7 Biggest Takeaways from Detroit Lions OTAs
The Detroit Lions now have two weeks of rookie camp and OTAs in the books. While the media has been closed out of the majority of the workouts, information on what's going on at the team facilities in Allen Park is plentiful.
Some of the gleanings from OTAs are quite positive, signs of real good things to come as the 2014 season approaches. Others are disappointing, harbingers that the more things change, the more they unfortunately stay the same.
Here are the seven most prominent takeaways from the early OTA sessions.
Nick Fairley Is Hungry
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has had quite the eventful offseason.
After an uneven season where he was dominant at times but more often lethargic and sometimes detrimental, the Lions opted to not pick up his fifth-year option on his rookie contract. As if that wasn't a big enough slap in the face, the overwhelmingly positive general fan reaction to that news had to really sting.
Fairley then missed the initial OTAs with what was initially listed as a medical procedure. That led to some interesting speculation before it was revealed that the burly tackle was treated for apnea.
Now a slimmer, more rested Fairley has arrived. As Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press reported, he's been eating healthier and seems relieved to have finally dealt with his sleep disorder.
Perhaps he's trying to land an endorsement deal with Subway to help compensate for his contractual uncertainty. Or maybe, just maybe, he's maturing into the player the Lions desperately hoped he would become when they took him in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.
A consistently healthy, motivated Fairley would go a long way toward helping new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin accomplish his goal of bringing relentless pressure and dictating the action.
Drops Continue to Rain Down
One of the biggest issues that plagued the Lions in 2013 was dropped passes. Per Sporting Charts, the Lions led the league in both dropped passes and percentage of passes dropped.
Down the stretch, when the offense faltered and wasted some strong defensive efforts, dropped passes were a large part of the blame. Unfortunately, they continued to be a problem during OTAs.
As noted by Michael Rothstein of ESPN after the full open practice last week:
Multiple players dropped passes throughout the day, including two from Golden Tate, who has some of the best hands in the NFL. Considering the issues this team had with that a season ago, it is still a bit concerning these issues remain. How big of an issue is it? Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said he was perturbed about the drops during practice.
There are any number of root causes to dropped passes:
- lack of concentration
- poor timing on the route release
- inaccuracy by the quarterback
- defensive pressure
- bad hands
The first four are all fixable to some extent. Matthew Stafford does lack touch and pinpoint ball placement at times at quarterback, as most throwers do. Even Calvin Johnson, almost inarguably the best wide receiver in the NFL today, doesn't run perfect routes every time.
Yet when drops are an ongoing issue, the team must place an emphasis on remedying the problem. This needs to be a major working point for Lombardi and his offensive staff going forward.
Right Tackle Is a Real Battle
After such a strong finish to his rookie season, LaAdrian Waddle was widely presumed to have little competition to keep his starting right tackle spot.
Waddle took over that role and proceeded to achieve a 7.9 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Yet one of the players he succeeded, Corey Hilliard, is not going down without a fight.
It's a nice problem to have. Detroit had enough confidence in Waddle that they elected to pass on Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin in May's draft.
Even though Waddle played well, Coach Caldwell will not name a starter until later this summer, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Hilliard does have experience with Caldwell from their brief time together in with the Indianapolis Colts. There's also some potential that Waddle simply had a fluke run that cannot be sustained long-term; he was an undrafted free agent after all.
Giant undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas could even factor into the mix if he impresses between now and the final cuts, though, that seems unlikely.
If you are a believer in the axiom that competition forges greatness, you're really going to like the right tackle battle that will play out this summer.
Theo Riddick's Role Could Grow
Second-year running back Theo Riddick is getting quite a bit of buzz for a player who gained 45 total yards as a rookie.
My favorite sleeper for the upcoming season: DET RB Theo Riddick— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 2, 2014
That came on the heels of Joe Lombardi praising Riddick after practice, as reported by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Per Birkett, Lombardi's impression is that Riddick reminds him of Reggie Bush, the player he's ostensibly backing up in Detroit. Yet the Notre Dame product could see a more prominent role.
Riddick's ability to catch the ball allows him to line up both in the backfield as well as in the slot. He's an ideal fit as a traditional third-down back.
It's worth noting that Lombardi is importing the offense from the New Orleans Saints, who have had at least four running backs get at least 40 touches in each of the last two seasons. Riddick will be the third back, behind Bush and Joique Bell, who is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
He'll also remain a fixture on special teams, and that could include getting some looks as a return man if Jeremy Ross falters. He fared well in coverage units as a rookie, bagging seven tackles, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While it's a little premature to reach for Riddick in any fantasy football drafts, it's worth keeping a close eye on how much action he sees in the next few sessions.
The Offense Will Be Different
While Scott Linehan's offense was not boring or lacking creativity, it often lacked flow and pace. That was egregiously obvious when the Lions offense flopped down the stretch last season.
One of the ways Joe Lombardi is aiming to fix that late malaise is by picking up the pace. The Lions did run lots of plays, but they seldom went no-huddle.
As reported by Justin Rogers of MLive, that figures to change under Caldwell and Lombardi:
According to STATS LLC, the Lions ran no-huddle only 4.3 percent of their snaps in 2013, the 26th-lowest rate in the NFL. Compare that with Baltimore, where the Ravens were in the hurry-up 48.3 percent of the time with Caldwell serving as the team's offensive coordinator.
The Lions practiced quickly shuttling substitutes on and off the field, as noted by Rogers and several other practice observers.
Putting more pressure on the defense can only help revive Detroit's middling offense from the second half of last year. Incorporating the no-huddle and keeping a consistent pacing should allow Stafford to get into a groove and allow the linemen to get even more of an advantage against their foes.
Strong Work Is Rewarded
One of the concepts that has emerged over the last year or so with the Lions organization is the pervasiveness of the "team" philosophy extending off the field as well.
Since senior personnel executive Brian Xanders arrived from the Denver Broncos, the Lions have clearly functioned as a more finely tuned instrument. From being more organized in the draft process to having a clearer set of goals for each coach and player, Detroit is now functioning more like a successful team from top to bottom.
Part of that is reflected in a set of moves within the scouting department. The Lions promoted Rob Lohman from college scouting coordinator to assistant director of pro personnel.
As noted by Kyle Meinke of MLive, his new duties include advance scouting at the pro level and evaluating free agents. After successfully showing his eye for talent in finding players like Larry Warford and Devin Taylor, Lohman's hard work and talent merited a promotion.
Again, this is what successful organizations do: identify talent from within and hold onto it as long as they can.
In that vein, several ripple moves underneath Lohman also sprung out last week. Young evaluators like Darren Anderson and Patrick Mularkey also received promotions as their stars continue to rise.
Fans might not appreciate how important these types of off-field moves are to the success on the field. Yet behind-the-scenes commitment to excellence is something that should help the Detroit Lions perform more successfully on the field.
No Country for Older Men
One of the hallmarks of the Jim Schwartz era was a reliance on veterans to fill depth roles, particularly on defense.
Lions fans grew accustomed to seeing young players like Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Doug Hogue discarded in favor of more proven, but limited, veterans like John Wendling and Andre Fluellen.
But this is now Jim Caldwell's team, and that means the tide could be changing in favor of the young up-and-comers.
The Lions cut veteran reserve defensive tackle Vaughn Martin (pictured), opting to give those reps to more unproven talents Greg Hickman and Jimmy Saddler-McQueen.
While it can be interpreted that Martin simply wasn't good—or healthy—enough to contribute, the more optimistic side is that the new coaching staff is more committed to upside. It also indicates more confidence in the organizational ability to develop talent, something that was definitely not a strength of the Schwartz staff.
This dovetails nicely with the previous slide and the wider picture of the Lions acting as a more successful organization. Instead of trying to patch holes with the same old retreads, this regime is more about finding and growing better replacements.
Kris Durham, Jonte Green and the aforementioned Fluellen, now in his fifth stint with the team, are now on notice that past experience won't be a trump card in their quests to make the team.