You don’t have to look far to discover the ineptitude of the Detroit Lions franchise. Any team that selects four wide receivers in the top-ten during one decade has to have some serious issues. Not only did the Lions select four wide receivers, they selected a wide receiver three years in a row: Charles Rogers No. 2 overall in 2002, Roy Williams No. 7 overall in 2003 and Mike Williams No. 10 overall in 2004; all of whom are no longer with the team. However, as the saying goes, “Save the best for last.” The Lions scored in a big way with the fourth receiver they selected with the second pick in the 2007 draft, former Georgia Tech phenom Calvin Johnson.
Johnson showed signs of what he can do last year and this season he emerges as one of the elite.
At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, Johnson’s unique combination of size and speed made him one of the most intimidating players in college football history, and, now entering his third year with the Lions, the No. 1 prospect in the organization is one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. As a rookie, Johnson stormed on the scene opposite Roy Williams and turned in a promising season. He played in 15 games, starting 10, and had 48 catches for 756 yards and four touchdowns. Early on in the year, in a Week 3 contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, Johnson skied for a ball over two Eagles defenders, pulled it down and landed squarely on his back. He left the game with a bruised back and missed the following week’s game against the Chicago Bears. Johnson proclaims that the injury stayed with him the entire year, and it’s scary to think how much better his numbers would have been if he was 100-percent healthy during his first year. Last year, Johnson returned healthy and nearly doubled the statistical output he generated as a rookie; he hauled in 78 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. A lot of his production was helped by the trade of Williams to the Cowboys prior to the trade deadline, as he was now the go-to-guy on offense. But it didn’t help Johnson to have a quarterback carousel emerge last year, as injuries to the quarterbacks were as frequent as the losses. The quarterback situation this year seems a little less tenuous than it was last season. Daunte Culpeper has the upper-hand over the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft Matthew Stafford, and with a veteran at the helm, it should be less of a rebuilding situation for a star receiver like Johnson. Besides the quarterback situation, Johnson will have to adapt to not having a legitimate No. 2 receiver on the other side of the field. As the go-to-guy, Johnson will be double teamed at all times; something he experienced last year after the Williams deal, and it will get even more hectic for him this season. But don’t expect that to stop Johnson from elevating into the premiere receiver in the league.
Speaking of Stafford, the top pick in the draft and the future of the franchise checks in as the No. 2 prospect in the organization after a solid career at Georgia where he completed 56.6-percent of his passes for 7,731 yards, 51 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Stafford is an athletic signal caller who demonstrates the leadership qualities it takes to be an elite player. He has great awareness, and when he feels a rush from the weakside, he has the mobility to make a play on the run. He goes through his progressions nicely and locates the open receiver. He has a strong arm and a great sense of timing; he gives his receivers a chance to make a play. He has questionable decision-making and forces throws into coverage. Even though Stafford’s decision making is inconsistent, it was much better during his junior year; he raised his completion percentage and offensive production, as well as limiting his interceptions. A lot of Stafford’s problems with turnovers have to do with his footwork. He doesn’t get set in the pocket, and the fact that he doesn’t possess a changeup in his arsenal [everything he throws is 100 MPH] hurts his ability to throw with accuracy. If he’s asked to start right away in Detroit, with an offensive line that isn’t built to protect him the way he needs to be protected as a rookie, his mechanics will suffer, he will have to improvise more than he should, the turnovers will pile up and his confidence will be lost.
It’s probably a shock to see Ernie Sims on this list as he’s entering his fourth year in the league, but at just 24 years old [he turns 25 in December], Sims makes the cut as a player under 25 and he deserves the recognition as the Lions third best prospect in the organization. Since entering the league in 2006, the 5-foot-11, 230-pound Sims has been a durable performer who’s registered over 100 tackles in each of the last three years. The production that he’s amassed thus far is Pro Bowl worthy, and if he were playing on another team in the league, he would have made at least two trips to Hawaii. When Sims left Florida State after his junior year, there were concerns about his size and the fact that he endured five concussions with the Seminoles; he never missed a game in college due to a concussion and has yet to miss a game in the NFL. The big debate back in ’06 was who would be the better linebacker in the league, A.J. Hawk, who was drafted by the Packers fifth overall or Sims, who was drafted ninth overall. It’s close, and the remarkable fact about the two, besides being division rivals, is that neither has missed a game and their statistics are very similar. Sims has the edge in tackles (371 to 310), while Hawk has the edge in sacks (7.5 to 2.5) and interceptions (3 to 1). The presence of offseason acquisitions Julian Peterson and Larry Foote is a major upgrade on defense, and it should relieve Sims of the pressure to make every tackle. As good as Sims has been and as healthy as he’s remained, the punishment he delivers and suffers will eventually catch up with him if he doesn’t get help. And with Peterson and Foote by his side, look for Sims’ impact numbers (sacks and interceptions) to rise with a possible Pro Bowl berth in his future.
A promising '08 season has Lions fans excited about what Smith can do in '09.
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Not since Barry Sanders have the Lions had a running back make it to the Pro Bowl, and judging from the rookie season that Kevin Smith put together last season, it appears that the former Central Florida star could be well on his way to being the first. The fourth rated prospect in the organization, Smith left Central Florida after his junior campaign, a year where he rushed for 2,567 yards on 450 carries and scored 29 touchdowns. A third round pick in the ’08 draft, Smith was named the starting running back after a strong preseason, but he struggled in the early going and was briefly replaced by Rudi Johnson before reclaiming the starting role. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound Smith finished his first season with 238 carries for 976 yards and eight touchdowns. He also contributed in the passing game by hauling in 39 receptions for 286 yards. Smith has a similar skill set to that of former All-Pro running back Ricky Watters. Judging from their first year production in the league, if Smith is able to put together a career that rivals Watters, Lions fans will be rewarded with one of the best all-around running backs in the league.
Breaking into the top-five as the fifth rated prospect in the organization is another 2009 draft pick, tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The second of two first round selections the Lions owned this past April, Pettigrew enters his first season in the league penciled in as the starting tight end. At 6-foot-5, 263 pounds, Pettigrew is a big, physical tight end who can dominate an opponent at the line of scrimmage as a blocker. He’s a tremendous athlete who runs crisp intermediate routes and possesses strong hands, but he doesn’t have the elite speed to stretch the field. He gives whoever’s under center this year a reliable weapon over the middle and uses his strong frame to create space in traffic. Pettigrew had a solid collegiate career and will be an upgrade for the Lions at tight end. However, his inability to get in the endzone at Oklahoma State [he scored just one touchdown as a senior] makes you wonder if he will be an effective redzone threat in the NFL.
Two more 2009 draft picks surface in the rankings, second round safety Louis Delmas (No. 8) and third round wide receiver Derrick Williams (No. 9), while three 2008 draft picks complete the top-ten: defensive end Cliff Avril (No. 6), offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus (No. 7) and linebacker Jordan Dizon (No. 10).
Just like Pettigrew, Delmas is penciled in as a first year starter at free safety, and with his physical play and ball-hawking ability he could have a big year. Williams won’t be one of the team’s starting wide receivers, but he offers an interesting dynamic on offense. At Penn State, Williams was Mr. Everything on offense and starred on special teams. There’s an opportunity for the Lions to get creative with Williams this year and flirt with the Wildcat formation occasionally to get him in space. After an impressive rookie campaign where he recorded five sacks, Avril will compete and likely win the starting right end position on the defensive line. His athleticism, speed and ability to get after the quarterback are too intriguing not to put him on the field for as many downs as possible. Cherilus had an up-and-down first year in the league last season, and with the Lions bringing in former Washington Redskins tackle Jon Jansen, Cherilus will have to prove he can be a consistent force on the right side. And Dizon, who was a tackling machine in college, got exposed last year as an undersized defender who can’t get off blocks. His speed and instincts are two positives that will help him in his career, and with the depth the Lions have at linebacker now, Dizon won’t get worn down and will prove to be an effective backup and special team’s demon.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.