Detroit Lions: What to Watch for at OTAs
The Detroit Lions will begin organized team activities this week which signifies that training camp is ever so close. OTAs are May 21 to June 8 and consist of team workouts, meetings and on-field drills.
There are no pads during OTAs, though—helmets only.
At least Havard Rugland should be all caught up for now.
OTAs are an opportunity for players to get back into the swing of things and ease into training camp. It's not a time for position battles to be won or lost.
That doesn't mean there aren't things to learn.
Here are 10 things to watch for during the Lions' OTAs.
10. The Police Blotter
Lions' players have had their share of legal issues over the years, but never was it more impactful than last year.
During the summer of 2012, three players were arrested five times. Nick Fairley and Mikel Leshoure twice and Johnny Culbreath once.
The impact of those events was huge. Culbreath was a promising player who was ultimately cut, Leshoure missed the first two games of the season and Fairley, well, he smiled for his mug shot and was never worse for the wear.
Okay, Fairley might've escaped unscathed, but the Lions' record (4-12) speaks to how disruptive those arrests were.
They won 10 games and made the playoffs in 2011. The following summer should have been a time of excitement and optimism.
Instead, the entire offseason was filled with controversy and negativity. The legal drama was a constant disruption that took the players' focus away from football and started the team off on the wrong foot.
The Lions are hoping that, this summer, there are no such distractions.
Head coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew's jobs are on the line, so the last thing they need is a repeat of last season.
9. Will Joseph Fauria Stick Around?
For all the hype that Joseph Fauria is getting around Ford Field these days, you'd think that he and Ezekiel Ansah were drafted together in the first round—not so.
Fauria wasn't drafted at all. The Lions signed him as an undrafted free agent.
He scored 12 touchdowns his senior year at UCLA, though, making him one of the more sought after UFA this year. The Lions were lucky to get him, but will they keep him?
The answer to that question depends both on Fauria and the Lions.
UFAs don't exactly have job security, and Fauria is no different. He's got to prove that he wants to get better and show the work ethic and attitude that the coaches look for. He also needs to prove that he can block.
If the Lions keep him, they'll need to make some tough decisions. Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are in the last year of their contracts, so it might be wise to invest in a back up plan at this point.
The Lions also drafted Michael Williams in the seventh round, and his roster spot is all but assured.
So do the Lions keep four tight ends?
OTAs might shed some light on this dilemma.
One thing is clear. If the Lions think they're going to simply stash Fuaria on their practice squad, they might as well cut him. He would be snatched up by another NFL team faster than Schwartz can say, "Wait, I didn't mean to throw that flag."
8. Chris Greenwood Sightings
The Detroit Lions' second-year player Chris Greenwood has become a myth on par with Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and Jason Fox.
No one's ever seen him (on the field), but there's some evidence he's real.
Actually, Greenwood is very real.
Hailing from Division III Albion College, he was a surprise fifth-round draftee of the Lions in 2012, but he had all the measurables of a high-round pick.
Unfortunately, the Lions never got a chance to see if his abilities could translate to the NFL. He was sidelined by an abdominal injury and landed on the PUP list during training camp and was lost for the season.
That's not to say Greenwood would have been impactful last season. At most, he would've contributed on special teams. The biggest hit was that he lost a year of on-field experience.
One might assume that would set him back this season.
Sounds like a potential hoax to me, but just to be safe, keep your eyes peeled for Greenwood. He could be a huge wild card this year.
7. Improvement in the Secondary
The Lions decided a long time ago that the best way to stop opposing quarterbacks was to rush the heck out of them.
A signal-caller running for his life, or laying on his back, isn't going to complete many passes.
That's why they brought in Kyle Vanden Bosch in 2010 and invested such high picks on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley over the next two years.
Having an elite pass-rushing defense was the goal.
Unfortunately, that never happened, and now there's been a changing of the guard. That's not to say the Lions aren't interested in having elite pass-rushers, but the defensive front four is clearly going through a transition.
That's why the secondary is going to be so important this season. With young and inexperienced players up front, the secondary has to be better.
Houston is a very good corner, but everyone around him needs to step up as well.
The regular season will be the ultimate barometer to gauge if the secondary has improved, however, OTAs will reveal which players are healthy and which ones have done enough work to warrant more playing time.
Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Jonte Greene, Chris Greenwood, Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey, Ricardo Silva and Don Carey are all players to keep an eye on. Each one of them could significantly impact the success of the Lions' secondary this season.
6. Will Mike Thomas Have a Big Role This Season?
When the Lions traded for Mike Thomas last year, expectations were high for how they would use him. He was a player with speed and versatility, and fans imagined him filling the shoes of Jahvid Best and Nate Burleson at the same time.
Unfortunately, Thomas didn't fill the shoes of anyone. He was used sparingly and only tallied five receptions and one touchdown in nine games for the Lions.
Will this year be any different?
With the addition of Reggie Bush and rookie Theo Riddick, Thomas certainly has his share of competition for the hybrid RB/WR role, and that doesn't bode well for his chances.
On the other hand, he's a veteran who put up impressive numbers in 2010. If he could replicate that performance in Detroit, the Lions' offense would be nearly impossible to contain.
OTAs will give an early glimpse of how the Lions intend on using Thomas this year.
5. Is "Kickalicious" for Real?
As I alluded to in the intro, Havard "Kickalicious" Rugland has mastered the art of wearing an American football helmet.
During rookie minicamp, he donned the NFL's dome protection device for the first time. Now, on to bigger and better things—namely kicking the laces off the football.
Everyone's seen his YouTube video, so we know he can kick a football 60 yards with ease, on a field all by himself.
Can he do it wearing full pads while 11 men try to rip his head off? That's another thing entirely.
We might not see that situation during OTAs, but we will see Rugland kick under pressure. He's trying to make an NFL team now, not messing around in his backyard.
It's about to get real for Kickalicious, we'll see how he handles it.
4. Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead
According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Ashlee Palmer was named by Jim Schwartz as the favorite to take over the starting OLB position vacated by Justin Durant.
That revelation was met by a chorus of groans from Lions' fans.
Palmer is a good special teams player but isn't exactly a "sexy" option to be the starter.
Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead are two players that should get a chance to compete.
Both of them drew rave reviews last offseason, but they had three solid veterans in front of them. They never got a chance to play.
Not surprisingly, with all the talk of improving the Lions' pass rush and secondary, Lewis and Whitehead have been overlooked. However, the Lions drafted them for a reason. It would be ridiculous for Detroit to give up on them now.
In their second year, they should improve substantially. That's why I don't buy the Palmer lip service. He's got the most tenure, so Schwartz is going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Keep an eye on Lewis and Whitehead, though.
They'll gain ground on Palmer, and once training camp starts, there will be an open competition for the starting spot.
3. Who's in the Mix for the KR/PR Job
The Stefan Logan era is over in Detroit, and the masses are still rejoicing.
Actually, Logan was a good player and an even better person. He simply offered no big-play ability—minus one great return in 2011—and made too many mistakes last season.
The Lions understandably parted ways with Logan, and OTA's will shine a light on who they're considering to replace him.
Other probable players competing for the job are Patrick Edwards, Mike Thomas, Theo Riddick and Corey Fuller.
My money's on Edwards. He's got experience playing both KR and PR and has a lot to offer in the passing game as well. He would have likely taken over the job last season if he wasn't dealing with his own injury.
As I said, position battles aren't won or lost during OTAs, but we will find out who's vying for the job. Don't be surprised if there are one or two surprises mixed in there.
2. Offensive Line Clarity
Here's what we know: Jeff Backus retired, Gosder Cherilus signed with the Colts and Stephen Peterman was put out of his misery and released.
Okay, let the prognostication begin. Who will replace them?
Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard, Riley Reiff and Larry Warford are the players most talked about to fill these spots.
Reiff appears to be the heir apparent to Matthew Stafford's blind side while Warford is nearly a lock to start at right guard.
According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Fox and Hilliard will compete for the right tackle spot.
OTAs will prove if this is accurate. However, there are other players who could muddy the waters and emerge as contenders.
Bill Nagy is a young player with guard and center experience who is now healthy and could compete for a job at either position.
Rodney Austin spent his rookie year on the Lions' practice squad but showed vast improvement during rookie mini camp this year according to Birkett.
He could emerge as a viable option as well.
Stay tuned. The offensive line competition will be one of the more interesting battles this offseason.
1. The Development of Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor
The No. 1 need for the Detroit Lions this offseason was bolstering their pass rush. Last year's starters—Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch—are gone, so it's understandable that drafting a defensive end or two was high on Mayhew's priority list.
The Lions opted to forego signing a big-name free agent and addressed that need in the draft. They selected Ezekiel Ansah with the No. 5 overall pick and Devin Taylor in the fourth round.
Both players have the size and length to be dominant defensive ends, but neither of them are quite NFL ready. Taylor, although impressive in the East-West Shrine Game, didn't put up impressive numbers his senior year, and Ansah just started playing football two years ago.
Needless to say, his football IQ is extremely low.
Regardless, how Ansah and Taylor develop during the offseason will be the biggest indicator of the Lions' success in 2013.
If defensive coaches Jim Washburn and Gunther Cunningham can turn them into productive pros their rookie year, the Lions' defense might have a chance at stopping somebody. If not, get ready for a long season.
OTAs are a starting point and a time for Ansah and Taylor to learn the position of NFL defensive end.
Their rise to NFL readiness will certainly be interesting to watch.
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