Winners and Losers of Detroit Lions Offseason so Far
The Detroit Lions are now in the heart of the offseason. Two weeks of OTAs and the first minicamp are already completed, and every draft pick is now signed.
It has been an eventful offseason so far. Between hiring a new coaching staff, drafting what appears to be a pretty solid rookie class and making some tough choices with veteran contributors, there really hasn't been a dull moment.
Some of those moments are better than others, though. Here are the winners and losers for the Lions offseason so far.
Winner: Darius Slay
Perhaps no Lion faces greater expectations for improvement than second-year cornerback Darius Slay. The 2013 second-round pick from Mississippi State is being thrust into the starting lineup, with the anticipation that he will emerge as the top cover man in the secondary.
The early returns from the offseason are positive.
Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News reported on his camp impression of Slay:
Slay’s play this spring could’ve been the final push the Lions needed to release Houston. Lining up as the No. 1 cornerback on the first-team defense, the 2013 second-round pick fit right in and played confidently. Slay even had a few nice pass breakups against All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson and had tight coverage on most other receivers.
Michael Rothstein of ESPN noted similar improvement from earlier in the offseason:
Best player of the day might have been cornerback Darius Slay. I talked with him a bunch over the past two weeks about his improvement. He has really shown better recovery if he gets beat early in a route -- that recovery speed showed up at least once Wednesday -- and better coverage skills as well.
After cutting Chris Houston—more on that very soon—the Lions sorely need Slay to live up to the potential he's only hinted at so far. His athletic tools are eerily similar to those of Justin Gilbert, the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. If Slay can perform like Gilbert is expected to, a lot of the questions about Detroit's defense will go away.
Slay has been working with Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson this offseason. Woodson—for my money, the best all-around defensive back of the Super Bowl era—has worked with him on the mental approach as much as the physical skills. It's clearly paying off so far.
Loser: Chris Houston
It's not hard to find the biggest loser of Detroit's offseason. Veteran cornerback Chris Houston runs away with the honor.
In fact, his offseason has been so bad that he's now unemployed.
After a down season where he was consistently beaten over the top—not to mention his continuous and egregious lack of ball awareness—Houston delayed surgery on his problematic toe. When rest proved ineffective, he finally went under the knife in May.
That decision proved costly. With Houston's availability for the beginning of the season very much in doubt and no chance for him to practice for the new defensive coaches, the Lions cut bait on the former Arkansas Razorback late last week.
Dane Brugler from CBS summed it up nicely:
Not a huge surprise to see the #Lions cut Chris Houston. Team had strong concerns about durability (foot) and they like young CBs on roster— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) June 13, 2014
Don't cry for Houston, though. He was released with an injury settlement that paid him at least $1.9 million—and perhaps a lot more. Details of the settlement are not public yet, but per Over the Cap, it will wind up being at least that much.
Winner: Golden Tate
One of the newest Lions has had one of the best offseasons. Wide receiver Golden Tate signed as a free agent after winning a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks.
As if coming off a world championship isn't great enough, Tate pocketed $31 million over five years to come to Detroit. That's a hefty payday to become a No. 2 wideout.
He was excused from a day of OTAs to visit the White House with his old team. Tate got to throw out the first pitch at a Tigers game, too, but only after whacking a home run in batting practice with Detroit's other cats. Things can't get much better for the 25-year-old Notre Dame product, although he did miss a little time with a tender shoulder.
He's been working on developing chemistry with his new quarterback, Matthew Stafford, and though there have been some challenges in picking up the new offense, Tate still brims with enthusiasm. As he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN:
"This is a very, very fast-paced offense. I’m having fun," Tate said. “I’m still trying to learn the plays to running those routes where Coach Lombardi wants them. It’s another challenge and I think I respond well to challenges."
His winning pedigree and positive attitude are invaluable to a team that doesn't really have a vocal leadership presence from the veteran stars on the roster. Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh are all great players, but none are transcendent leadership personalities.
Loser: Kris Durham
For most of the 2013 NFL campaign, Kris Durham lined up as the No. 2 wideout in Detroit. With injuries sidelining Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and even Calvin Johnson at times, Durham was the one constant in the lineup.
Now, thanks in no small part to his lousy performance in his expanded role, Durham is in an uphill fight to even make the Lions roster.
His 2013 was abysmal. There's no way to sugarcoat it.
Pro Football Focus charted him with the worst grade (-12.3) of any Lions offensive player in the last three seasons. He caught just 13 of the last 37 balls thrown his way—a period coinciding with Detroit's offensive collapse down the stretch.
It's not like he has a strong track record to fall back upon; in 2012 he caught just eight of his 20 targets. He showed very little elusiveness after the catch in either season, and his blocking is nothing special either.
Most reports, including this informative article with video from the Detroit Free Press, have both Broyles and Jeremy Ross rocketing past Durham for the wideout spots behind Johnson and Tate. Kevin Ogletree and rookie T.J. Jones both appear on Bleacher Report colleague Brandon Alisoglu's wide receiver depth chart slideshow, too.
Being Stafford's former Georgia roommate will not earn Durham any quarter in making the roster for new coach Jim Caldwell. Thus far, he's done little to prove he deserves a spot.
Winner: Nick Fairley
If any Lions player needed a good offseason, it was mercurial defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
Fairley was initially a loser, as the team declined to pick up his fifth-year contract option. That's a definite slap in the face for the former first-round pick.
The rotund Auburn product had a choice to make. He could get angry and bitter about it, or he could refocus himself and strive to impress.
To steal a line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he chose wisely.
Fairley lost considerable weight—at least 20 pounds—after the end of the season. His increasing girth throughout the season was a sore point. When he threw out the first pitch at a Tigers game (pictured), it was obvious not only that he has lost a lot of weight, but also that the remaining weight is better distributed.
A change in diet gets part of the credit, but Fairley also finally addressed his sleep apnea issue. It caused him to miss a few sessions of OTAs, but in the long run, the minor surgery will prove totally worthwhile.
Fairley is playing for a new contract and he knows it. From various quotes and in talking to team sources, there is a very real change in the enigmatic talent. He seems genuinely happy to be held to task, something the Jim Schwartz regime never took seriously.
A fit, rested and motivated Fairley can only mean good things for the Lions defense this season. So far, so good.
Loser: Chris Greenwood
When you're a young player trying desperately to make a strong impression on a new coaching staff, perhaps the worst thing you can do is not be available.
Such is the case with Chris Greenwood—and it could very well cost him his last shot in Detroit.
The cornerback, a fifth-round pick from D-III Albion College in 2012, has struggled his entire career to get on the field. An abdominal injury wiped out his rookie campaign. His inexperience and technical rawness prevented Greenwood from moving up in his second season.
The Dallas Cowboys signed him off the practice squad during the 2013 season. But he couldn't even impress that franchise, which was in the process of allowing the third-most yards in NFL history (h/t Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram).
After returning to Detroit, he finally got a brief chance to show what he could do. In playing a little over half the snaps in the final two games, Greenwood showed real promise. Pro Football Focus graded him at +2.3. Hopes were high.
Unfortunately, the injury bug bit Greenwood once again. He underwent sports hernia surgery and missed almost all of the offseason workouts. He did little to distinguish himself in minicamp, either, as noted by Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News:
Missing most of OTAs due to injury didn’t help, but while most of the cornerbacks had some head-turning plays, Greenwood didn’t do much to help himself in minicamp. Out of the cornerbacks drafted in 2012, he’s still behind Bill Bentley and Jonte Green.
Considering Green is in real peril of not making the team either, being listed behind him cannot be a positive for Greenwood; his outstanding athletic potential will not save him again.
Winner: Theo Riddick
It's apparently an unwritten law that every Detroit Lions scribe must shower effusive praise upon second-year running back Theo Riddick this offseason. Name the publication, and you'll find a piece extolling the former Notre Dame running back.
Here's a sampling of some mentions from publications around the Mitten State:
- From MLive: Theo Riddick breaks out during Detroit Lions' offseason program
- From the Detroit News: Theo Riddick's role might be larger in new Lions offense
- From ESPN: Theo Riddick continues to impress
Even national writers like Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network have jumped onto the Riddick bandwagon:
My favorite sleeper for the upcoming season: DET RB Theo Riddick— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 2, 2014
All this for a player who gained just 45 yards from scrimmage as a seldom-used rookie.
The versatile Riddick figures to play a more prominent role in Joe Lombardi's diverse offense. Based on the model used by the New Orleans Saints—Lombardi's prior team—the workload is shared across the backfield much more than under former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
Still, the 2013 sixth-round pick has to prove he deserves that increased action. He's done just that in the offseason so far, and the Lions now sport arguably the deepest running back corps in the entire league as a result.
Loser: Vaughn Martin
The offseason started off with promise for defensive tackle Vaughn Martin:
New Lions DT Vaughn Martin started 27 games for the Chargers in 2011-12. Hurt last year. Could be a good No. 3 or No. 4 DT if healthy.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) March 13, 2014
The Lions had a sore need for depth, and Martin's solid experience looked like a great fit.
Alas, it was not a match made in heaven. Martin quickly lost his role as the fourth defensive tackle to fifth-round rookie Caraun Reid, and his veteran salary made him a luxury the Lions could not afford to sit inactive during games.
The Lions released Martin on June 2nd, ending his Detroit tenure after less than three months.
If there's one redeeming point for the journeyman, it's that he was released early enough in the offseason that he has a chance to catch on with another team. That has yet to happen in the two weeks following his departure, however.
All advanced stats and snap counts are from Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content. All other statistical and biographical info is from NFL.com.