This summer, as part of looking ahead to the 2012 NFL season, we're going in-depth to analyze the Detroit Lions' roster. Next Friday, we'll tell you what Lions must remain consistent producers for Detroit to achieve success in 2012. In August, we'll embark on in-depth previews of each position. This week, though, it's all about who must emerge from the shadows and break out.
Every season, NFL teams enjoy performances from players they might not expect to have immediate success. In 2011, the Detroit Lions reaped those unexpected rewards from players like Matthew Stafford, Titus Young, Chris Houston and Willie Young. Those performances provided a great boost to the team, and willed the franchise into the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Who will be counted on to provide similar performances this year? Here's the five most important candidates:
1. Jahvid Best, Running Back: Last season, it was remarkable the Lions performed as well as they did offensively considering they lacked a consistent running game most of the time. It's almost hard to believe Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson put up the shocking numbers they did. So, imagine what everyone else will be able to do offensively in 2012 if Best is healthy and a viable threat offensively? Being that Martin Mayhew didn't draft a running back or sign a free agent, Best is going to have to get over his checkered, concussion filled past. He's explosive when in the game, and must remain on the field to help the offense get even better.
2. Mikel Leshoure, Running Back: Smash to Best's dash, the Lions need Leshoure to carry the majority of the load in between the tackles and become the featured running back. Coming off his nasty injury in training camp last year and a frustrating offseason arrest, Leshoure is going to have to prove he has the durability and maturity to carry the load for Detroit. If Leshoure can develop and have a good year, he'll limit the need for Best to be used as the feature back, which should help him stay healthy and become an even more dangerous asset for Detroit's offense. Don't discount how nice it would be to have any semblance of a power running game in the tough NFC North, either.
3. Nick Fairley, Defensive Tackle: Though it seemed like every Lions' player has had a terrible offseason, Fairley's was perhaps the worst. He had two separate run ins with the law, leaving serious doubts about his maturity level. Good thing the season begins soon, where Fairley can prove he has rededicated himself to football and football alone. Last season, when given time after recovering from a foot injury, Fairley certainly looked the part of a dominating defensive tackle. If he can become a consistent producer in 2012, that will give the Lions even more freedom to move around Ndamukong Suh. The Lions' defensive line was pretty good in 2011, registering 36 sacks while forcing 12 fumbles. Getting more out of Fairley in his sophomore campaign will only improve upon those statistics.
4. Aaron Berry, Cornerback: We've reached the final player in our countdown with offseason problems, and he just so happens to be a vital contributor for 2012. When Berry's been given time in the past, he's looked the part of a capable, dependable NFL cornerback. That's something the Lions' haven't developed in a long time. With Eric Wright gone and Berry fighting for time with new rookies Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green and Dwight Bentley, the Lions will need the second year man to step up and anchor down the second cornerback spot next to Chris Houston. If Berry is able to do that, the Lions will finally have some quality depth in the backfield. He's played well in spots and is a tough, physical player. Now, it's all about finding the right blend of maturity and confidence to match his game. After last season's Twitter flap and this recent DUI, it's time to get serious.
5. Amari Spievey, Safety: Adjusting to a new position is never easy, and the Lions took a bit of a gamble in turning Spievey, a third round cornerback pick, into a safety. The shift hasn't always been pretty in two years time, but Spievey has looked decent in his time when not injured. This season, he badly needs to solidify the position next to Louis Delmas and stay on the field. Though they signed Sean Jones and are expecting contributions out of veteran Erik Coleman, the Lions don't have a ton of quality depth at safety. With the propensity of Delmas to hit hard and sustain injures, that leaves the middle of the field spread thin. Spievey must stay healthy, produce some interceptions and take the next step as an improved run stopper. Entering this third year, his transition should be complete. If Spievey is able to become a bit more consistent, the Lions' defense will improve in the key areas.
With some excellent contributions from these players, the Lions will be in good shape to repeat the magic of last fall and return to the playoffs once more.
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