Team Analysis: Lions Appear Strong, Youthful

Lions QB Matthew Stafford (AP Photo)

A unit-by-unit analysis of Detroit with free-agency serving as a prelude to the April draft. The Lions have key players to re-sign, along with key positions to fill.

A unit-by-unit analysis of Detroit with free-agency serving as a prelude to the April draft. The Lions have key players to re-sign, along with key positions to fill.

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matthew Stafford. Back-ups -- Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton and Zac Robinson.
The only way the Lions are going to be playoff contenders next season is if Stafford can stay healthy. He has shown flashes of being an elite-level quarterback, but he has sat out more games (19) than he's played (13) in two seasons. In Hill, the Lions have a more than capable No.2, but they will most likely lose Stanton. He is unrestricted and will be seeking a chance to compete for a No. 1 or No. 2 spot. The jury is still out on Robinson, but the Lions would prefer more of a developmental player at No. 3 and Robinson, at 24, fits the bill.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Jahvid Best, Jerome Felton. Back-ups -- Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown.
Turf toe injuries slowed him for the better part of the final 13 weeks, but the Lions saw what they needed to see. He is the big-play back they've coveted. The rest of the group is still a work in progress. Felton is a versatile back, but he doesn't run with much power. The Lions will be seeking more of a power runner, which means either the injury-prone Smith or the aging Morris -- possibly both -- won't be back.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Brandon Pettigrew. Back-ups -- Tony Scheffler and Will Heller.
This position is set. Pettigrew shattered all of the team's single-season records for tight ends and he's only 25. Scheffler, signed to a two-year extension, did his best work as a slot receiver, filling in for injured receivers. Heller is a superb blocker. It was no coincidence that the Lions' running game perked up when Heller started getting more playing time late in the season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson. Back-ups -- Bryant Johnson, Stefan Logan, Derrick Williams, Brian Clark.
Calvin Johnson and Burleson proved to be a potent 1-2 punch, but they will need to find some depth. Bryant Johnson, Williams and Clark aren't expected to return. Logan proved to be a diverse weapon. He was used as a receiver and a running back, besides his duties as a return man.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Back-ups -- T Corey Hilliard, T Jason Fox, T Tony Ugoh, G-C Dylan Gandy, G Donald Thomas.
There is 34 years of experience tied up in the starting group. Backus has made 160 straight starts and had what the coaches felt was his best season, and a lot of that was attributable to Sims, who filled what had been a five-year void at left guard. Cherilus validated his first-round pick status, even though his season was cut short by a knee injury. Raiola, solid despite being undersized, is the heart soul of this unit, and probably the entire offense. The one question mark was Peterman, who struggled with a sore foot most of the season. Hilliard stepped in for Cherilus and proved he can start at this level. He is a free agent and the Lions might lose him. Fox, a rookie, showed promise. Gandy, Ugoh and Thomas didn't play a down all season.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, DT Ndamukong Suh, DE Cliff Avril. Back-ups -- DE Turk McBride, DE Lawrence Jackson, DE Willie Young, DE Barry Turner, DT Sammie Hill, DT Andre Fluellen.
One of the best defensive fronts in football will return intact. Vanden Bosch, who had neck surgery in December, was already lifting weights by Week 15. Suh, a finalist for rookie of the year, had shoulder surgery on Jan. 10 and was scratched for the Pro Bowl. Avril and Williams had the best seasons of their career. McBride is the one player out of this group the Lions could lose to free agency.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Julian Peterson, MLB DeAndre Levy, OLB Landon Johnson. Back-ups -- OLB Ashlee Palmer, OLB Zach Follett, OLB Bobby Carpenter, OLB Caleb Campbell, MLB Vinny Ciurciu, MLB Isaiah Ekejiuba.
This group will face almost a total overhaul. The only returning starter will be Levy, and it is uncertain whether he will come back as a middle linebacker or an outside linebacker. It will depend on who the Lions can draft or acquire via trade or free agency. Peterson, Johnson, Follett and Ciurciu will most likely be gone. Ekejiuba and Campbell are special teams players. The Lions would like to bring Palmer and Carpenter back, preferably as backups. Palmer, though, is a high-energy player that defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham praised throughout the season. He's only 24 and could win one of the outside spots.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Chris Houston, CB Alphonso Smith, FS Louis Delmas, SS Amari Spievey. Back-ups -- CB Tye Hill, CB Eric King, CB Prince Miller, CB Nathan Vasher, CB Brandon McDonald, CB Aaron Berry, S John Wendling, S C.C. Brown, S Randy Phillips, S Paul Pratt.
The first priority of the offseason will be to re-sign Houston, who provided the Lions with a legitimate lock-down corner. The right side corner spot is wide open. Smith, who had shoulder surgery, will get first crack at the job. His five interceptions led the team. There is no telling who among the other corners the Lions will bring to camp, though most likely Hill, Miller and McDonald will get the call. Berry was the starting nickel back in Week 1 before injuring his shoulder. He, too, will be in the mix. At safety, Delmas is the only lock. The Lions loved Spievey's development, but he has a ways to go, particularly coverage-wise. They would love to bring in a veteran to challenge and mentor him. Brown won't be back and Wendling is a key special teams player. Pratt spent most of the season on the practice squad.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jason Hanson and Dave Rayner, P Nick Harris, KOR-PR Stefan Logan, LS Don Muhlbach.
Hanson, 40, has had surgery the last two years. The placekicking job is still his, but Rayner did enough to warrant a training camp battle. Harris is as good as they come. He was again among the league leaders in punts inside the 10. Logan was in the top five in both kick and punt returns and played his way into the offense, as well. This is one of the best waiver pickups GM Martin Mayhew has made in Detroit.

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