5 Biggest Areas of Concern for Detroit Lions Heading into Training Camp

Brandon Alisoglu@@BrandonAlisogluCorrespondent IJuly 16, 2014

5 Biggest Areas of Concern for Detroit Lions Heading into Training Camp

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions will enter training camp July 27 with only a few obstacles standing in their path to the playoffs.

    However, you won't find any of them on the schedule.

    We can agree that the Chicago Bears are an improved team and the Green Bay Packers are always formidable with quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the helm. I just don't care.

    The only issues concerning this team in its quest for the NFC North title are on the roster. So click through to find out what's keeping head coach Jim Caldwell up at night. 

Rookie Development

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Players taken in the first round are usually counted on for big-time production immediately. In fact, quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel are arguably the only rookies who won't be counted on to have some sort of immediate impact.

    So saying Detroit is counting on tight end Eric Ebron to put up at least better-than-average numbers isn't surprising.

    But the Lions are counting on much more than just their top pick.

    Second-round pick Kyle Van Noy isn't a starting outside linebacker but is a catalyst for the entire defense. Due to his versatility, Van Noy will be moved all over the field in order to drive defenses crazy by rushing the passer, feigning the rush and dropping back, and stuffing the run. It's not a stretch to say his might be the most complicated role on that side of the ball.

    Going further down the line, fourth-rounder Nevin Lawson will be fighting to stick to the end of the cornerback rotation with once-exciting prospects Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood. Considering the Lions drafted him with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's scheme in mind, Lawson could very well enter training camp with a leg up.

    Finally, sixth-rounder T.J. Jones is in the mix for an active roster spot because of his speed and reliability, while seventh-rounder Nate Freese is battling Giorgio Tavecchio for place-kicking duties. 

    The Lions received immediate, substantial dividends from their 2013 rookie class. If Detroit is going to fulfill the growing playoff expectations held by fans and media members, the 2014 rookies will likely need to match their predecessors' efforts. 

Cornerback Development

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    As mentioned on the previous slide, Lawson will be fighting for meaningful playing time this summer, and the players he'll be competing against aren't much more developed than him.

    That's not good news for Detroit.

    Green and Greenwood have both battled injuries and shown flashes that fans have not clung to with an unrealistic gusto.

    In Greenwood's case, he performed well against the New York Giants last year, giving up just nine yards on three receptions. He then turned around and allowed every pass to be completed that was thrown at him the following week against the Vikings, including one for a score.

    Green has amassed almost 500 more snaps than Greenwood, highlighted by a solid four-game stretch during his rookie season where he graded out on the positive side against the Eagles, Bears, Seahawks and Jaguars. But neither player has shown enough to warrant much trust.

    Veteran Cassius Vaughn is the most experienced cornerback on the roster other than Rashean Mathis. However, that experience included his 2012 season, when he ranked as the worst cornerback in football, and last season, when he improved—to 76th.

    Bill Bentley and Darius Slay enter their third and second years, respectively, and they'll both play heavy roles in the secondary. Slay is currently slated as the top cornerback after a stellar showing in OTAS and minicamp, per MLive's Kyle Meinke, while Bentley will battle Mathis for the spot opposite Slay and will fall no further than nickelback (no music pun intended).

    Almost every player mentioned here is either raw, young or underdeveloped. Austin's new defense promises to shorten the amount of time the corners will be required to cover receivers, but he can't eliminate it. 


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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Fans surely don't need to be reminded of the cost of turnovers. Here's a hint: It's a four-letter word and not one often associated with Lions football.

    Fine. It's wins.

    Anyway, there were QB Matthew Stafford's four interceptions against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's still stupefying today that the then-first-place Lions lost to a team that finished with only three other wins.

    And who could forget the costly Week 16 loss to the New York Giants?

    Detroit, needing two wins in the last two weeks to avert a disastrous collapse, decided to write a new chapter in the book of losing. With a seven-point lead and possession of the ball with just five minutes to go, Stafford sailed a pass down the middle that safety Will Hill returned for the tying score. Kicker Josh Brown shut the door on Detroit's season in overtime with a 45-yard field goal.

    I could go on but you get the picture. And that's just two games.

    The Lions ultimately threw or fumbled away 34 possession during their 7-9 campaign. Only the aforementioned Giants had more giveaways.

    Mark Sanchez finds that laughable.

Creating Turnovers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The defense can't do anything to reduce Detroit's ridiculous giveaway total, but it can inflict the same pain on opposing offenses.

    Detroit wasn't nearly as bad in this endeavor last season. In fact, the Lions actually climbed all the way to 21st!

    All sarcasm aside, only three playoff teams forced as many or fewer than Detroit's 22 turnovers. And out of the three, the Packers and Chargers backed into the postseason with a lot of help.

    Detroit's paltry turnover production had a lot to do with a defense that had become predictable. The Wide 9 threw in the occasional stunt and would line up Ndamukong Suh at defensive end occasionally, but the basic principle was always the same.

    Which is why general manager Martin Mayhew didn't mess around this offseason. Aside from bringing in a new head coach and offensive philosophy, he hired Austin, the defensive coordinator, with an eye toward creating chaos.

    Austin's aggressive defense will have a 4-3 base and morph constantly. Offenses will have little clue as to who will be dropping into coverage and who will be rushing the passer. That's the type of environment that lends itself to takeaways.

Smart, Efficient Quarterback Play

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Stafford is the key. He always has been.

    When Detroit charged out to 6-3 start, it was Stafford's 19 touchdown passes that drove the team. And when the Lions crashed to a 1-6 finish, it was his 12 interceptions that broke the dam.

    Others, like Carlos Monarrez of USA Today, will argue that Calvin Johnson is the "key cog" of this offense. However, Johnson set the single-season record for receiving yards during the Lions' 4-12 2012 season with 1,964 yards. I won't argue against Johnson's importance, because he's the best receiver in the league, but the true strength of this year's team will be its bevy of weapons.

    Look back at the great offenses of the past decade or so. St. Louis' Greatest Show on Turf had Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim. The mid- and late-2000s Colts had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.

    But more importantly, those two teams had QBs Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning, much as the Saints had and have Drew Brees.

    Even when the 2007 Patriots went undefeated through the regular season with Randy Moss collecting a record 23 touchdowns, he still "only" had 98 catches.

    No, the real key will be a much more balanced distribution of the ball, and that will require a much more balanced approach from Stafford.

    He will need to be efficient by finding the open man, taking what the defense gives him and trusting his playmakers to do the heavy lifting. No one knows this more than Mayhew, which is why he went so quarterback-heavy with his coaching hires. 

    The current coaching staff has experience with three of the greatest quarterbacks of today's game. If it can get Stafford to buy into what it's selling, the biggest obstacle to a long Detroit playoff run will be removed and legitimate Lombardi dreams can begin to take root.

    Brandon Alisoglu is a Detroit Lions featured columnist who has written about the Lions on multiple sites. He also co-hosts a Lions-centric podcast, Lions Central Radio. Yell at him on Twitter about how wrong he is @BrandonAlisoglu.

    All statistics, grades and rankings are courtesy of Pro Football Focus and require a subscription.