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Detroit Lions: Top 7 Position Battles to Watch for in Training Camp

Dean HoldenAnalyst IMay 16, 2012

Detroit Lions: Top 7 Position Battles to Watch for in Training Camp

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    Regardless of everyone's arbitrary grades and analysis on the 2012 NFL draft, the one thing we can all agree on is it's going to create a whole bunch of positional battles in training camp.

    Every single player in the Lions' draft class (along with several undrafted free agents) is in the mix to make the Lions' final roster this year. And while there's certainly some difference between Riley Reiff battling for a starting job and Jonte Green battling for any job, a camp battle is still a camp battle.

    The Detroit Lion who is least likely to challenge the roster in training camp is Ryan Broyles, but that's just because there's no telling when he's fully healthy.

    As a new second-round pick, it isn't as though he's in any danger of being cut, but the odds of him challenging Nate Burleson or Titus Young in training camp are slim, even if he's ready by opening day.

    So that's one camp battle presumably ended before it began. But that's far from the only intriguing battle in camp this year, even if we limit that to guys that just joined the team in the last three weeks.

    And to prevent redundancy, let's do just that as we look at seven of the most intriguing potential battles in training camp this year.

RT1/LT1: Riley Reiff vs. Gosder Cherilus/Jeff Backus

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    There's no doubt about how the Lions see Riley Reiff in the long term. If you need any further proof, just look at where they put him in the season's first rookie minicamp—left tackle.

    They'll switch him to right tackle at some point and expect him to play both positions. No surprise, they expect versatility out of all their offensive linemen. But the Lions want Reiff to be a left tackle when the time is right.

    The only question that remains is how long it will take Reiff to earn that spot? It's highly unlikely that he jumps past Jeff Backus in his first year, but that doesn't make it impossible.

    Gosder Cherilus is the guy who should be looking over his shoulder in the short term. Cherilus is entering a free-agency year and has been frustratingly inconsistent throughout his rookie contract. The Lions don't appear to have any interest at all in playing Reiff at guard, and he's probably not ready to play left tackle just yet.

    So that leaves right tackle. And if Reiff can outplay Cherilus at right tackle, Cherilus just might find himself cut. The Lions are strapped for cap space, and Cherilus is due for just under $3 million in 2012.

    I'm not so sure Cherilus' long frame would translate well to guard, so if the Lions deem Cherilus no longer worthy of a starting job, they just might take his cap space rather than keep him on for depth.

    Of course, I'll freely admit that I don't know exactly how much of Cherilus' contract is guaranteed. If the Lions are on the hook for all of Cherilus' 2012 salary (very possible), then cutting him makes no sense at all. But benching him for a younger, superior player makes all the sense in the world.

CBs 2/3: Bill Bentley vs. Aaron Berry vs. Jacob Lacey

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    This is going to be an interesting battle to watch.

    Aaron Berry and Jacob Lacey represent a pair of lower-tier talents with a couple years of experience each, while Bill Bentley represents a mid-high-tier talent with no NFL experience.

    This battle will give us a tangible example of just how important experience is for an NFL cornerback, and I actually expect Berry to run away with it.

    Berry went undrafted out of Pittsburgh in 2010 and made the Lions' final roster the same year but suffered a season-ending injury a half-game in. In 2011, the lockout ensured that he missed out on any offseason training, severely limiting his development.

    Therefore, 2012 is the first season Berry has a year of experience and an complete offseason to hone his skills and correct his mistakes. And though Berry is still far from a complete player, he has shown improvement in the time he has played.

    The conditions are right for Berry to take a huge step forward, and that's exactly what he needs if he is to make the leap to starting corner alongside Chris Houston.

    Lacey and Bentley, meanwhile, will have to bury themselves in the playbook to learn the Lions offensive scheme and compete for the nickel corner job. While Lacey might have an edge there to start, we have a lot to find out about both players before we make that call.

    One thing Bentley has going for him is Berry's success in 2010. While defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has a reputation for disliking rookies in his secondary, he let Berry play nickel corner for the half-game he was healthy in 2010.

    And if Cunningham let that fly with an undrafted player, it's hard to imagine he doesn't give a third-round pick a look, provided his play warrants it.

QB3: Kellen Moore vs. a Player to Be Named Later

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    If anybody out there expects Kellen Moore to seriously challenge Shaun Hill for the backup job out of training camp this year, that person belongs either in rehab or Idaho.

    I don't doubt Moore's long-term potential. I wrote an entire article discussing all the stuff I like about him earlier this very week.

    But one of the themes with Moore is patience. There were some good reasons (and some not-so-good reasons) Moore went undrafted, and it's just plain unrealistic to expect him to explode instantly and surpass Hill, who is undoubtedly one of the most solid backup QBs in the league.

    More likely is that his greatest adversaries are the 53-man roster limit, or perhaps, whatever warm body the Lions may decide to bring to training camp to push him.

Basically All of the Non-Tulloch Linebackers

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    There are so many potential camp battles in the linebacker corps, I can't make heads or tails of them all.

    Stephen Tulloch will provide the backbone of the defense for years to come, and nobody is threatening his position anytime soon.

    Justin Durant is probably pretty comfortable with his starting position, but he's slightly less of a guarantee than Tulloch.

    That makes DeAndre Levy ultimately the man to beat for a starting job, and Doug Hogue might be the front-runner to do that (if anyone), given his year of experience in the system.

    But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it'll be Tahir Whitehead or Travis Lewis. Maybe it's Ashlee Palmer. Maybe it's a future free-agent signing that isn't even on the team yet.

    The fact is, most of the pieces at the linebacker position are most likely already set. It would be surprising to see a UDFA sneak in under the wire here, with the draft providing plenty of depth and potential.

    Ashlee Palmer has to be a guy fearing the axe, but if the Lions take seven linebackers like they did last year, all he'll have to do is outperform the UDFAs to earn a roster spot.

    But that being said, it's an absolute mystery to try figuring out how these guys will fall on the depth chart. Who's the primary backup? Who plays the MIKE? Will the depth chart look the same for the SAM and WILL linebackers? Which of these guys can play special teams?

    There's a whole bunch to get straightened out with these players in training camp, and while I think they'll all make the roster, I have no idea in what configuration.

RB4: Joique Bell vs. Keiland Williams vs. Stephfon Green

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    This is one of the most intriguing battles in training camp this year and also one of the most difficult to call.

    Keiland Williams was steady, if not terribly explosive, for the Lions last year, but with a healthy core group of running backs this year, Williams might be relegated to short-yardage duties in 2012, where he wasn't terribly effective.

    Joique Bell and Stephfon Green are interesting as prospective replacements for Jahvid Best. Both are speedy "scat-back" types who are typically as effective catching the ball out of the backfield as they are running it from a handoff.

    Neither player is as explosive as Best, but considering Best's health concerns, it's understandable that the Lions would like to maintain some speed on the roster in the event that Best's is unavailable.

    For that reason, I'm tempted to give Bell the edge in this battle, but he has a lot to prove in training camp if he's going to supplant the incumbent Williams on the roster.

    Giving the injuries the Lions have had at running back over the past few years, it wouldn't be surprising to see them take five true running backs into the season (rather than four and return specialist Stefan Logan), but it would be interesting to see where the Lions would pull that extra roster spot from.

Last-String Safety: Sam Proctor vs. Erik Coleman (vs. Ricardo Silva?)

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    Three men will enter, one will leave.

    Or maybe two. Hard to say.

    Really, you could look at every position on the team and not find more uncertainty than there is right now at safety. At least the linebacker and cornerback positions have some solid starters.

    You could make the argument that Louis Delmas is a lock to start, and you'd be right, but his play and his health have been nothing but inconsistent since he was picked at the top of the second round of the 2009 draft.

    Even if we assume that Delmas has a spot locked down, Amari Spievey is incredibly vulnerable. He's young, still growing into his role and played the latter part of the season through injury, but it would be a mistake to think Spievey is a lock to start 2012, even if he's theoretically the most talented player this side of Delmas.

    But this is less about Spievey and starting and more about just making the roster in the first place. Delmas and Spievey will occupy a roster spot each, and special teams ace John Wendling will be allotted a spot, even though actually letting him play defense is a worst-case scenario.

    That's three safety spots most likely spoken for. Last year, the Lions broke camp with four. That's one left to share between veteran Erik Coleman, 2011 preseason-stud Ricardo Silva and rookie Sam Proctor.

    The easy choice here is Coleman—the guy they signed with the sole purpose of providing steady veteran depth.

    But Silva intrigued Lions fans last year with his risk-taking, ball-hawking ability. It will be interesting to see if he can develop given a complete offseason period.

    Proctor is new to the mix, having wowed coaches in last weekend's rookie minicamp despite only being there on a tryout. He played well enough to earn himself a one-year contract, which basically amounts to an extended tryout through OTAs and training camp.

    Proctor is still a long shot, but clearly, the Lions saw something they liked in minicamp, and if he shows that consistently in training camp, don't be surprised if the Lions keep him on board as a pet project, even if that means keeping a fifth safety.

DE Rotation: Lawrence Jackson vs. Willie Young vs. Ronnell Lewis

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    Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young form the final two pieces of a defensive end rotation with underrated depth.

    As they are at most positions, the Lions are especially young at defensive end, and rookie Ronnell Lewis makes them that much younger, but that's not a bad thing. It just means they have quality depth in a rotation that will get better with time.

    In the immediate, I don't particularly expect Lewis to have a major impact on the defensive rotation. He comes from Oklahoma as a rush linebacker/tweener type who will need at least a bit of a transitional period to adjust to playing with his hand in the dirt all the time.

    Ultimately, this is not a battle to see who makes the team. There is little doubt that these three guys all make the team, and that none of them will start barring an injury. So this battle is really about placement in the rotation and playing time.

    Young has made huge strides over his first two seasons and could be poised for a breakout year, but Jackson is a first-round pick who has been nothing but consistent. Lewis has more upside than perhaps either of them, but it's probably going to take him a lot longer to realize it. Young and Jackson are far better equipped to contribute this year.

    Besides, Lewis has a reputation as a special teams bruiser, and there is little doubt the Lions are anxious to see him there, at least while he learns the ropes on defense.

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