QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matthew Stafford. Backups -- Shaun Hill, Kellen Moore, R.J. Archer
The only question remaining about Stafford is what he can do for an encore after throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns last season. For starters, he can be better on third downs and be more efficient and productive in the red zone. Hill returns to provide a capable veteran backup. The question is whether the Lions will carry three quarterbacks on the roster. Both Moore and Archer are a step back from Drew Stanton, who has moved on to Indianapolis. Moore's lack of arm strength was glaring at minicamp, which is why they brought back Arena League vet Archer. It is possible they would stash one of the two on the practice squad.
The Lions have put their faith in the health of Best and Leshoure. There is no certainty with either, except for the fact that Leshoure will be suspended for the first two games for violating the league's conduct code. Smith looked strong and healthy during OTAs and minicamp, but he too has battled injuries. Of the other backups, only Williams has a chance to make the roster, which seems to indicate the Lions aren't done tweaking the depth chart at this position.
Other than quarterback, this is the most stable position group on the team. Pettigrew broke his own single-season records for catches and yards last season and was, for all intents and purposes, the Lions' run game. Instead of a traditional run game, they used short, controlled passes to Pettigrew. With Pettigrew and Scheffler, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can create and exploit mismatches against smaller defensive backs, particularly in the red zone. It has been an effective weapon the last two seasons. Heller is used as an H-back, as well as the blocking tight end. The Lions didn't have a fullback on the roster last season and probably won't this season.
One of the best receiver corps in the league got better. Johnson, the two-time Pro Bowler who signed an eight-year, $132 million contract in March, is coming off the best year of his career (96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns). The emergence of both Burleson and Young (combined 121 catches for 1,182 yards) made defenses play somewhat more honestly against Johnson. Johnson lined up at various spots, including the slot, and though he still attracted multiple coverages, it was harder for defenses to isolate and neutralize him. They have added another versatile and dynamic receiver in Oklahoma rookie Broyles, undrafted rookie burner Edwards and veteran Dillard. It will be quite a fight for the final two receiver spots, with Edwards, Stovall, Hughes and Tolliver all in the hunt.
The Lions would love to see the entire starting unit remain intact for a third straight season, even though Backus is 34 and Raiola 33. But they won't be too sad if first-round draft pick Reiff breaks into the lineup. The coaching staff praised Reiff's work through OTAs and minicamp and expect him to contribute this season. His best chance at unseating a starter will be at right tackle. Cherilus has been up and down through his first three seasons, though this is the first year he's not coming off surgery. Fox was expected to challenge for a spot in the rotation at tackle, too, but his oft-injured knee flared up again at the end of minicamp. He will need to stay healthy throughout camp to make the squad.
The only serious question here is whether Avril will miss any time. He didn't work out a long-term deal or sign his $10.6 million franchise tender on July 16. He has said that he wouldn't turn his nose up at $10.6 million; the question is whether he will hold out for a while before signing. The eight-man rotation appears set, though Brown will have a chance at cracking it, especially if Avril holds out. Rookie Lewis will make his mark on special teams this season. Veteran Fluellen, a key backup at both tackle and end, could be on the bubble this season.
Easily the most improved position group last season with the addition of Tulloch and Durant, the question now is can it take another step? Levy, who moved from middle to outside linebacker last season, should be more stable at the position. He was mostly a two-down player last season, taken out on passing downs. It will be interesting to see how much his cover ability improves. There should be an intense battle for the fourth linebacker spot between second-year man Hogue and rookie Whitehead. Hogue grew nearly a full inch and gained 15 pounds in the offseason and the coaching staff was raving about Whitehead's speed and athleticism. Veteran Ashlee Palmer has moved to middle linebacker, but he will have to beat out rookie Travis Lewis to keep a roster spot.
The Lions weren't able to land any marquee draft picks or free agents to shore up this troubled position. What they did instead was go for quantity. The hope is that from the three drafted rookie corners -- Bentley, Green and Greenwood -- they will, at the very least, improve their depth. The release of Aaron Berry
leaves a starting spot wide open. Veteran Smith will have to beat out Coleman or one of the rookies to keep his roster spot, which could be tough because Smith does not contribute on special teams. It's a make-or-break camp for Spievey. The safety spot opposite Delmas is his to lose, but veterans Smith and Coleman, as well as Carey, will give him no margin for error.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Hanson, P Ben Graham, LS Don Muhlbach, PR/KR Stefan Logan, PK Derek Dimke, P Ryan Donahue, LS Matt Camilli, PR Titus Young, PR Ryan Broyles, PR Patrick Edwards
The best battle of camp could be between punters Graham and Donahue. Donahue, a heavy-footed boomer, unseated veteran Nick Harris
last season, but injured his quad during the bye week. Graham, a savvy, directional kicker, took over and stabilized the punt team. With the strength of the Lions' offense, you would think a trusted directional kicker would have more value than a somewhat erratic, long-ball hitter. Return ace Logan is also fighting for his roster spot. The Lions are giving several players a chance to claim the punt return duties -- most prominently Broyles and Edwards.