How the mighty have fallen. At least what appeared on paper to be strongest area of the team behind WR has literally fallen apart.
Flash-Back to the beginning of Free Agency. The Lions had ONE CB and a 2 safeties under contract. They retooled the defensive backfield, and when they got done it looked really good. The question then was "Will Bullocks be able to come back from his injury?" Bodden, a strong cover corner, came over via the Rogers trade, the team signed veteran Brian Kelly to provide a veteran presence. Travis Fisher was back -- but supposedly as the nickel-back, not a starter. My favorite signing was the re-signing of Kieth Smith. Although highly derided at the time I said then that I felt he had really improved last season, and was on the verge of becoming a very strong cover corner.
Dwight Smith was brought in as a system veteran, theoretically to start til Bullocks was fully back and to rotate in. Pearson was signed to improve the shoddy special teams play, and could step in as a versatile backup at S and Nickel-Back if needed. I was very excited to see an Alexander/Bullocks/Smith/Bodden Backfield.
While I am wrong just as often as I am right, I hit it right on with Smith. As for the rest of the backfield, what happened??
Where are we now??
Smith was named a starter, along with Kelly as Rod went all-out Tampa guys start first. This is something I was against, and still think was not good. The Tampa vets were just over the hill enough that, to me, it appeared they were about on par with the rooks/younger guys. My philosophy? Rotate the younger guys in liberally early, and move to them later in the season as they start to realize that upside that would propel them past the old vets. Didn't happen.
For whatever reason, Rod went all Larry Brown (basketball coach who refused to play anyone not a 3-4 year vet minimum, essentially) and refused to play or even discuss playing his young guys. They got no first team reps, which hurt their development. (Though not as bad as what they did to the Dline, the backfield situation was still absurd.) Bodden not starting til week 2, although he had played better than Fisher? Smith was clearly doing a much better job of covering than Kelly, who had lost a few more steps than anticipated. Still no changes.
I feel the problems in the secondary, even when Smith and Alexander were in and healthy, was chemistry. Earn your starting spot, unless you are Kelly who had it handed to him as a newcomer despite the fact that Keith Smith would technically, by Marinelli's justification of Fisher starting, the starter. Whatever. The secondary, with all the head games being played by the coaches, never got a chance to gell into a unit --- a problem that has been plaguing the rest of the team as well. Marinelli wanted them to wrok and earn -- they go the point, but they also needed a LOT of practice as a unit to get all the new pieces working together. As it is, the way the Lions are shuffling personnel weekly it is like they are heading into the 14th pre-season game.
So at this point? Alexander's prognosis sounds promising, and I think that he and Bullocks -- who is not only back, but keeps getting better and better -- will be a great Safety tandem for the Lions for quite some time. Pearson has out-played expectations by far coming in with D. Smith (who has disappointed even my low expectations for him) and Alexander out injured. The Lions are solid next year with their Pearson-Bullocks-Alexander trio signed. It will be one of those rare parts of the team that a new regime will only need to take minor fixes to in the first year or two.
As for CB, that situation is a bit muddier. Kelly will almost certainly be gone with a new regime, and has already (Finally) lost his starting spot to K. Smith. Even though Smith will be slowed by his groin injury for a couple of weeks, he is still the best cover guy on the team. Bodden has been much maligned, but he has done best in the man-coverage situations. Not only that, but once K. Smith replaced Kelly on the other side, teams began targeting Bodden more -- meaning they perceived him as the weaker CB. Still, even his $8 mil roster bonus to trigger his 4 year contract extension (which has very reasonable cap numbers after that) is what the Lions would pay -- or possibly even more -- to pretty much replace him with someone who may not even be as talented. There is a premium on good CB's, and Bodden still qualifies.
Don't believe me? Look at what Nate Clements, DeAngelo Hall, and Dre Bly have been paid in recent years. Bodden would be that kind of name on the market. The Lions might just as well lock him up. Just like with the WR, I think that Bodden will shine much better under a coaching staff that has two things:
2. Schemes to the strength of their players
So heading into next year, assuming they keep Bodden, K. Smith is on a 2 year deal so he is under contract as well they need to drop at least Kelly, maybe Fisher although he is adequate when not used as a starter. This means a top-level CB is still a target for the draft in 2009. With Smith on a 1 yr deal at that point, and Bodden for an additional 4 they will need to be sure to get one in 2009 so that the rook can learn, rotate into some game situations and get PT and experience before taking on a starting role.
At safety, a late round pick or moderate FA signing is all they will really need to fill out that position if Alexander is recovering on schedule.
There are still 7 games to go, so I'm sure things could change just as much between now and the end of the season as they did between the end of the preseason and now.
One more thought on the secondary is that the inability of the Dline to get any kind of consistent pressure has once again often made them look worse than they are.