by Greg Gabriel
June 28, 02014
The Lions have been a hot and cold team since I have been involved in NFL football. They seem to have the players to make a run at a division championship but, for one reason or another, just don’t get it done.
Following 2013, the Lions made a head coaching change, firing Jim Schwartz and bringing in well-respected Jim Caldwell, who led the Colts to a Super Bowl a few years ago. Caldwell is an even-keeled guy who does a great job with quarterbacks, and that should help Matt Stafford who, like the Lions, is up and down. The Lions are not short on quality players. It’s a matter of getting everybody on the same page and playing well together. If that happens, they can make a run at the playoffs and beyond.
Matthew Stafford, now in his sixth year, is the man. He is has all the physical tools to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league. His problem has been consistency and playing well in big games. In the recent past, coming up with the costly turnover at the wrong time has cost the Lions. If Caldwell can settle Stafford down, he can be very dangerous and one of the better QB’s in the league.
The Lions don’t have a lot behind Stafford. Joe Orlovsky is a nine-year veteran who Caldwell knows well. Kellen Moore is very smart and instinctive but lacks an NFL arm.
Reggie Bush may be in his ninth year, but he plays like a much younger player. He still has excellent speed and is a threat to make a big play every time he touches the ball in space. While Bush is the big play threat, Joique Bell is an excellent complement. He is a physical guy who can get the tough yards. Second-year man Theo Riddick is the third back. While Riddick doesn’t have great physical traits, he is an excellent football player who can do multiple things well. He has also become a core special teams' player.
Receivers and Tight Ends
When you have the best receiver in the NFL, it’s a good start. Calvin Johnson is, without a doubt, the most dangerous receiver in the NFL at this time. He is so big and athletic, he just can’t be covered. The Lions went into free agency looking for a complementary receiver and found one in Golden Tate, Seattle’s leading receiver in 2013. Behind Johnson and Tate is a trio of talented players. Last year’s second round pick, Ryan Broyles, has the traits to be outstanding but can’t stay healthy. Jeremy Ross had a very good spring and late-round pick T.J. Jones could be one of the steals of the draft.
The Lions tight end corps is as strong as any in the NFL. The incumbent starter is Brandon Pettigrew, who is more of a traditional “Y” tight end and provides blocking for the run game. The big name added to the group is first round pick Eric Ebron. Ebron is more like a huge wide receiver who will help free up Johnson and also create defensive mismatches. The third tight end is Joe Fauria. He proved to be a valuable red zone option a year ago.
In recent years, the offensive line has been an area of weakness for the Lions. Last year, two rookies helped solidify the line, and the front office brass is much more confident in the group going forward. The tackles will be Riley Reiff on the left side and LaAdrian Waddle on the right side. Waddle played very well for an undrafted free agent.
Last year’s third round pick Larry Warford looks to have future Pro Bowl talent at guard, and Rob Sims is a consistent NFL player. The center is old, reliable Dominic Raiola, now in his 14th season. The Lions drafted Travis Swanson to provide depth at center and guard, and he will eventually replace Raiola. Corey Hilliard is the main backup at tackle.
While the Lions have the most dominant receiver in the league, they also may have the most dominant inside defensive lineman in Ndamukong Suh. Suh has the talent to dominate at any time and is almost impossible to single block.
Across from Suh is Nick Fairley who can be a dominating presence inside. He has size, power and athleticism. To back up inside are reliable Andre Fluellen and rookie Caraun Reid. Reid, the fifth round pick from Princeton, has great talent and upside, but coming from the Ivy League, he is raw.
At the end positions are consistent Jason Jones and last year’s first round pick Ziggy Ansah. I thought Ansah might be a year away when he was drafted, but he played outstanding football in 2013. He will only get better. Devin Taylor and Darryl Tapp provide the depth at end. This group as a whole is one of the stronger defensive lines in the league and all can rush the passer.
The Mike position is in the reliable hands of Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch doesn’t have ideal size, but he has been extremely durable. The Will linebacker is six-year vet DeAndre Levy, who has shown steady improvement in each of his five previous seasons.
This year’s seond round pick, Kyle Van Noy from BYU, will line up at Sam. Van Noy has excellent instincts and has a very good overall game in that he can defend the run, rush the passer, and play in coverage. I would expect the Lions to move him around quite a bit and use him in different ways this year. Ashlee Palmer, who started at Sam last year, will be the main reserve.
This has been a trouble spot for the Lions for years and that continues into this year. One of the starters at corner will be Darius Slay, the second round pick a year ago. He had some injury concerns last year but is healthy now. The starting spot across from Slay is still open. It could be veteran Rashean Mathis, free agent pick up Cassius Vaughn, or feisty rookie Nevin Lawson. Lawson is only 5’9” but plays a physical game.
At the safety spots, the starters are expected to be James Ihedigbo from Baltimore and Glover Quinn. Quinn might just be the best player in the Lions secondary. Don’t be shocked if the Lions look for veteran help during training camp as the secondary is the weakest part of the defense.
The first four games of a season often set the tone for the year. The Lions don’t have a pushover in any of those games. They open at home versus an improved New York Giants on Monday night, then travel to Carolina. The following week they are home to Green Bay before traveling to New York to play the Jets. The Lions have to hope to finish the first quarter of the season with a 2-2 record at the worst. If that happens they could be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe