Stock Up, Stock Down for Key Detroit Lions Heading into Camp
The Detroit Lions, like every other team in the NFL, are currently in the midst of offseason limbo. Free agency is over, the draft is long since over and OTAs were finished weeks ago. The only thing to do is sit around and wait for training camp to start.
Luckily, it's right around the corner. In less than two weeks, the Lions will kick off training camp in Allen Park, and fans will finally get some updates about who's on track to make the final roster.
Now is a good time to make some preliminary predictions regarding some of the Lions' key players though.
It's time for another installment of stock up, stock down: Lions edition.
DeAndre Levy signed a one-year deal this offseason after a solid, but not spectacular, 2011. Perhaps, I'm giving him too much credit though.
According to the Detroit Free Press, "Pro Football Focus graded Levy slightly below average across the board in run support, coverage and pass-rushing efficiency last season" (h/t Rotoworld.com).
With Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis and Doug Hogue breathing down his neck, I'm sure Levy is feeling more pressure this offseason than last.
His hold on the starting job is clearly the most tenuous, and with free agency pending in 2013, the Lions might see more reason to give the young guys a chance.
When the Lions traded up to select Tahir Whitehead in the fifth round of the draft, it caused quite a stir among fans. No one really knew who he was, and it seemed like a waste of a future pick.
Reports from minicamp and OTAs have changed everyone's view. He's arguably been the biggest surprise of the offseason.
The rush linebacker will compete for major playing time with fellow rookie Travis Lewis and second-year man Doug Hogue. All three players have been impressive.
Whitehead has the best chance to make an impact on Sundays. DeAndre Levy is the most vulnerable linebacker to lose playing time, and outside linebacker is where Whitehead would line up.
Gunther Cunningham has already given Whitehead a ringing endorsement, and that says a lot.
Justin Rogers of MLive.com recently wrote this article in which he highlighted the upcoming training camp battle between Stefan Logan, Patrick Edwards and Maurice Stovall.
Rogers predicts that they will battle for the last one or two receiver spots on the Lions' final 53-man roster. Looking at the WRs currently on the roster, it's easy to see his prediction is accurate.
In fact, most have already concluded that Logan will be gone.
Edwards has been nothing but impressive during OTAs. Plus, he was one of the most dominant receivers in NCAA history—33 touchdowns his junior and senior years—at the University of Houston while putting up some impressive punt return numbers as well.
Unlike Logan, he could make major contributions to special teams and the passing game—and he's younger.
Stovall was a special teams stalwart last season, and the Lions need his veteran experience. He's a big body who covers well and is an adequate possession receiver when pressed into duty.
It would appear that Logan is at a disadvantage before training camp even starts. His return numbers last season were down, and his usefulness in the passing game is minimal.
By now, everyone has accepted the fact that Suh had a disappointing 2011 season. When compared to his amazing rookie year, there's no way it could be considered anything but disappointing.
Pete Brisco of CBS Sports discussed Suh in a June article. Is he the most overrated player in the NFL though? His hype did not match his production that's for sure. Lions fans shouldn't get offended at this suggestion though. It wasn't all his fault.
The Lions needed to get more creative with their defensive front. It appears they will do that in 2012.
Moving Suh around, playing him off the line and pairing him with a healthy Nick Fairley should make it much harder for defenses to game plan for him.
It will also help that Suh has found something new to motivate him.
Last season didn't sit well with him. There were the off-the-field issues, the suspension, the lack of production—and now, the overrated talk. He's out to prove his detractors wrong.
A motivated Suh is a dangerous Suh. A return to his 2010 self, or better, is expected.
Alphonso Smith fancies himself the Lions' biggest playmaker in the secondary. Perhaps, "Lions biggest talker" might be a more apt title.
To his credit, Smith has made some big-time plays over the course of his two-year career in Detroit. He has eight interceptions and two pick-six's during that time.
The fact that the Lions drafted three cornerbacks and added another via free agency says a lot about what they think of his big-play potential though. He's given Gunther Cunningham and Jim Schwartz fits.
The reason: The only thing that he's consistent about is being inconsistent.
Yet, he still has a chance in Detroit. He'll be in the mix for the starting cornerback position vacated by Eric Wright.
But with bigger/stronger Aaron Berry, impressive rookie Bill Bentley and veteran Jacob Lacey in the mix too, things don't look good for him.
Did I mention that NFL.com's Jason La Canfora reported the Lions already tried to trade Smith this summer?
There is a clear trend here.
Dwight Bentley and Chris Greenwood
Of the three rookie cornerbacks the Lions selected in the draft, Dwight Bentley has impressed the most.
He's clearly ahead of Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green and Gunther Cunningham wasn't afraid to admit as much, according to Justin Rogers of MLive:
"(Bentley) looks like a polished college player, much better than I anticipated."
He is predicted to compete with Jacob Lacey for nickelback duties, but no one is conceding the starting cornerback job to Aaron Berry just yet. Bentley could be in the mix for that job as well. Training camp will illustrate just how far ahead he is.
Greenwood is another story. He's raw, and he's from D-III Albion College, so it's understandable that he's a little behind the NFL curve. He's already missed time from a leg injury.
Needless to say the Greenwood love has not died down. I wrote an article several weeks ago and predicted that he would not make the final roster—rather he'd be stashed on the practice squad.
That suggestion was met with almost unanimous criticism.
For a cornerback, his measurables are off the chart, and fans obviously marvel at what the athletic wunderkind can add to the Lions' secondary and special team units. Time will tell if he can meet those expectations.
Stock: Up and Up
Jahvid Best missed 10 games last season due to symptoms from his second and third concussions. Both resulted from hits that were considered mild.
For that reason, his return to the team this offseason was met with relief as well as trepidation. No one wants him to suffer long-term damage, yet the Lions need him to complete their offense.
He gives them a weapon that very few teams in the NFL have. He's an electrifying athlete who can make big plays as a rusher and receiver.
Despite the health concerns, optimism for him to have his strongest season as a Detroit Lion is at an all-time high. With Mikel Leshoure active and penciled in for the heavy lifting, Best is in the "best" position to be successful.
He won't be relied upon to get the tough yardage, and he'll be used in the change-of-pace role that Darren Sproles has perfected in New Orleans. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout season.
Early prediction: He could be the second Lion in two years to win the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award.
Gosder Cherilus and Jason Fox
Even though first-round draft pick Riley Reiff isn't signed yet, several of the Lions' veteran offensive linemen are still looking over their shoulder. It's a habit many of them developed since OTAs started, and Reiff demonstrated his talent on the field.
Training camp will further illustrate for Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan just how good Reiff is, but early indications are he's plenty good enough to knock at least one starter down from their pedestal. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is the likely victim.
It will be a battle for sure, but many have already placed their bets on Reiff. Cherilus' inconsistencies over the years have soured many fans who think it's time for a change.
Jason Fox is a different story. He's not a starter. In fact, he's only been active for four games in two years. Fox was drafted to be what Reiff is now—the heir apparent to Jeff Backus.
If Fox had any hope of simply making the roster, he needed to demonstrate his durability. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. He missed most of OTAs with more leg issues.
The Lions gave him the benefit of the doubt. They let him rest so he can give his best effort during training camp. Unfortunately, it won't be enough. Fox not only has to contend with Reiff, but also Johnny Culbreath, who's younger and showed up for OTAs in great shape according to the Detroit Free Press.
Stock: Down and Down
By now, everyone knows the big news. The Lions and their 2011 Defensive MVP Cliff Avril failed to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. It was just the latest reason for doom-and-gloom fans to go wild.
For them, the Monday deadline passed and the countdown to the destruction of the Lions started. Avril will be bitter, he'll miss camp, he'll tear the team apart and the Lions won't win a single game.
OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get my point. There are people out there who think this will really impact the team.
They're simply overreacting.
Avril is a consummate professional and is always a class act. He's been that from day one of the negotiations, and he was the same way on Monday after the deadline passed with no deal, according to ESPN as he spoke during an Associated Press interview. Is he disappointed? Of course. Bitter? No way.
Avril realizes this is a business and not personal. The Lions have to do what's best for them, and he has to do what's best for him. Being bitter and letting it affect his play on the field is certainly not what's best for him.
That's the part anxious fans are missing. Regardless of if he stays or goes next year, Avril needs to have another highly successful season. He literally can't afford to take a step backward. If he does, he won't have any leverage to demand the kind of deal he wants.
He might miss the first week or two of training camp, but that's no reason for anyone to pull their hair out. Avril will show up, the team will welcome him with open arms and he will focus on getting better and racking up even more sacks than last year.
Calvin Johnson is arguably the most popular and most accomplished member of the Detroit Lions. He's universally recognized as one of the top performers in the NFL at his position. In fact, many rate him as the best receiver in the league.
However, that's not the case for everyone. Two analysts have come out and ranked him No. 2 on separate lists of the NFL's best receivers.
To any other receiver, it would be a great honor to be placed in such esteemed company. When you consider that Johnson's 2011 season was one of the greatest of all time—second only to Randy Moss' 2007 campaign—it seems like a bit of a slight.
Johnson isn't complaining though. He's got his face on the cover of Madden, and that's all that matters.
Actually, he's too focused on helping the Lions win games and improving on their 10-6 record from last year to worry about such trivial things.
Barring injury, he's the kind of player who fans can count on to perform at a high level. As long as he's being targeted, he'll consistently make plays and—unlike many superstars receivers—there's no drama.
Expectations are high once again, and Johnson is always capable of meeting, and beating, them.