Detroit Lions on the spot in 2014

Posted Jul 24, 2014

Senior writer Tim Twentyman identifies a number of players who have the pressure to perform at a high level in 2014.

The spotlight will be on a number of Detroit Lions players in 2014 as the team tries to rebound from a disastrous finish to the 2013 season that ushered in a number of changes in Allen Park.

The Lions have a new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators and a number of new position coaches have been added to the fold.

The new coaching staff is the biggest change, and there's a renewed optimism because of Jim Caldwell and his staff, but this is still a player’s league. Players win and lose games and the Lions will need better performances from a number of players this year if they’re going to compete with the likes of the Packers and Bears in the NFC North.

There’s no player more important to the Lions success in 2014 than quarterback Matthew Stafford, which is why he heads the list.

1. QB Matthew Stafford

Stafford became only the second player in NFL history to throw for at least 4,500 yards in three consecutive seasons last year. In the process, he’s become the first Lions quarterback to reach 17,000 career passing yards.

But all of those statistics have lead to just one playoff berth for the Lions. They’ve relied too much on Stafford’s right arm the last three years.

New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi wants to run the football and the Lions will utilize a fullback for the first time since 2010. The Lions were a good running football team last year but being even better in 2014 will help Stafford in the long run.

When it comes to the passing game, the Lions simply want Stafford to manage games better and limit the turnovers (52 interceptions the last three seasons). Take what's there and be consistent. He does that and everything else will work itself out.

2. CB Darius Slay

The Lions are putting a lot of faith in Slay to be a quality starter heading into year two. He has good size at 6-foot-1 and might be the fastest player on the team. He played well this spring, but that was with shorts on.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wants to bring more pressure with his front seven, but that has to come in concert with better play from their secondary. Quick throws and quick routes can neutralize any pressure, as we saw last year.

Lions cornerbacks are going to be up closer to the line of scrimmage and want to be more physical with receivers. That certainly fits into Slay’s skill set. We’ll find out soon enough if he’s ready.

3. DT Nick Fairley

The ultra-talented defensive tackle is in a contract year after the Lions neglected to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. He’s slimmed down nearly 30 pounds from his playing weight last season and is VERY motivated to have a good season.

“It’s going to get me back into another contract earlier and it motivated me to go out there and do my thing and play a lot more consistent ball,” Fairley told this offseason.

“I’m really motivated. I can’t wait to keep this weight off me and get back out there and get things rolling.”

The Lions can’t wait for Fairley to reach his full potential. They'll think about dealing with his future if they see that first.

4. WR Golden Tate

Tate signed a big contract this offseason ($31 million), and with big money comes big expectations.

Golden TateWR Golden Tate (Photo: Detroit Lions)

He’s the best playmaker the Lions have paired opposite Calvin Johnson. He has got great hands, he can run after the catch and he can block.

He’s starting training camp on the PUP list with a bum shoulder, so that’s certainly something to monitor over the next week.

Tate had 64 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns last season in Seattle. The Lions will take that kind of production from their No. 2 receiver every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Have the Lions finally found a receiver who can consistently take advantage of single-coverage and penalize defenses for paying too much attention to Megatron?

5. TE Eric Ebron

Ebron is playing the Jimmy Graham role in the Lions’ new offense, which means the Lions are going to put a lot on this rookie’s plate.

With Johnson and Tate on the outside, the Lions feel like Ebron should be able to cause a lot of problems in the middle of the field with his size and speed.

Ebron caught 55 passes for 895 yards last year at North Carolina. If Detroit gets anything close to those numbers from Ebron, and Megatron and Tate stay healthy, we’re talking about a pretty special passing attack in Detroit.

Can he adequately block when asked to? Will drops be a problem? Those are a couple question marks Ebron has to answer early on.

6. LB Kyle Van Noy

The Lions want to do a lot of different things with their Sam linebacker and Van Noy is going to have to wear a lot of different hats early on.

He was a playmaker in college and it’s no secret the Lions need more of those kinds of players on that side of the football (just 22 total turnovers in 2013). It is the whole reason they moved up in the second round to select him.

Van Noy showed terrific instincts on film and the Lions are excited to see him in action in pads.

7. LT Riley Reiff

Reiff helped the Lions form one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last year. He was solid as a first-year starter, allowing seven sacks in 16 games.

The Lions will be looking for continued progression from their young left tackle and can’t afford any regression. Teams have a year of tape on Reiff now and will try to attack his weaknesses.

8. DE Ziggy Ansah

Like Tate, Ansah will start training camp on the PUP list with a shoulder injury.

There's some concern that missing all of spring could have hurt Ansah's development. Only time will tell if that was the case or not.

The Lions got eight sacks from a raw, athletic Ansah as a rookie. Their expectations for him are considerably higher for him heading into year two.

Can he live up to them?

9. CB Bill Bentley

Is Bentley a legitimate No. 3 cornerback in this league? He’s shown flashes that he can be, and then other times he's been very inconsistent.

He's going to have to win a job over rookie Nevin Lawson.

Bentley needs to make huge gains heading into year three. The talent is there, he just finally needs to put it all together.

10. LB Stephen Tulloch

For the first time in his nine-year career, Tulloch is learning a new defense. There are going to be a lot of moving parts in Teryl Austin’s defense and Tulloch will be charged with getting all the pieces in the right spot.

Tulloch is strong, durable and can tackle, but he can stand to improve his cover skills a bit. He has a new position coach and a new scheme and we’ll see how he adjusts to both.

11. C Dominic Raiola

The 14-year veteran is coming off probably his best season as a professional, but nothing is guaranteed for the team’s longest tenured player.

The Lions drafted Travis Swanson in the third round and Raiola is going to have to earn his spot once again in training camp.

Can Raiola, 35, continue to play his best football this late in his career?