Why the Lions will contend in 2011

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The Detroit Lions have long been a pigskin piñata. Who didn't love taking swings at their soft, defeat-filled underbelly after every stupid move they made?

Their long-term lack of success made it easy. Some Detroit fans reveled in the treatment, hoping the humiliation would someday cause the Lions to turn over a new leaf.

Well, consider that leaf turned ... and not just because Detroit landed a stellar draft class last month.

First, you need to know that Jim Schwartz's Lions turned a huge statistical corner during the 2010 season ... and they did it in spectacular fashion, too. And, yes, they may have turned another corner at the end of April 2011, with what appears to be a small but smart, talent-filled draft class that could make the Lions -- hold your breath here folks -- a contender in the top heavy NFC North in 2011.

Sure, the Lions went just 6-10 last year. But when you study them through the prism of our Quality Stats (see table below), they improved dramatically and in every aspect of the game. It was one of the great statistical success stories of the 2010 season. The fact they did it largely behind San Francisco castoff Shaun Hill at quarterback (10 starts, 13 appearances) makes it even more remarkable. (It also makes it obvious that the 49ers should have kept Hill and cast off Alex Smith, but we digress.)

Detroit also closed out the season with four straight victories, including a rather shocking and hard-fought 7-3 win over the Super Bowl champion Packers. They were joined by AFC powers Baltimore (4), Indianapolis (4) and New England (8) as the only NFL teams to close the 2010 regular season with more than two straight victories.

The statistical turnaround of 2010, the season-ending win streak, the return of a healthy Matt Stafford and the arrival of an attractive draft class makes the Lions something they haven't been in decades: a team to watch in the season ahead.

Let's look first at the team's dramatic statistical turnaround from 2009 to 2010 and then at its compelling draft class of 2011.

Wow. The Lions were 31st or 32nd in nine of these 11 individual indicators in 2009. They were 20th or better in eight of these 11 indicators in 2010.

The Lions improved in every statistical category -- in most cases dramatically and in some cases leapfrogging half the league.

The Lions were only No. 23 in Defensive Passer Rating in 2010. But even that was impressive growth. Keep in mind that the 2008 Lions posted the worst Defensive Passer Rating in history (110.8) -- no coincidence they were also the first 0-16 team in NFL history. After all, DPR is one of the "mother stats" of football success. The 2-14 Lions of 2009 were not much better, either, with a 107.6 Defensive Passer Rating.

The only area in which Detroit did not show grand improvement was in its passing effectiveness, as measured by Yards Per Attempt (28th in 2009; 26th in 2010). But the passing game was far more efficient -- from 31st to 19th in Offensive Passer Rating -- thanks to a HUGE decrease in those deadly interceptions, from 32 picks in 2009 to 16 picks in 2010.

The Lions also showed incredible improvement in your basic indicators, such as yards and points:

The raw numbers are impressive: the Lions scored 262 points in 2009; they scored 362 in 2010 (+100). The Lions surrendered 494 points in 2009; they surrendered 369 in 2010 (+125).

Now let's look at the team's attractive 2011 draft class. It was a small class, just five picks, and only three of those within the first 156 selections. But those first three hold the tantalizing promise of making an impact at three key areas of statistical need.

Round 1 (No. 13 overall) -- Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

Fairley was a destructive force in the middle of the defensive front for national champion Auburn. As we previously noted, his numbers (11.5 sacks, 24 tackles for loss) surpassed those of most pass-rushing specialists taken in the draft. He'll be part of a DT rotation with 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh. If Fairley lives up to the potential, the recently defenseless Lions could have the league's best defensive front for years to come. It was also something of a value pick: Fairley was a top-five projection on most boards after the 2010 season.

Round 2 (No. 44 overall) -- Titus Young, WR, Boise State

Young was not necessarily a favorite of the draft experts, but was high on our board because of his incredible production with the Broncos. He was a productive three-way threat, with 25 receiving TDs, seven rushing TDs and two kick return TDs. As we previously noted, it was a great needs pick for a team that ranked 26th last year in Passing YPA. A healthy Matt Stafford with Calvin Johnson and Young as his wideouts? It offers the explosively potential the team chased so vainly in the Matt Millen years even as it had so many other problems to fill.

Round 2 (No. 57) -- Mikel LeShoure, RB, Illinois

Our words from draft night: "In Leshoure, they land a 227-pound potential home-run hitter of a running back who averaged 6.0 yards per rush last year -- including a 330-yard effort in a win over Northwestern. That's two potential offensive game-breakers here in the second, after grabbing perhaps the best defensive lineman in the draft on Thursday."

Round 5 (No. 157) -- Douglas Hogue, LB, Syracuse

Hogue is praised for his great athleticism (blazing 4.6 40, 36-inch vertical) if not for his overly impressive on-field talent. Perhaps he develops into a special teams contributor or even a proficient NFL linebacker under the tutelage of LB/defensive specialist Jim Schwartz while playing behind what could be the league's best defensive front.

Round 7 (No. 209) -- Johnny Culbreath, OT, South Carolina State

He was a dominant player at the FCS level, but is essentially a small-school OT and a project in the NFL. He's undersized (280 pounds) for the NFL. But at 6-6, observers seem to think he has the frame to fill out and the athleticism (he wrestled, too) to perhaps compete for an NFL job. Even here, it was a potentially smart pick for the Lions: at No. 8 on our Offensive Hog Index, the OL was the least of their statistical needs in 2010.

We normally wouldn't be excited about three picks in which one was a shiny hood ornament wide receiver and the other was a running back. But the fact that the Lions didn't chase them too high, that they went D-Hogs first, and that they can justify both offensive skill position players based upon statistical need, it all adds up to a potentially killer draft class.

And given the incredible improvements Schwartz's crew already displayed last year, and the still-to-be-harnessed talent of Stafford, we can firmly state something we wouldn't have thought possible even at the end of the 2009 season: the future looks bright in Detroit.