With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
Super Bowl XL was hosted by Detroit, but the Lions were nowhere to be found, at least not on the field. It’s hard to mistake the Lions as a Super bowl contender, although they hope every year that they can get better and inch ever so closer to that goal. The 2006 Lions have a new Head Coach, Rod Martinelli, and a new offense with the “mad scientist” Mike Martz from St. Louis. They will also have a new quarterback, whether it is Jon Kitna or Josh McCown, leading the offense down the field. They have a very young defense overall and look to improve that as well. They have needed a forceful figure that commands attention in the Motor City, and the Lions’ front office believes that it is Martinelli that brings that to them. But that alone will not win them games, and they must contend with all of the holes they have and the lackluster production for many key positions in order for them to show significant signs of improvement. Is that a reality in 2006?
Mike Martz is highly regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the NFL. His offense is unlike any other in the league. It’s not the West Coast, although it does employ some of the staples like timing routes and short passing in zones. It also is a downfield offense and attacks defensive weak spots accordingly. Martz will have to get the team’s skill positions in order, something former Head Coach Steve Mariucci was never able to accomplish during his time with the Lions. With Martinelli as the authority, Martz will probably have less trouble asserting himself with the players. He’s got the weapons at the skill positions to be successful, with three former first-round picks at receiver and a high pick at running back. All of them could stand to benefit from the arrival of Martz as long as they are dedicated to the offense and willing to work hard.
QB: Joey Harrington, we hardly knew ye. Harrington, now a backup for the Dolphins, has been supplanted by the Lions in favor of free-agent pickups Jon Kitna from Cincinnati and Josh McCown from Arizona. They go into camp with an open competition for the starting position, but it appears as though Kitna may have the upper hand. For his part, Kitna performed well in Cincinnati before they decided to hand over the reigns to Carson Palmer in 2004. He led them to an 8-8 record and actually moved that offense quite well. Kitna is a veteran quarterback who has been around the NFL and has adequate experience under center. He can make the timing throws that Martz will demand of his quarterback and should have the recognition to break down defensive weaknesses. Kitna hasn’t seen regular action, however, since 2003 and could be a bit rusty. McCown, meanwhile, had a solid season in 2005 filling in when Kurt Warner was injured in Arizona. He only threw 9 touchdowns, but he didn’t have a running game behind him and was forced to play from behind in many contests. He completed just over 60 percent of his passes and can be solid in case Kitna isn’t what they expect. He’s got experience working with talented receivers in Arizona with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Whoever it is, they will have to manage the complicated offense of Mike Martz to perfection.
RB/FB: There is a bit of a crowded backfield, but the number one running back is unquestioned. Kevin Jones is the starter for the Lions. He scored 5 touchdowns last season, matching his total from the previous season, and is a solid runner who is expected to contribute even more in the passing attack this year. He only had 664 yards in 2005 after over 1,100 in 2004 and may not see many more yards in Martz’s offense, which is predicated on the short passing game to replace running the ball. For his role Jones is a speedy runner who may lack the durability to run inside but will not shy away from running through the gaps in order to break free. Behind him, they have some backs they are happy with and must make a decision. Arlen Harris seems to have taken the backup spot, and with rookie Brian Calhoun from Wisconsin, they could be forced to let him or Artose Pinner go. Cory Schlesinger is the fullback again for the Lions, his 12th season for them. A pure fullback who has been a Pro-Bowl alternate for three consecutive seasons, Schlesinger is looking to use the new offense to add more dimensions to his game, like better receiving and good pass protection.
WR/TE: Three former first-round picks… and only Roy Williams has even shown glimpses of the potential that the Lions and Team President Matt Millen saw in drafting them. Williams has been fairly solid, even though dealing with injuries himself, and has scored 8 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons. Mike Williams from USC hasn’t been what they expected as of yet, but only had 29 receptions and 1 touchdown in his rookie season. They expect him to use his talents and athleticism to improve in the offense. Charles Rogers has been fighting injuries and is in danger of not even having a spot on the team with the signing of Corey Bradford from Houston along with second year receiver Glenn Martinez can stick with the team if he can just catch the football. He’s got the physical tools and is valuable on special teams, but they’ll need him to hang onto the football. TE is interesting, because both Marcus Pollard and Casey FitzSimmons are excellent in the passing aspect of the position, but with FitzSimmons suffering a fracture in his wrist and most likely missing about 4 to 6 weeks, will give Pollard back his job for now. It will remain to be seen who starts once the season comes and FitzSimmons is once again healthy.
OL: Dominic Raiola has been a solid force for the Lions, as this will be his fifth season as the Lions starting center. He’s especially solid in the running game and although he needs a bit of improvement in reading blitzes, Raiola should be ready for Martz’s demanding offense. To his left are veterans Jeff Backus, a fixture with the Lions himself since 2001, and Ross Verba, a veteran who sat out last season after leaving the Cleveland Browns. Verba is looking good according to reports out of Lions’ camp, but it still remains to be seen how he holds up having missed last season. To Raiola’s right he has Damien Woody, who was a staple with two New England Super Bowl teams and has been solid since arriving in Detroit in 2004, as the right guard. At tackle is Rex Tucker, the free-agent who spent last season with the Rams. He’s another veteran who knows how to protect the quarterback and has improved in the running game since entering the NFL.
Overall Grade: C+
Rod Martinelli himself, a former Defensive Line Coach with the Buccaneers, expects a lot of effort and hard-nosed plays from the defense. Martinelli, along with Defensive Coordinator Donnie Henderson, have a lot of work to do with this unit. Henderson comes with experience, leading the New York Jets’ defense for the past two seasons and having worked with great defensive minds such as Marvin Lewis, Mike Singletary, and Mike Nolan in Baltimore prior to that. Henderson, however, is in for quite the challenge dealing with a Lion defense that some would say lacks heart and effort. That will not be acceptable for Martinelli or Henderson, who will make the hard choices and play those who are working harder over the more talented players to prove a point.
DL: The strength of the entire defense for the Lions lies in their interior line, with Shaun Cody entering his second season from USC and NFL veteran and Pro-Bowler Shaun Rogers pushing forward. Cody performed well in his rookie season, playing in all 16 games with 2 starts under his belt. Cody is one of the best at using his hands to get by offensive lineman and has the speed to lose them once making the better move. Rogers was a Pro-Bowler again for the Lions, using his incredible strength to get by interior linemen with ease. He is incredibly valuable on special teams, having blocked 8 kicks since the 2001 season. They are fairly young across the line, with Cory Redding and James Hall on the ends. Hall has been a consistent player since making the team as an undrafted rookie and Redding has been a started for two seasons now. They both get good penetration, although could use more discipline in playing the run, something you can be sure Head Coach Rod Martinelli has addressed with both of them.
LB: Middle LB Boss Bailey returned from missing the 2004 season and once again showed why he is a good, young linebacker who can be a fixture for the Lions in the immediate and long-term future. Of course, he also had more injury problems in 2005, missing five games due to an ankle injury. He has the potential to be an All-Pro, like his older brother Champ, the All-Pro corner for the Denver Broncos. Alex Lewis is the starter on the weakside for now, but look for rookie Ernie Sims to challenge and eventually take that spot with good play. A free-agent from Green Bay, Paris Lenon, is slated as the strongside linebacker. He’s started 12 games for the Pack last season and should help the Lions with his knowledge of the division teams.
DB: The corner position has some NFL veterans with Dre Bly and Fernando Bryant. Bly has been with the Lions since coming over from St. Louis in 2003. He’s continued to improve as the position and is earning a reputation as one of the better corners in the league despite having a size disadvantage. He’s been to the Pro Bowl in the two seasons. Bryant, meanwhile, is coming back from an injury that made him miss most of 2005 and is looking to build on his contributions to the Lions. Bryant will have competition, however, from Stanley Wilson and Keith Smith for the job opposite Bly. The safeties are solid. Kenoy Kennedy was a solid addition in 2005 after spending his first five seasons with the Broncos. He’s a playmaking safety with a nose for the ball and decent coverage stills. Terrence Holt is entering his fourth season with the Lions after missing time with an elbow injury last season. He will be the full-time starter and hopes to make it through an entire NFL season.
Overall Grade: B-
K: The Lions do have the luxury of having one of the most productive kickers in NFL history in Jason Hanson. He’s entering his fifteenth season in the NFL and isn’t looking to give up the job anytime soon. He was solid again in 2005. Although he only was 79 percent in accuracy, a lot of his misses now and throughout his career are beyond 50 yards. He’s very solid inside of 50 yards, a career 86 percent kicker from inside that distance. He’ll be solid for the Lions once again.
P: Nick Harris had one of best seasons of his career in 2005, proving to be one of the NFL’s most accurate kickers. He has proven to be important for the Lions in the field position game, giving them 34 punts downed inside the 20 yard line. He will return for another season and should excel once again.
Overall Grade: B+
Rod Martinelli has been everything he was advertised to be in terms of attitude. We have yet to see it translate onto the field yet, but that should be more evident once the real games begin. He has instilled this attitude of hard work and that should help the Lions out a bit. Mike Martz is the interesting variable in this equation. He’s an offensive genius who has good pieces to work with in Detroit, but his offense is complicated and could take a bit to learn. Donnie Henderson has some pieces to work with as well, and we’ll just have to see how their development goes. They defense is more predicated on them staying healthy more than anything.
Overall Grade: B
Position Battle to Watch
TE: This battle was made easier… for now. FitzSimmons’ injury to his wrist means that Marcus Pollard will be the starting TE for the Lions when the season starts. This will be a big question once FitzSimmons is healthy because he is a better blocker than Pollard but still a similar receiver.
WR: Roy Williams is the number one. 2-5 is a different story, because depending on who you ask it could be in any order. Corey Bradford, who came over from Houston, is considered one of the top options, as well as 2005 first-rounder Mike Williams. Mike Furrey and Glenn Martinez are worth consideration, which could mean the end of Charles Rogers in the Motor City.
WLB: The weakside could be Ernie Sims by the middle of the season. Alex Lewis is there right now, but as soon as Sims shows a little comfort in the system and the speed of the NFL we should see him getting more time and eventually taking over fulltime.
Player to Watch
Shaun Cody, DT: His rookie season was great, but I expect there to be even more improvement from that to his second season. Last season he was using a lot of his athletic ability to get by, but now he should have a better understanding of how the NFL game works and what he needs to do in order to improve and get better. He’s got support next to him in Shaun Rogers to make his 2006 season a great success.
Offensive MVP: Roy Williams
Defensive MVP: Shaun Rogers