Detroit Lions: Questions That Must Still Be Answered This Preseason
The Detroit Lions are wrapping up training camp and preparing for their second preseason game this Friday in Oakland. After a few weeks of team functions, there are still a handful of questions that need to be answered before the season opener.
This team is fortunate that these questions are not full of major drama or significant impact on the overall team. No more than three starting spots are up for grabs, and thus far the Lions have been quite fortunate in avoiding the injury bug that has forced scrambling with so many other teams.
Some of these will work themselves out in the next few days. Others will get no definitive resolution until after the final preseason game in a little over two weeks.
During that time, some new questions may pop up as well, but for now, these are the most pressing questions facing the Lions for the rest of the preseason.
Who Will Be the Kicker?
The quest to replace venerable kicker Jason Hanson enters its second season.
Veteran David Akers underwhelmed in his one year in Detroit, and now two players with no NFL experience are battling it out to try to restore some stability to the position that had just two players (Hanson and Eddie Murray) over a 30-year period.
Neither Nate Freese nor Giorgio Tavecchio has taken the upper hand—or leg, as it may be in their case. Both struggled early in camp, though they've both largely performed well since.
Freese appears to have a slight advantage because the Lions used a seventh-round pick on him this May, but according to a report from Justin Rogers of MLive, that won't matter if he doesn't prove he's the better kicker.
This competition figures to extend all the way through the preseason. Two of the three remaining games will be played outdoors, adding a different dimension to the battle. Every opportunity is precious for Tavecchio and Freese.
How Does the Cornerback Depth Shake Out?
Detroit is set at the two starting cornerback positions with Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay. It might not be the most impressive duo, but those two are the clear cream of the crop. Both played well in the preseason opener against Cleveland, which helps alleviate some of the widespread fan trepidation.
Beyond those two, however, the story is quite complicated.
The Lions have several players fighting it out to fill the nickel and dime roles, as well as the depth beyond those spots. Thus far, nobody has seized any of those roles.
The closest to a sure thing is veteran Cassius Vaughn playing as the third corner. He performed well against the Browns according to Bleacher Report's Ty Schalter: "Credit Cassius Vaughn there. Trying to earn a spot in preseason action with the twos, manning up on Josh Gordon. Did great."
But it's still to be determined if he plays inside, or if Mathis or Slay slides to the slot and Vaughn takes over an outside spot.
That slot corner spot is a thorn in the Lions' paw. Bill Bentley has been the primary guy in that position the last two seasons, but he's had some struggles in practice sessions. Rookie fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson has some potential, but I saw little in the camp sessions I attended that indicate he's ready to handle the role either.
It remains to be seen how—or even if—Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood fit into the picture. When the team signed Drayton Florence last week, that injected even more uncertainty.
What Happens at Right Tackle?
There is still one starting spot open on the offense: right tackle. LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard have alternated first-team reps throughout camp.
As Kyle Meinke of MLive recently reported, "neither player has separated himself through four days of training camp." That lack of a clear-cut leader has persisted throughout camp.
The Cleveland game offered some hint of a resolution coming soon. Waddle turned in an impressive outing, particularly in pass protection.
Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus noted: "Waddle was running with the second unit. The second year player who started seven games last year must not have been too happy because he was distributing punishment to Browns linemen. Waddle went unblemished in pass protection and finished with a plus-2.4 overall grade."
Because Waddle performed quite well in his starting opportunity last year, another strong outing against the Raiders should put some distance between him and Hilliard in the race for the starting spot. Yet if Waddle has an underwhelming night, this battle could very well extend deep into August.
Of course, if undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas continues to impress, this question gets even more complicated.
Who Makes the Team at the Final Wide Receiver Spots?
Just like the cornerback situation, there is no doubt who the two starting wideouts will be. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are firmly entrenched in those roles.
Beyond those two, very little is known at this point.
Kevin Ogletree has received extensive reps throughout camp with the first unit, but he dropped an easy pass in the Browns game. His roster spot appears safe, but he bobbled away an opportunity to cement his status as the third wideout.
Ryan Broyles is attempting to come back from a litany of leg injuries. The 2012 second-round pick caught all three balls thrown his way in the preseason opener and, just as importantly, stayed injury-free. He's a natural fit in the slot, but can he be relied upon to stay healthy?
Corey Fuller caught the game-winning touchdown, which bolstered his case beyond what has been a strong summer for the second-year Virginia Tech product, as Detroit Lions beat writer Paula Pasche notes: "WR Corey Fuller has been a standout in #Lions training camp - now you see why."
He's helped himself, no doubt, but will it be enough to usurp veteran Kris Durham? The man who largely held down the No. 2 wideout role last season is still scrapping for a prominent part in the new offense.
Jeremy Ross will serve as the return specialist, but he's also attempting to carve out a role in the base offense. He flashed his playmaking ability in the Thanksgiving massacre of the Packers last year.
Undrafted rookie Andrew Peacock has made some noise in camp, and he led the Lions in receiving versus Cleveland. He joins Patrick Edwards and newcomer Connor Vernon in the mix to stick on the practice squad.
None of these depth roles has any resolution so far. The upcoming preseason games will be critical in determining who winds up filling them.
How Many Quarterbacks Will Detroit Keep?
As coach Jim Caldwell and his staff decide on the final 53-man roster, one of the decisions will be how many quarterbacks to keep.
During his tenure as the Indianapolis Colts head coach, Caldwell consistently opted for just two quarterbacks. That's also what the Baltimore Ravens did when Caldwell ran their offense the last two seasons.
Right now, Kellen Moore is staking a claim to stick on the roster. He engineered the game-winning drive against Cleveland, and he's receiving widespread support to seize the No. 2 role. The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and a cavalcade of radio shows across Michigan are trumpeting Moore's case.
He'll have to beat out Dan Orlovsky, Caldwell's handpicked choice as backup. They were together in Indianapolis, and the new coach has a level of trust and comfort in his one-time liege. Orlovsky has not had a good camp, and his struggles continued against the Browns.
Or just maybe Moore convinces Caldwell to keep three quarterbacks. It seems unlikely, but if Moore keeps playing well, it will be very tough to cut him. Likewise, if the Boise State legend does beat out Orlovsky, it figures to be a difficult decision for the coach to sever ties with his personal choice.
Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist covering the Detroit Lions. He is also the founder/editor of Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL/Draft writer atRealGM. You can interact with Jeff on Twitter @JeffRisdon.
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