Allen Park— This is where they started building. And in many ways, these are the building blocks that’ll decide whether or not the Lions’ current management team gets to finish this construction project.
Martin Mayhew’s first draft class as general manager — Jim Schwartz’s first group of rookies — remains the foundation for this football franchise. And as they wrap up their fifth offseason together with this week’s mandatory minicamp in Allen Park, there’s no denying the weight they shoulder, coming off a third losing season in four years on the job.
There are other cornerstone pieces on the roster, of course, from the tag-team partnership of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to newly-acquired free agents Reggie Bush and Glover Quin to the All-Pro receiver in the No. 81 jersey.
But given the limited returns from Mayhew’s next few draft classes — producing only a handful of starters combined, it appears — the importance of those initial choices looms even larger now as the Lions try to prove last year’s 4-12 finish was the fluke, not the playoff berth that preceded it.
The first four players Detroit selected in that 2009 draft — quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy — all remain on the roster, each of them a starter since their rookie season.
The last two from that group are beginning their second multi-year contracts with the team, a rarity for this franchise over the last 15 years or so (Calvin Johnson, Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola, Cory Redding, and that’s about it). Stafford may yet agree to terms on a blockbuster extension of his own this summer — “Whether it gets done or it doesn’t, there’ll be no distractions,” he reiterated Tuesday — while Pettigrew knows he could make himself some money this season, either in Detroit or elsewhere.
And as they’ve been reminded almost on a daily basis inside the Lions’ practice facility this spring, it’s their team now. No questions asked.
“Definitely,” said Pettigrew, Stafford’s fellow first-round choice in ’09. “It’s time to transition and take over. I mean, those were the exact words. I think everybody feels it.”
None more so than Stafford, obviously. After a breakout season in 2011 — his first full campaign as a starter following an injury-plagued NFL introduction — Stafford’s numbers took a hit last season, and the critics started piling on.
“It’s impossible not to hear it,” Stafford admitted Tuesday, “just because I watch ‘Sportscenter’ like everybody else, you know? I mean, I’m a person, too.”
But when people ask him if that’s what’s fueling his drive this offseason, he quickly says no.
“I want to keep progressing,” said Stafford, who’ll likely overtake Bobby Layne as the Lions’ career passing leader this fall. “I want to be a great quarterback. And I want to be able to help this team win. And the only way I’m going to be able to do that is if I let nothing get in my way.”
It’d help if there were fewer pass rushers in his way, but we’ll see what a younger, more athletic — and less experienced — offensive line has in store for him this fall. (The addition of Bush and the return of Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles should make a difference, regardless.)
Putting frustration behind
We’ll also see if Pettigrew can get out of his own way. At his best, he’s the prototype for an all-purpose tight end, anchoring the line as a run blocker and providing a vital target in the passing game. After a torn ACL cut short his rookie season, he posted big numbers the next two years, with 154 catches for nearly 1,500 yards. Last year, he snagged only 53 balls for 567 yards, and he compounded that with too many drops and costly fumbles.
“By far, the most frustrating year since I’ve been here,” Pettigrew said. “I mean, you guys know why. You saw the negative stuff that I did last year. There was some positive stuff in there, and I don’t know what outweighed what. But to me, the negatives really stuck out.”
Levy, a third-round pick in ’09, was a positive for the Lions defense early last season before a groin injury limited him in the second half. And he was the outside linebacker re-signed back in March, not Justin Durant. But can Levy make good on Schwartz’s promise — and Mayhew’s demand — to make more big plays for a team that ranked 27th in takeaways in 2012?
Better question: Will Delmas ever be healthy enough to be the defensive playmaker the Lions still think he can be? His chronic knee problems helped bring him back this offseason, signing an incentive-laden deal after finding no better offers on the open market as a free agent. But asked how the knee was coming along Tuesday, Delmas said, “It feels just like how it was last year,” clearly frustrated.
“He just has to be patient enough to work through that,” Schwartz cautioned, “and give it enough time.”
That’s been the approach with this entire group, really. Ever since he took the reins, Mayhew has preached patience and persistence, in equal measures, much to the fans’ discontent.
But now that we’ve seen what they can do, and seeing what the Lions have invested in the foundation they’ve built, everyone knows what’s at stake. Everyone senses the urgency, particularly the ones who’ve been here from the beginning. They’ve got something to prove if they’re going to finish what they started.
“I think we do,” Pettigrew said. “As a group, definitely. But individually, each one of us, you can see it, too. … I think the leadership is there now. The team’s attitude, the way we attack practice, and just the building — period — I think we’re in a good place.”