I’ve already looked at what the other NFC North teams and the AFC teams on Detroit’s schedule did in the 2011 NFL Draft, and what it means in terms of how the Lions currently match up with them. Now, it’s time to look at the rest of the Detroit Lions’ NFC opponents for the upcoming season. This season, the NFC North matches up with the NFC South, and the Lions also get the other two third place division finishers.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons traded up to the sixth overall pick to take wide receiver Julio Jones in the first round. Jones should be a nice complement to Roddy White in their offense, but it means the rest of their draft was pretty insignificant, though I do think Jacquizz Rodgers could be an interesting change of pace back. However, the reason they made this trade is probably because they think they can win now, which is fair because they can. The Falcons are a really talented team that didn’t have a lot of holes to fill. They could afford the luxury of adding Jones, and the Lions probably aren’t going to be able to beat them this season. It would be an upset if they did.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers were the worst team in the NFL, so they got the chance to pick first overall, taking quarterback Cam Newton. I don’t think Newton was a wise first pick, and he certainly won’t be ready this season. The Panthers didn’t have a second round pick, having traded it away last season, but their third round pick of defensive tackle Terrell McClain was solid. I also think wide receiver Kealoha Pilares in the fifth round was a decent pick.
Nevertheless, this isn’t going to be a good team. They will having issues at quarterback, they have a new head coach in Ron Rivera, and they might lose Steve Smith and Deangelo Williams this offseason. Regardless of what happens with those two, the Lions should beat the Panthers this season. It would be a disappointment if they didn’t.
New Orleans Saints: I think the Saints got a steal with the 24th overall pick when they took defensive end Cameron Jordan. Then, they added the best running back in Draft in Mark Ingram. Inside linebacker Martez Wilson was a good pick in the third round, and I thought getting defensive end Greg Romeus in the seventh round was also a nice pick. I think New Orleans had a really good draft, and they were already a great team led by quarterback Drew Brees. This is another game it is quite unlikely the Lions will win.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are sort of the Lions nemesis at the moment. They are the two up and coming teams in the NFC that are looking to take the next step and make the playoffs. In the first round, they made a solid selection with defensive end Adrian Clayborn. However, in the second round they then got what may be the steal of the Draft in defensive end De’Quan Bowers. Bowers was once considered a potential first overall pick, until concerns about his knee cropped up. Still, getting a potential elite talent, even one with injury concerns, with the 51st overall pick is a coup. Third round pick inside linebacker Mason Foster was also a good pick.
Last season, Tampa Bay’s record was better than what their performance merited. However, this is a team that added a couple nice pieces with their draft selections, so they could be a more legit playoff contender this season. Since the Bucs get to host the Lions, I give them the slight edge, though it should be a close game that I think could go either way.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys were major underachievers last season, due to injuries and maybe some coaching issues and other factors. So, if they just play up to their talent they’ll get better. Their first round pick, offensive tackle Tyron Smith, was a really good selection for a team with an aging offensive line. Second round pick Bruce Carter, an outside linebacker in college, may not be an ideal fit for their 3-4 defense, but he might be able to make the move inside. With Marion Barber at the end of his career, taking running back Demarco Murray in the third round was a reasonable selection. Wide receiver Dwayne Harris in the sixth round was a good pick as well.
The Cowboys are another team I expect the Lions to be neck and neck with. However, just as is the case with Tampa Bay, Dallas hosts Detroit, so I’m giving them the edge at the moment.
San Francisco 49ers: The Niners hired hot coaching prospect Jim Harbaugh this offseason, but college coaches have not often transitioned well to the NFL, especially in recent seasons. Their first round pick of 3-4 outside linebacker Aldon Smith filled a need, but may have been a slight reach. I also think their second round pick, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, was a reach, and he’s not going to be ready to start this season. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of any of San Francisco’s picks. I don’t think they made any bad picks, but none of them were particularly good either. Also, Alex Smith will probably still be their quarterback. Since the Lions have the 49ers at home, I think this will be a win for them.
That covers every team the Lions play in 2011, provided we get a full season, which I really, really hope we do. In case you are keeping score at home, I pegged the Lions for 3-3 in their division, 2-2 against the AFC West, and I had them winning two of these six games. That would mean, as rosters currently stand prior to free agency, a record of 7-9 for the Lions. That’s not all that great. That being said, I had a few of those losses as being close calls. I could easily see this team winning 10 games if things broke right. I would call another 6-10 season the worst case scenario, and a 10-6 season a best case scenario. So, if you want to split the difference, that would make 8-8 the mean. Again, this is before free agency. At that point, things could change. Still, a non-losing season would be a welcome thing for most Lions fans I imagine, even if it is an 8-8 season.