Analyzing the Biggest Stories in Detroit Lions Training Camp

Dean HoldenAnalyst IJuly 31, 2012

Analyzing the Biggest Stories in Detroit Lions Training Camp

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    It has been a long, painful offseason, but with the start of training camp around the NFL, we can officially say we've moved out of the "offseason" phase and into the NFL preseason phase.

    I know the first preseason game doesn't technically start for a few more days, but...the NFL preseason starts in a few days. Get excited.

    Of course, with the start of training camp comes the most legitimate football action we've seen since the Super Bowl, and after almost six months of football starvation, we have a tendency to...shall we say, overemphasize some things.

    There have been only a few days' worth of training camp, but there are already plenty of stories emanating from the front lines, ranging in impact from thrilling to catastrophic. Of course, nothing of any serious impact has really happened in training camp—yet.

    But we're starved for real NFL action and news, and after months of buildup and anticipation, the slightest ripple looks like a tidal wave.

    That's why I'm here to fill you in on the early happenings in the Lions' training camp if you haven't heard and to talk you down from the ledge if you have.

Jahvid Best Starts Camp on PUP

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    I'll be the first to admit that Jahvid Best's injury history is concerning.

    With the league paying more attention to concussions and concussion victims than ever before, Best is perhaps the most notable case study among active players right now.

    If this were five years ago, the only question about Best would be when he feels okay, and it probably would have been some time last season. Now, after three career concussions, very serious questions are being raised about whether he is able to continue his career, and for how long.

    With that being said, Best starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list contributes effectively nothing to that concern. Is it a little frightening that Best hasn't been cleared for contact roughly nine months after his recent concussion? Perhaps.

    But Best himself claims to feel fine. That's not necessarily a key indicator, since Best would likely say whatever he needed to get back on the field. But I have to wonder how much of this has to do with Best's condition and how much has to do with new league standards.

    The biggest thing to keep in mind here is that there's a difference between being on PUP in the preseason and the regular season. As long as it's preseason, Best can come off PUP at any time. The Lions could literally activate him in the middle of a training camp practice, provided the paperwork was in place.

    It's only if Best remains on PUP by opening day that there is any cause for concern. If Best isn't activated from PUP by the start of the regular season, he will have to miss at least the fist six games of the season. But we're nowhere near that point yet.

    Because of that, there is absolutely no harm in taking a couple of extra days to run Best through a couple of extra tests to make sure he's ready, cutting down some camp-related wear-and-tear in the process.

    For all we know, the Lions are intentionally holding him out of the first few days of camp to reduce the wear on his body. After all, there has been no news of Best failing any tests related to his concussions. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but there are no immediate signs of a setback.

    So is Best in worse shape than we thought? Or are the Lions/the NFL just taking their sweet time to get him cleared so they can be extra sure before they clear him for actual game action?

    Before you panic, just think about that. Best isn't missing actual games yet, people. We're talking about practice.

Cliff Avril Doesn't Show Up

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    First, a few things that won't happen.

    Cliff Avril isn't going to hold out.

    The Lions aren't going to cut him.

    Avril won't refuse to sign his franchise tender.

    Avril probably won't miss all of training camp.

    Ultimately, Avril is taking some extra time off because, well, frankly because he can. When he does sign his franchise tender, that locks him in at $10.6 million for the season.

    But it's for just that: playing the season. There are no bonuses, incentives or practice checks. Which means that showing up for training camp is just showing up for unpaid labor. He only loses out on part of the $10.6 million if he misses games.

    Most veterans don't like coming to training camp anyway, especially for guys like Avril who take care of themselves throughout the offseason. It makes no sense at all to show up when the Lions are installing the playbook for the rookies.

    That said, it's not like Avril is just mailing in the season. Quite the opposite, Avril's ability to pull the kind of contract he wants in 2013 is almost exclusively predicated on his ability to perform this year.

    Because of that (and because he cares about winning), I don't expect that Avril is going to chill out at home until opening day, because he will still need some time to work himself up to game speed.

    But the fact is, he's going to show up on his timetable, and if he wants to spend a little more time with his family before shipping off to spend the majority of the next five months away from them, that's okay.

    And for anyone concerned about a holdout, don't be. By franchise tag rules, Avril has exactly two options: Sign the tag and earn $10.6 million, or don't sign, don't play, and don't earn any money.

    Players hold out because they want more favorable contract terms. The Lions and Avril are expressly forbidden from negotiating any contract terms until next offseason. So a holdout doesn't help Avril at all, since the Lions can't do anything with his money, anyway.

Mikel Leshoure and Jeff Backus Injured

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    Jeff Backus injured his thumb. Does this mean time for Riley Reiff?

    Mikel Leshoure strained his hamstring; is he a bust?

    They're both missing practices, so what are the Lions going to do now?

    Calm down, people.

    The important thing to remember about training camp is that it's a time to get ready for the regular season. Sometimes the best way to get ready for the regular season is to not practice. Most of the injuries that hold people out in training camp are ones people would play through in the regular season.

    Of course, when guys play through their injuries, they don't heal as fast; and they increase the risk of aggravating it.

    So why, why, why would the Lions take that risk with some of their most important players? The goal is to be ready for the regular season, not to perform well in the preseason. Lions fans, of all people, should know that.

    None of these guys are dealing with serious injuries, and all of them are expected back in time for game action.

    The Lions want as many of their guys running at 100 percent as possible when the regular season rolls around. That's a lot more important than getting in a few extra reps at training camp, and that's pretty much the only reason these guys are out of practice.

    Assume that of anybody who doesn't practice or play in camp due to an injury, unless more severe terminology is used.

    And since this is the Lions we're talking about, don't assume you'll get any actual concrete info. Just look for Jim Schwartz to use phrases like, "he'll be out for a little while," or, "he's week-to-week."

Johnny Culbreath Cut

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    Former seventh-round pick Johnny Culbreath was cut from the team mere days after noted trouble-seeker Aaron Berry.

    The peculiar timing led some to speculate that Culbreath's cut was discipline-related, as Berry's was. Culbreath was, after all, arrested for marijuana possession in January 2012.

    Speculating that Culbreath's cut was discipline-related sounds good and makes a good headline and talking point. Sure, the Lions decided enough was enough and cut two of the four players who ended up in handcuffs during the 2012 offseason.

    Well, that's certainly what they did with Berry. With Culbreath, I'm much more willing to call that a convenient coincidence.

    First of all, it's no secret that Culbreath's sudden release coincided very suspiciously with Jonathan Scott's release from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Culbreath was a seventh-round pick, so it's not like he was labelled for greatness.

    He was expendable with the Lions' newfound depth at tackle, and there happened to be a more talented option available on waivers.

    It's not like cutting Culbreath would have brought the Lions any credibility for cracking down on legal offenders. There was also a fair amount of criticism floating around for the Lions' cutting Berry, who went undrafted in 2011, despite early-round picks Mikel Leshoure and Nick Fairley also being arrested twice each.

    Cutting a seventh-round pick who has been completely quiet since a single, non-violent arrest six months ago was not going to send a message. It didn't. And it wasn't supposed to. It was simply supposed to open a roster position for Scott. Simply put, Culbreath just wasn't that good.

Ryan Broyles Comes off PUP

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    Part of the reason Ryan Broyles was such a controversial pick in the second round of the 2012 draft is that he was a wide receiver.

    A much bigger part of it was that he was a wide receiver coming off an ACL injury, and nobody knew if he would be available by the start of the season.

    Well, it turns out he's fully cleared and ready to go by the start of training camp, which is exceptionally good news. That means he won't miss any of training camp, which is arguably more valuable for rookies than anyone else.

    What it doesn't mean is that he's ready to become the Lions' missing breakout weapon.

    Not yet, anyway. Wide receivers need time. Broyles isn't likely to blow anyone away just because he's healthy.

    Titus Young was inconsistently effective last season, and Broyles should be about the same, though he'll have a harder time getting on the field with the talent in front of him. Even Calvin Johnson had a pedestrian rookie season, posting 48 catches for 756 yards and four touchdowns.

    So don't expect too much from Broyles too fast. For now, just be happy that he can play at all, way ahead of schedule.

Riley Reiff Is Nowhere Near the First Team

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    Riley Reiff opened up training camp taking reps with the third team. Now he's taking reps at right tackle with the second team with Jeff Backus out.

    Is it panic time? Only if you are not very smart. Look, Reiff is a rookie, and the Lions are no longer the kind of team that needs to throw every first-and second-round pick into the fire because nobody else is any good.

    Reiff taking over for Backus is not exactly the same as Ndamukong Suh coming in for Grady Jackson.

    The Lions are a talented enough team to work their rookies into the starting lineup at a more natural pace, and that means not naming them the starter the moment they get to training camp.

    In other words, the fact that Reiff opened camp with the third team is not an indication that he's no good. It's an indication that the Lions are comfortable and confident in who they have, and that Reiff will move up the depth chart when he proves tangibly on the field that he can outplay the veterans.

    That could happen quickly, like by the end of training camp. It could end up taking until next year. But whenever it happens, it will be because Reiff is ready to go (or that somebody got injured), not that the Lions are in a panic because they realized none of the veterans can play.

    Besides, since when has a rookie's placement the first week of training camp had anything to do with their eventual position on the depth chart?

Cornerback Shuffle

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    Further ingraining our belief that Gunther Cunningham is terrified of all non-veteran cornerbacks, the Lions opened up training camp with Jacob Lacey (formerly of the Indianapolis Colts) and Alphonso Smith (formerly of the Lollipop Guild) splitting time across from Chris Houston.

    Okay, maybe that's a bit mean-spirited of me to say about Smith, but at 5'9", he doesn't really seem like the type of guy who will match up well with a receiver eight inches taller than him.

    Those are the types of guys the Lions' rookie cornerbacks are going to have to deal with, and granted, none of the rookies are much bigger (aside from Chris Greenwood, currently on PUP with an abdomen injury). But this isn't about who's taller or more talented.

    This is clearly, as with Reiff, that the Lions don't want Dwight "Little Bill" Bentley near the starting lineup before he earns it. Veterans appreciate that, too. (Would YOU like losing your job to a 22-year old kid who just started work a week ago?).

    It's not that outplaying Smith and Lacey appears all that difficult for the rookie; it's that he hasn't done it yet. Bentley likely has a higher ceiling than perhaps any other cornerback on the team, but he needs some time to realize it. Bentley right now is probably not better than even mediocre veterans yet, mostly because experience is one of the most important factors for a cornerback.

    But we don't know that for sure. That's part of the reason this training camp is going to be so interesting. The cornerback depth chart could end in almost any configuration, provided that it has Houston at the top of it.