What's New for the Detroit Lions in 2013-14?
The 2013 NFL season is one that the Detroit Lions hope represents change. Detroit is looking to wash away the stain of a disappointing 2012 campaign that saw the team slide from earning a Wild Card berth in 2011 to earning a top five overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Much will look the same in Detroit; most key players and the majority of the coaching staff returns for another season. Yet fans will notice several changes around the team. Any time a franchise falls out of the playoffs, change is required.
If the following changes fail to stem the bleeding, this column will be much more extensive next year.
Fresh Faces on Offense
While most of the skill-position players remain intact, there is still a fair amount of turnover across the offense.
The biggest free-agent name the Lions landed this offseason is ex-Dolphin Reggie Bush, who comes from to the Lions with the hope and expectation of reinvigorating a moribund running attack. Bush could finish with at least 75 receptions as well.
Montell Owens will see some action as a short-yardage back once he's able to return from a preseason-left knee injury. He was brought in primarily for his special teams ability.
The big man in the picture is Larry Warford, the Lions third-round pick out of Kentucky. He will presumably get the thumbs up to start at right guard.
Even though he's been on the team for three seasons already, Jason Fox has been healthy so infrequently that he qualifies as a fresh face. Fox will either start at right tackle or serve in the Riley Reiff role of a year ago as the extra tackle in the six-lineman package while also being the top reserve tackle.
The top three wideouts (Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles) are the same as last year, but the next two spots feature new Lions. Matt Willis and Patrick Edwards both will see more action than their predecessors at the fourth and fifth wideout spots have in recent seasons.
The Changing of the Legs
When the Detroit Lions change placekickers, it's a legitimate news story.
Detroit has had only two kickers since Jimmy Carter was President: Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson.
After fending off a Kickalicious challenge, veteran David Akers takes over for Hanson. He comes off a down year with the San Francisco 49ers but brings proven clutch performance in big games and can (hopefully) match Hanson's outstanding range.
Detroit also features a new punter in Sam Martin. His booming leg will also be used on kickoffs, saving some wear and tear on Akers. From his very first preseason punt, a 54-yard sideline bomb against the New York Jets that forced a fair catch at the 10-yard line, Martin has given signs that he will be a definite upgrade over Nick Harris.
For a rather dissenting view on Martin, check out this video of what some of my colleagues here at Bleacher Report had to say back at draft time.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger: A New Defensive Philosophy
One of the concerted efforts made by the Lions' front office this offseason was to get bigger, faster and stronger on the defense. Detroit did just that, notably up front. Check out this quote from Coach Schwartz from DetroitLions.com:
In 2011, I thought our defensive line really carried us...Our defensive line is different this year, but I think we have the potential to be just as effective, if not more. It's a much bigger defensive line. The dynamics there are a little bit different. Same scheme, but maybe a little different execution of that scheme.
The lightest defensive end on the roster is Willie Young, who is listed at 251 pounds. All the other ends tip the scales at over 265 pounds, a big change from the lighter-and-quicker philosophy that has predominated in the Schwartz years.
The secondary also added size and speed. Rookie corner Darius Slay stands 6'1", as does free agent Rashean Mathis. Free-agent safety Glover Quin is a sturdy 6'0", 207 pounds, and he is physical enough to have played some nickel linebacker with the Houston Texans.
Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham got tired of seeing the Lions defense pushed around. This new cast is far more apt to do the pushing.
The Assistant Coaching Carousel
While the head coach and coordinators all remain the same, the Lions did a lot of shuffling at the next layer down on the coaching organization chart.
Foremost among those changes is that smiling man above, new special teams coach John Bonamego. He replaces Danny Crossman, whose units cost the Lions two games in a row last year with inexcusably wretched coverage. Bonamego is entering his 16th season in the league. The Lions also added a special teams quality-control assistant in Evan Rothstein to help improve the Lions' kick coverage and return games.
Tim Lappano has been promoted from tight ends coach to wide receivers coach, while Bobby Johnson takes over Lappano's old role. Johnson held that same position with the Jacksonville Jaguars last year.
Curtis Modkins comes on board as the running backs coach, moving to the Lions after coaching that same unit with the Buffalo Bills. Terry Heffernan makes the jump from coaching the offensive line at Wayne State to being an offensive line assistant for the Lions.
Perhaps the biggest new name is Jim Washburn, who joins the team as a pass-rush specialist. The venerable defensive line coach worked with Schwartz as a member of the Tennessee Titans coaching staff and brings his special character and devotion to the Wide-9 technique to Detroit. He joins his son Jeremiah, who is the offensive line coach for the team.
Fresh Faces on Defense
General manager Martin Mayhew was a very busy man this offseason. The Lions signed several free agents that will play prominent roles across the defense.
Veteran run-stuffers Justin Bannan and C.J. Mosley will be the primary backups to Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. Both bring years of experience and solid play to the mix.
There are so many new faces at defensive end that I'll break out that unit into its own slide. The only holdover from the 2012 season is Willie Young, meaning four new ends will see the vast majority of the action.
The Lions promoted from within, as Ashlee Palmer takes over a starting outside spot. Special teams ace Chris White was acquired late in the preseason to serve as a reserve backer as well.
Veteran Rocky McIntosh could fill a more prominent role if his legs are physically sound. And we might finally see some extended action for 2012 fifth-round pick Tahir Whitehead.
Free-agent Glover Quin is expected to bring snarl and stability to the perennially troublesome strong safety position.
Rashean Mathis joined the team in the middle of the preseason and quickly asserted an authoritative presence. He will play extensively as both the third safety and, on occasion, slot corner.
Key Offseason Departures
Detroit said goodbye to several veteran stalwarts. Most notable is left tackle Jeff Backus, who started at left tackle for over a decade. Backus was never as bad as Lions fans believed, and he played most of his best football late in his career.
Jason Hanson had been the Lions kicker for over 20 years. He owns the NFL record for most field goals beyond 50 yards. Aside from Barry Sanders, Hanson has been the most recognizable Lion since 1990, if not even before that.
Other prominent players who fled the den:
Right tackle Gosder Cherilus
Right guard Stephen Peterman
Defensive end Cliff Avril
Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill
Defensive end Lawrence Jackson
Linebacker Justin Durant
Cornerback Jacob Lacey
Safety Erik Coleman
Punter Nick Harris
Return specialist Stefan Logan
Extreme Makeover: Defensive End
As I mentioned earlier, Detroit has completely overhauled the defensive end position. The four primary players are all new to the Lions.
Two came from the draft. First-round pick Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah will start at one end spot right away. Oozing with athletic ability but not yet a finished product, Ansah epitomizes the transition to a beefier, stouter front.
Fourth-round pick Devin Taylor is even longer than Ansah. The rookie from South Carolina will be both a part of the defensive-line rotation as well as an integral part of special teams, where his length comes in handy for blocking kicks.
Not satisfied with drafting two new studs, the Lions also signed free agents Jason Jones and Israel Idonije. Jones, the former Titan who's now reunited with Schwartz, will be the other starter opposite Ansah. Idonije is the savvy veteran, a former Chicago Bear who has played his way from developmental project to above-average starter.
Jones and Idonije are both capable of sliding inside to tackle, and that affords the Lions more opportunity to invert the formation and confuse opposing offense lines. Ansah also has the strength to play inside, which could make for a nice change of pace.
When teams come off a 4-12 season there is ample opportunity for rookies to step right into prominent roles. These Lions are no exception.
I've mentioned Ziggy Ansah in other areas already. That underscores just how valuable the first-round pick is to this franchise. He is not the only rookie that will start on defense, however.
Second-round pick Darius Slay quickly asserted himself and overtook several competitors to win the starting right cornerback job. The Mississippi State product offers great length and speed. He's also very aggressive with the ball in the air, a point of emphasis for the defense.
Third-round pick Larry Warford is likely to start at right guard. Even if he doesn't begin the 2013 season as the starter, the odds are good he will play a lot and take over the gig sooner than later. It depends on how quickly he can handle the speed of the NFL.
Fourth-round pick Devin Taylor will be a rotational player on the defensive line and will see action on special teams.
Fifth-round pick Sam Martin will be the Lions punter for as long as he wants to be. I cringed when the team used a draft pick on a punter, but throughout the preseason Martin validated the decision.
Undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle worked his way up the depth chart and will be at minimum the top reserve tackle. He played well enough to merit consideration for the starting job at right tackle, which I chronicled recently.
This is a critical year for general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. Both men are essentially all in on winning this year. If the Lions don't significantly improve, this column next year will be headlined by their replacements.
There is a lot riding on the new faces and facets I've covered in these last few pages. Even Mayhew's harshest critic—and he's got quite a few of those in the Michigan media—has to admit this roster is deeper and more physically talented than any Lions team since the Sanders/Moore/Spielman era of the early 1990s.
The potential to return to the playoffs is legitimate. Defensively, this team is far better equipped to handle the changing face of NFL offenses. Offensively, adding Reggie Bush and bolstering the offensive line should give the Lions enough firepower to outscore just about anyone.
The keys will be consistency, discipline and more impact plays. Many of the new faces have dramatically improved the chances for making such game-changing plays. Improved depth will also make it easier to be consistent, because both injuries and bad performances will happen to almost every team.
As for team discipline, that has been Schwartz's biggest failure to this point. It will be the reason he's fired should these Lions play with sporadic brilliance but still underachieve.