The Detroit Lions start training camp on July 28 and there are a few positions battles to keep an eye on.
Detroit’s offense will largely feature the same cast as last season, with the additions of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. The defensive side of the ball is where most of the question marks remain heading into training camp.
The roster is 90-men strong right now, and that number has to be cut down to 53 before the season begins in early September. Training camp is the first step in determining which players will make the team and which will go home.
A lot of players will put in countless hours of preparation and hard work only to have their dream fall short. It’s a tough business to crack into, but all the sacrifice is worth it for those who make the team.
The defense retains the front-four core of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah, but the other defensive end spot is up for grabs. The starter at strongside linebacker is also going to be determined in the next few weeks. Predictably, the cornerback position is the weakest on the roster, making it the most wide open position battle.
Let’s examine these three intriguing position battles to keep an eye on during training camp.
1. Defensive end opposite Ansah
The Lions will be seeking the final piece to join Fairley, Suh and Ansah on their strong defensive line. The defensive end spot opposite Ansah is open this training camp because last season’s starter Willie Young signed with the Chicago Bears in March.
This talented unit anchored Detroit’s sixth-best run defense a season ago, but their 33 sacks were the fifth least of any team. The Lions need more speed off of the edge if they want to improve on that number.
Jones figures to be the favorite to win the spot, as he was the starter last season until he was struck with a season-ending knee injury in the third game. The Michigan native has slowly made his way back from surgery and is looking to re-earn his starting spot.
Jones is entering his seventh season as a pro, but has yet to have a breakout season. If fully recovered, 2014 could be the year Jones puts it all together.
Tapp, 29, was signed in March but isn’t an every down kind of player. Because he is more of a linebacker-defensive end tweener, look for him to be used off the edge in certain packages.
Taylor, who the Lions took in the fourth round of last year’s draft, will give Jones some serious competition. The 6-foot-7 behemoth saw playing time in 14 of Detroit’s games last season as a rookie. If Jones shows that he isn’t 100 percent, expect Taylor to win the starting spot.
2. Strongside linebacker
Two of the starting linebacker spots are set in stone with DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch returning. But the third, the strongside or “Sam” linebacker, is yet to be decided. That battle will take place between rookie Kyle Van Noy and last season’s starter Ashlee Palmer, and it should be a good one.
It should be noted that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin plans on using the Sam linebacker differently than the Lions have in the past. Austin’s system will have the strongside linebacker on the line of scrimmage like a defensive lineman, blitzing from all over, heavily playing the run, and sometimes dropping off into coverage. Basically, he wants somebody versatile playing the position.
Van Noy, who the Lions traded up to secure in the second round of this year’s draft, is the favorite to win the spot because of his versatility. Expectations are high for the BYU product because he has great size and is good at a little bit of everything. He seems like the prototype strongside linebacker Austin is looking for.
Palmer, 28, had a solid season starting for Detroit last year, recording 33 tackles in 16 games. He isn’t the pass-rushing threat that Van Noy has the potential to be, but he knows his role and does what he’s asked to do. Palmer isn’t ready to lose his job to anybody, let alone a rookie, and won’t go down without a fight.
3. Both cornerbacks
As I stated earlier, both cornerback spots are up for grabs this training camp. This was Detroit’s weakest unit last season and the team, bafflingly, didn’t make any improvements to it this offseason.
They failed to address the position early in the draft after highly touted defensive back Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State was taken with the eighth pick.
The Lions, who had pick 10, didn’t feel the need to reach for lesser cornerback prospects like Kyle Fuller (14th pick), Darqueze Dennard (24th pick), or Jason Verrett (25th pick). Instead, they waited until the fourth round to take a cornerback where they chose Utah State’s Nevin Lawson.
With no upgrade in the draft, the team fittingly went on to release Chris Houston on June 13. Houston, who had toe surgery this offseason, had been a starting cornerback for Detroit the last four seasons.
This leaves a huge question mark at the position for the Lions. Two starting spots will be earned between the nine corners on the roster: Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis, Bill Bentley, Cassius Vaughn, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green, Aaron Hester, Mohammed Seisay and the aforementioned Lawson.
Slay (13 games played), Bentley (13 games), Mathis (14 games), and Vaughn (16 games) all played roles on last year’s team. However, the secondary gave up 247 passing yards-per-game last season, which was tied for the ninth worst in the league.
Regardless of how lackluster the talent is, two players are going to come out of camp as the starters. I expect Mathis and Slay to grab the starting spots with Bentley operating as the nickelback.
Mathis started most of last season for Detroit, and while he brings experience and a veteran presence, he is 34 and his best days are well behind him.
Slay, last year’s second-round pick, failed to record an interception during his rookie season. He really struggled at times and needs to show signs of great improvement if he wants to start.
The cornerback position doesn’t look like it will be much of a bright spot to say the least. In an increasingly pass-heavy league, this glaring weakness could be the downfall of Detroit’s season.