O'HARA: How might the Lions' new head coach affect the roster?

Posted Jan 3, 2014

That the Lions will have a new head coach is a given, after that, nothing is certain – even for veteran players who are seemingly secure

Two questions asked most often since Jim Schwartz was fired as head coach of the Lions on Monday are who will replace Schwartz, and how the new head coach will fine tune Matthew Stafford to make him a more efficient quarterback.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

They are valid questions, but certainly not the only ones that are left hanging while Lions management goes through the interview process to find a replacement for Schwartz.

That the Lions will have a new head coach is a given. After that, nothing is certain – even for veteran players who are seemingly secure.

Rob Sims, who has started every game at left guard for the Lions the last four years, knows how change at the top of a football team can have a trickle-down effect.

“When there’s change, a lot of people are affected,” said Sims. “A lot of these young players are going to find that out.”

Sims was secure in his fourth season as a starting guard for the Seattle Seahawks. A coaching change was made after the 2009 season – Jim Mora out, Pete Carroll in – and Sims was traded to the Lions in the offseason. He never played for Carroll, who wanted his own system.

Here is a look at how the Lions’ roster might be affected by a new coach, and how the new man might put his stamp on the team:

Quarterback: There is no issue about who will be the starter. It’s Stafford’s job for 2014 and should remain that way for many years to come.

The new coaching staff will have to decide whether to bring Shaun Hill and Kellen Moore back as the No. 2 and 3 quarterbacks behind Stafford.

Stafford has taken tons of criticism for the Lions’ slide from 6-3 to 7-9 and out of the playoffs, and some is deserved because of turnovers. It’s comes with playing quarterback.

But the idea of starting over at quarterback is beyond ridiculous. Stafford’s talent is why many analysts on websites such as ESPN.com and NFL.com rank the Lions’ job opening as one of the most attractive, along with the Houston Texans, who have filled their job by hiring Bill O’Brien.

Stafford seemed shaken Monday by the news that Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had been fired. It’s understandable. He’s been with them since the day he was drafted in 2009.

But the next head coach and his offensive staff won’t give Stafford the treatment Joey Harrington got. Harrington was accepted as the quarterback, but he wasn’t really wanted.

There has been a parallel between Stafford and Peyton Manning since the Lions’ drafted Stafford first overall in 2009.

Manning has been the measuring stick for how young quarterbacks develop, but a closer look at Manning’s career also shows how a coaching change impacted him early in his career.

Manning’s first four seasons with the Colts and Stafford’s first five with the Lions are similar.

Unlike Stafford, Manning was not held back by injuries his first two seasons. He started all 32 games and had a 52-43 ratio of TD passes to interceptions.

Like Stafford, Manning’s third year was his breakout season – 33 TD passes and 15 interceptions. Like Stafford, Manning had entered the discussion of an elite talent entering the ranks of elite performance.

Manning’s fourth year in the 2001 season was a step back. He had 26 TD passes and 23 interceptions – with a receiving tandem of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James as his running back.

Indy’s record declined from 10-6 and a playoff berth in 2000 to 6-10 and out of the playoffs. The Colts started 4-3 in 2001 but went 2-7 the rest of the way. Jim Mora was fired as head coach and replaced by Tony Dungy, who was a stickler for fundamental, responsible football.

Dungy’s message to Manning was to harness his ability and improve the TD-turnover ratio to make the Colts winners. In 2002, Manning had 27 TD passes and 19 picks. From there, the ratio became even wider – 29-10, 49-10, 28-10, 31-9 and 31-14 the next five seasons as Manning has produced the greatest regular-season quarterback stats in history.

It’s no coincidence that the Colts made the playoffs nine straight years – seven seasons under Dungy (2002-08) and two under Jim Caldwell (2009-10).

A new staff, led by the head man, can maximize Stafford’s ability. It’s called coaching, and Stafford is a willing pupil.

Running backs: The only reason for a  change in the top three – Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, a rookie in 2013 – is if Bell departs as a restricted free agent. Bell said he wants to stay in Detroit, and the Lions are likely to tender at a second-round compensation level should he get an offer from another team that they do not want to match.

One way to avoid that is to re-sign him before free-agency begins on March 11.

Mikel Leshoure says he wants a chance to play in 2014. That opportunity does not exists in Detroit.

Wide receiver: Despite some big drops, Calvin Johnson remained a powerful force. He averaged 17.8 yards on 84 catches and scored 12 TDs, despite missing two games. There is a major need for a play-making No. 2 receiver, and perhaps a No. 3.

Nate Burleson might return for his 12th pro season and fifth as a Lion if he takes a pay cut on what is the last year of his contract. Jeremy Ross earned playing time as a return specialist. Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree might have backup roles.

Tim Lappano was also was fired on Monday after his fifth season on the staff and first with receivers, leaving no doubt that management felt that the receivers had not developed under his tutelage.

Tight end: After early struggles, Brandon Pettigrew settled down and was consistently good as a receiver and blocker before going out for the season in Game 15 with an ankle injury. Pettigrew is eligible for free-agency and should be a priority to re-sign.

Rookie Joseph Fauria caught seven TD passes, plus another catch for a two-point conversion as he filled the role of the second tight end.

Michael Williams, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, could be the No. 3 tight end. If not, the Lions need to add to the group.

Offensive line: It was an improved unit with three new starts – Riley Reiff at left tackle, and rookies Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle at right guard and tackle respectively.

The big issue for this unit is whether center Dominic Raiola is re-signed after 13 years as a Lion. He is a free agent and is coming off his best season in many years. A new staff could have different thoughts on whether to stand pat at center or go in a new direction, depending on the scheme.

Defensive line: Ndamukong Suh is the big-ticket item in this year’s offseason negotiations Johnson and Stafford signed extended contacts the last two year. Now Suh’s up, with 2014 the last season on the five-year rookie deal he signed in 2010.

Suh’s salary-cap hit for 2014 is $22.4 million. There’s no way the Lions can carry that number and made other roster moves required to upgrade the roster at positions targeted by management.

Suh made the Pro Bowl for the third time in four years. His strength and relentless competitiveness opens opportunities for Nick Fairley to make plays.

There were two ways to look at Suh: sign him, to keep a consistent, productive, dominant player, or trade him and use the salary-cap savings to beef up other positions.

My vote: re-sign Suh.

Ndamukong SuhDT Ndamukong Suh (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

Willie Young , a season-long starter at left end, is eligible for free-agency. He had three sacks. A decision has to be made whether rookie Devin Taylor is ready to step into a starting job, or if Young should be re-signed – or both.

Linebackers: It’s a depth issue, with starters DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Ashlee Palmer all under contract for 2014.

Secondary: Expect a hard look at adding a cornerback and safety, especially with safety Louis Delmas eligible for a big raise in base pay.

Cornerback Chris Houston hit a tailspin early after re-signing as a free agent and never recovered.

Four young cornerbacks – Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green – all got playing time.

Cornerback and wide receiver are positions that are hard to predict on how players will make the transition from college to the NFL. Unfortunately for the Lions, they could be looking to add both.

Special teams: Kicker David Akers had marginal year after signing when Jason Hanson retired. Long-snapper Don Muhlbach is eligible for free-agency. He’d be hard to replace.

Replacement kickers were being tried out late in the season.  That doesn’t speak well for Akers’ future.

Punter Sam Martin was good in his rookie season and will get better. The return game improved when Ross took over.