Detroit Lions Offseason State of the Union

Jeff RisdonContributor IJune 23, 2014

Detroit Lions Offseason State of the Union

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    The Detroit Lions are in the middle of the slowest part of the NFL calendar. OTAs and the first mini-camp are all done, and training camp sits a few weeks away. 

    This is a good time to assess exactly what is going on at team headquarters in Allen Park, what the roster looks like and what decisions are still lingering. 

    There is still plenty going on behind the scenes. Coaches are evaluating early returns on position battles and figuring out which players fit best in which roles. Players are studying and working on targeted areas of improvement. The front office continues to try and make the roster better. 

    Here's a look at where the Lions stand in several key areas in late June. 

All Draft Picks Are Signed

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    It took a little finagling, but general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand accomplished the critical step of getting every draft pick signed before the end of the first minicamp. 

    In prior years, this would seem like a pipe dream. Yet thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA, the rookie salary structure doesn't give much wiggle room anymore. The days of the extended holdout and acrimonious negotiations are going the way of the dodo.

    First-round pick Eric Ebron was the last to sign, inking his deal right after the team released veteran cornerback Chris Houston to free up the salary-cap room. 

    Here's a breakdown of the Lions' rookie contracts, courtesy of Spotrac:

    PlayerYearsDollars (in millions)Signing Bonus
     Eric Ebron 4 $12.249 $7.228 million
     Kyle Van Noy 4 $5.102 $2.032M
     Travis Swanson 4 $2.989 $619 thousand
     Nevin Lawson 4 $2.52 $301K
     Larry Webster 4 $2.52 $301K
     Caraun Reid 4 $2.409 $189K
     T.J. Jones 4 $2.326 $106K
     Nate Freese 4 $2.279 $59K

    With all the rookies signed, sealed and delivered, there is one less distraction hanging over Motown. 

Scraping the Salary-Cap Ceiling

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    USA TODAY Sports

    As mentioned in the previous slide, it took cutting Chris Houston to free up enough salary-cap space to sign Eric Ebron. If the Lions want to do anything else this summer, there will be more blood.

    Per Over The Cap, the Lions sit with just $406,300 in available 2014 salary-cap dollars to spend. That measly sum is not even enough to sign a first-year player to a veteran-minimum contract. 

    Much—but certainly not all—of the blame falls on Detroit's inability to reach a contract extension with star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. While it was widely anticipated that the two sides would agree to a lucrative new deal this offseason, it has not happened.

    Suh's ungainly cap figure is $22.4 million this year, the final year of his contract. Technically his contract does run through 2015, but he can void the deal after the Super Bowl. 

    The Lions also have astronomical financial commitments to quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The dead money in 2014 for this trio is downright ugly:

    • Stafford-$43.04 million
    • Johnson-$29.03 million
    • Suh-$19.475 million

    While the Lions would definitely be a vastly inferior team without their services, paying such premiums for their skills hamstrings the ability to procure other top-shelf talent. 

    A deal with Suh could come over the summer, but it might not. If it doesn't, the team has very little ability to do anything to improve the roster without making deeper cuts than it already has with Houston. 

Mastery of the Playbook

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    One of the issues that comes with a coaching change is that the holdover players must learn new schemes and systems. 

    Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is importing the system from the New Orleans Saints. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is molding the defense in the likeness of his former team, the Baltimore Ravens

    Even though the base schematics will appear similar, both sides of the ball will see fairly dramatic changes. 

    On offense, running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell will have to learn to play behind a fullback, something neither has done in Detroit. Matthew Stafford and his receivers are learning the timing and positioning on a more precise and diverse type of passing attack than in Scott Linehan's old system.

    Stafford will have more freedom to alter plays in Lombardi's offense. With that freedom comes increased responsibility, too, which he welcomes. As reported by Kyle Meinke of MLive, Stafford is excited for the challenge. 

    The nomenclature has changed too, even if the play remains the same. Players are memorizing the new language. While they are pretty similar, it still takes some time for mastery of the new verbiage. 

    As an example, a defensive line stunt with the end and tackle might be called "Tex" in one system and "Exit" in another. They both mean tackle and end exchange (notice the anagrams?), but in Austin's system, exit might mean for the weakside linebacker to drop into coverage with the back, while in the old system it meant for the end to loop inside the tackle. 

    The preseason will be important for getting all the players speaking the same new language. Right now, the players are teaching it to themselves to get ready if they aren't already fluent. 

Darius Slay Is Stepping Up

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    With Chris Houston now gone, the Lions are even more in need of a young cornerback to step up his game. 

    All hope seems to ride on Darius Slay's shoulders. The second-round pick from 2013 is getting nothing but positive buzz all offseason so far. 

    Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News offered a glowing report from a recent practice session open to the media:

    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 also saw a lot to like from the former Mississippi State Bulldog in an earlier workout:

    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.

    It's encouraging that Slay is impressing, even if it's only June. Carrying it over to the regular season is an altogether different animal. Still, this young Lion's evident progress should help Detroit fans sleep a little easier when pondering the pass defense. 

Still Shopping for More

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    On the same day the Lions severed ties with Chris Houston, the Kansas City Chiefs released veteran corner Brandon Flowers.

    Almost immediately, speculation on Detroit's interest in the one-time Pro Bowler proliferated the Internet. The Lions' official website even had a video debate on the subject.

    Even though Flowers seems like a bad schematic fit and the Lions currently have no possible way to afford him even on a veteran minimum contract. Bleacher Report's Zach Kruse summed this up nicely in his recent piece, noting:

    Flowers was released in part because he no longer fit into the Chiefs defense, which required its cornerbacks to play press-man coverage. The 5'9", 187-pound Flowers struggled with jamming and rerouting receivers at the line of scrimmage in Bob Sutton's defense.

    The Lions, for all intents and purposes, are likely to be a heavy press team in 2014 under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. 

    The corner is not the only name that attracted some interest, at least from a fan perspective. As soon as Jacksonville cut ties with Jason Babin, many folks, including SideLion Report's Max Demara, immediately tried to connect some dots with Detroit too.

    Babin, a veteran pass-rushing specialist from Western Michigan, played effectively at times for several other teams. The Lions do need some depth at defensive end, too. 

    It's probably for the best that the Lions lack the cap room to have much interest in Babin, who has a history of quickly wearing out his welcome. He also doesn't exactly show a lot of enthusiasm for doing anything other than rushing the passer from a Wide 9 technique, something the Lions are (thankfully) phasing out of the new defense. 

The Hidden Lingering Hole at Kicker

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Lions have one problem area on the roster that receives almost no national attention.

    While the big-time pundits oversell the issues in the Detroit secondary, little mind is paid to what currently stands as the biggest weakness on the roster: kicker.

    After years of excellence from Jason Hanson, the Lions got spoiled by having a highly reliable kicker with exceptional range on his field goals. Hanson holds the NFL record for most field goals from 50-plus yards, and he was a bedrock den member during his two decades in Detroit.

    The Lions tried fading veteran David Akers last year, but he proved unworthy of another chance. 

    Now the team will head to camp with Giorgio Tavecchio and Nate Freese battling it out.

    Tavecchio had some strong early moments in OTAs, but he has not been able to sustain his early momentum:

    Talked with #Lions K Giorgio Tavecchio today after practice. Called it "probably my worst day in my professional life." Was completely off.

    — Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) June 10, 2014

    The Italian is an underdog to seventh-round rookie Nate Freese (pictured) simply because the Lions opted to actually use a draft pick on the hyper-accurate kicker from Boston College.

    Freese didn't miss a kick as a senior, but he struggled quite a bit early on. However, he's earned Hanson's endorsement, as reported by Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News

    Even with that positive blessing, it's still tough to trust an unproven rookie kicker to step into a critical moment in a crucial game, with the Lions needing a 53-yard field goal to secure a victory.

    This is the year the Lions bite the bullet and hope for the best at kicker, something they have not done since 1991. Then again, that Hanson guy worked out pretty well... 

Injury Assessment

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Lions have a few players coming off injuries or offseason surgeries. Here is the latest update on each of these key Lions.

     

    Ryan Broyles

    According to the Detroit Free Press beat writers Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Broyles is progressing quite well from his torn Achilles'. The oft-injured wideout from Oklahoma "has looked good as he fights for the final two or three receiver roster spots."

    If he continues to progress well, the 2012 second-round pick could very well earn back his role as the primary slot receiver. That's asking a lot for a guy who has suffered three major leg injuries in as many years, however. 

     

    Rob Sims

    In the same Free Press article, they reported the starting left guard remains limited in practice. For the moment he's being replaced by Rodney Austin, who appears to have an early leg up on third-round pick Travis Swanson for the top interior line reserve gig. 

    Sims underwent surgery this offseason, but the nature of that surgery remains as closely guarded of a secret as the recipe for Bush's baked beans. As a proven veteran, he's earned the benefit of the doubt in his recovery and his ability to absorb the nuances of the new offense. 

    Now if he still isn't ready for full-time duty when training camp opens in July, then we have a horse of a much darker color. 

     

    Ezekiel Ansah

    Ziggy plays football, and he played it quite well as a rookie. The defensive end from Ghana by way of BYU needed shoulder surgery after the season, and he's yet to make his workout debut. 

    Teryl Austin has been keeping close tabs on his budding star, even though he's sidelined. As Kyle Meinke of MLive reported, Austin expects a lot from the second-year stud:

    The Lions will make life more complex for the front seven. They're going to cycle through three-, four- and even five-man fronts to confuse offenses and generate pressure. And that means players are going to be asked to fill multiple roles.

    Ansah is no exception. He'll play end, but could line up at tackle. He'll rush the quarterback, but could drop back into coverage.

    His recovery could extend deep into the preseason, but Ansah is expected to be in the starting lineup when the Lions host the New York Giants on Monday Night Football in Week One. 

     

    Jason Jones

    As noted on Rotoworld, Jones has been a limited participant in the spring work. He is attempting to come back from a torn patellar tendon in his knee, which he suffered early in 2013. 

    Jones wasn't playing very well in that early stint, however; his Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade was -4.4 on just 87 snaps. In Austin's defense, Jones projects as the closed-end defensive end, but also offers the flexibility to kick inside to tackle at times. 

    Because of his $3.86 million contract, if Jones cannot prove he's back at full speed before the heart of the preseason, he could find himself an ex-Lion.

Camp Surprises

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Spring is the season for optimism. Several young players have sprung up impressively in this offseason so far.

     

    Tahir Whitehead

    The third-year linebacker from Temple hasn't made much of an impact in his first two NFL seasons. Other than his award-winning special teams work, Whitehead has not been on the field during the regular season yet.

    That appears as if it could change. Whitehead got some first-team reps at middle linebacker, a departure from his outside position under former coach Jim Schwartz. 

    .@ttwentyman's practice notebook: @Big_Tah47, other LBs showing versatility: http://t.co/NyRIqoN0hq. pic.twitter.com/omr5Zdo5g1

    — Detroit Lions (@Lions) June 11, 2014

    From that linked piece on the Lions' official website, Twentyman quotes Coach Caldwell talking up Whitehead:

    “He’s got punch and can run. Certainly, he can direct traffic in there. He’s got a real good feel for things. He’s a good football player. You see him close ground out there on the field. The guy can make plays. Obviously, Tully’s (Tulloch) a little bit bigger than he is in terms of weight and girth, not in terms of height. Nevertheless, I still think that he can function in there.”

    At minimum, Whitehead has solidified his grasp on a roster spot. He could wind up being the fourth linebacker, as fellow reserves Ashlee Palmer, Travis Lewis, Julian Stanford and Cory Greenwood should only strike fear in the hearts of Lions faithful, not other teams' fanbases. 

     

    Jeremy Ross

    The wide receiver and return specialist already has one outstanding performance in the books for the Lions. He starred against the team that cut him, the Green Bay Packers, in Detroit's Thanksgiving massacre of its NFC North rivals. 

    He's building upon that one shining moment this spring. I recently detailed his strong workout season here. 

    If the season started today, Ross would likely be the third receiver. That's a role that isn't as meaty as in years past with the strength at tight end and diversity of Lombardi's offense, but an important role still. 

     

    Theo Riddick

    The second-year running back has also garnered all sorts of buzz for his spring football. 

    As Kyle Meinke of MLive reported, Coach Caldwell has been impressed with his fine offseason:

    He's eager, he's hungry, he's tough, he can run. He's a very, very fine route-runner. He can catch the ball. He's had a real fine spring, so I hope he continues to develop. We think he will.

    With the third running back seeing an increased role in the offense, Riddick could very well break out in his second season in Motown. Given that Reggie Bush has been hampered with minor injuries here and there throughout his career, Riddick's relative skill redundancy with Bush makes him even more of an asset. 

    Of course, it's worth noting a quote from the late Chuck Daly. The Detroit Pistons icon once famously said, "A pessimist is an optimist with experience." 

    Blossoms from springs past—Patrick Edwards last year is a good example—often wilt in the heat of summer, as the intensity of competition warms up as well. Even so, it's still nice to think that at least one of these spring studs can carry over the impressive play into the regular season. 

     

    All salary cap info is from Spotrac unless otherwise indicated. 

    You can ask Jeff questions for this Friday's mailbag segment in the comment section.