AFTER SIGNING a free-agent contract with the Lions last March, Nate Burleson and his wife, Atoya, sat down their six-year-old son, Nathaniel, to play a little game. Burleson, a wideout who had scored 15 touchdowns over the previous four seasons in Seattle, wanted to see if Nathaniel could guess his father's new football home. Two dozen teams came out of little Nathaniel's mouth—Super Bowl champions, playoff regulars, marquee franchises—but no mention of a club that has won a total of two games the past two seasons.
"Finally, I said, 'No, son, I'm playing for the Detroit Lions,'" says Burleson, recalling his boy's wide-eyed stare. "He looks at me and, with a high-pitched voice, goes, 'Detroit?'"
Nathaniel's shock was understandable considering the Lions' dismal decade, but the outlook in Detroit is sunnier in coach Jim Schwartz's second season. An influx of new players hit the Motor City during the off-season, and after years of misbegotten personnel moves, the Lions have built from the top of their last two drafts—quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas in 2009; defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and running back Jahvid Best in 2010—the engine that could ultimately lift them out of the NFC North cellar.
Is Detroit about to become an NFL destination?
"When people ask me with a negative connotation about going to Detroit—the city, the economy, the team—I say what about New Orleans?" says Burleson, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal. "After [Hurricane] Katrina nobody wanted to be there, the locals or the players getting drafted or traded there. All of a sudden New Orleans is a place to go. The Saints revived the city. I honestly believe if we continue to work hard and bring the right guys in, we can turn around the organization and help revive [this] city."
The turnaround will have to begin on the field, where the Lions have so often looked overmatched. Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew addressed several deficiencies through aggressive off-season moves: signing Burleson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (who played under Schwartz in Tennessee) and trading for tight end Tony Scheffler, cornerback Chris Houston and defensive tackle Corey Williams.
Burleson and Scheffler should help draw attention from go-to receiver Calvin Johnson, who has faced double and triple teams since his rookie season in 2007. And if the talented Suh can adapt quickly to the Lions scheme, Detroit should be able to create pressure on the passer with only four linemen, much like Schwartz's defenses did in Tennessee.
"We took a different approach to free agency," Schwartz says. "Instead of trying to get a lot, we targeted two guys, Nate and Kyle, and went all in. But we were also able to supplement that through trades. What may turn out to be the key was picking up those other players. I think we're in a much better place than we were last year."
Stafford, to be sure, is in a better place. After splitting reps last summer with Daunte Culpepper and fighting through injury during his rookie season, Stafford enters 2010 in good health and as the unquestioned starting quarterback, if not a fully formed one. He and Johnson have been logging extra practice time on the field and occasionally hanging out away from the facility, trying to build the kind of relationship between a quarterback and a top receiver that has defined winning teams in the past.
Stafford impressed observers by playing through knee and shoulder injuries as a rookie, but he also missed six games.