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Tuesday, February 18, 2014
A different view on Lions' biggest needs

By Michael Rothstein

Our colleagues over at Football Outsiders and ESPN Insider spent part of Tuesday breaking down varying needs for the teams in the NFC North this offseason.

When it came to the Detroit Lions, they focused on two areas: Safety and running back.

With the recent release of Louis Delmas and the general issues the secondary had last season against big plays -- particularly against the pass -- both cornerback and safety are going to be areas of need for the Lions heading into free agency and then May's NFL draft. The area is so important that Detroit might end up making a move for a cornerback (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard) or safety (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor) in the first round.

One of the suggestions the post makes is that the Lions should look at Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, and that could be an intriguing option because he is a leader-type player who could also fill that void left by the release of Delmas. Clark is an older player at age 34 but could be a one-or-two year stopgap as the team grooms a future starter behind him.

The area that doesn't make as much sense is running back. If anything, the Lions running backs might be the strongest position on the roster. The combination of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush were among the top tandem in the NFL and both should fit in well with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's New Orleans-influenced offense where running backs often split carries and catch passes out of the backfield.

Bell is a restricted free agent but is expected to return to Detroit and has made it known he would like a long-term deal with the club. And the point my colleagues make in the post is that the Lions will not be a factor until they add a running game.

"On offense, Detroit's biggest issue is that it all must flow through Matthew Stafford, who is maddeningly inconsistent to the tune of a 59.1 completion percentage (worse than Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon) and an extremely underwhelming Total QBR of 52.5, sitting right above Carson Palmer at 20th in the league," Mike Kurtz from Football Outsiders writes. "The Lions' offense is one-dimensional and will not find consistent success unless it establishes some semblance of a running game. Detroit has a fairly talented offensive line, sporting a solidly above-average 3.95 ALY and genuinely impressive 76 percent success rate in power (short-yardage) situations. Despite this, former undrafted free agent Joique Bell managed barely above-average production on a per-play basis at 2.0 percent DVOA.

"The committee's greater half, Reggie Bush, produced at essentially replacement level as a running back. Both players were excellent as receivers, but that's partly a product of Stafford and the Detroit scheme. Over the last five years, nine of the 11 Detroit running backs with at least 25 targets in a season put up a positive receiving DVOA."

Kurtz makes good points about Detroit's offense and the consistent need for more balance, I disagree with him on the running back spot being one of the most significant needs for the Lions. While there are areas Bush and Bell can improve -- catching passes was a struggle at times -- there are bigger issues for Detroit as a whole. Other than secondary, Detroit needs to find players who can catch passes.

The Lions led the NFL in drops and with the release of Nate Burleson now need to find potentially two to three receivers between free agency and the draft to go along with Calvin Johnson, Ryan Broyles and the likely returns of Jeremy Ross and Kris Durham. The good news for the Lions is there are a plethora of options at receiver in both a deep draft class and free-agent pool. The Lions also could have a major hole at tight end if the team doesn't sign Brandon Pettigrew.

The team would be very young at the position with a combined one year of experience between Joseph Fauria and Michael Williams. Even if the team goes young there -- Eric Ebron and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are two intriguing early prospects in the draft and C.J. Fiedorowicz could be a value mid-round pickup, they could add more talent at a necessary position in the future.

Unless something changes with Bell, expect Detroit to stick with focusing on those four positions -- and possibly linebacker with an outside shot at defensive end -- over the first two days of the draft.