Across the country NFL training camps are underway and teams are finally starting to get a real feel for which players will be on their final 53-man roster when the dust settles and the regular season begins.
The Detroit Lions are no different of course. They've moved past all the offseason controversies and are forging ahead, determined to get better and once again prove people wrong.
The regular season will prove whether those predictions are true but one thing is for sure—2011 was a break-out year for the Lions. Of course they can always improve, but they won't take anyone by surprise again. Not after making the playoffs.
The Lions can't have a break-out year in 2012 regardless of their record, but there are a number of players on their roster who can.
They might have super stars like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril on their roster, but they have even more players that are relatively unknown but poised for break-out years.
They might be young or simply in a better position to succeed then they've ever been. Regardless of the reason here are five under-the-radar Lions on the verge of becoming the next big thing.
As a rookie Dwight Bentley has a lot to prove in training camp. The adjustment from college to the NFL for a cornerback is a particularly difficult one. Especially for a player considered undersized as Bentley is.
With that said he's already proven to be the most NFL-ready among the three cornerbacks drafted by the Lions this offseason. He's impressed coaches and teammates alike and is the only rookie mentioned as being in the mix for a starting cornerback job.
As Justin Rogers of MLive.com reported on Monday, Bentley has proven to be an eager student, willing to seek guidance from veterans on both sides of the ball, in order to gain insight into what he's doing right and wrong on the field.
This willingness to learn from his mistakes will serve him well as he competes with veterans like Jacob Lacey and Alphonso Smith for a starting job. Given the Lions holes in the secondary there's reason to believe he'll see plenty of action.
For Bentley a break-out year isn't that hard to imagine. Getting consistent game-time action is half the battle. Whether he's on the outside or inside playing the slot, his talent is undeniable. If he's able to make some big plays he'll get plenty of notice as a first-year player.
Mistakes will happen of course but if he can minimize them and utilize his quickness against bigger opponents he'll be able to stay on the field.
Smith and Lacey might have the upper hand right now, but don't count Bentley out. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and if he continues to improve during training camp he'll make a big impression this season on Sundays.
I'll be the first to admit that it is difficult to characterize someone who's had their mugshot plastered all over the place as an under-the-radar player. Nick Fairley has certainly been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this offseason.
Since we're just talking about performance on the field though, he fits the bill.
He's done little to justify his first-round selection because of nagging injuries throughout his rookie year. Although he appeared in 10 games lingering foot issues minimized his effectiveness. In fact, besides one great quarter against the New Orleans Saints, Fairley was invisible last season.
For that reason there are some people that already want to call him a bust.
That's a blatant overreaction and a label he'll definitively shake loose this season. He's finally healthy and he showed up for OTAs in great shape. He's also been impressive during training camp so far.
Fairley has the ability, size and strength to be a truly dominant defensive lineman in the NFL. Even if he's third on the depth chart again, behind Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams, he could still put up dominating numbers.
How the Lions use him could be the X-factor. They've hinted at pairing him with Suh more often and that could benefit both players' stat lines. Opposing teams will find it difficult to game plan for both of them given their attack-the-quarterback style of play.
Either way Fairley has a great chance to dramatically improve upon last year, which will qualify him for break-out star status.
Despite being the only Detroit Lions player to be banned from team activities, Titus Young has put together quite an impressive offseason. After apologizing for his transgression he's been one of the biggest surprises of the summer.
Anyone who's seen the Lions practice has raved about how good he looks on the field. Jim Schwartz is no exception.
On Monday he told Anwar Richardson of MLive.com:
"He's made a lot of plays out here. He's done all the right things since he's been back with our team. I'm really proud of what he's shown since he's been back. He's done an excellent job, and he's had some very good days."
That's high praise indeed and indicative of the type of offseason Young has put together—but practice is practice. The question is will that performance translate to the regular season?
In Young's case there's no reason it can't. He's in the perfect position. Entering his second year he's poised to overtake veteran Nate Burleson for the team's second receiver spot opposite Calvin Johnson. He's maturing and gradually learning the NFL game.
Despite having a decent year in 2011—607 yards and 6 touchdowns—there was obvious room for improvement. Young needed to work on his route running and his ability to separate from defenders. If this offseason is any indication it appears he's done that.
If Young carries that into the regular season and surpasses Burleson on the depth chart, there's no reason a 1,000 yard receiving season isn't achievable for him and that would constitute a break-out season.
He amassed 777 yards which was good for eleventh among NFL tight ends. That's not too shabby considering he was only in his third year and was competing for touches with the best receiver in the league—Calvin Johnson.
Pettigrew was in fact the Lions second leading receiver in 2011, trailing only Johnson. Again, pretty impressive for a third year player. Yet with tight ends like Rob Gronkowski racking up yardage and touchdowns on par with top tier receivers, Pettigrew's solid performance went overlooked.
That may change in 2012. Pettigrew has gotten better in each of his years and his numbers tell the tale. He's improved his yardage and touchdowns each year. He's also proven that he can stay healthy. After missing five games his rookie year, he's played in all 16 games for two straight seasons.
For Pettigrew there's one area that he needs to improve upon: touchdowns. He only hit paydirt five times last year. To have a break-out year improving his scoring numbers is a must.
The fact that he only had five TDs is a head-scratcher consider who's throwing him the ball.
Pettigrew is a big body, he's got good hands, and has improved his technique in the passing game. He should be a serious red zone threat for Matthew Stafford.
Look for him to become just that in 2012 and his touchdown numbers will soar. His yardage gained might take a hit, but so what. That's not what the Lions need him for, nor is it what will get him included in the ranks of elite NFL tight ends.
It's all about the touchdowns and Pettigrew is poised to rack up a bunch.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the Lions organization that would say anything positive about the Cliff Avril contract dispute. Especially since he didn't get the deal he wanted and won't be reporting to camp anytime soon.
There is one person that would probably speak glowingly off the record about Avril's absence though: Willie Young. He's had more reps with the first unit this offseason then ever before. He's made the most of them too. He's been impressive enough for Martin Mayhew to predict great things for him this year.
Mayhew's not alone either. After making significant strides last season in a back up role, Pro Football Focus has labeled Young one of their Secret Superstars for the upcoming season.
Yet despite the praise, Young is the very definition of under-the-radar. Only the most die-hard Lions fans know who he is and anyone outside Detroit probably has no clue. Who can blame them? He's a seventh-round draft pick who only appeared in two games his rookie year and was fourth on the depth chart last season.
Even with the limited playing time Young was constantly in the backfield when he saw action, pressuring the quarterback and generally disrupting plays. His development might make the Lions upcoming decisions about the futures of Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch much easier.
Avril will likely return at some point and he'll reclaim his starting spot. There's no reason to think Young won't supplant Lawrence Jackson as the first man off the bench though. The Lions recognize his big play potential and want him to get more experience in 2012.
When that happens everyone will finally know who Willie Young is.