Forgive Lions fans if they’re wary of trusting blue-chip rookie talent.
WR Calvin Johnson has proven to be legit, and QB Matthew Stafford at least has the tools to do what it takes, but before that it was a long, cold abyss of failure: Ernie Sims, Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington, Chris Claiborne, Bryant Westbrook.
That’s seven top-10 picks from 1997 to 2006, and seven flops of different magnitude. At least Williams brought valuable draft picks in return.
However, rookie Ndamukong Suh appears to be, for lack of a better term, Lions-proof. We glued our eyes to No. 90 for his Saturday night trial vs. Denver, and came away impressed.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, NO. 90 HAS ARRIVED
Suh lost the fight for his college No. 93 to new Lions teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch and is wearing No. 90 for Detroit. Somehow, the number is fitting — No. 90 conjures images of star DEs like Neil Smith, Mario Williams, Jevon Kearse and Julius Peppers, and Suh seems like he’s going to be given the opportunity to be a real playmaker at DLT this year.
The Lions came out with their three new starters on the DL: Suh at DLT, Corey Williams at DRT and Vanden Bosch at DRE. Holdover Cliff Avril (who was the Lions’ best DL vs. the run last year at +5.5) started at DLE.
Denver’s first unit was without LT Ryan Clady (replaced by D’Anthony Batiste) and had the capable Russ Hochstein in at RG for Chris Kuper. Rookie J.D. Walton was in at center next to rookie LG Zane Beadles, and Ryan Harris at RT.
However, Suh spent most of his time going against Harris (-1.2 overall in 2009) and Hochstein (+1.6 overall), so in a sense it was a perfect test against a couple of average types.
In his first series, Suh was double-teamed, then held. On third down, he literally ran over Harris — shoved him to the ground as if he were a mannequin — and went tearing after a scrambling Kyle Orton (who completed for no gain to Eddie Royal). An illegal formation penalty caused a repeat of the down, and this time Suh lined up as the DRE with Vanden Bosch inside, beat Batiste and put a hit on Orton.
Unfortunately, Vanden Bosch took it upon himself to tag on a late hit to the successful stop — bad news for the Lions, good news for Suh assessors. He didn’t make the same impact on his next six snaps (sitting down for two plays in the middle), but Detroit came up with an interception to end the Denver drive.
Suh played two more series, making one more impact play with a tip at the line of an Orton pass on third down. Denver paid a lot of attention to Suh, putting double teams on him repeatedly, and while he was completely dominated on one run block, he did his job and let the people behind fill the gaps.
THE SUH EFFECT
Two things that stood out: his ability to recognize play action and his physical ability. He never seemed out of place, and he was quick to get out of a block and make beelines to where he wanted to go. And he certainly has uncommon speed for a DT — he accelerated toward Orton on one pass rush and you could almost see the Denver QB’s skin blanch.
On three separate occasions, the Lions used him at DLT but lined up extremely wide and tight to the DLE, putting him on the outside of the LG. He also played at DRT on one snap, again toward the tackle.
The Lions aren’t super deep on the D-line, with DE Turk McBride and DT Sammie Lee Hill (both negatives in 2009 for Detroit) seeing snaps with the front rotation. But McBride and Hill saw 900+ snaps between them a year ago, and look a whole lot better as reserves.
It could be that the Broncos were the perfect opponent to display the Lions’ abilities. They were less than intact on the offensive line, and they barely threatened to run on the first three series (20 passes, nine runs). Vanden Bosch (+1.8 pass rush, -1.3 vs. run in 2009) and Williams (+9.6 pass rush, +3.8 vs. run) are both geared toward the passing game, and Suh looks to be as well.
But the Lions certainly appear to have a starting line that will be well above average in 2010 — with a rookie-of-the-year candidate in the middle.
A necessity, in the pass-happy NFC North, and a coup for the downtrodden citizens of Detroit.