The 5 Biggest Issues Facing Detroit Lions with OTAs Wrapped Up
The Detroit Lions wrapped up OTAs last week, and the team has a quick, contact-free minicamp this week.
All this early action has given a better indication of what sort of team we will see in 2014 under the new coaching staff, headed by Jim Caldwell.
It's also highlighted some areas where the Lions have some issues. While there is obvious talent—enough to legitimately make a run at a playoff win or two—there are definite sore points that cast doubt upon the team's ability to improve over last year's maddening late-season collapse.
Hopefully, some of these issues work themselves out over the course of the summer.
The potential is certainly there for Caldwell and his crew to mitigate some of the remaining weaknesses.
Others will need a surprise performance from an unexpected source, but fortunately there is some precedence there, too. Think LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle and Jeremy Ross at kick returner last season for examples.
Here are five issues the Lions still face after the first few weeks of offseason workouts.
Eric Ebron Is Still Unsigned
First-round pick Eric Ebron is the only Lions rookie who has yet to ink a contract. In fact, he's one of the few remaining first-rounders still unsigned.
He's not holding out, however. The Lions cannot afford to sign the hybrid tight end/wide receiver from North Carolina because of salary-cap issues.
The main reason, though far from the only one, is that the Lions have not been able to agree to terms on a contract extension with high-priced defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It was presumed that a deal was a foregone conclusion, but that assumption instead proved the old cliche about assuming something.
Detroit does have some other options aside from finally consummating a deal with Suh, and I wrote about them last week.
It's not yet a dire situation, but it's getting to the point where not having the dynamic rookie signed is becoming a real headache and hindrance.
The Uncertainty of Chris Houston
Even though the above scene paints a picture that summons 1,000 negative words from Lions fans, cornerback Chris Houston remains one of the top options at the beleaguered position.
With that said, his recent foot surgery has sidelined Houston during the OTAs and could keep him out significantly longer.
Coach Caldwell recently told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that Houston's return date is uncertain:
I'm not certain, to be honest with you,” Caldwell said. “I kind of leave those things up to our physicians. Those guys went to school for a long time to get those medical degrees so what I do is try to focus in on what we're doing and I let them sort of navigate through it and then give me an indication at some point in time.
Ambiguity equals a problem for a new coaching staff trying to cobble together the best possible secondary from a crowded but questionable cast.
Houston might not be great, but he's at least a proven commodity. Replacing him falls to an unproven cast of youngsters—namely second-year player Darius Slay. The potential is high, but the uncertainty higher.
That's not an optimal situation in a NFC North with Jay Cutler throwing to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, or Aaron Rodgers throwing to Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Heck, even Minnesota has some impressive weapons in Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings.
Perhaps a guy like fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson or free-agent acquisition Cassius Vaughn steps up and makes Houston's absence a moot point.
Given the uncertainty of Houston's problematic toe, the Lions might be depending on unexpected fortune like that to get by at cornerback.
Who Will Be the 3rd, 4th and 5th Wideouts?
The Lions are set at the first two wideout spots with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. There might not be a more versatile and talented duo in the entire league.
Although the Lions will use more multiple-tight-end sets and two-back sets to help ease the pressure on the wideouts, there is still a precipitous drop from the starting receivers to the reserves.
Even if you consider Ebron the third wide receiver—which I do—the position sorely lacks any proven commodities in the third, fourth and fifth spots.
Jeremy Ross is a front-runner for one of those spots, though he's proven much more valuable as a return specialist than a receiver. He caught just five passes for 59 yards in 10 games in Detroit a year ago.
Kevin Ogletree, who Birkett reports was singled out by offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi for his strong play in OTAs, caught 13 passes in Detroit last year.
Ryan Broyles would be great as the slot receiver, but after three major leg injuries in as many years, it's foolish to count on him. Any contributions the former Oklahoma star makes should be considered gravy.
Sixth-round rookie T.J. Jones offers sure-handed quickness in the slot, but he's slightly built and doesn't have great speed. Jones has a lot to prove in making the jump from Notre Dame to the NFL.
Kris Durham was the second wideout for most of 2013. On a good offense, he should be no higher than fifth on the depth chart. Durham might not even make the team in 2014.
Then there are longer shots like Corey Fuller, Naaman Roosevelt and Cody Wilson. While each has some discernible NFL talent, none have ever conveyed that into any actual results.
The wideout who winds up with the third-most receptions for Detroit this fall may not even be on the roster right now.
Catching the Football
No team makes every possible catch—that's a fact of the NFL. However, Sporting Charts indicates that the Lions dropped more catchable passes than any other team in 2013.
That bumbling trend has reared its ugly head once again in OTAs, as noted by Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com:
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.
It would be one thing if it was just one guy with a bad case of paddles for hands, but it's apparently endemic across the entire roster.
Even Calvin Johnson, almost inarguably the most talented receiver in the league, has struggled at times to catch the football. The pictured drop against Cleveland here was one of 10 in 2013, as charted by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
This is not an easy fix.
While coaches and players can talk about working harder with the Jugs machine and focusing on the ball, translating that from the practice field to the heat of a NFL game can be quite difficult.
Unease at Defensive Tackle
This is an issue that is more psychological than physical. It could even be a paranoid figment of pessimistic fans' minds, because this coming season is not necessarily the issue in question.
However, not having any of the top three defensive tackles under contract beyond 2014 is something that weighs upon many Detroit followers.
The long-term uncertainty surrounding Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh—the two high-profile, high-impact talents who make up the focal point of the defense—is a potential headache.
Maybe Fairley will respond positively to the team refusing to pick up his fifth-year option, essentially making this a contract season for the enigmatic big man.
According to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News, he's off to a good start:
After surgery to help fix his chronic sleep apnea problem, Fairley has gotten in better shape and Katzenstein suggests that he practiced hard. The key now is for the undisciplined talent to stay dialed in and focused on every snap.
Suh has also struggled with controlling his aggression and keeping his composure in games. But how well will he mesh with the new coaching staff, knowing that he has an out if he doesn't feel like Detroit is the best place for him anymore?
Strange things happen when players are in tenuous contractual situations. Some players respond, others wilt.
Given that Detroit has a new coaching staff with a markedly different approach to interacting with players and structuring the team, that is also a variable.
Could this be much ado about nothing? Hopefully, it is. Fairley, Suh and third tackle C.J. Mosley may all turn in great performances in 2014. Nevertheless, all the uncertainty around their long-term fates doesn't exactly inspire confidence.