Detroit Lions Training Camp To-Do List
Training camp is nearly upon us! After a month of grueling inactivity, the Detroit Lions kick off the summer rite of football passage this week.
There will be many things to watch as the Lions prepare for the 2014 NFL season. While there aren't many starting-position battles, uncertainty looms large in several spots.
Coach Jim Caldwell and his staff will use the coming camp and preseason games to try and sort out all those issues.
Here are five things the Lions are hoping to accomplish in training camp.
A full schedule of Detroit's camp can be found here, courtesy of the team's official website. If you can, try and attend one of the open sessions. It's a real treat and a great opportunity to check out the new coaching staff and young players in action.
Mastering the New Offense
Training camp will be the first time the new-look Lions offense faces a fully loaded and padded defense. It's a good way to ascertain how quickly Matthew Stafford and his mates are mastering new coordinator Joe Lombardi's scheme.
Lombardi is installing the same scheme he learned from his years coaching in New Orleans, an offense that has set numerous records over the last three years. It's a complex that requires precise synchronicity and tight execution.
There will be inevitable growing pains. The key is to work out as many of those as possible before the games start counting.
The pressure on Stafford will be intense, because his level of responsibility has increased from the prior regime. He will be counted upon to make quick reads based on matchups and deliver pinpoint strikes with greater consistency. I recently wrote about how Stafford can thrive under Lombardi.
It's also important for the receivers to quickly master their route options and tightly coordinated movements. There is little room for improvisation or imprecision on their end, either.
Finally, the backs will get as much work as they can catching the ball. Every eligible receiver is a viable option on every pass play in Lombardi's scheme, which means Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and their compatriots could see a combined 150-plus targets. Great hands are a job requisite.
Sorting out the Secondary
The Lions enter camp with 15 defensive backs competing for just 10—or perhaps 11—roster spots.
Other than Glover Quin as one starting safety and Rashean Mathis as one outside corner, every other spot is up for grabs.
Competition is likely to be quite intense as the players strive to state their cases for answering questions all over the secondary depth chart.
Will free-agent import James Ihedigbo, who played under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore, assert himself and cement his role as the other starting safety? His veteran presence and strong 2013 play give him the inside track to replace hard-hitting Louis Delmas.
How big of a step forward will second-year corner Darius Slay make? He was good enough in camp as a second-round rookie last year to earn a starting job, only to quickly relinquish it with lousy play early in the season.
Slay finished on a positive note, and the team is counting on him to establish himself as a viable force outside in his sophomore campaign.
What is the fate of the three 2012 draft picks, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green? It's do-or-die time for all three corners. Only Bentley has proven much of anything, though he finds himself in a battle for the slot nickelback role with rookie upstart Nevin Lawson.
These, and other, questions will be progressively answered throughout the rest of the offseason. Training camp performances will go a long way toward providing those answers.
Examining the Rookies
The Lions added several new players to the den, and training camp is the first extended look at how ready the rookies are to contribute.
For first-round pick Eric Ebron and second-rounder Kyle Van Noy, expectations are high. Both are expected to start and make significant contributions as a pass-catcher and pass-rusher, respectively. How quickly they get up to speed will go a long way toward determining how big their roles can be as rookies.
The middle-round picks are trying to cement roster spots and prove they can make the jump from college to the NFL. Offensive lineman Travis Swanson and cornerback Nevin Lawson are being counted on to handle reserve roles right away. Defensive linemen Larry Webster and Caraun Reid are more long-term projects who likely won't see the field as rookies, though camp gives them a chance to prove otherwise.
It's also a critical time for seventh-round pick Nate Freese, the presumptive place-kicker of the future. Detroit has a long tradition of kicking excellence. Freese must prove he's capable of filling the sizable shoes of Jason Hanson and Eddie Murray.
There are also some intriguing undrafted players with chances to show they belong. Goliath tackle Cornelius Lucas is expected to win the fourth-tackle spot, while impressive athletes such as Jerome Couplin and recent signing Reese Wiggins hope to translate their great workout metrics into lasting NFL careers.
Preseason injuries, especially those that come before full contact begins, are the Voldemort of the NFL. They're the evil of which nobody wishes to speak.
Other teams have already suffered the unspeakable fate:
All those impressive linebackers are already lost for the season before camp even begins. The Lions are desperately hoping to avoid a similar fate with any of their key players.
It's also a good time to evaluate players coming back off injuries from last year.
Many eyes will be on oft-injured wideout Ryan Broyles as he attempts to come back from his third major leg injury in as many years. After tearing one ACL in his senior season at Oklahoma, his rookie campaign of 2012 ended early by tearing the other ACL.
His 2013 was cut short when he tore his Achilles tendon, just as he was starting to get back to full speed from the knee injuries.
As Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press reports, Broyles says he feels "healthy" and was not limited in minicamp. A full season of Broyles operating in the slot would make the Detroit offense even more dangerous.
Coming out of camp without any serious injuries to players such as Broyles would be considered a victory for Detroit.
Complete Any Outstanding Contract Issues
NFL teams loathe having contractual uncertainty linger into the regular season. It's a potential distraction they actively seek to avoid at all costs.
Training camp is an opportune time to resolve any of those issues, and the Lions happen to have one that swelters on in the summer haze.
There is one last chance to negotiate a long-term extension with star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Negotiations have been on and off since January, but the two sides have been unable to reach an accord.
While it hasn't boiled over yet, the simmering contention has kept the Lions from being more aggressive in free agency. Suh's ungodly salary-cap figure for 2014 has tied up cash that could have been used to upgrade other positions, including the depth behind Suh along the defensive line.
With the top three tackles—Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley—all in the final years of their contracts, locking up Suh would also provide more stability and show a commitment to keeping the strong core of the team intact.
Thankfully, there aren't many other outstanding contractual issues in Detroit. Yet the Lions could do some other minor legwork here, such as extending Stephen Tulloch for a year or two or locking up Bentley with a new deal.