (Doesn't make sense, because Arizona actually improved without him, but maybe their new punter is just that much better.)

Needs: Figure out who the punter is going to be moving forward. You really can't carry four kickers, which means that the Lions will have to cut one if they're going to look for help for Hanson. Graham would be that one, given that he's an UFA and Donahue is on a rookie contract.

KR: C

Performance: Unspectacular, but not horrible. Stefan Logan was never really a threat to break one, but then he didn't make any drive-preventing errors that I recall either. Given the boom-or-bust-but-mostly-bust nature of return games, this is probably about what you can expect.

Needs: None, really. If there's a solid CB in the draft who also returns kicks, sure, give him a chance, but there's nothing wrong with a guy who'll put you near your 20 every time.

PR: D

Performance: Not much help here. Logan led the NFL with 28 fair catches, but the real story was that he was 25th in average return – that's next to last among qualified returners, ahead of only Armanti Edwards of Carolina. (Hmm. Maybe they should quit trying to play QBs at positions other than QB. Keep in mind that the Panthers thought Jimmy Clausen was a QB.) Basically, Logan had two choices: not much yardage or no yards at all.

Needs: Better blocking, and perhaps a returner more suited to punt returns. No, Patrick Peterson won't be available in the second round, but the Lions could sure use someone with better broken-field running skills than Logan.

Friday, February 03, 2012

2011: the offense in review

Part 2 of a series looking at the season that just completed and what might be expected from the season to come. Here, I focus on the talent at each position, and what I think should be done for 2012.

QB: A-

Performance: I know ... A- for a 5000-yard season? Well, remember that Stafford threw the third-most passes in NFL history. Counting stats must always be read in context. Certainly, Stafford's first full season looked much more like a #1 overall pick than what we saw in his partial seasons, in no small part, I think, due to the strength training he did in the offseason. He took a lot of hits in 2011 as well, but got up after each one of them, and ended up missing very few snaps. (Hill threw 3 passes; I don't think Stanton ever played.)

On the other hand, Stafford still got rattled after bad throws, particularly in the game at Chicago, and still tries to force the ball into coverage. With Calvin Johnson on the receiving end, sometimes that's OK, and at his best, Stafford has the ability to fit the ball into a ball-sized window. He's not always at his best, though. Sometimes it's better to take a sack (something he did better in 2011 than in 2010) or to throw it away.

Top priority: What he did last year. Maybe work more with the younger receivers (Pettigrew, Young) to develop the same kind of rapport he has with Johnson. Think of the Colts as an example. Manning had a #1 target (Harrison or Wayne or Clark), but also had other receivers he could trust to be a certain place at a certain time, and it made their offense nearly unstoppable. If Stafford can get the WRs and TEs on the same page, this could be a similar offense.

Other needs: It would help to re-sign one of the backups; both Hill and Stanton filled in well in 2010. It's probably not possible to re-sign both for reasonable money due to their experience. Hill will be 32, Stanton will be 28, so there's that, but I think Hill is more capable of running a full-throttle offense than Stanton.

RB: C

Performance: Despite the wide variance in playing time and usage, Smith, Best, and Morris all had comparable DYAR (48, 46, and 37 respectively). Smith's raw stats look pretty good until you realize that he played mostly against teams with bad run defenses (17.1% VOA, 7.2% DVOA). All three backs had higher DYAR on the receiving side (Best 65, Morris 64, Smith 64), and each back posted a receiving DVOA above 17% (Smith and Morris were above 25%).

Obviously, the absence of Leshoure was felt from Week 1, and when Best went out (again) with concussion problems, the Lions had to scramble. If Smith hadn't been available via FA, the back situation would have been grim. Morris is a change-up back, not a starter, and Keiland Williams is an adequate big back for a team with a good OL. Detroit is not that team.

Top priority: Opening training camp with two strong, healthy backs. Leshoure's status will be almost completely unknown until camp begins: there was some research done with respect to older players and Achilles injuries, but even those are nearly anecdotal, and of course it's impossible to separate an injury-recovery decline in performance from an age-related decline in performance. Leshoure is obviously younger than NFL peak age, so he could, potentially, return at good strength in 2012, although he may not be 100% until 2013.

Best, on the other hand, has played two injury-filled seasons in the NFL following a concussion-filled college career. With the richly-deserved focus on concussions in today's game, it's entirely possible that Best will never be able to play at the level the Lions hoped he would when they drafted him in 2010. (To be clear, I'm glad if this happens, because it'll mean it's not safe for him to play and thus he won't be allowed to risk his health. In the past, they'd have thrown him out there, let him rack up concussions, and cut him when he couldn't think straight any more.)

Smith is a free agent, but remember that RB is a fungible position, and he also has a history of injury. If he'll sign for a reasonable price, get him, but if not, don't be afraid to go back to the draft, or to look for a low-priced FA.

Other needs: None, really. Morris is replacement-level at best and probably not worth re-signing. Jerome Harrison obviously has more important things on his mind right now than football. The Lions can grab younger backs if they need to fill out their roster.

WR: B+

Performance: Calvin Johnson led the NFL with 586 DYAR, topping WRs with 16 TDs (tied for 14th all-time) and the NFL with 1681 receiving yards (7th all-time, but only second in Detroit history behind Herman Moore's 1681). The one thing that could probably be improved is his catch rate, 61%, but a) that's his career high (up from 57% last season), b) it's affected by the long passes thrown to him (33% last season were either Deep passes or Bombs), and c) it's also affected by the point in the season where defensive coordinators realized that single coverage was not the way to play Megatron. (You should know by now that any coach whose last name is Ryan is not given to intelligent comments. He wasn't that far off, though: Laurent Robinson was 3rd in DVOA, ahead of Megatron, and Dez Bryant was 13th ... but significantly behind Johnson. Suffice it to say that even at the time, Ryan's remark was obviously trolling. Give Titus Young a couple of seasons, and Megatron could post stats that even Ryan would appreciate.) So let's not dwell on that 61%. Megatron had a spectacular season.

Once Young became a part of the offense, he quickly developed into a threat, catching four or more passes in each of the Lions' last four games and scoring a total of 4 TDs in those games. His catch rate is low (56%), but he's young and has a high ceiling, so he should take over the #2 role from Burleson next season. Burleson, like Young, had a slightly negative DVOA (-4.5% to Young's -1.6%), but is a good fit as a secondary receiver in this offense. Expect him to become even more of a possession receiver with Young's emergence.

Top priority: Keep Johnson healthy and happy. Until another receiver emerges as an adequate complement, Johnson is what makes the receiving corps dangerous.

Other needs: Again, none, really. Johnson-Young-Burleson is a fine group to have, and all are under contract. The only free agents are ST-quality receivers, and that's another section.

TE: B

Performance: Brandon Pettigrew's counting stats were up slightly, but his performance dropped a bit; like Young and Burleson, he had a slightly negative DVOA (-2.2%). Tony Scheffler wasn't used nearly as often (43 passes to 126 toward Pettigrew), but was far more productive, with a 24.6% DVOA (8th among TEs) and 96 DYAR (vs. 30 for Pettigrew). Scheffler's ability to make spectacular catches makes you wonder why he wasn't on the field more often ... until you realize that Detroit doesn't use a lot of empty sets, and using 2 TEs means the third WR has to come off. His low catch rate (60%) was probably a factor as well.

Pettigrew has a couple of areas for improvement: YAC and penalties. For all his size, Pettigrew doesn't seem to get through tackles often, averaging less than 4 YAC, but that wasn't as big of a deal as the penalties. He led the NFL in false starts among non-linemen (there is, of course, no source for this; I just recall hearing it during a broadcast), and of course had that personal foul late in the season.)

Will Heller was mostly used as a FB and blocking TE; he fills in well enough in both roles.

Top priority: Getting the most out of Pettigrew. If he can improve his performance, his size and skills will make him a very dangerous target.

Other needs: None, really. If Young emerges as a clear #2 WR, then Linehan can do more of the 12 package (1 RB/2 TEs) that the Lions used last season, with either or both TEs flexing out and with Scheffler occasionally lining up as a WR.

OT: C-

Performance: Ah, now we get to the criticism. When the tackles were good, they were decent; when they were bad, they were awful. Backus deserves a ton of credit for surviving the Dark Times and not missing a game (take that, QB-consecutive-games-played people), but he's obviously past his prime, and he's no longer capable of doing more than slowing down elite pass rushers. Unfortunately, Jared Allen and Clay Matthews are in the same division, which means at least one-fourth of the Lions' games are against teams with elite speed rushers. Gosder Cherilus is young, but old enough that he's probably reached his potential, which isn't much better than Backus' level of play. In fact, Detroit had much worse ALY at right end (2.44) than at left end (3.67). The Lions had a solid ASR of 5.9%, but of course some of that is from Stafford getting rid of the ball quickly; who knows how much higher it would have been if Detroit had good OTs?

Top priority: Getting a good LT to protect Stafford. If there is an immediate starter at #23 (much later than Schwartz is accustomed to picking), they need to take him. It may even be worth trading up to get one. There are no FAs who are both healthy and good, so looking at, say, Jared Gaither or Demetrius Bell may not be worth the money they'd cost.

Other needs: Backus is a FA; he's only worth re-signing if he'll take backup money. He could be a good mentor for a rookie LT. A replacement for Cherilus would be nice, but it's unlikely the Lions can find two starting-caliber tackles in one offseason. Corey Hilliard is a competent backup (actually outplaying Cherilus for stretches in 2010), and as a RFA, he could be worth re-signing.

G: B-

Performance: Not bad, actually. Rob Sims was a serviceable LG, and Stephen Peterman turned out to be better than I thought he would be. Detroit's highest ALY, by far, was through right tackle, 4.22, and Peterman deserves some credit for that. Both guards seem to do an adequate job of pulling, although the line as a unit doesn't play well enough for that to work every time.

Top priority: Figuring out if Carl Nicks can fit under the cap, lol. He's available, so it would be crazy not to ask. Barring that, the Lions should probably stick with what they have. There are more urgent needs elsewhere.

Other needs: Young backups. Leonard Davis is a free agent, but he's old and seldom used. Pick up a late-round player or an undrafted FA for depth.

C: C-

Performance: Like Backus, Dominic Raiola cut his teeth during the Dark Times (although unlike Backus, he had the temerity to miss a game or two). Like Backus, he's at the point where he's no longer a starting-caliber player. If he's responsible for line calls, then he's doing that well, as there were not many plays I saw where the protection itself was an issue (it was more individual blocking), and that's not easily dismissed, but he occasionally got run over by bigger DL.

Top priority: Figuring out if Scott Wells can fit under the cap. (Yes, I am suggesting poaching OL from the Lions' top NFC opponents. Hell yes.) There are a couple of other quality centers out there, but if Detroit can't land one, they at least need to draft a young guy who can replace Raiola in the near future.

Other needs: Probably none. Whether or not they sign a FA, they need a backup. If they do sign a FA, Raiola will probably be the backup, unless they can afford the cap hit to release him. (Even then, they may not. It would not go over very well to just dump him by the wayside.) If they draft a center, obviously the rookie would be the backup.

Coming next: the defense and what little I know about special teams.
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