The Detroit Lions' Most Heated Position Battles of Training Camp
With the addition of Reggie Bush, Glover Quin and Ezekiel Ansah, the Detroit Lions look poised for a much-improved season. These additions make the Lions better on both sides of the ball, yet there are still big question marks looming as training camp nears.
The Lions' success in 2013 will certainly be impacted by the big names I mentioned above. Their starting jobs are secure.
However, there is a surprising number of vacant positions up for grabs. Free agency was not kind to the Lions, in terms of players lost, and that means there are holes to fill.
It's the outcome of these position battles that will have a bigger impact on the Lions' success this season.
Here are the best position battles to watch for during training camp.
7. Steven Miller vs. Theo Riddick
The Lions were blown away by Steven Miller's athleticism and quickness and quickly signed the running back as an undrafted free agent following this year's draft.
At 5'7" and 172 pounds, he's undersized, but his performance during his pro day at Appalachian State, including a 43' vertical jump, was too good for the Lions to pass up.
His value isn't as a running back, though, at least not this year.
According to Tim Twentyman of Detroitlions.com, the Lions consider Miller a great option as a punt returner.
Twentyman mentioned Reggie Bush and Ryan Broyles as the most likely players to handle punt return duties—which would make it hard for Miller to win a spot.
It's also hard to imagine the Lions using a roster spot on a guy who would only handle punts. Former return man Stephen Logan did punts and kickoff returns.
With that said, Miller's performance, thus far, has been impressive, and he's looked every bit as good as the Lions sixth-round pick, Theo Riddick.
Chris McCosky of The Detroit News reported the following:
His quickness and elusiveness have stood out in the two days of rookie mini-camp, where he has worked with Riddick as a returner and running back.
In the same article Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz said this:
He runs real fast, he's got some multi-dimensional skills, he's good with the ball in his hands. We'll see if he can develop into a player that can have a role for us.
Regardless of Miller's chances to win a spot, he will be one to watch during training camp. Look for him to stand out during preseason games as well.
6. David Akers vs. Havard Rugland
The battle for team kicker isn't one that usually generates a lot of buzz. The position isn't a glamorous one, and kickers are typically the least athletic guys on the field.
That still might be true for the Lions, but there is plenty of buzz surrounding their kickers.
That's because, for the first time since 1991, they'll have a kicker not named Jason Hanson.
David Akers was signed, and in terms of awards and recognition, he's even more accomplished than the Lions legend. Akers is a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, winning both awards as recently as 2011.
His challenger is YouTube sensation Havard Rugland. He's a Norwegian kicker with zero NFL experience. However his video, titled "Kickalicious," shows off his impressive accuracy and leg strength.
Normally, Rugland wouldn't stand a chance. However, Akers had a terrible season last year with the San Francisco 49ers. A groin injury was blamed for it, but that hasn't stopped folks from wondering about his ability to return to form.
Maybe Akers is on the downside of his career.
If that's the case, why not give Rugland a try? If he proves to be as good as he appears on video, then he'll not only be an internet sensation, but an NFL sensation as well.
Akers' health will be the ultimate factor, but it will be interesting to see how Rugland, as green a rookie as the Lions have ever had, handles training camp.
5. Larry Warford vs. Everyone
The title is obviously an exaggeration, but for Larry Warford, it must feel like it's him against the world.
When the Lions selected him in the third round of this year's draft, he was quickly penciled in as the starter at right guard.
The rookie was characterized as a mauler who represented everything that the Lions offensive line needed—a nasty edge and improved run-blocking.
A lot can happen between the draft and the start of the regular season, though. That's not to say that Warford has struggled, but the Lions have certainly gone out of their way to bring in some competition for him.
In recent weeks, they signed veteran guards Leroy Harris and Jake Scott to serve as competition. They also have perennial benchwarmer Dylan Gandy and impressive second-year player Rodney Austin vying for the job.
Then there's Bill Nagy, who is still recovering from ankle surgery, but could be in the mix if he is healthy enough to participate in training camp.
That's a lot of competition for a rookie to face—especially one who was drafted to start from Day 1.
Lions' rookies haven't always been the picture of maturity and reliability in recent years, but that's what Warford will need to be if he plans on starting.
4. Jason Fox vs. Corey Hilliard
The Detroit Lions' offensive line had been the model of consistency for many years, and depending on who you ask, that was either a very good thing or a very bad thing.
Despite having consistent personnel, the line was frequently criticized. As a unit, they were victims of their own solid, but unspectacular, play. Nothing special stood out about any one player. For that reason, their negative attributes got all the attention.
That brings us to today. The Lions' model of consistency was blown up by free agency and retirement, leaving fans feeling anxious.
This is what everyone wanted, so why all the apprehension?
Perhaps, because the players pegged to replace the departed are so unproven—particularly Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard.
Suddenly, old reliable Jeff Backus doesn't sound so bad.
Hilliard is a five-year veteran who started five games for Detroit in 2010 and 2011, but didn't appear in a single game last year. Fox is a three-year vet, but he's only appeared in five games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Nevertheless, one of these guys will be the starting right tackle for the Lions this year.
Despite their relative inexperience, the competition will be hot. They're both hungry and have a lot to prove. Fox needs to show he can stay healthy and that the Lions made the right decision by keeping him around.
He's also fighting for his future. The Lions signed him to a one-year deal this offseason, and if he doesn't win the starting job, it's hard to believe they'd re-sign him next year.
Hilliard has a little more security, a two-year deal, but just as much to prove. At least Fox has been injured. Hilliard went from spot starter to the invisible man. He needs to prove he still has what it takes to start in the NFL.
Right tackle isn't exactly a sexy position, but this should be a fun competition to watch. My money is on Fox, as long he's healthy.
3. Tony Scheffler vs. Joseph Fauria
Stop me if you've heard this one before: An undrafted free agent outplays a seven-year veteran and steals his roster spot away from him.
I know, hilarious right? Funniest joke you've ever heard?
Actually, this scenario is one that could play itself out during the Lions' training camp. Tony Scheffler, the aforementioned veteran, is coming off a subpar year and will enter the final year of his contract.
Joseph Fauria is the undrafted rookie the Lions targeted and signed immediately following the draft. They gave him the biggest signing bonus of all their undrafted signees, and he hasn't disappointed during OTAs.
Granted, Fauria hasn't caught a single pass in pads and hasn't taken a hit yet. However, he does have a similar skill set as Scheffler.
He's younger and cheaper, too.
It might seem far-fetched, but, as Tim Twentyman of Detroitlions.com pointed out here, the Lions will likely only carry three tight ends into the regular season.
Brandon Pettigrew is the unquestioned No. 1, and rookie Michael Williams will be used primarily as a blocking back. That leaves Fauria and Scheffler to duke it out for the third and final spot.
Sheffler is a good player, but the Lions know what he can do. Fauria has sky-high potential. If he continues to impress during training camp, it will be a difficult decision for the Lions to make.
Difficult, but necessary. I'll take Fauria.
2. Ashlee Palmer vs. Travis Lewis vs. Tahir Whitehead
Last March, per the Detroit Free Press, Ashlee Palmer was the first player Jim Schwartz mentioned as a candidate to fill the vacant linebacker position.
Palmer wasn't exactly a high-profile name, but it should have come as no surprise that Schwartz would throw his name out there first.
Palmer is a veteran who has payed his dues on special teams and who played solid football when called upon last season to fill in for the injured DeAndre Levy.
That doesn't mean that he was a difference-maker, but it is worth noting.
He might be the most likely candidate to fill the position, but he certainly isn't the only one. The Lions have two second-year players, Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead, who are hungry to prove themselves.
Both of them will be in the mix and should give Palmer a run for his money.
Lewis might be the favorite out of the two. After tearing his hamstring at last year's combine, then his quad during the preseason, Lewis feels fortunate to still be on the team.
He was never 100 percent during his rookie year, but he is now; and that bodes well for his chances.
Gunther Cunningham has been impressed with Lewis and shared the following with Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News:
Travis made a couple (plays) today. Last week he was responsible for two interceptions, he’s a real vocal player. He’s been a leader all his life, probably high school through college and he wants to do that very much
The open competition at linebacker might be the hardest competition to call this offseason. Training camp will prove if any of these three players separate themselves from the pack.
1. Bill Bentley vs. Darius Slay
The competition for the other starting cornerback job, opposite Chris Houston, will the most hotly contested battle of training camp.
That's because there are five legitimate candidates who will be in the mix—Ron Bartell, Bill Bentley, Jonte Green, Darius Slay and Chris Greenwood.
Granted, Greenwood and Green are long shots. Greenwood is short on experience, but long on athleticism. Green proved he can be a solid player last season in 15 games—five starts—and showed significant improvement as the season wore on.
Bartell is an eight-year veteran and got the most first-team reps during minicamp and actually started for the Lions the final game of last season.
However, all eyes will be on Bentley and Slay, the two cornerbacks drafted highest by the Lions the last two years—Bentley in Round 3 of the 2012 draft and Slay in Round 2 this year.
Both are young, inexperienced and needing to develop better technique if they want to be great NFL players. Yet despite their unpolished play, they're both viewed as impact players because of their big-play ability.
Players with that attribute are exactly what the Lions' secondary needs.
Last year, turnovers and big plays were few and far between.
They are the clear favorites to win the starting job, and their battle will be fierce. Bentley might have the slight edge because he's already participated in one training camp and started in four regular-season games.
However, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com believes that Slay is simply too explosive not to win the starting job. Said Jeremiah of Slay:
Slay is incredibly explosive (4.36-second time in the 40-yard dash) and has impressive ball skills, as evidenced by his five interceptions last fall.
He should nail down a starting position during training camp, and I expect him to improve throughout his rookie season. I won't be surprised if Slay matches the five picks he recorded during his final college campaign.
Should be fun to watch, and the consolation prize will be nickelback duties.