Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Biggest Training Camp Battles
What is NFL training camp about if not incredibly gifted athletes fighting each other for dominance?
A lot of things, actually, but this is one of the most important and exciting. The Detroit Lions are nowhere close to having a set roster just yet, and a number of important positions—many of them starting roles—remain available.
What positions are these? Who are battling for these roles? What do their resumes look like? Who has the upper hand?
If you find yourself asking any of these questions, you're in the right place. Or at least you will be as soon as you click forward.
Starting Right Tackle
Candidates: Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard
This is one of the most important and likely one of the most exciting training camp battles this year.
In large part, both players are both unknown quantities. They've been stashed away on the Lions' bench for years, so the only people who truly know their value are the Lions coaches who have been watching them work Monday to Saturday.
Fox was a fourth-round pick in 2010, while Hilliard was signed as a free agent in 2009. Both have played extremely sparingly as Lions, which means there is precious little film of them to study.
Most roster battles are conflated somewhat with players' prior performance. Since these players have very little performance to go off of, it's fair to assume that whoever wins the next two months will win the starting job, no questions asked.
Starting SAM Linebacker
Candidates: Travis Lewis, Tahir Whitehead, Ashlee Palmer
While Justin Durant may not have been a Pro Bowl tackle, he was a reliable starter for the Lions in his two years there.
Now the Lions are faced with the prospect of replacing Durant with either a formerly undrafted special teams star (Palmer), a 2012 fifth-round pick (Whitehead) and a 2012 seventh-round pick (Lewis).
Neither Whitehead or Lewis have seen notable reps with the defense since their college days, and Palmer has played only in an emergency reserve capacity (and even then, not much).
Palmer most likely has an early advantage due to his NFL experience, but Whitehead boasts quality athleticism and speed, while Lewis shows above-average instincts.
All three of these candidates have their own individual advantages, so the winner of this battle will be the one best able to parlay that advantage into on-field production.
Starting Right Cornerback
Candidates: Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green, Ron Bartell
Though there are technically a bunch of potential quality candidates for this job, the Lions probably already have it down to two or three.
It's hard to say anything for sure, but there's a good chance the Lions have this bunch narrowed down quite a bit more. Still, it's impossible to say who the Lions are seriously looking at for this starting job.
Bartell is the veteran of the group, and while he's the most experienced, he also got cut by the Oakland Raiders, which is a pretty damning indictment.
Slay and Greenwood are by far the most physically talented of the bunch but also the least experienced. They are more likely to earn that starting spot over time than immediately out of training camp (if at all).
Green has the most game experience of any of the candidates outside of Bartell, as late-season injuries forced the sixth-round pick into action far before he was intended to see any. He struggled early on but showed visible improvement by the end of the season.
Bentley might be the best blend of youth, experience and talent, but he only played in four games last season before being injured, and being that he's smaller than the other corners in question, he might end up a better fit at the increasingly important slot cornerback position.
That's an important thing to remember about this battle: Whoever doesn't win isn't necessarily a "loser." Teams are increasingly looking for cornerback help as deep as they can, because as the league continues to attack through the air en masse, third and fourth cornerbacks are getting increased playing time.
So really, this is a battle all the way down the depth chart.
No. 2 Wide Receiver
Candidates: Ryan Broyles, Nate Burleson
Outside of Calvin Johnson, the Lions haven't produced a terribly productive wide receiver since Matthew Stafford.
Burleson has had moments, Titus Young was expected to produce big things, and the Lions even relied on Bryant Johnson for a while.
Broyles looked good last year for a few games but ended up injured before he really hit his stride.
Ultimately, the Lions' passing game runs primarily through Johnson and non-wideouts (running backs and tight ends).
It may continue that way, but the Lions still need to produce a threat to challenge down the field on the opposite side of Johnson. Neither Burleson nor Broyles have that skill set, but they can be productive by providing the Welker to his Moss.
Most likely, this battle will end with Burleson remaining Stafford's second favorite wideout target, if only on account of rapport. However, the season should end with Broyles being the more productive receiver. Burleson is the more valuable player now, but their careers are on opposite sides of the peak.
Starting Right Guard
Candidates: Larry Warford, Dylan Gandy, Rodney Austin
Warford is undoubtedly the heavy favorite in this battle (no pun intended), as he boasts skills (and strength) that should allow him to start moving defensive linemen around immediately.
Still, it's not like the Lions to simply hand a starting job to a third-round rookie. He'll need to show up and earn it first. Gandy, the veteran backup center, and Austin, a practice squad player from last year who has snuck into the discussion, will gladly take his spot if he proves not ready for the job.
Warford certainly appears to be the right man for the job in the long-term, but the Lions' blocking scheme is sophisticated and notoriously difficult to learn, so it's worth pointing out that one of the more experienced players could—if only temporarily—beat Warford for the job.
Candidates: Havard Rugland, David Akers
Kicking is rarely the most exciting thing on the football field.
This summer...it still won't be. Not even the addition of trick-shot Internet sensation Havard "Kickalicious" Rugland can make kicking exciting, unless it's the fourth quarter of a close game or the NFL changes the rules to give kickers extra points for juggling trick-shot field goals.
Still, as kicking battles go, this is pretty interesting.
Akers, a six-time All-Pro, is coming off the worst season of his career and a nagging injury.
Rugland is perfectly healthy and completed a training camp in which he proved he wasn't simply a gimmick.
Rugland is still a heavy underdog as someone who put on a helmet for the first time a few weeks ago facing off against one of the best kickers of this generation. But it certainly is a battle.
If "Kickalicious" keeps passing tests the way he has, he could take one of the most interesting stories of the offseason right into the regular season.
Candidates: Kellen Moore, Thaddeus Lewis
Lewis has one NFL start; Moore has none.
Moore has one season with the Lions; Lewis has none.
Both players struggle with height, arm strength and the deep ball, which severely limits their respective upsides.
In other words, this battle is surprisingly even. And for a battle involving quarterbacks, it will probably prove to be surprisingly unimportant.
Still, watch the second half of the Lions' preseason games to see which of these guys seems to be catching on. The Lions are most likely not sold on either of them—yet.
Power Running Back
Candidates: Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell
Depending on who you ask, this may not even be a battle. Leshoure was drafted in the second round to be a power back complement to a speed back, and now that Reggie Bush is a Lion, he slots directly into his ideal role.
Only, Leshoure may no longer be the best-suited for that role. Have a look at the comparison between Leshoure and his teammate, Bell.
Leshoure had more yards than Bell, but Bell was far more efficient. Granted, their roles were different, as are their skill sets. What the Lions ask each of these players to do will be different now that they have Bush to do speed work.
Still, if they're willing to give it a fair trial, the Lions might find that Bell and Leshoure are much closer in talent than perhaps originally thought.
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