Lions face a crisis point


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— What’s done is done. If you are the Lions, nothing good can come from looking back and trying to rationalize the penalties, the turnovers or the absurd meltdown by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on Thursday.

All of it is indefensible.

“They can say what they want about us,” coach Jim Schwartz said after the 27-15 loss to the Packers.

Oh, they have. The Lions, by their own actions, have turned perception into reality. And until they provide evidence to the contrary, they are what the rest of the country has been saying they are — a reckless, undisciplined football team.

There is ample talent on both sides of the ball, but until they can collectively get their emotions properly harnessed, until they prove they can play big in the big moments, they can’t be considered legitimate playoff contenders.

At this point, even though they are still in the chase at 7-4, how can you consider them anything but a long shot to get a wildcard spot?

The losses are to arguably the four best teams they have played — the 49ers, Falcons, Bears and Packers. That cannot be dismissed. They are 2-4 since starting 5-0. They have lost three of their last four at home. They are melting down as the stakes get higher.

The season and their reputation are certainly salvageable, but this is a crisis point for the Lions. They will have a chance at redemption, a chance to re-stake their claim on a wild-card spot, a week from Sunday in New Orleans.

They will have the national stage again — NBC “Sunday Night Football.” They have an opportunity to show they are a quality team, not a collection of talented thugs.

But you have to wonder if too much damage already has been done — to their reputation and to their roster.

The Lions may have to play against the Saints’ high-powered offense without two key defensive starters: Suh and safety Louis Delmas.

Expect Suh to be suspended for his untimely unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejection in the third quarter Thursday.

Delmas injured his knee in the first quarter and said via Twitter he could miss the next couple of games.

In addition, the Lions on Friday put starting running back Jahvid Best (concussion) on injured reserve; he’s done for the season. Kevin Smith, who took over the starting spot on Thursday, is questionable with a high ankle sprain.

Cornerback Chris Houston left the game with a knee injury.

Schwartz has a lot of fires to put out before he can even begin working on the team’s emotional balance. But it has to start with Suh. Even if the league doesn’t suspend him — the consensus is they will — Schwartz needs to.

Schwartz has had Suh’s back to a fault, up until now. If he doesn’t take a drastic step to get Suh’s temper under control, he runs the risk of doing long-term damage to one of the franchise’s biggest assets.

He punished right tackle Gosder Cherilus for a lesser offense in the season opener, not playing him in Week 2 after he took a late personal foul penalty. He would be hard-pressed explaining to his team the double-standard if he didn’t sit Suh for at least a game — playoff chase or not.

“I know Suh. I’ve talked to him several times,” former running back Marshall Faulk told NFL.com. “The person and the player that we see at times, there’s a disconnect. Something’s going on and he needs to get to the very bottom of it to find out what it is that, when someone is getting the best of him, angry Suh comes out.”

Somebody needs to show Suh how to restrain angry Suh. The league will take first crack at it.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Friday that Suh’s stomping on the arm of Packers offensive guard Evan Dietrich-Smith was likely to be reviewed for possible disciplinary action.

“We have said nothing about a timetable but we have said this — plays from Week 12 to be reviewed for potential discipline will be done so under our normal procedures after the completion of all games,” Aiello wrote in an email.

Tuesday is the day, typically, that the reviews are done.

Suh has been fined three times already in his young career, so he would be considered a repeat offender. Former Tennessee Titan Albert Haynesworth was suspended for five games back in 2006.

Earlier this season, Minnesota’s Brian Robison was fined and not suspended for kicking Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang in the groin.

Expect Suh to get a one- or two-game suspension from the league, which Suh and the Lions should graciously accept and then start making reparation.

Let the rest of football nation take their shots and make their judgments. There’s no defense to the accusations right now. It’s circle-the-wagons time. The Lions have five weeks to be the team we all thought they were through the first five weeks — the team with the dynamic offense led by a smart, strong-armed quarterback and a violently aggressive, though law-abiding, defense.

They are 7-4 with games at New Orleans, at Oakland and at Green Bay, and home games against San Diego and Minnesota.

If they can regain their balance, physically and mentally, and manage two or three more wins without any more incidents, they will have the last laugh on their critics.

Even if they don’t make the playoffs, they will still be considered a team on the rise. But if this goes completely off the rails these last five weeks, then, say it with me — it’s the same old dysfunctional Lions.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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Lions cornerback Chris Houston expects action


Terry Foster/ The Detroit News

Allen Park —Lions cornerback Chris Houston knows the test is coming.

He has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season and word has spread around the league. That can only mean one thing: Quarterbacks are going to go after him more often and with a different game plan.

Lions Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney holds the Lions record with three interception returns for touchdowns in his rookie season in 1967. He predicts teams will try to use Houston’s aggressiveness against him instead of choosing not to throw his way. That’s what happened to Barney.

“He is up and running,” Barney said of Houston. “But once you make those returns the offenses are going to test him more so he had better be ready. They have companion routes they are going to use against him.”

In other words, that simple 5-yard buttonhook will turn into a hook and go, hoping to get Houston off-balance so teams can beat him deep.

“I am sure the coaches are teaching him and training him to watch for those things so that won’t happen,” Barney said.

The Lions defense has returned three interceptions for touchdowns and defensive end Cliff Avril returned a fumble for a touchdown. The defensive scores all had similar results. The Lions won each game and the scores sent a spark through the sidelines.

Houston knows teams will come after him. Opponents want to see if he is jumping routes or playing smart. Houston said his scores came off studying opponents. He knew the play was coming against Dallas and he ran 56 yards for the touchdown shortly after Bobby Carpenter returned one from 34 yards. The Lions turned a 27-3 deficit into a 27-17 game and eventually won in overtime.

The 100-yard touchdown against Denver came when the Broncos tried to run the same play on him. Houston agrees with Barney that teams are going to come his way more.

“They want to see if I am jumping routes,” he said. “I want to continue to play within the scheme and not jump routes unless I see something. I am just not jumping routes or guessing. I jump routes because I know something is coming. I am going to work within the scheme and know where my help is. I am not going to leave my teammates out to dry.”

Houston is athletic and fast but is allowing superior game study to guide him. Barney did the same thing. He was a student of teammate Dick LeBeau, who told him extensive film study would supplement his superior athletic ability and talent. Barney took it to heart and many of his career 56 interceptions were a result of knowing what the opponent was going to do. Houston is the same way.

“That first interception (against Dallas), they had scored on a pump route the year before,” Houston said. “I watched film and remembered the formation. When he (the quarterback) made the motion, I knew it was coming.”

When the defense scores, it gives a lift to the sidelines and makes it more difficult for the opponent to recover and win. Players jump up and down as enthusiasm and momentum take over.

“It gives you a spark no matter if you are losing or no matter the circumstances,” safety Louis Delmas said. “We play off that momentum.”

Offensive players get excited for their defensive brothers when they score.

“Man, it is so unaccounted for,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “When the defense scores, I hate to say it as a player but you are thinking we got this thing locked up.

“When the D scores it makes us more comfortable.”

Houston said seeing all that green grass in front of him on the return is exciting.

“It is an unexplainable feeling knowing your hard work is paying off,” he said.

terry.foster@detnews.com

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Matthew Stafford, Lions outmuscle Bucs to win opener


Lions 27, Buccaneers 20

Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Tampa, Fla. — It’s probably a good sign for the Lions they started the season on the road, against a team with playoff aspirations and were almost apologizing for not beating them worse than they did.

“We were very lucky to win this game,” coach Jim Schwartz said, after the Lions held on to beat the Buccaneers 27-20 at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

Lucky?

The Lions scored on five of their first seven possessions and finished with 431 total yards. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had the second-most productive performance of his career, completing 24 of 33 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns.

His 36-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter was laser precise. He threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Scheffler and the eventual winner, a 1-yarder to Johnson.

Johnson had six catches for 88 yards, secured an onside kick and was on the field in the prevent defense on the last play of the game.

Lucky?

The defense didn’t allow the Bucs a first down in the first and third quarters. Until the middle of the fourth quarter, after the Lions had built a 27-13, the Bucs had amassed just 209 yards and the only touchdown was a 28-yard interception return off a tipped pass by Aqib Talib.

What did luck have to do with any of that?

“Really, we should have blown them out,” said cornerback Chris Houston, who had seven tackles and limited Bucs big-play receiver Mike Williams to four catches. “There were a couple of plays on offense, the interception return, and a couple of plays we missed on defense — just some mistakes we made that kept them in the game. We need to get back to the film and get those corrected.”

The Lions had the 14-point lead late in the third quarter and seemed content on running out the clock.

“We were in command of the game, so at that point we wanted to control the clock,” said receiver Nate Burleson, who caught five passes for 60 yards and ran a reverse for 20. “There were seven minutes left and I was saying, ‘Let’s get it to four.’ We tried to get it over with, but it was some good execution by them to get in position to tie the game.”

With 1:35 left, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman hit Williams in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-3 from the 5. Williams caught the ball over cornerback Aaron Berry.

The Bucs went for the onside kick. Schwartz inserted Johnson on the hands team, and Johnson leaped and grabbed the high bounding kick.

The Lions couldn’t move the ball on three running plays, but they forced the Bucs to use their final two timeouts. Had things gone the way they were supposed to, the Bucs would have gotten the ball back deep in their own zone with 30 seconds left.

Instead, the clock was stopped with 1:24 left when Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus got entangled with a defensive player and was slapped with an unnecessary roughness penalty.

“I don’t consider that about discipline, I consider that stupid,” Schwartz said. “The opponent has no timeouts left and we get a penalty? That’s a situation we talk about and we work on. That’s stupid football, and it almost put us in a situation — the defense should have been in where there were 30 seconds left and they would have to defend two plays.”

As it was, the Bucs had the ball on the 20 with 1:07 left. Freeman moved them to the Lions 42 before the clock expired on a wild play where the Bucs kept fumbling the ball to keep from getting tackled.

Lions safety Louis Delmas banged his hip on the play but said later he wasn’t injured.

“I am not going to discount the value of a win, particularly a win on the road,” Schwartz said. “But we definitely have to play a lot better than we played today. We made too many mistakes that kept Tampa in the game.

“I guess it’s the sign of a good football team that we made those mistakes and still came out with the win. But there are things that happened in this game that are inexcusable and they will not continue.”

At one point in the first quarter, the Lions had a 147-1 edge in total yards and were trailing 10-6. The Bucs first field goal — a 38-yarder by Connor Barth — was set up by a 78-yard kickoff return by Sammie Stroughter.

“We have a darn good kickoff team,” Schwartz said. “But we missed a tackle and the guy hit a gap and all of a sudden they are kicking a field goal.”

Kicker Jason Hanson, who contributed field goals of 23 and 28 yards, booted all of his other kicks to the back of the end zone.

On the Lions’ next possession, Stafford’s pass clanged off the hands of tight end Will Heller right into the waiting arms of Talib.

“You don’t want those mistakes to keep coming back,” Stafford said. “That’s the main thing. You’ve got to fix them, get them ironed out and not make them next week. We are going to need to get started a little earlier on offense.”

The game was played in oppressive 90-degree heat, and players on both sides were cramping up. Stafford didn’t miss a snap, but he limped off a couple of times. Freeman missed two series in the third quarter with cramps. Burleson also missed some time.

“That was the worst I’ve seen,” Burleson said. “I was hydrated, too, and I still cramped.”

But it was an all’s-well-that-ends-well kind of day for the Lions.

“We almost let this get away at the end,” said Johnson. “Had this been another year, who knows? We should have put it away. I didn’t feel like we were going to lose, but it shouldn’t have been as close as we made it to be.”

chrismccosky@detnews.com

Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis utilizes skill, swagger on his ‘Island’


The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Ninth of 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position

The NFL’s transition into a passing league has made cornerbacks one of the most important players on the field.

“I think it’s the quarterback first and the defensive back second,” former safety and current NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots told USA Today.

Offenses have gotten complicated and are incorporating so many weapons, that defenses without a gifted corner or two are playing from a disadvantage.

A corner that can shut down half the field and take an offense’s No. 1 receiver out of the game is a defensive coordinator’s dream.

Interceptions don’t accurately measure a cornerback’s effectiveness, either. The truly talented corners don’t get thrown at enough to make an impact with interceptions.

So, taking into account those standards, there are two lockdown corners that stand above the rest: Darrelle Revis (Jets) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders, free agent).

Revis is so good, his real estate on the football field has been coined “Revis Island.”

Receivers rarely get off Revis Island.

Calvin Johnson (Lions) and Andre Johnson (Texans) combined for five catches and 45 yards against Revis last season.

Despite finishing last season with no interceptions and 10 pass breakups, Revis was a unanimous choice to start the Pro Bowl, and earned all-Pro first-team honors.

At only 25, it’s amazing to think Revis might only be reaching his prime.

As for Asomugha, the Raiders couldn’t afford his $16 million price tag, so they voided the contract in January.

With his production — eight interceptions for the Raiders in 2006, teams got wise and stopped throwing at him (three the next four years) — Asomugha will be inundated with calls when free agency opens.

He’ll likely become the richest cornerback in history.

The Lions’ situation at corner is up in the air.

Chris Houston was the most consistent performer last season, but says he’ll test the free-agent market.

Alphonso Smith started 10 games on the right side last season and led the team with five interceptions.

But his confidence seemed to waiver toward the end of the season, especially after a terrible game against the Patriots on Thanksgiving, when he allowed three touchdowns.

Smith is also coming off shoulder surgery that forced him out of the last four games.

The Lions do have a number of other players who’ll compete for time during training camp, including Aaron Berry, Nathan Vasher, Brandon McDonald, Prince Miller and Jack Williams.

But expect the Lions to be big players in a deep free-agency market.

Top 10 corners

 1. Darrelle Revis, Jets: What more can you say about a player who week-in and week-out performers at an all-Pro level against the best receivers? The Jets had the No. 3 defense last season and were No. 6 against the pass, thanks in large part to Revis.

 2. Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders: The three-time Pro Bowler surrendered a mere 10 receptions last season and didn’t allow a touchdown. He’s right there with Revis among the elite.

 3. Charles Woodson, Packers: He’s a jack-of-all-trades for Dom Capers’ defense. He plays corner, safety and rushes the quarterback. A seven-time Pro Bowler, his 92 tackles and five forced fumbles in 2010 were career bests. He’s three interceptions shy of reaching 50 for his career.

 4. Asante Samuel, Eagles: The career leader with four postseason interception returns for a touchdown, Samuel allowed 20 completions and one touchdown in 11 games last season. Unlike Revis and Asomugha, teams continue to target Samuel — and he continues to make then pay (36 interceptions the last five seasons).

 5. Champ Bailey, Broncos: Bailey continued to be one of the most dominant cornerbacks in 2010, with two interceptions and 13 passes defended. At 32, his 10 Pro Bowl appearances are the most by a corner.

 6. Tramon Williams, Packers: Williams certainly benefits from having Woodson on the other side, but he’s a playmaker in his own right. He’s notched 15 interceptions the last three seasons (six in 2010).

 7. Devin McCourty Patriots: His biggest accomplishment last season was earning the starting job on a Bill Belichick-coached defense as a rookie. He rewarded Belichick with 82 tackles, seven interceptions (second in the league) and a Pro Bowl nod.

 8. Dunta Robinson, Falcons: He was the free agent catch of 2010 — and proved it. Teams stayed away from his side of the field, and teammate Brent Grimes benefited. The pair form one of the best secondary duos in the NFL.

 9. Brent Grimes, Falcons: Teams had to pick their poison — pick on Robinson or Grimes? Grimes made them pay when they chose his side of the field. The undrafted corner out of Shippenburg University earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2010, finishing with 87 tackles, five interceptions and 23 pass break-ups.

 10. Antoine Winfield, Vikings: Like Bailey, the 12-year veteran is as productive as ever. He’s one of the best at supporting the run defense — he had 91 tackles last year. He also chipped in two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Schedule

June 22 Quarterbacks

June 23 Running backs

June 24 Receivers

June 25 Tight ends

June 26 Offensive tackles

June 28 Guards

June 29 Centers

June 30 Safeties

July 1 Cornerbacks

Saturday Outside linebackers

Monday, July 4 Inside linebackers

Tuesday, July 5 Defensive ends

Wednesday, July 6 Defensive tackles

ttwentyman@detnews.com

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Lions ‘steeling’ for success


Lions: Analysis

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Could the Lions be on the cusp of something special?

Every great team in NFL history had to start somewhere.

Take the dominant Steelers teams of the 1970s. Before they won four Super Bowls in six years, they were plagued by decades of ineptitude. It wasn’t before all the right pieces came together that the Steelers became the franchise we know today.

The Steelers got a young, defensive-minded coach. They drafted a franchise quarterback No. 1 overall. They built one of the most dominant defensive lines in football, and pieced together four terrific draft classes that produced five Hall of Famers.

Are the Lions following the same blueprint?

Now, this doesn’t guarantee the Lions the same success as those vaunted Steelers teams, but it’s not a bad start.

The Steelers set the foundation, so here’s how that compares to what the Lions are doing.

Starts with coaching

  Chuck Noll: The eventual Hall of Fame coach took over the Steelers in 1969 after being a career defensive coach, including coordinator under Don Shula in Baltimore. The first thing he did in Pittsburgh was install a defensive system that would become the “Steel Curtain.”

  Jim Schwartz: Also a career defensive coach who was coordinator under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, the first thing he did was implement an attacking defensive scheme.

Get the quarterback

  Terry Bradshaw: The Steelers drafted Bradshaw No. 1 overall in 1970 after they finished 1-13 in 1969. Bradshaw was highly criticized early in his career for throwing too many interceptions and for an apparent lack of aptitude for the position. It took Bradshaw a few seasons to become a premier quarterback.

  Matthew Stafford: Any of that sound familiar? The Lions drafted Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009 following an 0-16 season. Stafford seems to have all the talent in the world — like Bradshaw — but has missed more games because of injuries than he’s started. If he remains healthy, there’s no denying his talent.

Defensive line prowess

  Steel Curtain: In 1969, the Steelers drafted “Mean Joe” Greene in the first round and L.C. Greenwood in the 10th. They became the foundation for one of the best defensive lines in history — and one of the best defenses period, the “Steel Curtain.”

   Schwartz is searching for a name to call his defensive line. The Lions drafted their own version of Greene in 2010 in the form of Ndamukong Suh. Suh was an all-Pro as a rookie, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a dominant player his entire career. Add players such as Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and Nick Fairley to the mix and the Lions are well on their way to having one of the best defensive lines in football.

Draft good players

  Steelers: Between 1969-72, the Steelers laid the foundation for a decades’ worth of success. Starting with Greene in 1969, the Steelers went on to draft Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, receivers Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin, tight end Larry Brown, linebacker Jack Ham, cornerback Mel Blount and defensive back Mike Wagner during those years. All those players played in at least one Pro Bowl and five — Greene, Bradshaw, Ham, Blount and Harris — are in the Hall of Fame.

  Lions: The jury is still out on some of the young Lions, but by most accounts, the franchise has had three straight terrific drafts, 2009-11, since Martin Mayhew took over as general manager and Schwartz as coach in 2009. The last three seasons, the Lions have gotten a franchise quarterback in Stafford, a dynamic runner in Jahvid Best, a top-10 tight end in Brandon Pettigrew, a dominant defensive lineman in Suh, a versatile linebacker in DeAndre Levy, and a Pro-Bowl-caliber safety in Louis Delmas. And defensive tackle Nick Fairley looks to be a first-round steal this year.

All about numbers

  Steelers 1969-72: The 1969 Steelers were one of the worst teams in football at 1-13. Their lone victory? Over the Lions. But the Steelers got progressively better the next three seasons — 5-9 in 1970, 6-8 in 1971 and 11-3 in 1972. In fact, they reached the AFC championship in 1972, losing to the soon-to-be perfect Dolphins.

  Lions 2008-11: Since the 0-16 season in 2008, the Lions also have gotten progressively better — 2-14 in 2009 and 6-10 in 2010. The Lions are a hot pick by some national pundits to reach the playoffs this season.

Ownership royalty?

  Rooneys: Ask Steelers fans in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s what they thought of the Rooney family? The Steelers played second fiddle to the Pirates, and were known as the “lovable losers” until the 1970s. They made questionable personnel calls — they cut quarterback Johnny Unitasin training camp! It wasn’t until the Steelers started winning that the city truly embraced the Rooney family.

  Fords: Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Fords have been under fire for years. From the hiring of GM Matt Millen in 2001 to the draft debacles that followed, the Fords have made their fair share of mistakes. The family isn’t exactly beloved by Lions fans, and won’t be until the team is a consistent winner.

Now, all this doesn’t mean that Schwartz is the next Knoll or Stafford and Suh are the reincarnation of Bradshaw and Greene.

It doesn’t mean the playoffs are in the cards for the Lions in 2011, or that four Super Bowls are on the horizon.

It just means there’s hope for Lions fans. And history behind that hope.

tim.twentyman@detnews.com

Tim Twentyman: Three high-potential Lions picks trumps one Patrick Peterson


Tim Twentyman

Allen Park — The best thing that happened to the Lions during last week’s draft is what didn’t happen.

The Lions reportedly tried to move up from the 13th pick to the Cardinals’ fifth pick in order to draft LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Peterson was by far the best corner available in the draft and getting him would have instantly fulfilled a need for the Lions.

But at what cost?

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The Lions offered their first, second and fourth-round picks to move up the eight spots.

The Cardinals, obviously, scoffed at the offering and a deal was not made. They selected Peterson themselves.

We got a good idea of what it would have taken to get the pick when the Falcons made a trade to move into the Browns’ No. 6 spot — the pick just after the Cardinals’.

The Falcons wanted Alabama receiver Julio Jones and paid exceedingly for him. They gave up five picks: this year’s first, second and fourth-round selections, and next year’s first and fourth-rounder.

That’s a lot picks to hand over for one player, even though they’ll likely be late-round picks.

Let’s just pretend for a moment that the Cardinals had accepted the Lions offer of three picks in this year’s draft. The Lions would have gotten Peterson, but wouldn’t have had another pick until the third round (75th overall).

That means no Nick Fairley, and likely no Titus Young or Mikel Leshoure.

No thanks.

I’m not saying Fairley is going to be a better player than Peterson, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Did anyone see the national championship game?

What the Lions would have had to give up to get Peterson just wasn’t worth it, especially after evaluating the Lions haul afterwards. Most experts gave the Lions rave reviews for this year’s class.

I think Fairley is going to be a terrific player and I think the Lions have solidified their defensive front for the next five or six years, at least.

Mix in the explosive third receiver (Titus) and power rusher (Leshoure) that the Lions snagged in the second round, and I’m just fine with how things worked out.

The Lions know that cornerback is the deepest position in this year’s free-agent class.

Filling three needs with terrific talent in the first two rounds makes more sense to me than getting one great player at one position of need.

It’s simple math.

tim.twentyman@detnews.com

Character issues at question as Lions search for potential pick


NFL Combine

Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Would the Lions be interested in a self-proclaimed shut-down cornerback with the 13th overall pick in the draft? One who has great size (6-2 ¼, 211 pounds), good speed (ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash in Arizona last week), long reach (77 inches) and thrives on playing physical, press coverage?

One who was so respected in college that he was rarely thrown at? Even when he was matched against Georgia’s A.J. Green, one of the top receivers in the draft, he faced two passes and both were incomplete. One who was so respected that he was named first team All-Big 12 without intercepting a pass?

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Of course they would.

Would they draft that same player if they learned he might have character issues; that he had minor brushes with the law and four positive drug tests early in his college career and questions about his work ethic? Would it be another red flag that he fired one agent and hired another before he has participated at the NFL scouting combine?

This is the dilemma when considering Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith. Physically, he is everything the Lions would want in a cornerback. But is he trustworthy for such a high pick?

“I know teams are going to ask me about that stuff and I am prepared to answer all their questions,” Smith said Sunday. “The sky is the limit for me as long as I do what I know I can do out there, especially in these combines. I think these interviews are going to make or break me.”

Smith will meet with 28 teams over the next two days. The Lions are expected to be among them. General manager Martin Mayhew, though not speaking directly about Smith, told reporters Friday that character issues weigh heavily in this process, but he prefers to make his own judgments.

“I learned a long time ago that you can’t judge a guy on a quote, on what a guy said or what you heard that he said,” Mayhew said. “If you don’t know the guy, you can’t judge him.”

In his media session Sunday, Smith was poised, extremely confident and forthright, often flashing an impish, Isiah Thomas-like grin.

“I’m a big, physical corner who loves to press,” he said. “I have great speed, great size and great ball skills. I am a shut-down corner.”

When asked if he also had great modesty, he flashed his Isiah grin and said, “Yeah, that’s in there somewhere.”

He didn’t hide from the character issues.

“I will tell the teams that I am a great person,” he said. “I was young when I got to college and I made some young mistakes. I grew as a person and as a football player.”

His brushes with the law came in his first three years at Colorado. They mostly involved alcohol. He was caught with a beer before his 18th birthday. He was also cited for being a minor in possession of alcohol his freshman year.

“I was a true freshman and it was the first day out of camp,” he said. “I walked outside (of a bar) with a red cup. It had nothing in it, but walking outside with a red cup is not OK in Boulder and I got popped. Just a lack of judgment.”

He was caught in a police raid on a campus bar in his junior year, when he hadn’t yet turned 21. There was also four positive drug tests.

“When I go before the teams I am just going to be honest,” he said. “I can only control what I can control. I went to college and made some mistakes when I was a young kid. I have definitely learned from them.”

The charges against his work ethic are baffling to him.

“I think I have a great work ethic,” he said. “I think my coaches would say the same thing about me. In the weight room (at Colorado) I hold most of the records for lifting weights and running. Every Friday we had competitive drills and I won every single Friday.”

He hired Colorado-based agent Peter Schaffer initially, but fired him and hired Drew Rosenhaus.

“I needed better representation,” he said. “It’s not that Peter Shaffer wasn’t a good agent, I just didn’t want him to represent me. I didn’t think he knew how to do what needed to be done for me. I don’t want to bash him, and I just needed to change.”

It would be a near-perfect scenario for the Lions if they could get an elite cornerback with the 13th pick. The consensus best corner in the draft is Louisiana State Patrick Peterson and he is expected to be one of the top three players off the board.

It could happen, though, that both Smith and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara are available at 13, though most mock drafts presently have Amukamara going earlier. It would be a fascinating decision for the Lions to have to make.

Amukamara is shorter (6-0), though he is strong and plays just as physical at 206. He wouldn’t discuss his 40-yard dash time, but scouting reports call him quicker than he is fast — not a compliment.

His demeanor is completely different than Smith’s. At the podium Sunday, he was all business. When asked about those who doubt his speed, he said, “I think some people don’t know what they’re talking about and haven’t seen me on film,” he said. “I guess I will show them on Tuesday.”

He has been getting some tutoring from Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh, a former teammate at Nebraska — which explains his dead-serious approach.

“Yes, Suh has been giving me tips about this process,” Amukamara said. “He just told me to treat it as a business trip, which is what I’ve been doing. I am happy with that advice.”

Draft experts like NFL.com’s Mike Mayock and ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr., believe that Peterson and Amukamara are far and away the top two cornerback prospects in this draft. They believe there is a big gap between those two and the next tier, which features Smith and Miami’s Brandon Harris.

But for the Lions, it could come down to Amukamara and Smith. Amukamara would be the safe pick. It’s on Smith now to prove he’s the right pick.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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It’s not too early for Lions fans to think draft

Lions: Analysis

Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Allen Park– The Lions lost their ninth game in 11 tries over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. With hopes for a playoff spot dashed for an 11th-consecutive season, it’s not too early to start looking at how this team might improve itself in 2011.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew put together a couple of nice drafts the last two seasons, particularly with top picks Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, and will need to get more help this spring.

Positions in need of upgrades: the secondary, linebacking corps, and offensive line.

So who might the Lions target with another likely top five pick?

After watching Tom Brady slice up the Lions in a 45-24 Thanksgiving Day loss, the early favorite is Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson is a true lockdown corner, something the Lions haven’t had in years.

Peterson (6-1, 222) has drawn comparisons to former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson. Only a junior, he is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top cornerback. He’s also a productive returner, averaging 27.5 yards per kick return and 19.7 per punt.

Peterson has elite size for the position and runs in the 4.3 to 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash.

Other possibilities

Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara could also be an option. Amukamara (6-1, 205) doesn’t have an interception in 2010, but that’s mainly because opposing quarterbacks rarely throw his way.

Amukamara was a late bloomer, making three starts his first two seasons at Nebraska, but has developed into one of the nation’s top defenders. He’s also a finalist for the Thorpe Award.

The year’s cornerback class is deep by draft analysts, and includes other top-flight corners in Brandon Harris (Miami), Janoris Jenkins (Florida), Ras-I Dowling (Virginia) and Aaron Williams (Texas).

On draft day, don’t be surprised, if the Lions bypass all the cornerbacks and decide early to get help at linebacker, especially on the outside.

Veteran outside linebacker Julian Peterson and his $8 million salary are likely gone after the season.

Zack Follett, who started the season at outside linebacker, was lost for the season due to a neck injury and has an uncertain future.

The unit needs a young playmaker alongside middle linebacker DeAndre Levy.

The two best linebacker prospects, according to Kiper, are Akeem Ayers (UCLA) and Von Miller (Texas AM).

Both Ayers (6-4, 255) and Miller (6-3, 243) have terrific size and speed, but are viewed more as 3-4 rush linebackers at the next level. The Lions run a 4-3 base defense.

Later round talents

Other options at linebacker, later in the first round or possibly early in the second round, are Travis Lewis (6-2, 232) of Oklahoma and North Carolina’s Bruce Carter (6-3, 225).

Lewis and Carter are a bit small for Lions coach Jim Schwartz’s scheme, though.