Detroit Lions Training Camp Battles to Watch
For the second straight season, the Detroit Lions added a lot of new players.
And with new players comes new competition.
Coach Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham will be watching real closely.
The Lions have many wide open positions on both sides of the ball that could be earned with hard work and consistent production.
Regardless of age, draft status or contract, Detroit will go with what can help them win.
Running Back: Kevin Smith vs. Jahvid Best
The Detroit Lions picked Jahvid Best at No. 30 in the NFL draft.
That didn't bode well for a player coming off a torn ACL in Kevin Smith.
Smith had a promising rookie year, but dropped off significantly in his sophomore season—enough so where the team began to lose confidence in him before he even got hurt.
One thing that can be said about Smith, however, is his competitive nature. He will not be giving up the job easily.
With Best, he brings speed Detroit hasn't seen in over a decade. He can run wide, break tackles, or sneak through the middle with his lightning first step.
The explosive runner's season ended prematurely for the Cal Bears last year. A major concussion knocked him out after game nine and caused him to drop in the NFL draft.
Best needs to enter camp on time and take advantage of a still rehabbing Smith. If Best proves he can handle QB protection and limit mental mistakes, the job is his.
While both will split time, the Lions hope Best pulls away and becomes a staple for the future.
Wide Receiver Battles
Based on the Detroit Lions history of wide receivers, the two through five spots could be a constant rotation.
The Lions brought in Nate Burleson in the offseason.
Since trading Roy Williams, the Lions have been missing a true No. 2 wide receiver to ease the pressure off Calvin Johnson.
Last season, Bryant Johnson was expected to be that man. Unfortunately, Johnson proved he's only good for around two catches a game.
Detroit now hopes Nate Burleson can finally break out after a disappointing stint in Seattle.
Burleson has not played a full NFL season since 2007. He never caught more than 68 passes in a year and that was in 2004. That same year, Burleson went for over 1,000 yards for the only time as well.
Based on his contract, Burleson expects to be the No. 2 receiver and should start the season that way.
After him, everything blows wide open.
Bryant Johnson should have the No. 3 spot locked up, but with Dennis Northcutt and Derrick Williams, anything could happen.
None of the players scream consistency, leaving the door open for any of them to walk right through.
The Lions are most likely to use tight end Tony Scheffler as their primary third receiver in a hybrid TE/WR role.
Johnson, Northcutt, and Williams all have the potential to be cut or play a decent sized role.
Look for Johnson to have the biggest advantage to be "third receiver," but for coaches to hope Williams can at least surpass Northcutt.
Maybe in the role, Johnson might even be able to compete with Burleson if he struggles.
Left Defensive End
When Kyle Vanden Bosch was brought in to Detroit, it meant that only one defensive end position remained open.
The battle may have as many as four participants: Cliff Avril, Jason Hunter, Jared DeVries, and Turk McBride.
DeVries brings his veteran savvy and never-ending motor to the battle. However, coming off a ruptured Achilles at age 34, after a year off, doesn't help.
Hunter is a fourth-year player who turned out to be one of the few pleasant surprises from last year's squad. He had five sacks in 14 games and got to the quarterback a lot.
If Hunter can prove to be a solid run stopper and continue to reach the QB, he might have the inside track.
Avril had 5.5 sacks himself last year. He was a pleasant surprise his rookie season, but still left many disappointed in 2009. Avril didn't show tons of improvement and must do so this year.
Avril has always been known as a pass rusher, but bulked up in the offseason to become an every down player. Much like Hunter, he must prove he can be a run stopper if he wants to own the job.
The final player, McBride, has underachieved his whole career. A former Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman, he followed Gunther Cunningham over to Detroit.
McBride has gone through many position changes from defensive end and tackle to linebacker in his short career. He's back full time at the line and must prove he can get to the cornerback.
Of all the options, McBride has the least of a shot to take over the job. He should make the team and remain solid depth for the line as a whole.
Look for the battle to come down to Hunter and Avril with the better true tackler winning out.
Cornerback: All of them
Every cornerback position is wide open.
Detroit has no set No. 1 or 2, no nickel, dime, or any other type of cornerback.
They did, however, bring in a lot of new bodies to compete.
The starting spots will be a battle between the old and new.
Rookie Amari Spievey would be the ideal candidate to step right in and take a strong handle on at least the No. 2 spot.
For the Iowa Hawkeyes last season, Spievey showed solid cornerback skills. He is a solid tackler who plays receivers very physically.
The question mark on him has been speed. If he can overcome speed with a solid mental game and being in the right place, it won't matter.
Fourth year cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade were also brought in.
Houston, a three-year starter for the Atlanta Falcons, has the edge. He is another physical corner who has solid starting experience.
Houston, however, has never been much of a ballhawk or one to intercept passes. He must prove his aggressive style will not disappear.
Houston has good speed, but doesn't always utilize it correctly. It might be a mental thing where Houston must figure out the best ways to use it.
Houston isn't always known as the greatest tackler and that is another area he must improve.
Wade, on the other hand, has been a three-year backup cornerback. He is most likely to fill a nickel or dime role. Wade is different in that he has a lot of speed.
Wade's lack of starting experience might not matter as most the players are starting with a clean slate. Wade must prove he can tackle and play physical to go along with his speed.
Now, the mystery man, Dre Bly.
The former Detroit Lions playmaker has returned. At age 33, Bly must prove he can still make plays.
The aggressive cornerback has more experience than the other three combined. He has proven to be a ballhawk and make big plays. Last season, Bly had three interceptions and forced two fumbles for the 49ers.
Bly has also proven he can gamble and lose big as well. Bly is convinced he can still play and start.
If none of the young guys can step up, the coaching staff and Bly would have no problem filling in a starter's role.
The final player to watch is eight-year veteran Dante Wesley. He has only started two career games and won't be in the mix for the main starting spots. He will, however, have a chance at playing time in nickel and dime situations.
Wesley is a hard hitter, but the Lions hope he is only needed in a special teams role.
Weak Side Linebacker: Zach Follett vs. Landon Johnson
This is one of the more interesting camp battles.
Fan favorite Zachariah Follett versus a somewhat unknown to many, Landon Johnson.
Johnson is a former starting linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals. From 2004 to 2007, he showcased solid tackling skills and that he could play in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the last two seasons, when he joined the Carolina Panthers, Johnson disappeared.
As for Follett, his cult following extends all the way to his coaching staff. Gunther Cunningham raves about Follett's mentality and tackling ability. The closer it gets to training camp, the more it seems like it's his job to lose.
Follett played for the Cal Bears and provided consistent playmaking and tackling throughout his career.
Follett hits hard, forces fumbles, and knows where to be. If he can continue to translate that to the NFL game, the Lions may have gotten a steal in the 2009 draft's seventh round.
At the free safety spot, Louis Delmas is set.
Unfortunately, the other safety spot has yet to find him a partner in crime.
Delmas desperately needs some help and players are lined up to try to get it for him.
Ko Simpson, Marquand Manuel, and C.C. Brown all have the chance to take over the role.
None have ever proven to be a great safety and this may be Detroit's weakest spot on the whole defense.
Brown is a former starter for the Houston Texans and New York Giants. He has gained a solid following of hatred from fans.
Brown rarely intercepts the ball and is known for blowing assignments. He is a solid tackler if the player is in front of him, but he often finds himself watching them pass by.
Simpson is a four-year veteran and former starter for the Buffalo Bills. He also faces trouble keeping up with deep routes. Simpson can tackle and play against the run, but a safety must do more.
Another Simpson issue is injuries. He has proven his lack of ability to remain healthy throughout a full season. The Lions cannot trust that he will play every game in 2010.
As for Manuel, he has eight years of experience, including some years starting. But, like the others, he doesn't bring a ton to the table. He doesn't have great speed or coverage skills. He may face the risk of being cut.
It also may turn out none of the three win the job. Rumors still exist that Detroit will target Jarrad Page in a trade. He would definitely be an upgrade over the others and actually makes plays on the ball.
But if Page costs too much, he may not be worth the Lions trading.
Another possibility is to move one of the cornerbacks. An aging Dre Bly might not be a terrible player to convert to safety if the young CBs prove to handle the load.
Defensive Tackle Depth Battles
Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams have the top two spots locked up.
From there, things get interesting.
Sammie Hill, Andre Fluellen, and Landon Cohen all could fill the three and four spots. One of them will not make it beyond training camp.
Hill seems to have a step up on the No. 3 spot. After the coaching staff fell in love with him last year, it would be assumed he is safe.
Question marks still remain as to how good Hill is. Due to lack of better options he started most his rookie season. He had no sacks, but his 330-pound body helped stop the run a bit.
Fluellen is facing his last chance. He wasn't awful last season, but the staff clearly didn't favor him. As a Rod Marinelli style draft pick, things don't bode well for him.
Fluellen is a bit small for an everyday DT, but can use his in and out versatility to try to earn a spot.
Cohen is another one of the Rod-type players. He has a little thicker body than Fluellen and a solid motor. He isn't more than a depth player for the run game.
For Fluellen and Cohen it will be important to separate themselves from each other. If one can show an ability to rush the quarterback and still tackle a running back, they will be the last to make the squad.
Offensive Line Battles
For the first time since the 1990s, the Detroit Lions have a set offensive line entering training camp.
Jeff Backus, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman, and Gosder Cherilus should fully form the line.
But, as always, some question marks remain. Will Cherilus be able to keep the job for a full season? Can Jeff Backus play consistently? How about health? And is Rob Sims as good as advertised?
Players like Jon Jansen and Manny Ramirez provide depth and insurance in case certain lineman get hurt. Jansen might also be insurance for Gosder.
Jansen is an aging vet who can still play. He would gladly swipe the starting job from the former first round pick.
Draft pick Jason Fox out of Miami isn't likely to sniff any playing time. The team hopes to develop him into a starting tackle and hope that process doesn't have to be accelerated.
Kick Returner/Punt Returner
The Detroit Lions used to have great kick and punt returners.
Mel Gray, Glyn Milburn, Terry Fair, Eddie Drummond, and so on. They all at any time could break for a touchdown.
But since then, yikes.
The competition this year doesn't have a shining star either, but the team prays one steps up.
Rookie Tim Toone, Derrick Williams, Aaron Brown, and Dennis Northcutt all have some shot at getting the job.
Northcutt is least likely to win it, but might be the team's most desperate option. Northcutt can be consistent and not make too many mistakes at the position, but the Lions want more.
Williams struggled last year in the role, but with a year under him, the team hopes he is better prepared. He was a solid punt returner in college and showed none of that last season.
Toone was electric at Weber State, but there is a big jump in competition and speed of opposing teams.
Toone has developed a solid fanbase as well, but he must prove it can translate on the field.
The final option, Aaron Brown, is another speed guy. If he wants to make the team, this will be the way. Running back depth pushed him to the edge of the depth chart and this is his final resort.
Brown had flashes of being a real good kick returner, including an 87-yarder, but most returns looked average.
All four face the risk of being cut at some point during training camp. The kick and punt return positions are vital to their staying power on the Detroit Lions.