Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Prepare to be Disappointed

Nobody knows more about the Detroit Lions than beat writer Tom Kowalski. Perhaps not even Jim Schwartz.

So when Tom writes in his most recent article that Detroit may be leaning towards Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith with the #13 pick, instead of Nebraska's Prince Amukamara, it's more than just another rumor. And if it becomes a reality, it means yet another season in which the Lions useless secondary remains useless.

I'm not suggesting that Prince would step into the starting cornerback role and immediately be a star. He wouldn't. He would probably be burned repeatedly, just like Phillip Buchannon and Alphonso Smith and all those other clowns. But Amukamara has something none of them had: potential. He could, in a few short years, be a lockdown corner, capable of eliminating Greg Jennings or Sidney Rice from the game. He could become the defensive piece that Detroit hasn't had in decades.

Instead, Jim Schwartz is looking to continue his obsession with rebuilding the defensive line. Hey, don't get me wrong, there is no bigger Ndamukong Suh fan than me. And Kyle VandenBosch played great last year, as did Corey Williams, and Cliff Avril. All around, Detroit had one of the best defensive lines in the NFC, and as a result we had the 6th most sacks in the league. More than the Jets, Patriots, Bears, and Vikings. Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham know this, and they know that sacks are sexy. They know that sacks look good on paper.

But you know what looks bad on paper? Detroit having the 17th best defense against the pass, and doing nothing to improve it. And if 17th doesn't sound too terribly bad to you, consider that we've ranked 32nd, 27th, 31st, and 25th in pass defense over the last four years. Creating a pass rush helps, but without capable cornerbacks it doesn't matter. The blitz is only effective when the coverage holds.

Look at Pittsburgh and Baltimore - two of the best blitzing teams in the league. They regularly send 7 or 8 defenders at the quarterback, and they are successful. Why? Because they have the league's most instinctive and talented safeties. Why are the Jets able to blitz on every down? Because Revis can shut down half the field singlehandedly. Having a bunch of great defensive lineman without any cornerbacks is like building a basketball team with nothing but 7 footers. It sounds exciting, but who's gonna dribble the ball up the court?

I don't have any qualms about Aldon Smith. I've watched his highlights, listened to his interviews, and I think he'll be a great pro. Probably a double-digit sack specialist as soon as 2012. But I just think it's too soon to worry about replacing Kyle VandenBosch, who is only 32 and should have a few more starting seasons in the tank. Instead of addressing a semi-need, why don't we address the pressing, dire needs of cornerback and outside linebacker?

Yet again, Detroit is going into an offseason with major holes in the roster. Aside from Delmas, we don't know who any of the starters are going to be in the secondary; simultaneously, only one linebacker spot (Levy at MLB) is occupied. There are 5 complete unknowns on the defense.

Then look at the defensive line, where Suh and Williams and VandenBosch and Avril are all healthy and ready for another season. And Turk McBride and Lawrence Jackson and Sammie Hill give us pretty good depth. Is there really a spot for Aldon Smith? What's the use in forcing VandenBosch to the bench? He's not that old yet!

Some might argue that Aldon is a OLB/DE hybrid. That's not the case. Yes, he could play OLB in a 3-4 scheme, but on Detroit's 4-3 he would be asked to step back into coverage, and that's a disaster waiting to happen. Smith is a 6'4", 265 pound monster with one speciality: rushing the passer. He has long arms, great speed, and a relentless motor. He's a defensive lineman, strictly.

If Detroit wants an outside linebacker to replace the disgruntled Julian Peterson, there will be plenty of options. Akeem Ayers, Justin Houston, maybe even Bruce Carter, although he's more of a 2nd round pick. Maybe we'll get lucky and Robert Quinn or Von Miller will fall to us. But don't count on in. Instead, expect Detroit to wait until the 2nd or 3rd round to take the outside linebacker they immediately need.

After CB and OLB, Detroit also needs to fix the offensive line. Not just the tackles, but the entire thing. Backus is 33, Raiola is 32, Peterman is 29, and Cherilus is worthless. At the least, how about some depth and some injury insurance?

A defensive lineman is the fourth or fifth biggest need for Detroit, maybe. It might be more helpful to add another wide receiver, or a power running back, or a safety who specializes in coverage. Defensive line is the strength, not the weakness, of this Lions team, and spending a first round pick to make it even better truly makes no sense... ESPECIALLY when you consider the NFL lockout and the absence of a free agency period, which allows the Lions no chance to fill the holes on their roster EXCEPT through the draft. Instead of improving the defensive line from an A- to an A, how about improving the secondary from an F- to a C+?

Now, Schwartz and Cunningham will say that Aldon Smith is a surefire superstar in the making, with no chance of busting. They'll say he's the best DE prospect they've ever seen. They'll compare him to Reggie White and Julius Peppers, with a little bit of Brett Favre mixed in. We'll hear the same hyperbole crap from Gunther that we hear every season, like when he called DeAndre Levy the best linebacker he'd ever coached (even though he coached Hall of Famer Derrick Johnson). That's all really nice, but come on..... if Aldon Smith really was that unbelievable, why aren't the teams in the top 10 considering him? Why is it a given that he'll be available at pick 13?

While I appreciate Gunther overstating and exaggerating, because I know he's just trying to instill confidence in the defense, maybe he should realize that Detroit ranked dead last in total defense in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Three years ago Gunther coached the worst defense in the history of the NFL. And here's a newsflash: the secondary hasn't been improved one bit since we went 0-16.

So yeah, Aldon Smith might get 12 sacks next year, and he might even win defensive rookie of the year. But if the secondary gives up 350 passing yards and 4 TDs a game, does it matter?

And what about the chance that Aldon Smith isn't amazing? What if he's just a solid but unspectacular defensive end? Doesn't that hamper the defense by forcing us to rebuild the secondary next year, instead of this year, while having a glut of defensive linemen? What I'm really asking is this: is there ANY logical reason to take Aldon Smith ahead of Prince Amukamara? Are we forgetting that everybody agrees that Amukamara is the better prospect and would be a miracle if he even falls to the Lions at pick 13?! And if he doesn't, we should decide between an offensive lineman or the next cornerback down the list (Jimmy Smith from Colorado, probably).

Yet now Kowalski is saying that not only will Amukamara fall, but the Lions might in fact pass on him to bolster the already-solid pass rush.

It's ironic. The dream pick might just be there, and we might just pass it by. And next year when the 4-12 Lions rank third in the NFL in sacks, Jim Schwartz will beat his chest and say "Yeah sacks! We got sacks! Sacks! Sacks!! Sacks!!!!!!"

Then we the fans will gloomily look at the 2012 NFL draft and ask ourselves, "Well, we got the #4 pick, which stud cornerback should we take to fix our worthless pass defense?"

Ughh ... I hate being a Lions fan.

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