December 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Josh Katzenstein

Here are 10 rays of hope for the Lions

The prolific offensive partnership between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson should keep the Lions competitive in coming seasons. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

The holiday season is a time to forgive, forget and look to the future.

The Lions, other than Calvin Johnson, haven't earned any gifts this year after a 4-11 start, but let's give them a temporary pass during with one week left in a disappointing season.

Forgive general manager Martin Mayhew for not acquiring enough talent in the offseason to field another playoff contender. Forget coach Jim Schwartz's momentary frustration that led to him forgetting the challenge rules against the Texans.

Now, look to the future. Whether the Lions finish 4-12 or 5-11, this season will forever be remembered as a letdown after going 10-6 in 2011. And while the Lions have a lot to do in order to compete for the postseason in 2013, there are signs of hope for next season.

Here are 10 reasons why the Lions could be playoff contenders next year:

1. Calvin Johnson

What else needs to be said? Johnson, 27, is in the prime of his career, and he'll surely try to surpass his record-setting season in 2013. After losing Nate Burelson, Ryan Broyles and Titus Young to injured reserve, Johnson has carried the wide receiver corps and has been impossible to cover at times despite being the Lions' only threat. If Burleson is healthy and the Lions add a solid replacement until Broyles (torn ACL) returns, Johnson will have no problem excelling again next year.

2. Nick Fairley starting next to Ndamukong Suh

Fairley's shoulder injury against the Packers in Week 14 ended his season right when he proved worthy of the No. 13 overall pick in 2011. In his last five starts, Fairley had 23 tackles, six for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles. And even at his best, Fairley is still the Lions' second-best defensive tackle behind Suh. The duo started to build chemistry late in the season, and as long as Fairley stays healthy, they could become the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFL. If the Lions draft a speed rusher like Georgia's Jarvis Jones or LSU's Barkevious Mingo, their front four should live up to any lofty expectations.

3. Matthew Stafford's improving leadership

People seem to forget that Stafford is 24, and although he's been a captain for three seasons, he's still learning how to lead an NFL team. Stafford's passer rating is just 79.2 this season, but he could become the first quarterback to ever throw for 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons (Drew Brees still has a chance, too). The talk of his throwing mechanics is vastly overblown because Stafford has proven he can make all the throws. As long as he improves his footwork and becomes a better leader, Stafford should bounce back next year.

4. Riley Reiff becoming a starter

The rookie tackle had a great start this season and has thrown some impressive blocks in the Lions' six offensive linemen package. Reiff was solid in his one start in place of left tackle Jeff Backus, and another offseason should prepare him to be a season-long starter on the Lions offensive line. The only question is where Reiff will start. Backus is 35 and could retire after this season. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is a free agent, and although he's played well enough for the Lions to re-sign him, they may choose to go young knowing Reiff and Jason Fox could have a bright future. If they both come back, Reiff could play guard, but wherever he plays, he'll improve the Lions' run and pass blocking.

5. Mikel Leshoure's sophomore season

After an Achilles injury cost him his rookie year, Leshoure's first season has been difficult to judge. His nine rushing touchdowns are the most by a Lions back since 2000 (James Stewart had 10), but touchdowns aside, though, Leshoure has been far from spectacular. He's averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and although Leshoure is more talented, Joique Bell has out-performed him at times this year (5.1 yards per carry). Leshoure's longest run this season was just 16 yards. He's had some powerful runs, but he doesn't hit the hole like the Lions hoped when they took him in the second round in 2011. He's also lost three fumbles this year after losing none in college. Leshoure should be 100 percent for training camp this season, and if he can take a leap, the Lions should have a solid run game.

6. Changes in the secondary

Predicting the Lions starting defensive backs next season is nearly impossible, but it's fair to say there will definitely be changes. And since the Lions allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 63.9 percent of their passes this year, 26th in the NFL, any change should help. The Lions should do everything they can to re-sign top cornerback Chris Houston and hope one of their current rookies -- Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green -- can be a solid No. 2 cornerback next season. They could also look at drafting Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner if he leaves school early. As for the safeties, Louis Delmas will probably be back, but the Lions don't want to go into the year with Don Carey or Ricardo Silva as the starter, so finding a safety in the draft or free agency will also help improve the secondary.

7. The likely waiving of Stefan Logan

Even before Logan's two outrageous errors in Saturday's loss to the Falcons, he was probably on his way out. His 9.1-yard average on punts ranks just 16th in the NFL, and his 21.3-yard average on kickoff returns is 22nd. Logan has just one return touchdown in three seasons with the Lions, and even though blockers have opened large holes at times this season, he doesn't appear to have the necessary top-end speed to maximize returns. The Lions don't have many current options to replace Logan with Broyles likely out for the first half of the season and Young's future with the team in question. But the Lions should jump at the first free agent with any good experience as a returner.

8. The emergence of linebackers Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead

The Lions' linebacker corps is easily one of the biggest question marks heading into the offseason. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch will be back, but starting outside linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are both entering free agency. The Lions will probably try to sign one or both for the right price to maintain continuity in the group, but the real hope is that Lewis or Whitehead can fill in if Levy or Durant leave. As rookies, Lewis and Whitehead have been solid in kickoff coverage, but haven't had a chance to show how they perform on defense. If either is ready to start next season, it would be a big lift for the Lions.

9. Having a high draft pick

The Lions didn't want to have anything to do with the top 10 picks in the draft, but their early pick is inevitable now. They could be drafting anywhere from No. 3 to No. 9 depending on this week's games, and there will be several good players available wherever they pick. Milliner seems like an obvious choice because the Lions need a starting cornerback, but they could also pick from a myriad of pass rushers or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. And the higher they pick, the more appealing their second-round pick will be if they want to trade into the back-end of the first round for a safety.

10. Jim Schwartz coaching for his job

Schwartz reportedly signed an extension through 2015, but if the Lions finish below .500 again in 2013, he'll surely be gone. Schwartz deserves another chance to prove the Lions' 10-6 record in 2011 wasn't an aberration because this season has raised doubts nationally about his future with the team. Despite knowing what's at stake, Schwartz won't change his coaching style. The players still buy into his system, and although his job security won't change how they play, any extra motivation should help next year.

jkatzenstein@detnews.com

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