Detroit Lions: What We've Learned About Every Position so Far in Preseason
The Detroit Lions might be gearing up to face the Baltimore Ravens in just their second game of the preseason, but there’s already a lot we’ve taken away from their Week 1 19-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
At least we’d like to think so.
Whether it’s injuries, backups, breakout stars, or simply “Mega”stars, the Detroit Lions have had plenty of it all during training camp and into preseason action.
While none of it is concrete, and preseason speculation must certainly be taken with a grain of salt, in our eyes, there’s no time like the present to start the breakdown of the upcoming season. Because...well...why not?
So, in this article, we’ll break down each positional unit and speculate what we think we might have learned from the Lions’ preseason up until this point.
For the first time in several years, the Lions aren’t entering preseason/regular season action with doubts about the production at the QB position. With his first full season of health under his belt and more than 5,000 passing yards last season to show for it, Matthew Stafford and the quarterback position are the least of the Lions' worries.
Obviously, things can happen (knock on wood), and obviously Stafford still has some things he can improve, but nobody is too concerned about the Lions' starting signal-caller.
The same can almost certainly be said about Shaun Hill, the Lions' backup QB, who is healthy, and in the first preseason game looked as confident and consistent as ever.
Beyond that, it gets a little blurry. That doesn’t mean the question marks surrounding the third-string QB are worrisome; it just means I honestly have no idea what will happen.
Currently, Boise State standout and rookie QB Kellen Moore has failed to impress in training camp. And in last week’s game against the Browns, Moore went just 4-for-14 with an interception. His arm looked weak. His confidence looked shot. And he just didn’t look like an NFL quarterback meant for a spot on that 53-man roster.
I’m all for not drawing conclusions about a guy’s ability after one seemingly meaningless preseason game, but I don’t foresee Moore improving enough to make the final cut. Not necessarily because I don’t think he’ll ever live up to the hype, but because the injuries that have plagued the Lions at the other positions will likely mean more added depth elsewhere and less in the pocket.
Drew Stanton didn’t see a minute of playing time last season, which means the Lions' need for a third-string QB might be ancient history, which means Moore will likely have to settle for a place on the practice squad.
Speaking of injuries, you may have heard about the plethora of them in the Lions backfield. OK, there’s only two, but when those two are Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, it doesn’t ease the heart like you might think.
Best still hasn’t been cleared for contact and will likely start the season on the PUP list. Mikel Leshoure bounced back from an Achilles tear last season only to injure his hamstring just days into training camp.
Although he is expected to be fine, he didn’t play in last Friday’s preseason opener and will miss the first two games of the season for his marijuana-related suspension.
But maybe it’s not as bad as it seems.
After all, if we speculate how the run game will be this season based solely on last Friday’s game, well, the Lions running backs will have more production this season than the wide receivers. And while that sounds awesome, we know they will come back down to Earth eventually. We just hope it's not completely down to earth.
Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams and Joique Bell combined for 188 yards on 30 carries in the preseason opener. Smith was cutting like he’d never been injured in his life, and both Williams and Bell were playing like they were fighting for a roster spot.
Oh, right. They are.
Nevertheless, the run game was impressive. Yes, it was preseason, and yes, it was the Browns, but if the Lions run game can match even half of that production come regular season, we might not remember the fact that we were once worried about a couple guys named Best and Leshoure.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
So far in the preseason, we haven’t learned much from the receivers. Calvin Johnson played just a few snaps in the first game but still managed to walk away with the most receiving yards for the Lions.
Color me surprised. And I don’t expect much to change from now until the regular season.
Nate Burleson was held without a catch against the Browns, and Titus Young, who many expect to have a breakout season, was not available for last Friday’s preseason opener due to the birth of his child. Likewise, rookie Ryan Broyles is still seeing limited action due to his ACL recovery process.
But there’s still a pretty intense competition for the fifth (maybe even sixth) receiver on the roster.
I’ve been saying all along that I think Maurice Stovall is the most deserving and will likely take that last spot. Stovall finished Friday’s game with 35 yards on just two receptions, and I don't have any doubts that he'll be the Lions' fifth receiver come opening day.
I do, however, think we’ll see more from the likes of Lance Long, Patrick Edwards and Nate Hughes during the remaining three games, and we’ll have a better idea of whether a sixth receiver spot might open up. If it does, I see Edwards grabbing it.
As for the tight ends, it’s your usual suspects: Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, with Will Heller being utilized in a full back-type capacity on running plays. Friday’s game didn’t sway me much in any other direction either. The Pettigrew/Scheffler combination is one of the best in the NFL, and Heller is a heck of blocker.
But one thing I did learn from Friday’s game was how much I like the idea of James Bryant being utilized like Will Heller.
The Lions don’t run an offense that requires a fullback, but Bryant did help Keiland Williams and Joique Bell rack up some rather impressive yardage in the backfield. It’s not likely that Bryant will make the 53-man roster, but if he continues to prove his value, he could certainly make the practice squad, and from there, you never know.
Despite being heavily scrutinized on occasion, the Lions' offensive line is probably the most cohesive and stable unit they have in terms of experience.
And the addition of several backup tackles and guards has made it also the Lions' deepest unit.
With Dominic Raiola at center, Jeff Backus and Rob Sims on the left and Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus on the right, the Lions O-line is more than comfortable playing together.
But that’s not what preseason's about. And with injuries affecting everyone on the team, we're getting a good look at just how deep this offensive line is.
As a result of a sore back this week, Jeff Backus handed over his first-team left tackle duties to Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox; and rookie Riley Reiff has been taking reps at guard and tackle during camp as well.
The ability of players like Hilliard and Fox to step in is just a testament to the depth of this line, and although Reiff will likely not crack the starting five (in large part due to Cherilus' tremendous offseason), Reiff has shown in preseason that he will be a talented offensive lineman in years to come with the right amount of grooming.
The Detroit Lions' front four are showing a lot of good traits this offseason, especially with the absence of defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. As a result, backups Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson have stepped up and have been making the most of the opportunity given to them.
Both Young and Jackson had big plays against the Browns last week, including a sack and forced fumble from Young. They have both proven that they can hang with the first team when their numbers are called.
Ndamukong Suh is still holding down the defensive tackle spot with authority. Suh is looking to return to his rookie form after a sophomore season that saw a decline in numbers. While he didn't have any huge plays in the preseason opener, he played with a lot of aggression and put Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden under pressure on several occasions.
Despite missing the preseason opener with back soreness, Sammie Hill is still expected to make the roster, though his absence has given some much needed reps to Andre Fluellen, who, depending on Nick Fairley’s health and punishment for his offseason issues, could find himself squeaking out a roster spot yet again.
Much like the offensive line, the Lions linebackers feature three veterans who will no doubt bring stability to the defense.
Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant have a year of playing together under their belts and no doubt feel more comfortable in the Lions scheme than they did at this time last year. And they'll only get stronger as the 2012 season progresses.
The Lions don’t have much depth at linebacker beyond the starting three, but rookies Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis have shown tremendous potential during camp so far and are only expected to improve.
Backup Ashlee Palmer, however, is also quietly having a great camp. After not being tendered a contract this offseason, Palmer has used it as motivation to prove his worth to the Lions. And so far he’s done a good job doing so.
While he likely won’t find himself in the starting three, he has taken first-team reps during camp this past week when soreness kept both Durant and Tulloch out of practice.
Doug Hogue also returns for a second season with the Lions as a backup LB.
Detroit’s secondary was the cause of most of the Lions' frustrations last season. That’s not to say there weren’t other areas of discontent, but most of the Lions' struggles started and ended with the defensive backfield.
And right now, there isn’t a whole lot this preseason that has shown me that this will turn around. After all, they allowed 326 yards against a less-than-stellar Cleveland Browns offense.
While Amari Spievey and Louis Delmas have the talent at safety, it’s not a definite that Delmas will be ready come September.
Delmas underwent surgery last week on his knee, and while he’s expected to be back for the start of the regular season, you can never be too sure of injury timetables, especially as they relate to knee injuries.
Fortunately, there were promising performances from a couple of the Lions cornerbacks in last week’s preseason opener.
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding rookie Bill Bentley, as he had been having a killer training camp heading into the game against the Browns. And while he didn't entirely disappoint in the preseason opener, head coach Jim Schwartz didn’t give him an ounce of praise after the game. The Washington Post reported that Schwartz said on Sunday:
It’s not his job to grade his performance, it’s his job to go play and he can play better. He left a couple of plays on the field.
But, while he certainly had missed opportunities and mistakes, fans watching were encouraged by the plays he did make (an interception and a broken-up pass) and the promise he showed. After all, it was his first NFL game.
The Lions, however, will likely rely heavily on veteran CB Chris Houston, who will start opposite Alphonso Smith or Bentley. With the dismissal of Aaron Berry this offseason, Houston is one of the leaders of the group.
Nevertheless, they will need to perform better than they did last Friday if they expect to improve upon last season's performance at all.
Jason Hanson, Derek Dimke, Ben Graham and Ryan Donahue have all kicked well in training camp. However, there’s really only room for two of these guys on the roster.
In this case, you simply can’t let go of veteran Jason Hanson who has been nothing but the face of consistency for the past 20 seasons. And there's no reason to believe that will change.
Ben Graham replaced Donahue last season, and I can only assume will get the nod when the 53-man roster is selected.
When it comes to the Lions' punt- and kick-return teams, Stefan Logan is most likely their go-to guy, although they have been giving Titus Young and Ryan Broyles reps in camp on the return team.
And despite Logan being mixed into the backfield and in with the receivers a lot this offseason, I still think he'll see most of his time on special teams.
He had a somewhat unproductive year last season as a return man, but I think the work he’s getting in camp with the running backs and the time he’ll see in regular season in the backfield, will make him a bigger asset in the return game.