Detroit Lions Training Camp Preview: Depth Chart, Sleepers and Predictions
The Detroit Lions kick off training camp on July 28 and you want me to worry about an intro?
Fine. There are reasons to be optimistic and causes for concern. There will be position battles and roster drama.
And, of course, injury comebacks and quarterback scrutiny.
All of that and more on this week's episode of "They're Actually Playing Real Football Again!"
Position Battle Previews
Right Tackle: LaAdrian Waddle vs. Corey Hilliard
Corey Hilliard isn't going to accept a backup role without a fight. Hilliard earned his starting role once Jason Fox went down last year. He didn't do anything particularly well, but he must have shown something that the other contenders didn't considering he was the unquestioned starter until he got hurt.
Second-year LaAdrian Waddle has become a fan favorite by virtue of his undrafted beginning and solid showing in five of his eight starts. But as well as he played at times, he also posted performances that fell below the mark (eight combined hurries and hits against Pittsburgh). Then again, he was a rookie who was learning on the job.
In sum, Waddle logged 100 more snaps than Hilliard and never conceded a single sack. He did, however, allow seven more quarterback hits (Hilliard only gave up one) and three more hurries (17 to 14).
Second Cornerback: Rashean Mathis vs. the Field
Darius Slay is firmly entrenched as a starter. He earned the role in training camp last year and has looked good enough this offseason to suspend all suspense.
Who will line up opposite him is a question that won't be answered until sometime in late August.
Rashean Mathis was Detroit's best corner last year by any metric, but he doesn't have the upside or youth of his competitors. Bill Bentley is right in that perfect nexus of youth and experience to grab the spot. Cornerbacks take a few years to develop, and Bentley's career arc could see a huge bump this year. But aside from a few good games, we don't have a concrete read on him either way.
Rookie Nevin Lawson and pseudo-veteran Cassius Vaughn have to be mentioned in any cornerback competition as well as long-term fan-teasers Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood. But either inexperience or ineptitude will likely keep them all fighting for a roster spot and not a starting one.
Third Wide Receiver: Jeremy Ross vs. Kris Durham vs. Kevin Ogletree vs. Ryan Broyles
The most wide-open race includes no fewer than four challengers with a fifth who is starting the season on the PUP list (T.J. Jones).
Veterans Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree have each had shining moments in the league but last season painted the picture of an unreliable duo (14 dropped passes and only 59 catches). Jeremy Ross excited fans with his electrifying returns, but he had a grand total of six catches last season.
If healthy, Ryan Broyles should have the inside track because of his talent, but the if-healthy caveat is a big one considering his last three seasons have ended in leg injuries.
Fullback Chad Abram
Could the Lions really go from no fullbacks to two? Or in an even more unlikely turn of events, could Chad Abram actually beat out presumed starter Jed Collins?
Both possibilities are in play. Abram is a physical specimen (6'0", 236 lbs) and posted a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com. He showcased his athleticism and power as a three-way threat at Florida State. If he sticks on special teams, Detroit will have a hard time letting him walk.
Returner/Wide Receiver Jeremy Ross
Kick returners seemingly come and go with the wind. One week, a guy is driving a beer delivery truck; the next, he's on SportsCenter. Do you remember that story? More importantly, do you remember his name without looking it up?
Ross busted onto the Detroit scene last year with his two returns for touchdowns against Philly. Now, he should add wide receiver to his title so he can stick around. He has the explosion. With another year under his belt, he might have the experience.
Wide Receiver Ryan Broyles
Ross isn't the only one trying to lengthen his stay. Broyles, after the aforementioned injuries, knows he's running routes on borrowed time.
More often than not, Broyles is the forgotten man in Detroit. Fans and media members discuss the offense and rarely mention his name due to the additions of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron.
That's what makes Broyles a sleeper. And it's time to wake up.
Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree Don't Make the Cut
I've already explained that Detroit could carry two fullbacks. While that particular spot might not be taken from the ranks of the wide receivers, you can rest assured that they won't take more than five into the regular season.
The top two spots are a given: Broyles has too much potential, and Ross is too versatile to be cut. That leaves Durham and Ogletree to contend with sure-handed rookie T.J. Jones. While it's possible that Jones misses too much time to factor into the equation at first, I'll bank on youth and potential over last year's poor showing from the vets.
Undrafted Free-Agent Offensive Tackle Cornelius Lucas Does
Luckily, the title of this slide didn't include the word bold. Cornelius Lucas is on everybody's list of contender's for the final roster.
The reasons are simple.
First, he's a mammoth tackle at 6'9" and 328 pounds. Second, he has the big-school pedigree as represented by his 26 starts at Kansas State. Lastly, there's no other contender for the fourth tackle spot besides fellow undrafted free agent Bryce Quigley.
The Big Question
It's too late to worry about Ndamukong Suh's $22.4 million cap hit. There aren't any game-changing free agents left to acquire, or at least none who are going to require a large price tag.
But it's not too early to wonder whether Suh will be a Lion past the 2014 season.
There's no reason to question his desire to stay since he has yet to make any statement otherwise. In kind, there's no reason to doubt the front office wants him to stay. You rarely win championships by letting your best players walk out the door.
The question needs to center around the type of money that is being offered and rejected. ESPN's Chris Mortensen has reported that the Lions aren't close to getting a deal done. His tweet can either be read as a bargaining tactic by the club or a solemn indicator of where things might be heading.
Like i said earlier this week, new Suh deal not likely to happen this week, still think it could next month.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) July 24, 2014
However, the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett has taken a bit more optimistic approach to the situation. There's still plenty of time for a deal to get done. But with each passing day, this question will continue to grow in importance.
Will Suh be a Lion in 2015?
The Bigger Question
There's hardly an article about the Lions' upcoming season that hasn't focused on Matthew Stafford's development at some point.
All of these great minds—myself excluded—can't be wrong.
This is the first time the 26-year-old quarterback has had to learn a new offense since his rookie season. It's only natural to wonder if he can quickly learn and implement the schemes and reads new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is teaching him.
But the Lions go as Stafford goes, and history backs that statement up.
The Lions thrived in 2011 when he tossed 41 touchdown passes, but they couldn't overcome his two interceptions in the playoffs as the Saints shredded the defense.
Additionally, Detroit surged to a 6-3 record behind his 19 touchdowns during the first nine games of the 2013 season, only to watch him toss more picks than scores in a 1-6 free fall.
All of the pieces have been assembled for Stafford to take the next step. He has all the weapons a greedy signal-caller could want and a coaching staff that was built to help him.
Now, the only question that remains is what is Stafford going to do with it all?
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.