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Thursday, July 9, 2009
Updated: July 16, 1:51 PM ET
Should Culpepper or Stafford start?

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

"And do you feel scared? I do, but I won't stop and falter.
And if we threw it all away, things can only get better."
-- Howard Jones

Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford
Daunte Culpepper may be still be front and center to open the season, with No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford waiting his turn.

After an 0-16 season that will forever be immortalized as the paragon of futility, the Lions certainly have nowhere to go but up. Former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is now the man with the plan, and his first two hirings certainly point to his planned road map out of the deep hole Detroit currently calls home. Scott Linehan will run the offense, and longtime Kansas City guru Gunther Cunningham was handpicked by Schwartz to help rebuild the Lions' defense, essentially from scratch.

Last season, Detroit's defense allowed a league-worst 32.3 points and 404.4 yards per game. They were so generous to opposing quarterbacks that opponents posted an unfathomable 110.9 QB rating against them. To put that number in perspective, only five NFL quarterbacks have ever played a full season with that level of success: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Joe Montana … and a guy named Daunte Culpepper, back in 2004, when Scott Linehan was his offensive coordinator.

With Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry, Eric King and second-round draft pick Louis Delmas in the secondary; Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and rookie DeAndre Levy at linebacker; and Grady Jackson at defensive tackle, there could be as many as eight -- or even more -- new starters on the defensive side of the ball come Week 1. Talk about throwing it all away!

As for the offense, Kevin Smith was one of the lone bright spots for the Lions last season, as he rushed for just shy of 1,000 yards in his rookie campaign. He returns, along with Pro Bowl-snubbed wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who will now have some veteran help downfield in the form of Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew should also step right in to a key role in this offense, but in more of a blocking capacity than as a receiving threat.

As for who will lead the charge under center, well, that remains to be seen …

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: Culpepper or Matthew Stafford? That's the big question to be answered in camp: Do the Lions go with the established veteran out to prove he's still got something left in the tank, or do they make a completely fresh start with the No. 1 overall pick? The safe play would be to let Culpepper try to recapture some of that old Vikings magic, and have Stafford learn the ins and outs of life in the NFL from the safety of the sidelines.

However, after Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan both performed so well in their debut seasons in 2008, it's going to be a tough sell to any remaining Lions fans that patience is a virtue. If Stafford shows any signs of success in the preseason, expect the pressure to be put on Schwartz to start the future immediately, ready or not.

Fitting in: With so many new players on the defensive side of the ball, there's not going to be so much a fitting-in process as a finding-their-way-together process. That might be just the kind of bonding experience that inspires the unit to bigger and better things -- and let's face it, the bar set by the 2008 team is pretty darn low.

As for the offensive side of the ball, Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey are gone, and Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt are in. We all know Megatron is the main Motown man, so how will these two veterans accept a back-seat role? Pretty well, we think.

Bryant Johnson was supposed to be the star in San Francisco last season, and failed miserably. He should be more than happy to take the table scraps left by defenses double-teaming Calvin Johnson and may well catch 50 passes for the first time in his career as a result.

As for Northcutt, he's excited about a fresh start and with the two Johnsons working the outside, he's a perfect choice to man the slot receiver position. As Northcutt put it in the Detroit Free Press, "Obviously that's my biggest strength. … That's where I've made my money basically."

On the line: Let's see, the Lions ranked 30th in rushing yards last season and 31st in sacks allowed. That's not good. However, this unit knows it is going to be together for some time, with Jeff Backus, Stephen Peterman, Dominic Raiola and Gosder Cherilus all locked into long-term deals. With that kind of commitment from the team, these guys can relax about their individual futures and focus their energies on working together. Add in 10-year veteran Jon Jansen to the mix from Washington, and you have the makings of a line that just might be physical enough to keep opposing defenses out of the backfield.

The bottom line

Is this team going to go from a winless campaign to the Super Bowl in one fell swoop? Of course not. But is .500 completely out of reach? No. With a relatively weak schedule, and a renewed emphasis on the run -- the one area in which they actually didn't entirely stink up the joint last season -- this team is definitely going to have a lot more success in 2009.

The one question is whether the new regime will try to "Live Life in One Day" by rushing Stafford into the savior role. Certainly the temptation to achieve in a few months what Matt Millen couldn't manage to do in eight years is there, but if they try to force the issue and it blows up in their face, they can't say, "No One Is to Blame." The culprits will be their own lack of patience. Let Culpepper test the waters for the rookie, and once he's sure the coast is clear, only then should Detroit let the future begin.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.