For all the support and investment laid on the Detroit Lions by the city’s blue-collar fanbase, the on-field product has been a complete disappointment since the calendar started reading 2000. Equal parts punchline and punching bag, the Lions have remained about as relevant to the NFL as the G-Unit brand is to rap. After years of toiling at the bottom, the team finally looks ready to change every bad perception.
The Lions have catapulted into “must-watch” trajectory, thanks to Ndamukong Suh’s personal vendetta against NFL quarterbacks and Calvin Johnson’s weekly Randy Moss impressions. Factor in the fact that Matt Stafford is already really, really good and 2011 first rounder Nick Fairley waiting in the wings and Detroit seems more than just a feel-good story; they bear the look of a team of the future.
If that felt weird to read, it felt even weirder to type. But considering how good some of these players are and where they play on the field, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems. All of Detroit’s young stars play at cornerstone positions that impact the rest of the team.
Teams win and lose through quarterbacking in today’s NFL and Matt Stafford is playing up to the billing that being the first overall pick caries. His arm strength is spectacular, but his quick decision making is what’s winning games. Only 23, he already possesses the field vision that separates good quarterbacks from great ones. Barring injury, Stafford is an absolute star in the making.
Nobody is happier about the QB’s development than Johnson. Forced to use his athletic prowess to bail out sub-par quarterbacks like Shaun Hill and Jon Kitna throughout his career, Johnson can finally look at his quarterback as a peer. The wide receiver’s talent is such that he commands a double-team on every play. Minnesota failed to realize this in a week three overtime loss, one which saw Johnson abuse his under-manned defender in securing the game-winning catch. The blossoming Stafford-Johnson connection will open everything up on offense. Teams will be forced to play more nickel and dime sets to try to diffuse Detroit, granting running backs (be it Jahvid Best or someone else) huge lanes to operate in. Throw in emerging tight end Brandon Pettigrew for good measure and Detroit has a stable of young playmakers on offense.
Their defense has a few more holes to fill, but will soon get a major talent infusion via Fairley. A talent at one point projected to be the number one overall pick in last year’s draft, his presence side-by-side with Suh will make life easier for everyone else on Detroit’s defense. Suh already commands a double team on every snap and Fairley should demand that same kind of respect. The most average NFL linebacker – and Detroit’s linebacking core is at this point very average – will look like Patrick Willis playing off of Suh and Fairley.
That’s not to say that this team is perfect. Their offensive line is noticeably old and their defense lacks playmakers in the secondary (their best defensive backs are a pair of Browns cast-offs). These are problems that a couple solid drafts can fix. Considering how Detroit’s stars have the ability to elevate those around them, the Lions have – believe it or not – the brightest future in football.