Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
With the Jim Schwartz era mercifully over, we have entered the season of uncertainty with the Detroit Lions. Here are my takes on a few issues:
–There were some who dismissed the interview with former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell as simply pandering to cover the Rooney Rule requirement. Those who honestly believe that need a swift kick to wherever they store their reality.
Caldwell, who would not be my choice for coach or even coordinator, is an accomplished and proven coach. Yes, he’s black. He’s a coaching tree branch from Tony Dungy and has a similar mindset about pride with his racial background. Just as Dungy would be insulted if he felt he was getting an opportunity strictly because of his race, so would Caldwell.
Then consider the man doing the interviewing: Martin Mayhew. He’s a successful NFL general manager who happens to be black, too. Anyone who truly thinks that Martin Mayhew interviewed Jim Caldwell just to fulfill a controversial league mandate, and not on the merits of either man, is not worthy of your attention.
Without getting derailed on a racial bent, both Mayhew and Caldwell are in awkward positions here. There absolutely is pressure from some in the black community, notably former Georgetown basketball majordomo John Thompson, for people in Mayhew’s position to deliberately “take care of his own”. But that is 100% not the case here.
As for Caldwell’s interview, numerous folks closer to the situation than me have said Caldwell really impressed Lions management with his preparation and detailed plan of attack. I still don’t believe he’s the favorite for the position, and his passive style and philosophy is not my personal choice, but he is a viable candidate to be the next coach of the Detroit Lions.
–The most compelling candidate is Ken Whisenhunt, the man who took the Cardinals to a Super Bowl. That phrase right there is enough to qualify him to take over the Lions, who have never been to a Super Bowl.
It is widely presumed that Whiz will get an interview this coming week. His preparation is not likely to be as thorough as Caldwell’s, as he’s been a little busy prepping the Chargers offense for a playoff game. One bit of info that has leaked out (a little too conveniently) is that Whiz will bring Russ Grimm along as the Offensive Line coach and perhaps Offensive Coordinator. That’s a positive, though I have a great off-the-record story about Grimm which is a little troubling on the Human Resources front.
Whiz’s best qualification is his work with quarterbacks, including leading the remarkable rebound of Philip Rivers this season. With Matthew Stafford the key to the franchise, it makes a lot of sense to see what Whisenhunt can do with him.
–I heard from a very reliable source that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is not a serious consideration for the Lions. The same source did advise me that Cleveland’s interest in Stoops is legitimate, however. As I’ve maintained for some time, the only college coach who piques the Ford’s interest is Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. And you’d better believe there are influential people in Allen Park who would love for Kelly to show strong interest in taking over. Thus far he has not, either publicly or in back channels.
–Whomever the new coach is will have input on a couple of critical free agent decisions. Starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew and corner Rashean Mathis are both unrestricted free agents.
With every cap dollar precious, I would let Pettigrew walk. His sporadic excellence is outweighed by his maddening inconsistency and unreliability as both a blocker and a receiver. Some other team will give him a 3 year/$16.5M deal. That’s too much for Detroit and what he would contribute as a co-starter with Joseph Fauria. With blocking specialist Michael Williams taking over that role next year, the Lions can find a much less costly second tight end to pair with Fauria. It will not be Dorin Dickerson. It would not surprise me if the team selects a speedy tight end on the draft’s third day in May.
Mathis needs to be retained at all costs. If that means eating cash and cutting Chris Houston to make it happen, it’s the right move. Mathis is the cagey veteran who needs to stick around to help mentor all the young talent at cornerback. Aside from his leadership, he was definitively the better player than Houston in 2013. This is Rashean’s last shot at a decent payday, so he will not likely come on the cheap. The Lions need to reward him for being a great value in 2013.
–Speaking of that young CB talent, I am a firm advocate that it’s time to let these guys swim. One of the great failings of Jim Schwartz was his steadfast refusal to let his young corners learn on the fly. If Darius Slay or Jonte Green made even one mistake, they got yanked, and that was if Schwartz gave them a chance at all.
We all saw glimpses from Slay, Green, Bill Bentley and even Chris Greenwood that they could all be competent NFL corners. Slay’s play in the final games showed legitimate promise that his mental development was progressing rapidly. He’s a viable starter in 2014.
Bentley has his ups and downs, but he’s already the best slot nickel CB in the NFC North. That says as much about Isaiah Frey and Davon House as it does Bentley, but the fact is that teams with lesser talents at his position have proven they can win. Durability is his biggest issue.
Greenwood remains raw, but he’s on the right track. I talked to a Cowboys staffer about Greenwood and what his impression of the strapping corner was during his brief time in Dallas. He told me they could see the light bulb start to come on for Greenwood. He was very receptive to their coaching staff and style, which was a lot more user-friendly and supportive than what Greenwood got in Detroit.
The point here is that I strongly believe the Lions should not, and will not, use the #10 overall pick on a cornerback. There is too much young potential on this team at the position already. Jim Schwartz refused to play them and failed in developing them properly. The new coaching staff could wind up turning that potential into strong results quickly. The top four corners for this team in 2014 are already on the roster in Houston (or Mathis), Slay, Bentley, and Greenwood or Green.
–That doesn’t mean I dislike the CB talent in this draft. I’m a big Darqueze Dennard advocate, though I believe he is very scheme-specific for the NFL. Let’s say the Lions hire Caldwell, who favors a Dungy-esque zone cover scheme. Dennard would make a lousy fit; he’s a press-man and press-bail corner, not a zone shell guy. The same is true of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu from Oregon, who would rate as my #2 CB if he declares. He’d work better than Dennard in a zone scheme, though, as would Bradley Roby from Ohio State.
–It’s way too premature to proclaim who the Lions should take at #10 because certain players just don’t make sense with certain coaches. Having said that, my personal choice at this point is USC WR Marqise Lee. Here’s why:
Last year Keenan Allen was a legitimate top 5 overall talent who had a bad season at Cal because of a pesky knee injury. He fell in the draft because of worries about his knee and overreaction to his decline on the field. Marqise Lee is in the exact same situation this year. Allen deserves to be Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Lee could do that in Detroit running inside and opposite Calvin Johnson.
Why Lee over Sammy Watkins from Clemson? Personal preference. I’d be perfectly happy with Watkins. I do think Lee is slightly more explosive off the line and a little more elusive with the ball in his hands, but the margin is thin. Clemson’s offense was not as intricate or laden with pro-style concepts as USC’s either, which leads me to believe Lee is more ready to contribute right away too.
Tags: Bill Bentley, Brandon Pettigrew, Brian Kelly, Chris Greenwood, Chris Houston, Darius Slay, Darqueze Dennard, Jim Caldwell, Jim Schwartz, Ken Whisenhunt, Marqise Lee, Martin Mayhew, Rashean Mathis, Rooney Rule, Russ Grimm, Sammy Watkins