Lions training camp preview
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
With this being the fourth training camp under coach Jim Schwartz and coordinators Scott Linehan (offense) and Gunther Cunningham (defense), most of the system installation work is done and the Lions can use training camp to focus on a couple of weak spots from last season.
1. Improve the running game. They should know fairly early on in camp whether running backs Jahvid Best (concussions) and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles) will be healthy enough to provide the one-two punch they are hoping for. If not, they will have veteran Kevin Smith and would probably have to make a move to add another veteran back.
2. Settle the secondary. Two spots are secure -- Chris Houston at left cornerback and Louis Delmas at one of the safety spots. The other two are wide open. Recently signed free agent Sean Jones will battle incumbent Amari Spievey and veteran Erik Coleman for the other safety spot. That should be one of the best battles of camp. At right corner, Aaron Berry will face a stiff challenge from veteran Alphonso Smith and rookies Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood.
PLAYER TO WATCH
All eyes will be on Jahvid Best. When he's been available, he has provided the offense with a multi-dimensional threat similar to what Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles provided the Saints the last few years -- a big-play threat running and receiving out of the backfield.
But Best has had three concussions the last two seasons, two within three months last season. He took part in all the offseason conditioning work, but hasn't been cleared for contact. He is expected to take another series of concussions tests the week prior to training camp. Both Best and the Lions are optimistic that he will be cleared.
Even if he is cleared, though, there is no way to predict what will happen the next time he takes a blow to the head. It will be interesting to see how the Lions walk that line between getting him ready for the season and protecting him against another head shot.
ON THE HOT SEAT
It's time for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to identify himself as a football player. Is he the quarterback-destroying force he was during his rookie season in 2010 or is he the under-producing, hot-headed, personal foul machine he was last season?
The Lions need him to be, and are paying him to be, the former. The success of Gunther Cunningham's defensive system is predicated on getting pressure from the defensive front four. When Suh is blowing up the middle and drawing two and three blockers, the path is cleared for the defensive ends to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and ball carriers.
When that doesn't happen, the secondary is exposed like it was at the end of last season when quarterbacks like Matt Flynn and Drew Brees shredded the Lions for 90 points in two games.
With Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill, the Lions potentially have as powerful a defensive tackle rotation as there is in the league. It's time for Suh to lead that charge.
Berry latest Lions player arrested
--Cornerback Aaron Berry was arrested June 23 for driving under the influence as well as two charges for causing damage to an unattended vehicle and two counts of failing to stop and give enforcement to police. Berry allegedly hit two parked cars and then left the scene. He was eventually apprehended at 4:45 a.m.
In a statement, Berry said, "I want to offer a sincere apology to the Lions organization, Lions fans, the coaches and all my teammates for my actions this past weekend. This is not the example I want to set for young people and it's certainly not what my team and coaches expect from me. I promise to do everything in my power to make sure this never happens again. I understand these are just words and it will be my future actions that ultimately will speak for me."
A statement from the Lions said, "We are extremely disappointed in the reports involving Aaron Berry and the incident in Pennsylvania this past weekend. This is not the standard of behavior we expect from any member of our organization. We have strongly and repeatedly emphasized the need to be accountable on and off the field, which makes this incident with Aaron all the more disappointing. We will have further comments regarding this situation when appropriate."
The incident with Berry was the sixth arrest by a Lions player this offseason.
--Coach Jim Schwartz characterized his team's entire offseason program as "outstanding." But, almost in the same breath, he cautioned against reading too much into 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp.
"I don't mean to be nonchalant, but it's mini-camp and it's OTAs," he said. "It's not football. It's not even a practice, excuse me Allen Iverson. We're sort of installing our preparation for practice. You can't get all 'yippy' and 'hurrah' and start thinking you are in a different spot with your team based on stuff that's not a true evaluation of talent or a true evaluation of where we are and where we are going to go."
--That said, comparing where the Lions are today coming out of the offseason program to where they were the first year of the Schwartz era, is night and day. "We are at a different point in our installation than we've ever been," he said. "We're in the fourth year with our offensive and defensive system, the third year of our special teams system. We've put some new wrinkles in but we are not starting from scratch. After the first couple of OTAs we probably had in as much as we installed the entire offseason my first year. We're in a better spot."
--Several veteran safeties have worked out for the Lions this offseason, including Oshiomogho Atogwe, Chris Crocker, Sean Jones and Deon Grant. But before pulling the trigger on any of those, general manager Martin Mayhew said he wanted to take a long look at younger players on his roster like Ricardo Silva, Alonzo Lawrence, Don Carey and Sam Proctor. He's taken the same stance with the running back position.
"I like the group of guys we have," Mayhew said, referring to Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith. "If they are healthy, and that's a really big if, that's an outstanding group of players. But the injury question with all three is a concern. We talked about adding a guy in the offseason, but the more I see of these guys -- of Keiland Williams and Joique Bell -- I want to see how it plays out before I go in a different direction."
--Second-year linebacker Doug Hogue, at age 23, has added more than an inch and 15 pounds to his frame. "I've been eating my Wheaties, man," he said, laughing about the extra inch. "Honestly I don't know how it happened. I didn't notice it. When I came back (for offseason workouts) coach (Matt) Burke said, 'Did you grow a little bit?' I said, 'No, I don't think so.' But he took to me to the training room and measured me. Sure enough." Hogue measured 6-2 3/8 last season. This season, he's 6-3 1/2. His weight went from 230 to 245. "It's working out for me," Hogue said. "I am dealing with the weight well. I am moving with it."
--Hogue missed the first week of OTAs after a incurring a 46-stitch slash on his left arm. "I was home (Yonkers, New York) Memorial Day weekend helping my sister move," he said. "A big glass mirror fell on me. It was a big, glass, full-body mirror. I was thinking, I hope my arm don't fall off," he said. "Coach (Jim) Schwartz said next time hire somebody. But I am back now and everything is good."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everything happens for a reason...#WIN" -- DE Cliff Avril via Twitter after the deadline passed for him to sign a contract extension on July 16
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions signed eight-year veteran safety Sean Jones to a one-year deal. They released undrafted rookie safety Sam Proctor. Jones, a starter for the Browns, Eagles and the Bucs, will be in the mix for the starting spot opposite Louis Delmas. Jones and veteran Erik Coleman are battling to unseat incumbent Amari Spievey.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matthew Stafford. Backups -- Shaun Hill, Kellen Moore, R.J. Archer.
The only question remaining about Stafford is what he can do for an encore after throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns last season. For starters, he can be better on third downs and be more efficient and productive in the red zone. Hill returns to provide a capable veteran backup. The question is whether the Lions will carry three quarterbacks on the roster. Both Moore and Archer are a step back from Drew Stanton, who has moved on to Indianapolis. Moore's lack of arm strength was glaring at minicamp, which is why they brought back Arena League vet Archer. It is possible they would stash one of the two on the practice squad.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Jahvid Best. Backups -- Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams, FB James Bryant, Joique Bell, Stephfon Green.
The Lions have put their faith in the health of Best and Leshoure. There is no certainty with either, except for the fact that Leshoure will be suspended for the first two games for violating the league's conduct code. Smith looked strong and healthy during OTAs and minicamp, but he too has battled injuries. Of the other backups, only Williams has a chance to make the roster, which seems to indicate the Lions aren't done tweaking the depth chart at this position.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler. Backups -- Will Heller, Nathan Overbay, Austin Wells, Alex Gottlieb.
Other than quarterback, this is the most stable position group on the team. Pettigrew broke his own single-season records for catches and yards last season and was, for all intents and purposes, the Lions' run game. Instead of a traditional run game, they used short, controlled passes to Pettigrew. With Pettigrew and Scheffler, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can create and exploit mismatches against smaller defensive backs, particularly in the red zone. It has been an effective weapon the last two seasons. Heller is used as an H-back, as well as the blocking tight end. The Lions didn't have a fullback on the roster last season and probably won't this season.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson. Backups -- Titus Young, Ryan Broyles, Marcus Harris, Stefan Logan, Jarett Dillard, Wallace Miles, Lance Long, Maurice Stovall, Terrence Tolliver, Patrick Edwards, Nate Hughes.
One of the best receiver corps in the league got better. Johnson, the two-time Pro Bowler who signed an eight-year, $132 million contract in March, is coming off the best year of his career (96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns). The emergence of both Burleson and Young (combined 121 catches for 1,182 yards) made defenses play somewhat more honestly against Johnson. Johnson lined up at various spots, including the slot, and though he still attracted multiple coverages, it was harder for defenses to isolate and neutralize him. They have added another versatile and dynamic receiver in Oklahoma rookie Broyles, undrafted rookie burner Edwards and veteran Dillard. It will be quite a fight for the final two receiver spots, with Edwards, Stovall, Hughes and Tolliver all in the hunt.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups -- T Riley Reiff, RT Corey Hilliard, LT Jason Fox, LT Johnny Culbreath, G/C Dylan Gandy, G Jacques McClendon, C Dan Gerberry, G J.C. Oram, G Rodney Austin.
The Lions would love to see the entire starting unit remain intact for a third straight season, even though Backus is 34 and Raiola 33. But they won't be too sad if first-round draft pick Reiff breaks into the lineup. The coaching staff praised Reiff's work through OTAs and minicamp and expect him to contribute this season. His best chance at unseating a starter will be at right tackle. Cherilus has been up and down through his first three seasons, though this is the first year he's not coming off surgery. Fox was expected to challenge for a spot in the rotation at tackle, too, but his oft-injured knee flared up again at the end of minicamp. He will need to stay healthy throughout camp to make the squad.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Cliff Avril, LT Ndamukong Suh, RT Corey Williams, RE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups -- LE Lawrence Jackson, DT Nick Fairley, DT Sammie Hill, DT Andre Fluellen, RE Willie Young, DE Everette Brown, DE Ronnell Lewis, DE Eddie McClam, DE Ugo Chinasa, DT Michael Cosgrove.
The only serious question here is whether Avril will miss any time. He didn't work out a long-term deal or sign his $10.6 million franchise tender on July 16. He has said that he wouldn't turn his nose up at $10.6 million; the question is whether he will hold out for a while before signing. The eight-man rotation appears set, though Brown will have a chance at cracking it, especially if Avril holds out. Rookie Lewis will make his mark on special teams this season. Veteran Fluellen, a key backup at both tackle and end, could be on the bubble this season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Justin Durant, MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB DeAndre Levy. Backups -- OLB Doug Hogue, OLB Tahir Whitehead, OLB Travis Lewis, MLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Slade Norris, OLB Carmen Messina, MLB Ronnie Sneed.
Easily the most improved position group last season with the addition of Tulloch and Durant, the question now is can it take another step? Levy, who moved from middle to outside linebacker last season, should be more stable at the position. He was mostly a two-down player last season, taken out on passing downs. It will be interesting to see how much his cover ability improves. There should be an intense battle for the fourth linebacker spot between second-year man Hogue and rookie Whitehead. Hogue grew nearly a full inch and gained 15 pounds in the offseason and the coaching staff was raving about Whitehead's speed and athleticism. Veteran Ashlee Palmer has moved to middle linebacker, but he will have to beat out rookie Travis Lewis to keep a roster spot.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chris Houston, RCB Aaron Berry, S Louis Delmas, S Amari Spievey. Backups -- CB Jacob Lacey, CB Alphonso Smith, CB Bill Bentley, CB Jonte Green, CB Chris Greenwood, S Erik Coleman, S Sean Smith, S John Wendling, S Don Carey, S Ricardo Silva, S Ross Weaver.
The Lions weren't able to land any marquee draft picks or free agents to shore up this troubled position. What they did instead was go for quantity. The hope is that from the three drafted rookie corners -- Bentley, Green and Greenwood -- they will, at the very least, improve their depth. They are very confident about starting Berry at right corner. He was essentially the right corner at the end of last season with Eric Wright moving into the slot. That was the direction they were going, even if they could have re-signed Wright. Lacey, a free-agent signee, has the inside track on the nickel corner spot. Veteran Smith will have to beat out one of the rookies to keep his roster spot, which could be tough because Smith does not contribute on special teams. It's a make-or-break camp for Spievey. The safety spot opposite Delmas is his to lose, but veterans Smith and Coleman, as well as Carey, will give him no margin for error.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Hanson, P Ben Graham, LS Don Muhlbach, PR/KR Stefan Logan, PK Derek Dimke, P Ryan Donahue, LS Matt Camilli, PR Titus Young, PR Ryan Broyles, PR Patrick Edwards.
The best battle of camp could be between punters Graham and Donahue. Donahue, a heavy-footed boomer, unseated veteran Nick Harris last season, but injured his quad during the bye week. Graham, a savvy, directional kicker, took over and stabilized the punt team. With the strength of the Lions' offense, you would think a trusted directional kicker would have more value than a somewhat erratic, long-ball hitter. Return ace Logan is also fighting for his roster spot. The Lions are giving several players a chance to claim the punt return duties -- most prominently Broyles and Edwards.
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