DETROIT – It's been five years since Detroit drafted Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick, and in that span, the Lions have progressed from miserable to maddening.
Needless to say, that's still not good enough.
"We think that our talent level is approaching a point where we should be contending — and we are not there now," general manager Martin Mayhew said.
Mayhew made that comment in December, when the Lions fired coach Jim Schwartz after a late collapse cost the team a playoff spot. Schwartz took Detroit to the postseason in 2011, but that was his only playoff appearance with the team — and amid heightened expectations, the Lions went 11-21 in the two years since.
So now Jim Caldwell is coaching the Lions, and the front office is hopeful he can help Stafford take another step forward after a promising but uneven start to his career. The 26-year-old Stafford has thrown for more than 4,600 yards in each of the past three seasons, but he threw 19 interceptions in 2013, his most since his rookie season.
The mistakes were magnified as Detroit dropped six of its last seven games and finished 7-9.
With Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh still in the fold, there's pressure on the Lions to take full advantage of that impressive core of talent. It's a group that came together because the team picked around the top of the draft so many times.
"There's a great nucleus here in all three phases, and I believe we're on the threshold of some great things," Caldwell said. "I think the organization is ready, the city of Detroit is ready, our fan base is ready and I think our players are ready as well."
Some things to watch for when the Lions start training camp:
NEW STAFF: Caldwell has worked with Peyton Manning in the past, and Detroit also hired Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator; he worked with Drew Brees as an assistant in New Orleans. The big question is how much Stafford will benefit from those two hires. He was intercepted 12 times over Detroit's final seven games last season.
MORE TARGETS: Johnson remains an offensive centerpiece after catching 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns last season despite nagging injuries. Fellow wide receiver Nate Burleson is no longer with the team, but the Lions signed receiver Golden Tate away from Super Bowl champion Seattle.
Tate caught 64 passes last season, and Detroit didn't stop there. The Lions also used their first-round draft pick on tight end Eric Ebron. The commitment to the team's offense — the passing game in particular — is obvious.
SUH'S FUTURE: Suh has one season remaining on his contract, and if he enters the regular season without a new deal, the two-time All-Pro's future in Detroit will be in doubt. The Lions have already given pricey long-term deals to Stafford and Johnson, so can Suh and the team come to an agreement both sides are happy with?
The 27-year-old Suh has 27 1/2 sacks in his four seasons with Detroit. He and fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley form a strong interior on the defensive line.
ON THE BACK END: There's concern that the Lions might not have done enough to address their secondary. Cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas are gone from last season's team, leaving safety Glover Quin as the most steady returning contributor. The Lions added safety James Ihedigbo from Baltimore, but they did not draft a defensive back until the fourth round, when they took Nevin Lawson of Utah State.
KICKING GAME: Detroit also drafted Nate Freese of Boston College in the seventh round, and he'll have a chance to win the job as the Lions try to replace David Akers. Giorgio Tavecchio, a former college kicker at California, could also be an option.
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