Calvin Johnson had another solid season for the Lions in 2013, but needs the support of a top-level second receiver. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park ó While we all wait on the Chargers to lose so the Lions can get on with hiring Ken Whisenhunt as their next head coach ó it seems like something would have to go unexpectedly off the rails for that not to be their guy ó Iíve been thinking about the roster he is going to inherit.
All we heard, as the team was careening and skidding down the stretch, was how much talent there is here. With all that talent, how could they lose six of their last seven games? How, with all that talent, could they not win the horrendous NFC North?
Well, I would put it to you like this ó while there were certainly many talented individuals on the Lionsí 2013 roster, their production, for various reasons, wasnít always commensurate with their talent. There were gaping holes at several positions.
Knee and ankle injuries took a heavy toll on Calvin Johnson during the final month of the season. Reggie Bush seemed to be battling mental and physical demons and his production fell off down the stretch. Chris Houston, dealing with injuries and some personal issues off the field, had a forgettable season. Louis Delmas, bless him for his desire and perseverance, but by the second half of the season he was consistently a step or two late on most plays.
Other than Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy and for the most part the offensive line, who can you say played at a consistently high level? You could put Joique Bell and Brandon Pettigrew on that list if you want, but thatís really about it.
To me, though, the most glaring and costly deficiency and the biggest fail by general manager Martin Mayhew, was at receiver. The Lions can boast having six players catch at least 30 passes for the first time, but that is a meaningless accomplishment ó especially when the second, third and fourth leading receivers were running backs and a tight end.
When Johnson was down or playing below full capacity, who stepped up? Nobody.
If you can, watch the All-22 video from Week 17 against the Vikings. The Lions were without Johnson and Pettigrew and it is alarming how rarely anybody actually got open. Nobody seemed able to create any space for quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw the ball into.
He took five sacks that day; most, if not all, were coverage sacks.
How many years now have the Lions been searching for that second wide receiver to play opposite Johnson? How many draft picks and resources been spent in vain on that? Kris Durham ended up being that guy this season. Durham caught 38 passes for 490 yards, which isnít bad for a fourth or fifth receiver. It is, though, insufficient for a No. 2 or No. 3.
The slot position was weakened this season, too, with injuries to Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles. By the end of the season, Stafford was left to throw to a collection of journeymen and castoffs.
Stafford certainly made his fair share of bad decisions and poor throws, but to scapegoat him alone for the collapse would be short-sighted. Even Mayhew owned up to it, saying he could have done more to help him, personnel-wise.
So now Mayhew is in the process of hiring a head coach and one of the prerequisites is experience in developing quarterbacks. Whisenhunt has that on his resume, as do Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who have also interviewed for the job.
Another way to help Stafford would be to upgrade the talent at receiver. And, as luck would have it, the 2014 draft is shaping up to be loaded with talented wide receivers. Who knows how things will shake out, but the Lions should be able to get a top-level receiver in any of the first three rounds.
Clemsonís Sammy Watkins, Florida Stateís Kelvin Benjamin, Texas A&Mís Mike Evans and USCís Marqise Lee, would fit the bill at No. 10, if they fall that far.
In the second or third rounds the Lions may have their choice of Louisvilleís DeVante Parker, Fresnoís Davonte Adams, Penn Stateís Allen Robinson, LSUís Odell Beckham, Jr., Vanderbiltís Jordan Matthews or Arizona Stateís Jaelen Strong.
More will emerge from the NFL scouting combine, as well.
Mayhew has not had much luck drafting receivers. To wit ó Broyles, Titus Young, Derrick Williams. But he canít be dissuaded by that. It would seem counterproductive to hire a quarterback-centric head coach and not upgrade the pass catchers.
Itís time to get one right.