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Detroit Lions 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More

Jeff RisdonContributor ISeptember 1, 2014

Detroit Lions 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The 2014 Detroit Lions are all set to take the field!

    After a disappointing 7-9 campaign in 2013, the Lions made several changes in an effort to claim the franchise's first-ever NFC North division title. 

    New head coach Jim Caldwell brings a professional style and extensive playoff experience to Detroit. He hired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi away from the New Orleans Saints and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin from the Baltimore Ravens, for whom Caldwell served as offensive coordinator for the last two seasons.

    The team parted ways with few regulars, most notable among them safety Louis Delmas and defensive end Willie Young. As many as 18 of last season's starters return to the den, meaning a strong sense of continuity should help tame the winds of coaching change. 

    This is a talent-laden team poised to recapture the success of last season's strong 6-3 start. With some new key contributors and many of the team's top talents in the prime of their careers, the Lions are ready to roar.

     

    Advanced statistics, including snap counts, drops, passes defended and QB pressures are from Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription for premium content. All other statistics are from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

     

Quarterbacks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The starter: Matthew Stafford

    The first overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Stafford enters his sixth season as Detroit's starter. He has not missed a game in the last three years, a time frame during which he has put up some of the most prolific passing numbers in NFL history. 

    He's thrown for at least 4,650 yards in each of those three seasons. 2013 was a bit of a down year, and he still put up the following numbers:

    Att.Comp.Comp %YardsY/ATDINTQB Rating
    371  634 58.5 4650 7.3 29 19 84.2

    His rifle of a right arm has the ability to carry the Lions to the playoffs, a feat accomplished just once this century.

    Stafford ended last season on a downward spiral, throwing 12 interceptions and just 10 touchdowns in the final seven games. Detroit lost six of those contests, and that is not a coincidence. Inconsistent mechanics and a propensity to force the ball into coverage plagued Stafford during the second half of the season.

    With Lombardi installing the same system which helped Saints quarterback Drew Brees throw for more yards than any player in NFL history over a three- and five-year period, Stafford could put up career-best numbers with his upgraded supporting cast. 

    Projected stats

    Att.Comp.Comp %YardsTDINT
     388 652 59.5 5020 38 15

     

    Reserves: Dan Orlovsky and Kellen Moore

    Orlovsky returns to Detroit after bouncing around the league for several seasons. Originally a fifth-round pick in 2005, the Connecticut product started seven games in his first four years in Detroit. 

    All of those came in the winless 2008 season, and he provided the most fitting summation of that season by running out of the end zone for a safety against Minnesota, costing the Lions their best chance at a win. 

    Orlovsky has a history with Coach Caldwell. He started five games for Caldwell's Indianapolis Colts in 2011, guiding that sorry team to its only two wins while throwing six touchdowns to four interceptions. He threw just seven passes during his last two seasons, which were spent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Unlike the big-armed Stafford, Orlovsky is more of a game manager. Neither is a running threat, though Stafford has shown he can judiciously pick his spots to scramble. 

    Moore is even less of an athlete, undersized at 6'0" and possessing one of the weakest arms in the NFL. Yet he made the final roster by playing great in the preseason. 

    The Boise State legend earned himself a spot by demonstrating pinpoint accuracy, commanding poise and a great work ethic. His football IQ is exceptional, and he is well liked by his teammates. Consider him an example of a good guy rewarded for maximizing his athletically limited skills. 

Running Backs

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Starters: Reggie Bush and Joique Bell

    Will both players start in every game? No, but the Lions will deploy this dynamic duo based on the situation and scheme. One week it could be Bush, and the next it might be Bell getting the start.

    Bush is the lightning to Bell's thunder. In his second season in Detroit, the former Heisman Trophy winner is the big-play threat out of the backfield. Witness this jaw-dropping display against the Jaguars in the third preseason game:

    In case @ReggieBush's 86-yd TD was a blur to you, re-watch it here: http://t.co/Rqp7zeRupL pic.twitter.com/nbYHWqNDj7

    — Detroit Lions (@Lions) August 23, 2014

    He's coming off a year where he rushed for over 1,000 yards and also caught 54 passes for 504 yards, scoring seven total touchdowns. Look for the Lions to utilize his elusiveness and awesome speed on plenty of screens, misdirection runs and wheel routes. 

    Projected stats

    CarriesYardsYard/CarryTDCatchesYards
     202 950  4.7 6 61 638

    Where Bush does most of his work outside the hashes, Bell is a between-the-tackles pounder. That doesn't mean he lacks agility, however; he forced 33 missed tackles on just 166 carries, a fantastic ratio. 

    The local pride of Wayne State is also an accomplished receiver. He had one fewer catch than Bush but surpassed him in yards by 41 yards. They became the first duo to both accrue 500 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. 

    Bush and Bell project to do so again...barely.

    Projected stats

    CarriesYardsYard/CarryTDCatchesYards
     175 770  4.5 6 48 506

     

    Reserves: Theo Riddick, Jed Collins, Montell Owens

    Riddick, the team's sixth-round pick in 2013, is sort of a lite beer version of Bush. He's a nifty, shifty speedster with good hands. His workload is expected to increase quite a bit from his nine carries for 25 yards in his rookie campaign. 

    Riddick is also the primary backup at return specialist and will play extensively on special teams. If Bush gets hurt, and he has shown some propensity for missing drives here and there, the Notre Dame alum can capably fill in. 

    Collins will be the team's primary fullback, a role the Lions have not utilized since 2010. He came along with Lombardi from New Orleans, so he knows the offensive system. Don't expect more than about 20 touches, though he too can catch out of the backfield. 

    Owens made the team as a hybrid running back/fullback, but he might never play in the base offense. He is on the roster exclusively for his strong special teams play. Last year, he saw only two snaps between knee injuries, wiping out his first season in Detroit.

Wide Receivers

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Starters: Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate

    Johnson has earned his Megatron nickname by transforming the record books in his likeness. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft is inarguably the most talented wide receiver in the NFL today. 

    Calvin Johnson has been voted as the top offensive player in our #NFLRank poll. READ: http://t.co/tS9G8QYCP2 pic.twitter.com/PVdF3lwZXl

    — NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) August 29, 2014

    Over the last three seasons, Johnson has posted some truly extraordinary numbers. He's the only receiver in NFL history to top 5,000 yards in a three-year period, and he owns three of the top 10 yards-per-game efforts by a receiver in the Super Bowl era. 

    His 2013 campaign, while still stellar, was a bit of a decline. The 28-year-old Georgia Tech product missed two games with a back injury and showed the effects of being the focus of the coverage and so many targets. 

    CatchesTargetsYardsYards/CatchTDDrops
     84 148 1,492 17.812  10

    Stafford relied heavily upon Johnson to make the difficult catch in traffic, often forcing the ball to his top receiver. The new offense and significantly upgraded depth at receiver should relieve some of that pressure on both men. As a result, Johnson will likely see fewer targets but could wind up with more yards and hopefully fewer drops. 

    Projected stats

    CatchesTargetsYardsYards/CatchTDDrops
     90 136 1557 17.311  7

    Tate is the team's prized free agent this offseason, coming over from the champion Seattle Seahawks. He represents a major upgrade over a rotating cast of inadequacy that has lined up across from Johnson his entire career.

    "Showtime," as Tate is known, is a playmaker blessed with outstanding quickness and terrific body control in his routes. He also possesses two of the most reliable hands in the business:

    #Lions WR Golden Tate has dropped 5 of 149 catchable passes in the last 3 years; lowest rate of any WR in NFL.

    — NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) August 6, 2014

    He demonstrated his impact quickly in preseason, torching the Raiders on a beautiful double move for a long touchdown. Tate is also a dynamic punt returner, which takes advantage of his speed, agility and vision with the ball in his hands. The Lions won't use him in that capacity, however. 

    Last year in Seattle, Tate posted career highs in catches (64) and yards (898) in the Seahawks' sparser passing attack; they attempted over 200 fewer passes than the Lions. 

    Projected stats

    CatchesTargetsYardsYards/CatchTDDrops
     71 98 973 13.8 2

     

    Reserves: Kevin Ogletree, Ryan Broyles, Corey Fuller and Jeremy Ross

    For the first time in years the Lions have some appreciable depth here. Kris Durham's release confirmed this upgrade:

    Shows how much Detroit's roster has improved. Last year Durham was #2 WR, this year he couldn't be #6.

    — Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) August 30, 2014

    Broyles is a great story in perseverance. Each of his last three seasons has ended with serious leg injuries, including a torn Achilles last year. Yet he shined in preseason, leading the team in receptions and looking very close to the player who set NCAA records at Oklahoma. 

    The 2012 second-round pick will play primarily in the slot, where his ability to quickly get open and create after the catch are real assets. Broyles will function as a valuable chain-moving possession receiver, but he has enough slipperiness to score three or four touchdowns. 

    Ogletree earned his spot for his impressive size and reliable performances. He's flashed strong potential at times in his young journeyman career, and he appears to have finally found a more permanent home in Detroit. The sixth-year pro from Virginia should catch around 20 passes and a touchdown or two. 

    Ross' primary function is as a return specialist, where he made quite a mark last year. He will see some action in the base offense, where he has speed, vision and quickness with the ball in his hands. Look for him on jet sweeps and bubble screens. 

    Fuller is the vertical threat the team has sorely lacked. After spending his rookie campaign on the practice squad, the 2013 sixth-round pick made the Lions by demonstrating significant improvement in his route running and confidence. The Virginia Tech product will be a regular game-day inactive. 

Tight Ends

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Starter: Brandon Pettigrew

    Tight end is an interesting case, because the Lions have three players with different skill sets manning the position. One week the starter might be Pettigrew, the best blocker, while another week it could be Eric Ebron, the vertical receiving threat. 

    Pettigrew was the team's second first-round pick in 2009, taken 20th overall after Stafford went No. 1. He's had an up-and-down career in Detroit, one many thought was over when he hit free agency after an underwhelming 2013 campaign. 

    CatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsDrops
     41 60 68.3 416 2 4

    He's a solid short-range receiving option, though his bouts with dropping the ball stick prominently in fans' craw. The Oklahoma State widebody hasn't had a game with more than 75 yards in the last two seasons, with career highs of 777 yards and five touchdowns coming in 2011. 

    Because the Lions have changed offenses and added Ebron, Pettigrew's numbers will decline. That's perfectly acceptable as long as he consistently blocks well, a facet of his game which has been hit-or-miss. 

    Projected stats

    CatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsDrops
     33 46 71.7 317 2 3

     

    Reserves: Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria

    Ebron was the Lions' first-round draft pick in May for his dynamic receiving ability. The North Carolina stud has outstanding speed and acceleration for the position. In fact, when watching him run routes it is very hard to tell Ebron isn't a wide receiver.

    The Lions will use their prized rookie in a variety of alignments. During the preseason he saw action as a traditional in-line tight end, a motion end, a fullback, a slot receiver and the X receiver. 

    Blocking is not his forte, so expect most of his regular-season activity to come away from the line and attacking the defense as a receiving matchup nightmare. Like Pettigrew, the athletic rookie will put the ball on the ground at times. 

    Projected stats

    CatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsDrops
     30 52 57.6 387 4 5

    Then there's last year's rookie wunderkind, Fauria. The 6'8" undrafted free agent from UCLA danced his way into Detroit's hearts by catching seven touchdowns in just 18 receptions. 

    During training camp and preseason he demonstrated a significant improvement in his blocking:

    The Lions taught Joe Fauria how to be an above adequate blocker, so I now think anything is possible.

    — Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) August 25, 2014

    He still projects primarily as a short-yardage and red-zone target, as he's not fleet of foot. It's not a stretch to say Fauria is the best third tight end in the NFL right now, and his end-zone productivity projects to lead the Lions tight ends once again. 

    Projected stats

    CatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsDrops
     26 37 70.3 288 6 2

Offensive Line

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Starters: left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Rob Sims, center Dominic Raiola, right guard Larry Warford, right tackle Corey Hilliard

    A unit which was perennially maligned turned over a dramatic new leaf in 2013, as the offensive line became one of the real strengths of the team. The Lions finished second in the league in sack percentage allowed, per Team Rankings

    Reiff and Warford were both first-time starters, while Sims and Raiola both continued to get even better as their veteran careers enter twilight. 

    Raiola is the leader of the unit, if not the entire offense. He's a grizzled veteran who has gained both weight and strength later in his career. Now entering his 14th season in Detroit, the Nebraska product has missed just four games. 

    He's coming off his two best seasons, and Pro Football Focus graded him as the No. 2 center in the league last year. The Hawaiian native was named a Preseason All-Pro by the NFL.

    Sims enters his fifth season in Detroit as one of the steadiest performers at his position around the league. He has allowed just one sack over the last two seasons, consistently providing Stafford a sturdy pocket. The 30-year-old Ohio State alum is in the final year of his contract, as is Raiola. 

    Reiff was the first-round pick in 2012, though he played sparingly as a rookie. He took over for respected veteran Jeff Backus at left tackle and held his own. The Iowa product allowed seven sacks, worst on the team. He is a more effective run-blocker. 

    If a guard can be a star, Warford is the one to rise to that level. The rookie from Kentucky had an outstanding first year, dramatically outplaying his third-round draft status:

    In addition to being named our ROY, Larry Warford performed nearly 10x better than his salary: https://t.co/3ZdtumPiG3

    — Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 28, 2014

    He's already proved to be one of the most devastating run-blockers around, and "War Daddy" is just getting started. 

    Hilliard had to win a summer battle with LaAdrian Waddle to earn the starting nod at right tackle. He's the weak link of the line, though he does have prior starting experience. 

     

    Reserves: Waddle, Travis Swanson, Cornelius Lucas

    Waddle will be the swing tackle, which is a demotion for the second-year Texas Tech product. After playing well above expectations as an undrafted rookie, Waddle regressed in camp and handed the starting gig back to Hilliard. 

    He's still young and brimming with potential, and the Lions are fortunate to have a viable starter as a reserve. If Hilliard or Reiff falter, Waddle can exceed either's performance if he plays with confidence and proper technique. 

    Lucas is hoping to be this year's Waddle, an undrafted free agent who plays his way into the starting lineup. His exceptional length at 6'9" with arms longer than 36" make him a formidable edge protector. 

    Swanson is the only interior reserve, a surprise development from the roster cuts. The third-rounder from Arkansas did not play well in preseason at all:

    Not sure who's fault that was - Travis Swanson was the center - but Swanson and other backups have had snap issues this camp.

    — Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) August 10, 2014

    However, he did show progress and definitely has the movement skills and range the team wants inside. He is being groomed to take over for Raiola when the veteran finally hangs up his cleats. 

Defensive Line

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    Starters: Ndamukong Suh, Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones, C.J. Mosley

    The Lions have one of the deepest, most talented front lines in the league. It's spearheaded by Suh, whose name translates as "house of spears."

    He's certainly a fearsome presence for opposing offenses. Suh's package of strength, quickness and an almost sociopathic nastiness on the field has netted him three Pro Bowl berths and two All-Pro honors. 

    The second overall pick in the 2010 draft, Suh is playing for his next contract this season. He has the potential to notch 10-plus sacks and earn first-team All-Pro distinction once again. The Nebraska product is one of the best defensive tackles in the league over the last few seasons. 

    He will be joined inside by Mosley, a wily veteran entering his second year in Detroit. The 31-year-old Missouri product is a reliable plugger against the run with just enough technical prowess to get into the backfield at times. 

    His ascension to the starting lineup brings more positional discipline and reliability to the line, qualities that have been an issue in recent times. It also signifies these Lions are a meritocracy, a welcome change from the Jim Schwartz era. 

    The ends will be Jones and Ansah, both entering their second seasons as starters. They have taken divergent paths to this point. 

    Jones is a hybrid end/tackle who will man the closed end of the line (where the tight end is aligned). He struggled early as the starter in 2013 before a knee injury wiped out his season before September ended. 

    The Eastern Michigan product had a great training camp, showing no ill effects from the knee. He should wind up with five or six sacks while rushing from both the edge and working inside, often on twists and stunts. 

    Ansah was the team's first-round pick in 2013. He made his presence felt quickly, notching a team-high eight sacks despite being pretty raw. The Ghana native has only been playing football for five years. 

    Offseason shoulder surgery limited him in camp, so expect him to play less than most starters. His freakish athleticism can still post more than a handful of sacks. 

     

    Reserves: George Johnson, Devin Taylor, Nick Fairley, Caraun Reid and Larry Webster

    Taylor and Johnson will both see regular playing time as the reserve ends. It's no surprise that Taylor, who showed promise as a fourth-round rookie last year, will be a regular part of the rotation. Johnson, however, is another story.

    A nondescript journeyman plucked off the street this spring, Johnson reformed his body and blossomed into the biggest preseason surprise. Now 20 pounds lighter, his first step is even more explosive and he didn't lose any power, either. 

    Johnson saw extensive action in Ansah's stead with the first team, and he fit right in. His relentless motor and impressive play recognition make him a viable breakout candidate. 

    Taylor could be as well. His game is more about his awesome length and power. Like Jones, he can slide inside and handle himself just fine at tackle. The 6'8" South Carolina product would start on many teams, but here he's fourth on the depth chart.

    As pleasant of a story as Johnson is, Fairley is the flip side of the coin. The first-round pick in 2011 lost his starting tackle spot to Mosley thanks to a continual lack of discipline and dedication. 

    Fairley's battle with weight and penalty flags are well-documented. Yet he still has immense potential to be an impact force inside...just ask Suh:

    Nick Fairley still plans to be a starter, and Ndamukong Suh says Fairley could be better than him. #Lions http://t.co/n8TKLr8uEV

    — Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) August 20, 2014

    He's entering the final year of his contract, which could be powerful motivation. If he gets—and stays—in shape, Fairley still offers game-changing ability. How well he actually performs is a big variable, a risk for which the Lions have good insurance.

    Reid and Webster are both rookies who will see scant action other than special teams. Webster, a lanky end from D-II Bloomsburg, is very raw technically as he converts from basketball to football. Reid will be the fourth tackle, meaning the Princeton grad will often be a game-day inactive. 

Linebackers

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Starters: Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Ashlee Palmer

    Levy and Tulloch both return as starters after productive 2013 campaigns. This will be their fourth season playing together, and they have a real chemistry and clear definition of duties.

    Levy had a breakout season in 2013. He's always been solid in coverage, but the Wisconsin product took it to a new level last year. His six interceptions led all linebackers and eclipsed his total from his first four seasons. He also notched a career-high 85 tackles. 

    The 2009 third-round pick is unlikely to reach six picks again, but Levy's fluidity and instincts in coverage will be a major asset for a team with a shaky secondary. He figures to lead all Lions defenders in snaps, provided he stays healthy all season.

    Tulloch mans the middle, and he's more of an attack dog. The 29-year-old veteran thrives between the tackles as both a run-stuffer and blitzer

    The latter of those skills will come more into play in 2014 if the preseason is to be any guide. His limited size and range can be an issue if he's asked to do too much outside the box. 

    Palmer won the strong-side starting job by injury default over Kyle Van Noy. He's been the third linebacker for the last couple of seasons, though that was a limited role as the Lions operated a base 4-2-5 defense. 

    He's primarily an edge run defender, though Palmer can crash the backfield on a blitz at times. Like Tulloch, he's at his best attacking the box and struggles moving backward and in space. The Ole Miss product performs quite well on special teams. 

     

    Reserves: Kyle Van Noy, Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis

    Van Noy is a special case. He enters his rookie season injured and will likely be placed on injured reserve with designation for return once that list opens on Sept. 2. He fills a roster spot until that time, and then will be replaced. 

    Once he's recovered from sports hernia surgery, the second-round pick from BYU will fill a more diverse role than Palmer. His fluid movement and instincts allow him to be the versatile weapon Coach Austin wants to create matchup problems. 

    Whitehead could challenge Palmer for the staring position in Van Noy's stead, and he bested him in preseason performances. The new defensive scheme plays to his athleticism and speed in space. He remains a stalwart on punt and kick coverage units, too.

    Lewis is the immediate beneficiary of Van Noy's injury. He almost certainly wasn't going to make the 53-man roster otherwise. His ticket gets punched on special teams, though he will also serve as Tulloch's backup in the middle.  

Cornerbacks

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    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Starters: Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay

    The biggest question mark on the entire roster is cornerback. This is not a new development.

    Mathis was a godsend in 2013. The veteran was signed off the street during preseason and quickly established himself as the team's top cover man. He was the only corner who played at least 75 snaps to earn a positive coverage grade from PFF

    Now 34, Mathis has to hold up once again. He's a widely respected mentor and team leader. Hopefully he won't have to be the No. 1 corner by default once again.

    That role should go to Slay, though it's not a given the second-year corner is ready to assume that role. He earned a starting spot in his rookie training camp, but gave it away with a tepid nature and allowing too many big plays. 

    Slay redeemed himself later in the season but still showed he had ample room for growth. He has the size and speed to be very effective, and the switch to a more press-heavy scheme plays to his strong jamming ability.  

     

    Reserves: Bill Bentley, Cassius Vaughn and Nevin Lawson

    It's a good thing the Lions are no longer using three corners as the base defense as they did a year ago. The depth here is anemic, to be kind. 

    Bentley will man the slot, where he has showed grit and strong run support in his two seasons. Unfortunately he's also shown a high degree of vulnerability to double moves and a propensity for penalties; his five flags have been the most in the secondary in both 2012 and '13. 

    The 2012 third-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette has also struggled with injuries, missing time in both years with ankle, shoulder and head injuries. 

    The team drafted Lawson in the fourth round to provide reinforcement in the slot. The long-limbed Utah State Aggie struggled in preseason with the NFL rules on illegal contact, an issue that figures to plague his grabby nature all year. He has decent potential and brings a physical style, but he must find the line between redirection and holding. 

    The only other corner to survive the final roster cuts is Vaughn. A former Colts starter under Caldwell, he played his way up the depth chart with a strong camp. He's not fared well in recent seasons, however. PFF has ranked him 76th in 2013 and 113th (out of 113) in 2012. 

Safeties

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Starters: Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo

    Lions fans will notice a real change in the way the safeties are deployed. The change plays to Quin's advantage as he enters his second season in Detroit.

    Last year, he and Delmas played interchangeable safety roles. Either one could be a free or a strong safety, moving about the formation and often playing closer to the line so as to not tip off the quarterback. 

    This year Quin, a former cornerback from New Mexico by way of the Texans, will align deeper and play much more of a coverage specialist role. He was the 10th-rated coverage safety by PFF a year ago, and that was with him playing at the disadvantage of playing tighter to the line. 

    He gets a new running mate in Ihedigbo, who came over from Baltimore along with Coach Austin. "Dig" is strictly an in-the-box safety, a force in run support but a liability in cover situations. He ranked second in run defense but 72nd (of 86) safeties in coverage. 

    This is a veteran duo that seemed to quickly develop chemistry in training camp. Both are respected team leaders. They might not force as many turnovers as others, however. 

     

    Reserves: Jerome Couplin, Don Carey and Isa Abdul Quddus

    Only Carey returns from last year's reserve corps, and he almost certainly won't play on anything but special teams units unless the Lions are ravaged by injuries. That's good, because he struggled in coverage last year and looked downright abysmal during the preseason. 

    Couplin made the team as an undrafted free agent from William & Mary thanks to his great size, speed and quick learning curve. Initially a long shot, his strong presence in run support and rapid improvement in coverage grabbed notice in the preseason. 

    "The Osprey," as he's known for his massive wingspan, provided some bone-rattling hits and was always around the ball in the four preseason games. 

    He's not the only one who played his way onto the Lions:

    Both safeties Jerome Couplin and Isa Abdul-Quddus earned a spot on the initial roster with their play this summer.

    — Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) August 30, 2014

    Abdul Quddus, a former Saints starter, was signed for his special teams prowess. He proved to be the best playmaking safety in camp and preseason, and that includes a couple of dropped interceptions, too. He will be Quin's primary backup, while Couplin will spell Ihedigbo

Special Teams

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    Kicker: Nate Freese

    Detroit's seventh-round pick in May, Freese fended off camp competitor Giorgio Tavecchio to win the job as place-kicker. Two long preseason field goals, notably a 55-yard bomb off the grass in Oakland, sealed his position as the long-term replacement for retired legend Jason Hanson. 

    Freese made all 20 of his field-goal attempts as a senior at Boston College. He is the first kicker drafted by Detroit since Hanson in 1992. 

     

    Punter: Sam Martin

    The affable Martin provided an immediate lift to Detroit as a rookie in 2013. Drafted in the sixth round out of Appalachian State, Martin finished seventh in PFF's punting rankings, which was also his rank in net yards per punt. 

    Martin doubles as a highly effective kickoff specialist, with over half his efforts resulting in touchbacks. 

     

    Long Snapper: Don Muhlbach

    Now entering his 11th season in Detroit, veteran Muhlbach is one of the most reliable long snappers in the league. At 33, the Texas A&M grad is still going strong. 

X-Factors

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    One of Detroit's biggest X-factors is the new offensive scheme. 

    Under former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the team was often predictable and too quick to abandon the run game. That won't happen under Lombardi. 

    His Saints-centric offense has one big fundamental change from what Lions fans have witnessed the last few years. Instead of relying on the players to make special plays, the new scheme creates more opportunities for them. 

    There will be frequent personnel changes and specialized packages that will keep defenses guessing. It's all about creating favorable matchups for the offensive skill players. And with Detroit's cadre of weaponry, this could be a very explosive strategy. 

    Another hidden variable that could pay big dividends is special teams. 

    Detroit finished in the middle of the pack in PFF's rankings a year ago, but the coverage and return units both appear stronger. Players like Owens, Carey and Webster augment the cover squad.

    With Martin only getting better with more experience, and with a full season of Ross as the dynamic return specialist missing in Motown for year, the Lions can achieve better field position and create more scoring opportunities. 

Key Games

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    There are a few critical dates on the 16-game schedule. The Lions must rise to these challenges if they wish to dance in the playoffs. 

     

    Week 1: New York Giants

    Last year's Week 16 overtime loss in New York ended Detroit's playoff chances. The Lions held the lead late, but Will Hill picked off Stafford and took it to the house to send the game to overtime. 

    This year the two teams meet in the opener on Monday Night Football. New York's offense has really struggled in the preseason, and the overhauled line appears vulnerable to Detroit's strong defensive front. 

    The Lions must kick off the season with a home victory over a beatable opponents. Otherwise the Caldwell regime loses all the momentum of change and positivism. 

     

    Week 3: Green Bay Packers

    To be the man, you've got to beat the man. Right now, Green Bay is the man running the NFC North. The Lions suffocated the Packers in Detroit last Thanksgiving, but that was a Green Bay team minus Aaron Rodgers

    Beating the division kings with Rodgers at the helm would send a signal that these Lions are roaring toward a NFC North title. 

     

    Week 8: at Atlanta Falcons

    The Falcons, like the Lions, are hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 2013. Aside from the potential playoff ramifications, this contest has extra intrigue because of the locale: London.

    Detroit's first international contest leads into a bye week and nicely divides the season. A road win would send the Lions into the extended break with positive momentum needed to fuel a playoff charge. 

     

    Week 12: at New England Patriots

    Looking to get widespread credibility as a legit contender? How about going into New England and knocking off the Patriots, who very well could be undefeated heading into this game. 

    Darrelle Revis and a talent-laden Patriots defense provide a stern challenge for Stafford and the offense. Detroit has beaten the Patriots once in the last 20 years, dropping four of five. 

     

    Week 16: at Chicago Bears

    The Bears figure to be in the thick of the NFC North battle, and beating Chicago in the Soldier Field cold would do wonders for Detroit's playoff positioning. 

    The Lions swept the Bears last year, including their first win in Chicago since 2007. Detroit hasn't won two games in a row in the Windy City since 1971-72. 

Breakout Player

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Lions have a few candidates for breakout players. Among them include:

    • George Johnson
    • Joique Bell
    • Glover Quin
    • Joseph Fauria
    • Darius Slay

    Second-year cornerback Slay gets the nod. 

    After a rookie season that started poorly but ended on an upswing, Slay is being counted upon to make a jump in his sophomore season. 

    To help facilitate that improvement, the Mississippi State product spent his offseason working with Hall of Fame legend Rod Woodson.

    He's played with confidence throughout the preseason, demonstrating he possesses the mentality to emerge as the team's long-sought No. 1 corner. 

    In order to do so, he'll need to clean up some technical flaws...

    A healthy Darius Slay might lead the NFL in pass interference calls this year.

    — Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) August 28, 2014

    Slay has the size, speed and swagger to break out as an above-average starter in his second campaign. The Lions sure would love it if the new No. 23 makes a big leap. 

Bold Predictions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Here are five predictions about the 2014 Detroit Lions:

    1. They will vault from finishing 28th in sack percentage to the top 10, thanks to a barrage of defensive line talent. Suh, Taylor, Johnson, Jones, Ansah and linebacker Tulloch will all finish with at least five sacks.
    2. Detroit will finish in the top three in total offensive yardage, passing yards and total points. 
    3. The Lions will win all five non-divisional home games. They face the New York Giants, Buffalo, New Orleans, Miami and Tampa Bay in Ford Field.
    4. They will enter Week 16 with their playoff destiny in their own hands. If they win the final two games at Green Bay and at Chicago, they earn their way into the playoffs.
    5. Suh will surprise everyone by agreeing to terms with a long-term contract during the season. 

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