Detroit Lions Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
The Detroit Lions will be the last team to kick off training camp, as they do not have their first practice until next Monday, July 28. In less than one week, we will have real football happenings to talk about instead of this painfully long lead-up!
Until that glorious time, however, there are still some useful things to talk about. Detroit has several intriguing storylines to follow. From a new coaching staff to a mercurial defensive tackle to a handful of position battles, there is plenty to look forward to over the next week.
Here are some of the storylines to watch as the Lions commence camp. These are five of the key issues that will get some resolution in the coming couple of weeks.
Which Nick Fairley Shows Up?
Nick Fairley is one of the most talented players on the Lions roster. The defensive tackle, Detroit's first-round pick in 2011, has flashed occasional dominance. Yet he's tarnished those fleeting positives with erratic play and a disturbing lack of focus and discipline.
Those issues prompted general manager Martin Mayhew to opt against picking up the fifth-year option on his contract. That makes 2014 a contract year for Fairley.
Perhaps Mayhew really is trying to motivate Fairley into a more consistent, responsible force. Players in a contract year do have a funny way of spiking in productivity. Putting the impetus on Fairley to prove he's worthy of a fat new deal could really pay off for Detroit.
Getting the big man to produce results expected of a first-round pick would be a major improvement. After all, in 2013 he was nearly identical to a largely anonymous sixth-round pick...
Player A: 24 solo tackles, 6 sacks Player B: 25 solo tackles, 6 sacks Player A: Nick Fairley, top 15 pick Player B: Chris Jones, 6th round— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) February 6, 2014
The early returns are positive. Fairley had surgery to correct his sleep apnea issue. He also lost at least 25 pounds, showing up visibly trimmer at OTAs in May. As Kyle Meinke of MLive wrote at the time, Fairley is in the best shape of his career.
That is a great first step. The key is for Fairley to continue to make steps forward. If he checks in back over 300 pounds, or God forbid gets arrested again, all the positive developments go out the window.
Getting a healthy, motivated Fairley would transform a good Lions defensive front into a great one. That could be the difference between another disappointing finish and a home playoff date as NFC North champions.
How Do the Players React to the New Coaching Regime?
Perhaps the biggest change Lions fans will note about the 2014 Lions will not be the players, but rather the new coaching staff.
New head coach Jim Caldwell is the antithesis of the deposed Jim Schwartz.
Caldwell is preternaturally calm and measures his words. He treats everyone with dignity and an approachable demeanor. Even in the heat of the game, he keeps his poise and expects his players to do the same.
Schwartz was a bombastic hothead who wore his emotions, particularly his negative ones, on his sleeve. His lack of composure bled into his team, which continually committed boneheaded penalties and paralyzing mental gaffes.
Meanwhile, Caldwell's Colts team consistently excelled at avoiding the self-inflicted errors:
In those four years, Schwartz's Lions ranked 19th, 31st, 30th and 18th, never committing fewer than six per game per Team Rankings.
The stark contrast in demeanor and approach to interpersonal communication will take some getting used to for the holdover players. Training camp will be their first extensive time making the adjustment.
The Right Tackle Battle
The Lions are fortunate that they have only one offensive starting position up for grabs in camp: right tackle.
What's even better is that the two guys battling for that spot both bring some positive experience and legit talent to the fight.
If the competition at right tackle seems familiar, you're not mistaken. Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle squared off last summer for the same spot, though both initially lost out to now-departed Jason Fox.
Hilliard got the first chance to replace the chronically gimpy Fox, and he was adequate after the first game. He allowed just nine quarterback pressures and one sack in just fewer than 400 snaps the rest of the season, per PFF.
Yet when undrafted rookie Waddle stepped in when Hilliard got dinged, he was even better. His run blocking was consistently great, earning a 4.6 score from PFF, and the Texas Tech product did not allow a sack.
That debut season seemed strong enough to keep the starting gig for Waddle, but the new coaching staff is giving Hilliard a chance to prove himself. As noted by MLive's Justin Rogers, in an excellent piece on this battle, Coach Caldwell knows Hilliard well from their time together in Indianapolis.
There really isn't an advantage in terms of what happens to the loser, either. Many times, what happens with the guy losing the position battle impacts the decision; if it means an otherwise valuable player is out of a job, teams will sometimes weigh that into the equation and try to keep him. That's not the case here, as both Hilliard and Waddle would make very good swingmen as the third tackle.
What Happens with the 2012 Corners?
In the 2012 NFL draft, the Lions selected three cornerbacks to try and overhaul what had been a chronically underwhelming position on the Detroit defense. Selecting Bill Bentley in the third round, Chris Greenwood in the fifth and Jonte Green in the sixth represented a concerted effort by general manager Martin Mayhew to add and develop talent.
Two seasons later, it's time for that investment to either pay off or go away.
Thus far the returns are not good. Only Bentley has played regularly, though his career has been pockmarked with shoulder injuries and a nasty concussion suffered at the hands (actually shoulder) of teammate Louis Delmas.
Bentley projects as the starting nickelback, but he will have to fend off fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson. The rookie is longer, stronger and seems to be more natural at playing inside. Bentley's solid run support and competitive confidence will keep him on the roster even if he loses the starting slot gig, but such a development would have to be considered a big disappointment.
That word clearly applies to Greenwood: disappointment.
The Lions traded up to select the 6'2" speedster from Albion College, a D-III school in southern Michigan. His athletic measurements were dripping with potential, his length and litheness being especially outstanding.
Alas, that potential has gone unfulfilled. Other than a pretty impressive performance in the 2013 finale against the Minnesota Vikings, Greenwood has continually failed to show much of anything. The team even allowed the Dallas Cowboys to sign him off the practice squad last year, only to bring him back when he quickly washed out in Big D despite Dallas' desperate need of quality play in its secondary.
Greenwood missed the early offseason work with yet another injury, this time a sports hernia surgery. If he's not able to quickly prove he belongs, expect his Lions career to end well before the final cut.
Green did show some promise as a rookie. His ability to turn and run with receivers offered some hope, but thus far the New Mexico State product has not built upon that. He's facing long odds to make the final 53, too.
Even though they were all taken with non-premium picks, it would surely sting Mayhew to see his cornerback plans of two years ago washed away in failure.
Sorting out the Depth at Receiver
Detroit is in very good shape at receiver with the starters. Calvin Johnson is the second-best player in the entire league according to the NFL Network's polling of players. Golden Tate brings Super Bowl-winning swagger as Seattle's most prolific receiver over the last three years. Rookie hybrid tight end/receiver Eric Ebron has outstanding potential as a versatile matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
After that, well...
It's going to be a very bad sign if the man pictured above, Kris Durham, winds up any higher than sixth on the team in total targets. Last season, his 82 finished second on the team. He caught just 38 of those.
The problem is that no other wideouts or tight ends have proven they are definitively better than Durham.
One of the things to closely watch in the next few weeks is if someone steps up and asserts himself.
There is potential with several players, but all come with legit questions too.
- Jeremy Ross lit up the Packers on Thanksgiving, but caught just six passes last year and holds more value as the return specialist, where he excelled in 2013.
- Kevin Ogletree brings size at 6'1" and caught 5 passes for 75 yards in the '13 finale, though he had just three other catches after Week Seven.
- T.J. Jones, the team's sixth-round pick, offers soft hands and excellent feet, but he's expected to miss the beginning of camp with a shoulder injury (h/t Rotoworld).
- Ryan Broyles is a natural in the slot, but his durability is perilously approaching Elijah Price from Unbreakable.
- Brandon Pettigrew, the team's top tight end last year, has struggled with drops and consistency.
- Joseph Fauria was a red zone wunderkind as an undrafted rookie, but has yet to show he offers much in the other 80 yards.
The rest of the cast is full of practice squad aspirants and young castoffs.
Detroit needs someone to elevate his game and seize the role that could net as many as 35 receptions, which is three more than Kenny Stills got in the same offense as the sixth-most targeted New Orleans Saint last year.
All advanced stats, including snap counts and targets, are courtesy of Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content.