Early Predictions for Detroit Lions 2014 Training Camp Battles
It's still early in the OTA sessions, but already several position battles are shaping up across the Detroit Lions roster.
Coach Jim Caldwell (pictured) will have some tough decisions to make at many spots. As Caldwell is new to Detroit, it's hard to get a good feel on which way he leans or the methodology to his decision-making process.
That doesn't quell the speculation, however, so here are my early predictions for six of the hotter training camp battles coming this summer to the Lions.
There's an old football adage that goes, "if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one." The implication is that not having a clear-cut top dog carries quite the negative connotation.
To adapt that adage to the Lions cornerback situation, Detroit has six potential starting corners. That means they sorely lack a top dog, but it also makes for quite the offseason positional battle.
Veterans Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis started on the outside for the bulk of 2013, but there are questions with both.
Houston is out until at least training camp in July after recent surgery on his problematic toe. It was that same toe which was a common scapegoat for his lousy '13 campaign, where he was ranked 96th by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in their cornerback rankings.
Mathis played quite respectably for a guy plucked off the street in preseason, finishing 27th overall in those same PFF rankings. He showed his wheels still rolled just fine, and he still has the instincts that made him a stalwart in Jacksonville for many years. However, he's 34 and didn't get a sniff on the open free-agent market.
Darius Slay is expected to step up and earn a starting role after being the team's second-round pick in 2013. He earned a starting gig last preseason, too, but gave it away with unacceptably awful play early in the year. The game simply looked too fast for him.
Later in the year, Slay got a second chance. The Mississippi State product played better, using his size and speed more to his advantage. He's built upon that in OTAs, as reported by Justin Rogers of MLive:
Second-year cornerback Darius Slay is playing with a high level of confidence. In one-on-one drills, he fell a step behind undrafted rookie Andrew Peacock on a double-move, but closed the gap to break up the deep pass in the end zone.
Learning how to recover when initially beaten is a critical skill for cornerbacks, and was something that Slay really struggled with as a rookie. That's a great sign. So is this, in continuation from Rogers' fine reporting:
On the first play of seven-on-sevens, Matthew Stafford challenged Slay deep down the sideline on a throw to Calvin Johnson, but the young corner stuck in Johnson's back pocket, turned his head and nearly intercepted the slightly under-thrown ball. Johnson became the defender, separating the ball from Slay at the last possible moment.
Another player to watch is Cassius Vaughn, who started several games for playoff teams in Indianapolis the last two years. It would be a surprise if Vaughn earned a starting role, but a pleasant one.
Bill Bentley has been the slot nickelback the last two years. Under Jim Schwartz, that was a starting role. How much new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin goes nickel as a base package remains to be seen.
His aggressive style of play seems a good fit for Austin's philosophy, which is nicely detailed by MLive's Kyle Meinke from earlier this month.
Fourth-round rookie Nevin Lawson also plays with that aggressive style and swagger. While he projects primarily in the slot, it's not inconceivable that a strong preseason could get him some run outside too.
I would have included Chris Greenwood in this battle royal too, but he's missing OTAs as he recovers from hernia surgery. The third-year project from Albion is now much more in a fight to simply make the team than to compete for a starting spot.
Prediction: Slay winds up being a passable No. 1 corner, while Mathis' experience earns him another season as the other outside corner.
Bolder prediction: We will not see Houston play another snap as a Detroit Lion. That's pure conjecture on my part.
Top Interior Offensive Line Reserve
Unless something radical happens, like an unfortunate injury or a completely unexpected trade of left guard Rob Sims, the entire starting offensive line is set.
The interior line will feature Sims, center Dominic Raiola and right guard Larry Warford as starters. It's one of the better groups in the entire league.
Behind that strong core is a question mark, however.
Battling it out for that top reserve spot will be practice squad fixture Rodney Austin and third-round pick Travis Swanson, with an outside chance that undrafted free agents D.J. Morrell and A.J. Dalton factor in as well.
For all intents and purposes, the job will go to either Austin or Swanson.
Austin appears to be the leader at the moment. Per Kyle Meinke of MLive, Austin is getting the first-team reps at left guard with Sims not in full participation.
Austin started the second half as the left guard. On his first two snaps he ran like gangbusters out into space but failed to engage anyone. On the next drive, 2 & 1 he pulled across very quickly but once again failed to engage as Bell cut back behind him. The very next play he was more patient and threw a nice punch (legally) to rock back the linebacker at the point of attack, following it with quick feet to keep the hole progressing down the field. On the play after Joique Bell cold-cocked a streaker, once again Austin couldn’t find anyone to hit. Missed a block on a delayed rusher that led to a QB pressure on Moore.
If can can demonstrate more effective use of his considerable strength and energy, the Lions just might have something in Austin.
Swanson was selected with the intention of learning on the job for a year before succeeding the aging Raiola at center in a year or two. Yet he has also shown he can play guard during his Arkansas career.
He's not nearly as strong as Austin, nor is he as sure-footed in space. His Bleacher Report scouting profile by Alex Dunlap has several mentions of Swanson's poor strength and power.
Yet he's the third-round pick, while Austin went undrafted out of Elon and has not played an offensive regular-season snap in his two years in Detroit.
Prediction: Swanson gets the higher nod, but Austin also makes the team as the Lions keep them both on the active roster.
The Lions haven't utilized a fullback since the Cory Schlesinger era ended in 2006, other than a brief blip in the winless 2008 campaign with Moran Norris or Jerome Felton in 2010.
That will change with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who is installing the offense from New Orleans which extensively used a fullback.
In fact, that fullback came along with Lombardi. Jed Collins played as the Saints primary lead blocker and safety valve receiver.
His familiarity with the offense gives Collins a leg up, but it doesn't cement him as the starter. Collins will have to beat out undrafted rookie Chad Abram.
The young Seminole product is faster and niftier with the ball in his hands. He's more versatile, and that's no knock on Collins, either. The veteran is a more accomplished lead blocker and outweighs his challenger by 20 pounds.
Head coach Jim Caldwell also used a fullback in his offenses in Baltimore, where he was the coordinator in 2012-13, as well as during his stint as head coach in Indianapolis. His fullback of choice tended to be more like Collins, a thumping lead blocker who might go a month without touching the ball.
While every indication is that Lombardi will control the offense, it's hard to see Caldwell turning his back on his past experiences and going against type at fullback.
Prediction: Abram will make the roster, but Collins offers a veteran presence within the offensive scheme, and that earns him the starting fullback job.
The third quarterback battle is a case of contrasting styles making as much of a difference as the players themselves. Kellen Moore and James Franklin will fight for the right to wear a visor and tote a clipboard behind Matthew Stafford and Dan Orlovsky.
Moore has two years of NFL experience in his corner, though he's never played in a regular-season game. He's smallish for the position at just 6'0", and his athletic prowess underwhelms. His arm strength, while legitimately improved from his Boise State days, remains inadequate by NFL standards.
Still, Moore has a deft touch on his short and intermediate throws and can make anticipatory throws required at the NFL level. He was much improved in the 2013 preseason, looking stronger and more confident in Scott Linehan's old offense.
Franklin offers completely divergent skills. He's a mobile gunslinger with quick feet and a decent downfield arm. Whereas Moore likes to dink and dunk, Franklin will take shots into traffic and outside the hashes.
Franklin's biggest issue is pinpoint accuracy, which is Moore's greatest strength. He's also had some injury issues. Missouri's simplistic passing scheme hasn't exactly translated well to the NFL recently, either. Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel, anyone?
Franklin's ability to emulate opposing mobile quarterbacks in practice is a real asset, as the Lions do not have anyone else who offers those skills. Then again, Moore successfully fended off Thad Lewis last year in a similar battle.
That was a different coaching staff, however. Coach Caldwell has nothing invested in Moore, and he had a similar player to Franklin as his Baltimore backup in Tyrod Taylor.
Prediction: Franklin gets the nod, and the Lions deal Moore for a conditional seventh-round pick in the preseason.
Third Wide Receiver
Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate have nothing to fear as the top two wideouts in Detroit. They figure to get the vast majority of the wide receiver action in Joe Lombardi's new offense, which he is importing from the Saints.
The third spot is up for a major battle this offseason.
Ryan Broyles is the preferred option, but his health keeps getting in the way. The 2012 second-round pick has torn both ACLs and an Achilles tendon in the last three seasons, which puts his availability in serious question. Broyles might even begin the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means he would miss at least the first six games.
Sixth-round draft pick T.J. Jones is, like Broyles, a natural slot receiver. From his draft review at Detroit Lions Draft:
He's quicker than fast but also fast, with light feet and the ability to plant and cut sharply without decelerating. He's not very big, and that poses issues for Jones as both a receiver but especially as a blocker. He has the makings of a quality 3rd wideout in the NFL.
Also notable are his massive hands, which measure 10" on his 6'0" frame. Those big mitts and his precise route running give him a real chance to earn the spot.
Jones could remind offensive coordinator Lombardi of Kenny Stills, who progressed quickly as a fifth-round rookie in New Orleans last season.
Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross both have limited experience in the past for Detroit, with largely ineffective results. Each has one stellar outing in his career; Ogletree lit up the Giants in the 2012 season opener while playing for Dallas, while Ross (pictured) had quite a memorable performance last Thanksgiving against Green Bay, the team that had cut him a few weeks earlier.
Ross doubles as the primary return specialist. In some cases that works against a receiver, but Baltimore deployed Jacoby Jones as both during its Super Bowl run. That's where coach Caldwell served as an assistant most recently.
Corey Fuller, the team's sixth-round pick in 2013, will get a crack as well. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad, and that seems his likely destination in 2014 unless he demonstrably improves.
Then there's Kris Durham.
Last year, Durham spent most of the season as Detroit's No. 2 receiver thanks to injuries to others; however, his painful inability to parlay that into anything positive is the reason why the Lions coveted Tate as a free agent.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Durham caught just 12 of the final 36 balls thrown his way, including five drops. While he has great size and decent speed, he's not able to create much room for himself and seldom does much after the catch.
His history with Stafford—they were teammates at Georgia too—is the biggest feather in his cap going forward with the new coaching staff.
Prediction: Jones steps up and wins the job in preseason, but he only holds onto it until Broyles comes off the PUP list.
The battle at kicker is expected to be a mere formality before seventh-round pick Nate Freese assumes the storied role. Yet Giorgio Tavecchio is not going to go down without a fight.
From Wednesday's OTA session, which was just the second (and first full one) open to the media:
Tavecchio also nailed a game-winner during situational stuff from 56. Offense's only score in 5 tries. ... Freese missed wide right from 46— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) May 28, 2014
Kicking is very much a results-oriented profession. If Tavecchio can keep nailing field goals that venerable Jason Hanson made look routine in Detroit, and Freese continues to miss from 10 yards closer, the Lions won't hesitate to cut bait with the draft pick.
A similar situation occurred last year with the punters. Even though Sam Martin was the draft pick and a seemingly foregone conclusion to get the job, he wound up having to fight off a very game Blake Clingan, who now has a decent chance to win that same gig for Washington.
Martin wound up being quite good as a rookie, save one very bad day, and the competition had to have helped. Hopefully the same is true for Freese this year.
Prediction: Freese wins, but Tavecchio stays on speed dial in case the rookie struggles.