Detroit Lions' Biggest Preseason Disappointments so Far
Preseason is normally a time of optimism and enthusiasm for the upcoming regular season. It's an exciting time to ponder what good may come, and these Detroit Lions could indeed be very good.
However, every rose has its thorn. While the blossoming talent appears poised to make a serious playoff run, some buds have wilted on the vine.
Hopefully these sore points don't poison the overall buzz for the Lions. While there are some disappointments like the six listed here, just as many positive surprises stand out as well:
- The emergence of George Johnson
- Cassius Vaughn as the third outside corner
- Joe Fauria's improved blocking
- The newfound propensity for blitzing on defense
- Tahir Whitehead's development
- Overall health is excellent
Here are the biggest preseason disappointments, ranked in order of how much of a letdown from expectations each represents.
6. Kyle Van Noy Injury
Expectations are high in Detroit for second-round pick Kyle Van Noy. The Lions traded up in May's draft to secure the versatile outside linebacker from BYU with the idea he could be a transformative force to the Detroit defense.
Alas, we are going to have to wait a little while before we see just what Van Noy has to offer.
The prized rookie is dealing with an abdominal injury, one which sidelined him for the third preseason game. It could be a sports hernia, a malady capable of shelving Van Noy for weeks.
Detroit has been quite fortunate on the injury front this summer. Only reserve safety DeJon Gomes and sixth-round wideout T.J. Jones are on injury lists, and neither was more than a role player. When other teams are losing key starters, it's great the Lions are so healthy.
Still it's a real bummer to lose a player of Van Noy's potential even if it's just for a few weeks. Ashlee Palmer and Tahir Whitehead will compete to fill his role as the pass-rushing outside linebacker, but neither has the all-around game of the speedy, intelligent rookie.
5. LaAdrian Waddle
It sure seemed like right tackle was in great hands heading into camp. LaAdrian Waddle performed quite well in that role after taking over the starting gig midway through his first season.
The undrafted Texas Tech product provided an instant upgrade over Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, the two who started ahead of him. He was solid in pass protection, not allowing a single sack. Yet it was run blocking where Waddle stood out.
Here's how Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded his nine games, including eight starts, in 2013:
|Pass Block||Run Block||Overall|
It was widely presumed Waddle would use his impressive rookie outing as a launching pad for bigger and better things. After all, he should have confidence in his ability and a better feel for both his linemates and the speed and power of NFL opponents.
That has not happened. Instead, it's now painfully obvious to see just why Waddle went undrafted out of college. His punch isn't packing the same jolt, and he's struggling with his footwork in pass protection.
Instead of burying Hilliard in their battle for the right tackle job, Waddle has given it right back to the underwhelming veteran with uninspiring, tentative play.
It hasn't been all bad; Waddle's PFF pass blocking-grade has actually improved to 1.6 through 67 snaps in the three preseason games. He's still a strong option as the top reserve tackle, and he's young enough to snap out of his disturbing sophomore slump.
4. The Running Game
While numbers never lie, they can be deceptive. Such is the case with Detroit's rushing attack this preseason.
The Lions have 307 yards on 74 carries, a 4.1 yard-per-attempt average which is decidedly average (the league average was 4.15 a year ago, per Sporting Charts). That would rank 17th in the 2013 regular season and represents a slight uptick from Detroit's 4.0 average last year.
The numbers are skewed with some big plays, however. In the Jacksonville game, Reggie Bush ripped off an 86-yard touchdown scamper and Mikel Leshoure grinded out a 30-yard jaunt. That's over a third of the entire rushing output on just two carries.
Strip away the longest runs for each of the top four running backs in the preseason and the output is underwhelming:
When the four runs of more than 10 yards (each back has one) are removed, the Lions average just 2.8 yards per carry. That's a pathetic melange of poor blocking, lack of vision, vanilla scheming and a lack of aggressive running.
The devil's advocate says the big plays are a real positive, and that's true. Strip the longest run away from every back in such a relatively small sample size and it's bound to depress.
Yet it's incredibly difficult to rely upon runs of 10-plus yards to move the chains during the regular season. Per Sporting Charts, the Lions had 47 of those last year, ranking 15th in the NFL.
There is too much talent, both at running back and along the offensive line, for this team to be merely average at running the football.
3. Travis Swanson
It's not fun to acknowledge the inevitability that Dominic Raiola cannot play forever. The venerable center keeps getting better with age, even making NFL.com's preseason All-Pro team.
The Lions opted to be proactive in replacing the long-time line stalwart. That strategy worked well two years ago, when the team drafted Riley Reiff to be left tackle Jeff Backus' understudy for a season before taking over for the veteran.
Reiff has been just as good as Backus was at the end of his long Lions career. So it made sense to try the same plan for Raiola, and the Lions did just that in taking Arkansas center Travis Swanson in the third round.
The early returns are not pretty. The rookie has struggled mightily in making the jump from the SEC to the NFL. It was never more evident than in the second preseason game against Oakland:
#Lions go three-and-out. Travis Swanson got destroyed on third down.— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) August 16, 2014
The good news is that Swanson shouldn't have to play as a rookie. Raiola has been incredibly durable throughout his career, as has left guard Rob Sims, who Swanson has also spelled at times. The Lions drafted Swanson with the intent to sit him for a year to get stronger and better.
The bad news is Swanson is clearly not ready for action. As bad as he's been, it's difficult to project him earning a starting role next year without an unprecedented leap in strength and skill.
2. The Corners of the 2012 Draft Class
Detroit drafted three cornerbacks back in 2012 with aspirations of stocking the roster with young talent at a perennial sore spot.
Two full seasons and one preseason later, the returns show the experiment has failed.
Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green came in the third, fifth and sixth rounds, respectively. Bentley and Green both saw action right away, with Bentley earning the starting slot role for Week 1 and Green starting five games as a rookie.
Unfortunately, those rookie performances appear to be the high-water mark for the threesome.
Bentley has been dogged by injuries and his alarming propensity for grabbing receivers illegally. He earned five penalties in each of his first two seasons, the most in the secondary both times. That came before the NFL decided to more vigilantly crack down on illegal contact.
Green flashed some ability as a rookie but regressed in his sophomore campaign. He only saw playing time in one game before injuries forced him onto the field in Weeks 15 and 16 of the 2013 season.
Greenwood spent his entire rookie year on injured reserve, then showed little progress in his second season. After the desperate Cowboys claimed him off Detroit's practice squad, they saw no reason to keep him either.
The athletic project from Albion did pique some interest with a strong showing in the 2013 finale against Minnesota, ironically playing only because Green himself got hurt.
Now, Green is no longer a Lion. He was cut earlier this week. Greenwood is squarely on the roster bubble in a year where the Lions expected him to challenge for a starting role. He did not make the cut in the most recent 53-man roster projection.
Detroit drafted Bentley's eventual replacement in the slot in Nevin Lawson this year, and the veteran holds the job only because Lawson has struggled with the same grabby issues.
There is no other way to characterize general manager Martin Mayhew's cornerback draft strategy than a major disappointment.
1. Nick Fairley
Sometimes it's hard to figure out the ordination of these sorts of lists. There's usually some internal debate within my brain about what should be "the most" or "the biggest."
This one is as easy as a kindergarten math problem. Nick Fairley is the biggest preseason disappointment in Detroit.
It didn't have to be this way.
After the shock of the Lions not picking up his contract option, Fairley responded in the best possible way. He shut his mouth. He didn't whine or complain publicly and he stopped eating so many calories every day.
Fairley reported for OTAs in June at 295 pounds, impressing the new coaching staff and teasing everyone with the possibility that he might finally be maturing into the beast he should be at defensive tackle.
Heck, the Lions even asked him to gain a few pounds back. He took that advice to the extreme.
Nick Fairley reported to minicamp 2 months ago weighing 295. Now he weighs 315 -- and that's after losing 7 pounds in training camp— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) August 20, 2014
His lack of self discipline and his unprofessional approach cost him his starting job. C.J. Mosley took over the tackle position next to Ndamukong Suh, with Fairley now rotating in as a reserve. He's unlikely to win that role back anytime soon, a function of both Mosley's strong play and the team's loss of faith and trust in the 2011 first-round pick out of Auburn.
Fairley could be a dominant force in the NFL, the way he was in his final year at Auburn. He's got the potential to be great. Not good, great. Even the All Pro Suh admits it:
Suh admitted Nick Fairley is more athletically gifted than him and could be better. Pretty bold statement and sad that it's not happening.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) August 20, 2014
It is indeed quite sad it's not happening.
Fairley's three-year career has essentially been one long, undisciplined disappointment interspersed with moments of absolute brilliance. He's proven the Lions were 100 percent correct in not picking up his contract option. He's almost certainly squandered a chance at tens of millions of dollars with his laziness and immaturity.
It doesn't get any more disappointing than that.
All advanced statistics are from Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription for premium content.
Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist for the Detroit Lions. You can interact with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon. His work can also be found at Detroit Lions Draft and RealGM.