The Lions’ new coaching staff has had some chance to evaluate their holdover stock, and their new acquisitions, through OTAs, film sessions, quarterback school, independent weight-room work, etc. Moreover, up until this point, the rookies and veterans have been segregated—rookies against rookies, vets against vets. This means that the key rookies are competing against dozens of “camp fodder” guys that almost certainly won’t make the team—and the veterans aren’t playing with or against several players who are sure to see plenty of playing time.
Now, however, the Lions’ new staff—charged with the Sisyphean task of making the worst team in the history of the NFL competitive—will get their first look at the complete, overhauled, roster today. Since there won’t be any live TV, live radio, scoreboard, box score, or any other traditional metric of football success, Lions observers looking for concrete improvement will have to focus on a few key areas:
- Calvin Johnson vs. Cornerbacks: One of the only absolutes on the Lions roster is Calvin “Megatron” Johnson. The 6’-5” wideout managed to haul in 78 balls for 1,331 yards and twelve scores last year--despite subpar quarterback play, and a lack of complementary threats to keep defenses honest. It is probable that he'll be successful against both free agent CB signee Patrick Buchanon, and CB Anthony Henry, who came to the Lions via trade. However, whether he is merely “successful”—as opposed to “unstoppable”—could reveal whether the Lions’ secondary can slow down the likes of Bernard Berrien and Greg Jennings . . . or not.
- Interior OL vs. Interior DL: The Lions have struggled for the better part of a decade to find stalwart guards to bracket smart, gritty veteran C Dominic Raiola. This offseason, the Lions re-signed Stephen Peterman, brought in Titans T/G Daniel Loper, claimed ongoing reclamation project Toniu Fonoti, and signed a pair of tackles -- Ephraim Salaam and Jon Jansen -- all of whom could compete for the two starting spots.
Peterman is the returning starter on the right; the Lions think his game is more suited to this run-first offense than the outgoing Martzian zone scheme.
Loper, who came to Detroit with Schwartz, has the inside track on the left guard spot—though his 6’-6”, 320-pound frame makes him a more natural tackle. All will compete against an extremely young and raw defensive line.
With FA acquisition Grady Jackson taking most of the summer off to keep his legs fresh, fourth-round rookie Sammie Hill and second-year vet Andre Fluellen will get a lot of reps in this minicamp. Both are athletic, yet extremely raw prospects. Fluellen looked good in what very little time he played last season, but has been asked to bulk up in this new defense. Hill needs little bulking up at a lean-looking 330 pounds -- but having played for tiny Stillman College, he has nearly zero coaching in fundamentals or technique. How these two fare against the rotating cast of outsized veterans will show how much the Lions have improved a run defense that allowed over 2,700 yards rushing in 2008.
- The Linebacking Corps: What was the Lions’ greatest weakness in 2008 —- the linebackers —- just might now be their greatest strength. A trade brought former MSU Spartan Julian Peterson in from Seattle, and Steelers run-stuffer -- and Detroit native -- Larry Foote, came home after becoming a cap casualty in Pittsburgh.
Adding third-round rookie DeAndre Levy to returning starter Ernie Sims and second-year vet Jordon Dizon, the Lions’ new-look LB corps features a lot of speed and athleticism.
In coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s new blitz-heavy scheme, the Lions will be asking these players to create a lot of pressure—and in turn, relieve a lot of pressure from the defensive line and secondary.
Given the Lions’ well-documented troubles in pass protection, word from camp should be that these linebackers gave the offensive line fits—if not, the Lions’ defense could again lack fangs come autumn.
There will be many other interesting positional battles waged, and the performance of many other players will be closely watched -- of course, all eyes will be on Matt Stafford and Daunte Culpepper. However, determining when in the next 12 months Stafford will take over won’t answer the real questions surrounding this team: Can they run? Can they stop the run? Can they rush the passer, and can they cover opposing wideouts? The answer to at least some of these questions being "yes" will be the keys to the Lions winning . . . well, any games in 2009.