The Detroit Lions brought in Jim Caldwell as their new Head Coach last year, and that turned into an 11-5 season and a playoff appearance as a wild card team. This year, they would like to go the next step and at least win the NFC North. It won’t be easy, as there has been a lot of roster turnover, and the other teams in the division have all improved.
As with any team, if you are going to compete for a championship they have to have a top quarterback in place and such is the case in Detroit with Matthew Stafford. Stafford, who is entering his seventh year, had one of his best seasons a year ago. He threw for over 4,000 yards, 22 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. He has to continue with that improvement if the Lions are going to improve.
The Lions have a reliable backup in 10 year vet in Dan Orlovsky, but they have to hope that he doesn’t have to play that much. He might win them one game, but after that, it’s all hope. In OTA’s so far this spring, fourth-year man Kellen Moore has gotten the bulk of the second team reps. Moore is smart and instinctive, but he lacks an NFL arm.
In 2014, the running game was led by Joique Bell and Reggie Bush. Bush is gone, but the Lions were able to draft Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah in the second round.
Bell is a solid inside runner, but he has his limitations. While I still expect him to start, especially early in the year, Abdullah will get a lot of work. Abdullah may be small, but he is an explosive and instinctive player who can be effective as a runner and a receiver. Playing in a rotation will help him even more, as he won’t wear down.
A third back who will get playtime is second year man Theo Riddick. Riddick played well down the stretch and is very effective as a receiver. The Lions might not have a bell-cow type back but they have three options who can work well together.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The Lions have one of the best in the business in Calvin Johnson. At 30, Johnson is beginning to show signs of the wear and tear of playing in the NFL, but opponents still have to account for him on every play.
Across from Johnson is Golden Tate, who was the Lions leading receiver a year ago with 99 receptions. After acquiring him as a free agent last year, he really came into his own. The Lions need to find a reliable third receiver, and right now, the best options seem to be Cory Fuller or T.J. Jones. Jones was slowed by injuries a year ago, and I expect him to breakout in 2015.
Last year, the Lions drafted athletic tight end Eric Ebron in the first round with the hopes that he would give them a dimension they didn’t have. That didn’t happen as Ebron only had 25 receptions for 248 yards as a rookie. Now, in his second year in the system, the Lions have to hope that he comes on. If he does, he makes Johnson and Tate that much better.
The blocking tight end is Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew had perhaps his worst season last year with only 10 receptions. The third tight end is Joseph Fauria who disappointed last year. The Lions felt that the tight end position was a strength going into 2014, and they were let down. They have to hope that all three will show big improvement in 2015.
The offensive line did not do a good job a year ago, giving up 45 sacks. That said, the Lions used their first round pick on Duke guard Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson is a big, powerful mauler who should come in and start right away at left guard. The right guard will be Third-year pro Larry Warford who is perhaps the Lions best lineman.
At left tackle, will be Riley Reiff, who is more than competent at the position. He may be better on the right side, but at present, he is all the Lions have on the left. Who lines up at right tackle will be decided in training camp. The two fighting it out for the job are second-year man Cornelius Lucas and third year man LaAdrian Waddle. Both have limitations. Waddle is coming off an ACL and Lucas is not very athletic.
The center will be second year man Travis Swanson who was drafted in the third round a year ago. He got five starts in 2014 at both guard and center. He will be an improvement over departed Dominic Raiola.
The Detroit Lions defensive line in 2015 will have an entirely different look than a year ago. Last year, the interior of the line was manned by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Both are gone. Replacing Suh is former Baltimore Raven All Pro Haloti Ngata. While Ngata will be a force versus the run, he won’t give the Lions the interior pass rush that Suh gave them.
Who lines up next to Hgata will be determined in training camp. The battle is between Caraun Reid, Tyrunn Walker and rookie Gabe Wright. The guy that I’m looking at to surprise in his second year is Reid. Reid played his college football at Princeton and needed time to develop. Now, after a year doing that, he could be ready.
The ends will be former first round pick Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones. Both are excellent fits for the Lions “wide 9” pass rush scheme. Darryl Tapp and Larry Webster provide the depth. Recent signee Corey Webster could provide excellent depth both inside and outside.
The Lions will welcome back Stephon Tulloch at the Mike linebacker position. Tulloch only played in three games a year ago before tearing an ACL. He is the group’s leader and was missed after his injury.
At the Sam will be last year’s second round selection Kyle Van Noy who also give the Lions some pass rush skill. The Will linebacker is DeAndre Levy, who is ideal for that spot. The Lions have good depth at the position, as two players last year got a lot of play time they wouldn’t have gotten if it not for injuries. Tahir Whitehead and Josh Byrnes are more than reliable and can play if needed.
The secondary played better than expected in 2014 and the Lions hope for even more improvement this year. At the safety positions are ball hawk Glover Quinn who had seven interceptions a year ago and is good in support. At strong safety is James Ihedigbo who is strong in run support and a big hitter. He has more than adequate cover skills as shown by his four interceptions a year ago.
The starting corners going into camp will be 13 year vet Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay who played very well a year ago. The Lions drafted two players this year to provide depth for this year and be eventual starters. They are third round pick Alex Cater and Quandre Diggs. One of those two will emerge as the slot corner in nickel. There are some that feel Carter may even have a future at safety.
The Lions have the people at the skill positions to be very good. The question about this year’s team will be both lines. The offensive line has to show improvement and do a better job protecting Stafford. The defensive line has always been a strength of the Lions, and with new people inside it has to be a huge question mark. If both lines play well, the Lions will challenge for the division championship. If they don't play well, the Lions will struggle.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe