Blogs > Lions Lowdown

One thing you can count on with the Detroit Lions is that they are never, ever boring. Follow the latest news including injuries, roster moves and more here daily from Oakland Press beat writer Paula Pasche. Plus you'll find regular commentary about the team.


Quiet before the storm?

Free agency is 12 hours old and all is quiet on the Shaun Rogers front. For now, the key domino to the Lions' offseason remains with the team. He's due a $1-million bonus in 12 hours, and the Lions are trying to deal him before the clock strikes midnight.

A couple defensive tackles already have been on the move today. According to reports, the Packers traded Corey Williams to the Browns for a second-round pick, and Carolina sent Kris Jenkins to the Jets for third- and fifth-rounders. What this means for Rogers is still unclear.

On one hand, it sets his trade value on the higher side. Rogers is a better pure talent than both Williams and Jenkins, but Williams is slightly younger and was franchised by the Packers (great move, by the way), and Jenkins is less of a malcontent. On the other, it might narrow the trading field, thus driving prices up and expediting a deal.

The Jets did inquire about Rogers, who'd be a better fit at nosetackle in their 3-4 defense than Jenkins, but I don't know they have room for both. Could the 350-pound Jenkins play end? New York already is trying to trade defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, and the Broncos seem like the perfect fit. (Denver needs a tackle, but is in something of a bind because it doesn't have a third-round draft choice). Jacksonville's Marcus Stroud is the other big-name tackle on the market.

Stay tuned as I still think a deal still is likely today.


Vilma not a Lion

Jon Vilma will not be the Lions' next middle linebacker, his agent Tony Fleming said Thursday night.

Vilma, who passed a physical with the Lions Wednesday, is expected to be dealt elsewhere once the trading period opens at midnight.

"It doesn't look like that's going to be the destination," Fleming said. "There's just more than one team interested so whoever (the Jets) can work out compensation with is going to be where he goes. Not the Lions."

Fleming said Vilma, a former first-round pick who had knee surgery in November, had "a great visit with the Lions."

"He had some really good conversations with the head coach, he had some really good conversations with the linebackers coach. Really good meetings with them," Fleming said. "He really was impressed and thought it would be a good place to play. I think his perception of the organization before he met there and after were two totally different things."

The Lions are still looking to acquire one linebacker through a trade or free agency. Boss Bailey, who started at strong-side linebacker last year, and reserve middle linebacker Teddy Lehman are free agents and unlikely to return.

The Jets may still be in play to acquire defensive tackle Shaun Rogers via trade. Rogers could be dealt as soon as today.


Lions tickets going up

I'll have more on the increase in season tickets later (and how there's no correlation to the fact the Lions won't target any big names in free agency this year), but here are the specifics in case you haven't received your renewal form yet.

About 83 percent of the season tickets are going up an average of 18 percent. That should put the Lions somewhere near the middle of the NFL with an average ticket price of $71.85 next year. The most expensive seats in sections 104-108 and 125-129 — basically the 50-yard line — are $900 (or $90 per game), up from $700 last year. The cheapest in the alcohol-free Family Fun Zone and the upper level corner and end zones (rows 6-21) are $400, the same as last year.

The other price points are:

- Lower-level sideline (sections 102-103, 109-110, 123-124, 130-131): $840

- Upper-level sideline (sections 328-329, 333-334): $680

- Lower-level corner/end zone (sections 100-101, 111-122, 132-141): $660

- Second-level corner/end zone (sections 215-225, 236-246): $660

- Upper-level corner/end zone, rows 1-5 (sections 315-327, 335-336, 341-347): $500

The renewal package also includes a letter from Lions coach Rod Marinelli that praises his team's character and says "the changes we have made in our coaching staff will positively compliment our talent, and with some key free agent additions and another successful draft, there is no reason why we should not be in a position to compete for a playoff berth in 2008."


Mike Hart's 40

I ran into Mike Hart in the airport Sunday night on my way home from the NFL scouting combine. Hart, you'll recall, ran a disappointing 40-yard dash (an unofficial 4.67 seconds was his best) in testing Sunday in Indianapolis. He said he wasn't too concerned about his times. He hoped to break 4.6, but it's not like teams viewed him as a game-breaking back and he'll be fine once he gets in an NFL camp.

After talking with one scout and one running backs coach, I agree. Hart probably lost a little bit of money with his showing (money he can make back with a good pro day next month), but it's not like he's going to drop two rounds. The position coach reminded me that at the end of the day teams go back and watch college game film, where Hart's body of work in four years at Michigan is impressive. The scout said Hart remains the type of tough, character back teams will covet on draft day.

Hart wasn't a first-rounder to begin with and he won't go ahead of East Carolina's Chris Johnson, who moved atop the second tier of running backs with an eye-popping and official 4.24-second 40. Still, he probably warrants a pick in the third round.

As for the two receivers I touched on in my notebook in Monday's paper, expect Michigan State's Devin Thomas to continue shooting up draft boards. He ranked among the top six wideouts in the 40 (an official 4.4 seconds) and broad jump (10-6), had the best times of any receiver in his 10- and 20-yard sprint splits, and will no doubt catch well on pro day in a familiar environment. Because of his return ability, he could sneak into the end of the first round.

Michigan's Mario Manningham, on the other hand, had a disappointing combine. He measured just 5-foot-11, weighed 181 pounds and doesn't have the speed (an unofficial 4.59-second 40) to be a game-breaker. It wouldn't surprise me now if Manningham, whose work ethic probably won't receive the most glowing reviews from Michigan, goes after Thomas.


Second and long

One of Matt Millen's biggest failures as Lions president has been the draft misses that have set the Lions back in the personnel department. Everyone knows of Joey Harrington, Mike Williams and Charles Rogers, top-10 picks who flamed out well before their time. But the second round has produced fewer contributors than usual, too.

The Lions have landed starting safeties Gerald Alexander and Daniel Bullocks in Round 2 each of the last two years, and the organization still believes in last year's other No. 2 picks, quarterback Drew Stanton and defensive lineman Ikaika Alama-Francis. Beyond that, there's little to speak of since Millen's first draft in 2001 yielded Dominic Raiola and Shaun Rogers.

Millen was asked Friday at the NFL combine why his other second-rounders have floundered. He addressed each pick:

2002: DE Kalimba Edwards (likely to be cut or traded this offseason): "Kalimba is the one that's hard. Kalimba has a lot of skill. He's bright, he works hard at it, he can stand up, he can put his hand in the dirt. He's had some success in flashes but hasn't been consistent."

2003: LB Boss Bailey (free agent, not expected to re-sign): "Boss I think played well his first year. The he has his knee (injury). Then we changed positions on him, tried to put him at a middle (linebacker) spot, then we tried to put him at the (strong side) and he's a (weak-side linebacker)."

2004: LB Teddy Lehman (free agent, not expected to re-sign): "I think his first year he played well. In the second year he (hurt) his hamstring, his third year he (hurt) his foot. His fourth year his foot still bothered him. That's where we're at."

2005: DT Shaun Cody (backup, 1 1/2 career sacks): "Shaun Cody's still undefined. I think there's some things he does pretty well and there's some things that he has to get better at. He has to be a better pass rusher. He has the skills. The thing that I'm confused with him sometimes, he does things in practice sometimes that you go, 'That's exactly what you're looking for.' It doesn't always show up gametime."


Combine craziness

The oddest part of the combine is always the convergence of people, especially on Saturday. Here's the scene:

The combine itself is held at the RCA Dome, which is attached to the Indiana Convention Center. Coaches, players, scouts, agents and other NFL personnel travel a hallway from their hotels past the media room to the Dome. Along with several hundred credentialed reporters waiting for interviews, the hallway is clogged with memorabilia dealers seeking autographs (and tens of their runners, many of them teen-aged kids) and the parents and participants of a dance show going on elsewhere in the center. It's hairy to say the least. In fact, one agent reports that an autograph hound spilled coffee on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones when he was harassing him for a signature today.

If I was a player or coach asked for an autograph, I'd make sure to personalize my signature. That way the few well-meaning kids not trying to make a profit off the day can have their memories.

Marinelli responds to Martz

Lions coach Rod Marinelli had little to say Saturday morning when asked about comments former offensive coordinator Mike Martz made earlier this week at the NFL combine.

On Thursday, Martz, now the offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, told reporters that he was "clueless" about any philosophical differences on the coaching staff during the season and that "one or two (players) never really fully bought into" his system.

Marinelli was angry when asked for his response Saturday.

"I'll say this for the last time, if Mike Martz is your guy, go to your guy," Marinelli said. "That's your guy, you want to ask about our team, go to him. Don't ask me. That's your guy, go ask him.

"I'm telling you, that's your guy. He told you one thing, how our staff is going to be set and you guys wrote it and were wrong. So you had an interview with him after the season and obviously you got your information how our staff was going to be set. Guys wrote it and were (angry). Wrong guys. If that's your guy, ask your guy. That's all I got to say. You want information, ask him."

Several news outlets reported after the season that Kippy Brown would be promoted to offensive coordinator in place of Martz. Brown, receivers coach last year, was named passing-game coordinator and offensive line coach Jim Colletto took over as offensive coordinator.

Henne high on Loeffler

Chad Henne knows new Lions quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler as well as anybody. Henne played under Loeffler the past four seasons at Michigan and said Friday that Loeffler, hired last month, is the single biggest reason he'll be one of the top quarterbacks selected in April's draft.

"Scott taught me everything about the quarterback position," Henne said. "He coached Tom Brady, he coached Brian Griese, John Navarre. All those guys that were at Michigan, he was there. He continued that tradition. He passed it all down. I learned so much from him and I'll definitely keep in contact just for him to still critique me when I get to the next level."

Henne said he's healthy after dealing with shoulder and knee injuries all season. He measured just under 6-foot-3 and weighed 230 pounds at the NFL combine Friday, and is vying to be the second quarterback drafted after likely top-10 pick Matt Ryan.

"It would be great, but nobody can tell right now," said Henne, who met representatives from the Cowboys and Redskins earlier this week. "I just want to go out there and perform as well as I can and hopefully open some scouts' eyes."

Lions hire Banta

The Lions have hired Brad Banta as an assistant special teams coach, president Matt Millen said Friday. Banta played three seasons with the Lions from 2001-03. He previously coached tight ends at Tennessee-Chattanooga.


Zorn: Bobby Ross was frustrated

Caught up with new Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn in the hallway outside the RCA Dome earlier this morning. Zorn, who served as Lions quarterback coach from 1998-2000, said he has "fond memories" of his time in Detroit, a period that included Bobby Ross' resignation midway through his final season.

"The last seven weeks were hard because we all loved Bobby Ross and felt like that should have been perpetuated," Zorn said. "But I learned a lot, so I would say they were real positive days because of the learning but disappointed in how it ended up."

Zorn said Ross, now the head coach at Army, quit because he was in "a frustrating situation", not because he was worn out from coaching.

"He felt like he was the problem because he — there were a few players on the team that were antagonistic, if you will, from trying to get everybody going in one direction," Zorn said. "That part was frustrating. That was the frustration to him."

Martz speaks

Former Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz made his most extensive comments about his time in Detroit during a break at Thursday's NFL scouting combine. A full story will appear in tomorrow's paper, but here are some highlights:

On whether some players did not buy into his offensive completely: "There might have been one or two guys that never really fully bought into it, but that's going to happen. That's the way it goes."

On whether he encountered the same thing in St. Louis: "No."

On the Lions desire to run the ball more: "I'm sure they will. And that's all good. That's just a different — I guess probably why I'm not there any more."

On whether he and Rod Marinelli clashed philosophically during the season: "No, I wasn't that there was any difference at all, to be honest with you. I was absolutely clueless to any difference."

On the feelings he'll have playing the Lions next year: "There's nothing personal. ... You're assuming there's a lot of anger and angst and there's just not. Rod's a good friend."

On why the Lions wouldn't call his departure a firing: "I can't explain anything that they do. I can't."


Heading to the combine

On my way to lovely Indianapolis for the NFL's scouting combine, where I'll be reporting through the week. Festivities start in earnest tomorrow when offensive linemen, kickers, punters and the like make their way through the media room. It'll be good to catch up with Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long, by all accounts the best lineman available and a likely top-five pick.

A few other tackles project as mid-first-rounders two months before the draft, including Boise State's Ryan Clady, Vanderbilt's Chris Williams and USC's Sam Baker. The Lions could have interest in one to fill their vacant right tackle position, coach Rod Marinelli said Tuesday, but given the choice I still believe the team will go defense.

"You never want to go out and say this is just going to be a heavy draft on defense and then a really nice-looking offensive tackle is sitting there right in front of you," Marinelli said. "If that guy is an excellent player and we think he's got a chance to come in and maybe play early, then you have to take a shot at him."

In order, I think the Lions would prefer a cornerback or pass rusher with their No. 1 pick, 15th overall. Corner is the most glaring need considering the Lions have one experienced cover man currently under contract, Fernando Bryant, who's expected to be released. Stanley Wilson is a restricted free agent and will be back, but Keith Smith and Travis Fisher are both free agents. At defensive end, Dewayne White and Ikaika Alama-Francis would be your starters if the season opened today, but Alama-Francis can play defensive tackle in nickel situations and the Lions would like to add a speed rusher.

They won't overreach on anyone, but a couple names to stock watch this week are cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Leodis McKelvin and Mike Jenkins, and ends Phillip Merling, Vernon Gholston and Derrick Harvey.


Selection Sunday four weeks away

Four weeks until Selection Sunday, five predictions for then:

1. Your four No. 1 seeds will be Memphis (South), Kansas (Midwest), Duke (East) and North Carolina (West). Ty Lawson will come back to lead the Tar Heels to the ACC tournament championship. Coupled with Tennessee losses to Memphis and in the SEC tournament, that's enough to land North Carolina the final No. 1. To get to San Antonio, however, the Tar Heels will have to go through UCLA, seeded No. 2 in the West.

2. Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin tie for the Big Ten title. Indiana gets the league's highest seed, a three, after it wins the Big Ten tournament. The Badgers also get a three, Purdue snags a four, Michigan State a five, and Ohio State sneaks into the field as an 11.

3. Thanks to their road woes (including a loss at Wisconsin Feb. 28), the Spartans are sent packing to Denver in the first round, where they beat 12th seed Western Kentucky then upset No. 4 Washington State to reach the Sweet 16.

4. MSU, which loses the Big Ten tournament final to Indiana, sees its NCAA run stopped in the Sweet 16 by Duke. The Blue Devils ride a thunderous home crowd (the games are played in Charlotte) to a 74-62 win, forcing 18 Spartan turnovers with their high-pressure perimeter defense. UConn, however, knocks Duke out two days later to reach the Final Four.

5. Memphis, Kansas and North Carolina join UConn in San Antonio, with North Carolina beating previously undefeated Memphis in one semifinal then topping Kansas to cut down the nets.


A stunning phone call

About 8:40 a.m. Saturday, I received a phone call from Jay Sweeney, the director of public relations and marketing for the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital, informing me that Dr. Bernard Brucker, a pioneer in the research and treatment of spinal-cord injuries, passed away Friday night of an apparent heart attack.

Sweeney called me because I spent about an hour on the phone with Dr. Brucker late Friday talking about former Detroit Lion Mike Utley. Brucker had long treated Utley, who was paralyzed in a game 17 years ago, and shared with me his thoughts on the lineman's spirited and intense recovery and helped explain medical terms beyond my comprehension.

"I know if he had spoken to you about Mike Utley, I know the joy with which he would have talked about that and I know how much that moment meant to him and Mr. Utley's recovery," Sweeney said. "I was very struck by how fitting and nice that would have been if that was one of the last things he would have spoken about."

Indeed, Brucker talked with great passion about Utley, whose recovery has affirmed much of Brucker's research. While most spinal-cord-injured patients experience few gains after the first six months of their injury, Utley continues to gradually improve function today. On Friday, Utley was presented the DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan's President's Award for Excellence for his work with spinal-cord injuries.

On a local level, Brucker was helping to train a therapist who will work at the Mike Utley Human Performance Center, a RIM facility that intends to be one of the leading biofeedback centers in the country. That work, like Utley's recovery, will endure.


Wilson's visit "wonderful"

The agent for linebacker Al Wilson said his client had "a wonderful, wonderful trip to Detroit."

The Lions brought Wilson in for a visit Tuesday and are eyeing the five-time Pro Bowler as a potential part of their defensive makeover this offseason. Wilson, 30, sat out last year with a neck injury, but was medically cleared to play in January. If he signs, he likely would start at middle linebacker while incumbent Paris Lenon moves to the strong side. Both Teddy Lehman, the Lions' other middle linebacker last year, and starting strong-side backer Boss Bailey are unrestricted free agents and not expected to return.

"We've got a bunch of teams we're in the process of talking to," Wilson's agent, Peter Schaffer, said in a phone interview. "Al said he had a wonderful, wonderful trip to Detroit. Matt Millen, he thought he was looking at himself in the mirror so it was both exciting and scary at the same time."

Millen, the Lions president, inquired about Wilson last year when he traded Dre Bly to the Denver Broncos for George Foster and Tatum Bell. Eventually, Wilson was traded to the Giants, but he failed a physical and was released by Denver last April.

If healthy, Wilson is one of the best linebackers on the market this winter. He also seems to fit Rod Marinelli's desire to get hungrier on defense. Schaffer said Wilson is "excited" to play again but would not put a timetable on his decision.

"As soon as he's comfortable with his situation we will decide," Schaffer said.

Fallout from Purdue

As a result of Tuesday's loss to Purdue, Michigan State, in all likelihood, will have to go through the Boilermakers or Indiana to reach the championship game of the Big Ten tournament. Why does that matter? First, because the tournament's at Conseco Fieldhouse, a great place to watch basketball but one that will give Indiana and Purdue a decided advantage. Second, because MSU probably needs a strong showing there to get a three seed (or better yet a trip to Ford Field) in the NCAA tournament.

Check back Sunday when I make my four-weeks-from-Selection-Sunday predictions, but here's a brief synopsis of the issue. With three conference losses and trips to Indiana and Wisconsin (plus Ohio State and Illinois) remaining, the Spartans appear headed for no better than third place in the Big Ten. They still have the ability to beat most anyone in March, but they'll rightfully be seeded behind whoever wins the league. That team, Indiana or Purdue, should get a two seed in a region to be determined by the "S" curve.

MSU still could be the Big Ten's second highest seeded team. Let's assume they split with Indiana as they already have with Purdue, finish maybe a game behind the second-place team but with a better tournament profile (RPI, strength of schedule, etc.). Well, whoever wins a rubber-match on Saturday of the Big Ten tournament would likely get the nod as the league's No. 2 team. If the league champ isn't in the Midwest Region, odds are good the second seed will be.

The selection committee has a hard time taking into account games played the Sunday the bracket comes out as its work by then is mostly done. Important Saturday tilts, however, are different. For MSU, which hasn't won a conference tournament semifinal game since its national championship season of 2000, it might take a Saturday win in a hostile environment to secure a favorable seed in the dance.


Thumbs up

I spoke with former Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley for about an hour today for a story that will appear in Friday's paper. Utley is scheduled to be in town the next few days and will receive the President's Award for Excellence at a Valentine's Day Gala Friday at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn.

Tickets for the event are $250 and can be purchased by calling 313-745-9817. All proceeds benefit the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. This May, RIM with the help of the Mike Utley Foundation is scheduled to open the Mike Utley Human Performance Center, a facility Utley said will be at the forefront of care, research and treatment for patients suffering spinal cord injuries.

For more information or to donate to the foundation, visit


Ranking the Big Ten coaches

Purdue, Michigan State's opponent Tuesday, is the most surprising team in the Big Ten this year. The Boilermakers are led by freshmen Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore and get big production out of sophomores Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer. None was the type of blue-chip recruit expected to lead Purdue to the NCAA tournament at this stage of their career, but at 19-5, 10-1 the Boilers are an NCAA lock and closing in on their first league title in 12 years.

If voting was today, Purdue's Matt Painter would win Coach of the Year by a wide margin, and that's saying something since the Big Ten has the best collection of coaches in college basketball. Here's how I think they rank, top to (almost) bottom.

1. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin: Routinely does more with less talent than any coach in America.
2. Tom Izzo, Michigan State: Excellent big-game coach and even better motivator
3. Tubby Smith, Minnesota: Besides Izzo, only coach in conference with a national championship
4. Matt Painter, Purdue: The job he's done this year speaks for itself
5. Kelvin Sampson, Indiana: Recruiting improprieties knock him down a notch
6. Thad Matta, Ohio State: Besides Jamar Butler, name one player off their 2006 league title team?
7. Bruce Weber, Illinois: Gets a bad rap for recruiting shortcomings, but excellent in-game coach
8. Todd Lickliter, Iowa: Has gritty Hawkeyes playing above their head with four conference wins
9. John Beilein, Michigan: Very successful at West Virginia; gets downgraded for not coaching to his players' strengths this year

So I left Penn State's Ed DeChellis and Northwestern's Bill Carmody out of my rankings. I actually think both are wise X-and-O men. Unfortunately, there's little chance either succeeds in the Big Ten.


Michigan State and the Rose Bowl

I spent all of Wednesday up at Michigan State for national signing day. Not exactly my favorite day of the year, especially when a mid-winter storm turns my commute home into three hours of slip-and-slide, but one thing MSU coach Mark Dantonio said caught my attention.

Dantonio said he told recruit Charles Burrell to imagine himself playing in the Rose Bowl "because that's where (we) will be within four or five years from now. And I can almost promise any young person who comes here that will happen."

That's a bold declaration coming from a program that last reached Pasadena in 1987 and played in a bowl game last year for the first time since 2003. There's nothing at all wrong with Dantonio's confidence — it's welcome, in fact — but it got me wondering just how realistic MSU in the Rose Bowl is by 2012.

If I can put on my handicapper's hat for a minute, I can't see the Spartans competing for a Big Ten title next year. Ohio State will be too good, and if the Buckeyes reach another BCS championship game (third time's a charm, right?) Illinois and Wisconsin appear next in line to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.

In 2009, the Spartans will have a new quarterback (Nick Foles?) and feature running back (Andre Anderson?), which in all likelihood means a step back in the standings. That leaves three seasons for Dantonio to accomplish his goal. Is it possible? Sure, who saw Illinois ascending this high when Ron Zook came aboard in 2005? But probable? I say no.

I think Mark Dantonio did a fine job in his first season at MSU. He re-established some valuable relationships on the recruiting trail, especially in inner-city Detroit. He overachieved on the field. And he did a fine job uniting a fan base fractured by four seasons of John L. Smith.

But the Rose Bowl remains sacred land in the Big Ten, and I don't foresee MSU reaching it in the near future. Ohio State is too dominant (except in January), Michigan has a more dynamic coach who will be able to recruit better athletes, and Wisconsin, Illinois and even Penn State (especially when Joe Paterno finally retires and Greg Schiano takes over) all pose formidable hurdles for the Spartans.

Dantonio might prove me wrong and make good on his promise, but I wouldn't bet on it a day after Signing Day, 2008.

Dantonio: No hard feelings toward Saban

Michigan State lost out on one blue-chip target late in the recruiting process when Flint running back Mark Ingram Jr. choose Alabama over MSU. The Tide, of course, are led by former Spartan coach Nick Saban, who happens to be one of MSU coach Mark Dantonio's mentors.

Dantonio said he harbors no ill will towards Saban for pursuing and signing Ingram. Alabama was one of the last schools in on Ingram, whose father played at MSU.

"No, absolutely not," Dantonio said when asked if his friendship with Saban had been affected by Ingram's recruitment. "This is business and you handle your business. (Oklahoma coach) Bobby Stoops is a very, very good friend of mine. We were involved with that (when quarterback Keith Nichol de-committed from MSU and signed with the Sooners last year)."


Lions should target Bengals' Smith

Since the moment he took over as Lions coach two years ago, Rod Marinelli has talked of wanting the best defensive line in football. Sunday, you saw why.

Sure, Eli Manning had a coming-of-age game and David Tyree made the catch everyone will remember, but the Giants won Super Bowl XLII because they got to Tom Brady like no team had all season. Justin Tuck had two sacks and forced a fumble, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora pressured Brady a half-dozen times, even Jay Alford got in the mix with a sack on the final series.

That's why the Lions should target Bengals defensive end Justin Smith when free agency opens next month. Smith is the best pass rusher on the market (assuming Kansas City's Jared Allen and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs are franchised, as expected) and would give the Lions the heat they need opposite Dewayne White.

Smith, who'll turn 29 next season, is coming off the worst statistical season of his career (two sacks) but is far from washed up. A former No. 4 overall pick, he's missed one game in seven years (the first game of his rookie season after a prolonged holdout) and has 43 1/2 career sacks. He'd take over at right end for Kalimba Edwards, who will be cut or traded this offseason, and allow last year's second-round pick Ikaika Alama-Francis to continue his progression as the No. 3 end and nickel tackle.

Marinelli has shown no propensity to target top-of-the-market free agents the last two years. He told me last month he likes guys who are "good people (with) something to prove and they want to keep getting better", a formula that produced White, leading receiver Shaun McDonald and starting guard Edwin Mulitalo last year.

I don't expect that to change this winter with the exception of a possible foray into the running-back market after San Diego's Michael Turner (a highly-coveted runner who actually fits that description as he's been a career backup to LaDainian Tomlinson).

But signing Smith would be a major step towards to solidifying a questionable defensive front. And as the Giants proved and Marinelli preaches, that can take a team a long way.


Doubting Michigan State

It's fair to question how good a team Michigan State is after its latest Big Ten road loss, an 85-76 upset at the hands of Penn State. While the Nittany Lions didn't look like it Saturday, they are truly one of the worst teams in the league since losing leading scorer Geary Claxton to a knee injury.

That gives MSU two losses in four conference road games — the other was to a defensive-minded but talent-deprived Iowa team, another it had no business losing to — with the meat of its schedule coming up. In the final month of the season, the Spartans play at Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State. The first three teams are in a virtual first-place tie with one conference loss.

There's no way MSU gets a one seed now with two losses worse than any team in the top 10. Their early-season schedule doesn't appear as tough as once thought (Bradley is, frankly, mediocre; BYU is not an at-large team; and Texas has some very impressive wins but hasn't looked good recently and could stumble further with a brutal seven-game stretch upcoming). And stars Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan remain prone to fits of wildly inconsistent play.

At this rate, MSU looks like a three or four seed, which lessens the likelihood they'll play their second-round games at Ford Field and diminishes the chances of a deep tourney run. To get a three, in fact, I believe the Spartans need to win out at home (Northwestern, Penn State, Iowa, Indiana) and steal three on the road (against Illinois, Ohio State and one of the leaders). That would leave them 14-4 in a weak Big Ten, and they'd still probably need a strong showing in the conference tournament.

This is still a good team, a talented team. But for a variety of reasons — too many turnovers, an offense that struggles in halfcourt sets, defensive lapses on the perimeter — right now it seems ill-equipped for March.