Twentyman's top five Lions' position battles on offense

Posted May 4, 2013

Tim Twentyman breaks down the competition battles at right tackle, right guard, center, No. 2 outside receiver and No. 3 running back

Later this month, the Lions will start “Phase Three” of the offseason training program, which is when they’ll begin the first of 10 allotted OTA practices. The program will end with a mandatory minicamp June 11-13.

With each new phase of the program, the Lions are allowed to do more and more on-field work. As a result, position competitions will start to ratchet up.

The true determination of who wins a starting spot won’t come until late August -- after four weeks of training camp and four preseason games. However, the spring could put a few favorites on the board heading into  camp.

Note: These competitions could change over the next few weeks with additional veteran free-agent signings.

Here’s a look at five offensive position battles to watch this spring and in training camp:

1. Starting right tackle

Candidates: Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard

Competition: Riley Reiff seems pretty well entrenched at left tackle following the draft, which means the Lions are now looking to fill that right tackle spot left vacant by the loss of Gosder Cherilus to free agency (Colts).

The Lions drafted Fox in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. They’ve developed him through two injury-plagued seasons in 2010 and 2011 and offered him a restricted free agent contract this offseason. Basically, Fox is on a one-year deal to make an impact. He has great size and length and the Lions think the only thing that’s held him back from making more of an impact have been the injuries.

"I’ve been here going on my fourth year, so I’m ready to contribute anywhere they want to put me," Fox told me.

The team thought enough of Hilliard to sign him to a two-year contract this offseason. He’s entering his fifth NFL season and has made five starts in four seasons with the Lions. This is his first real shot to win a starting job, though.

"When you have competition, it brings out the best in people," Hilliard said. "That’s how teams really thrive. If you have guys that get complacent and aren’t really competing for a job (that was) handed to them, they aren’t going to be working as hard, I think."

This will be one of the better competitions of any position this spring and fall.

2. Starting right guard

Candidates: Larry Warford, Bill Nagy, Rodney Austin, Dylan Gandy

Competition: When the Lions took Warford with their third-round selection (No. 65 overall) in last weekend’s draft, he became an early favorite to win the job. He’s the physical presence in the middle of their offensive line the Lions haven’t had since Jim Schwartz took over as head coach.

Warford earned All-SEC accolades all four seasons at Kentucky. In three seasons starting at right guard, he led all SEC interior blockers with an 88.47 percent grade for blocking consistency.

“I think he definitely competes for it,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said of Warford starting as a rookie. “You know, he’s got some stuff to learn. He’s got to clean some things up. But I think he’s got a chance to compete as a starter.”

The team picked up Nagy last August after the Cowboys released him because of  an ankle injury. Nagy made four starts at left guard for Dallas in 2011, so he's got some experience.

Austin made enough of an impression on the practice squad last year that Mayhew made it a point to mention him when asked about the right guard competition at the NFL League Meetings in March.

Gandy was re-signed this offseason after playing the backup roles at both guard and center last year. He’ll also be in the mix.

Warford and Nagy seem to be the favorites, but don’t sleep on Austin.

3. Starting center

Candidates: Dominic Raiola, Bill Nagy, Dylan Gandy, Skyler Allen

Competition: Raiola took a pay cut to return for his 13th season. He’s a smart veteran who’s continued to start through five different coaching regimes (including Dick Juron) since 2001. There's something to be said about that.

The Lions will play Nagy 50/50 at center and guard early on. His best chance to win a starting job might actually come at center, which is where the Cowboys were playing him in training camp last year before he was injured.

"You will see him at both positions through the offseason, training camp and preseason," Mayhew said. "Once we get into the season, if he is a starter, then he will stay at one position. If not, then he will continue to work at both."

Gandy served as Raiola’s backup last year.

Allen is getting a chance to compete as an undrafted rookie free agent. He started 26 straight games at center the last two years at Ohio.

4. No. 2 outside receiver

Candidates: Nate Burleson, Corey Fuller, Patrick Edwards, Kris Durham, Devin Thomas, Brian Robiskie, Cody Wilson, Chastin West, Terrence Austin

Nate BurlesonWR Nate Burleson

Competition: It appears to be Burleson’s job to lose. He’s returned to the field earlier than expected after suffering a broken leg midseason last year. He’s already running routes and catching passes in the offseason training program.

The Lions know what they have in Burleson, which is a reliable playmaker.

Fuller, on the other hand, is the raw prospect with pure athleticism. He can stretch the field more than Burleson can. Despite playing only one full year of college football, the Lions selected the former track star in the sixth-round of the draft last weekend. They see the potential, but how quickly can he get up to speed?

Edwards made a lot of plays in training camp last year, but it didn’t translate to the field during the preseason. He spent last year on the practice squad before being placed on injured reserve. He’s a year older and knows the system. Is this the year he breaks through?

Durham is a big body (6-6, 216) who was able to make some plays down the stretch last year.

The other guys will have to make quite an impression to get up into the mix with the players mentioned above.

5. No. 3 running back

Candidates: Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, Steven Miller, Devin Moore

Competition: Reggie Bush’s status as the team’s No. 1 free-agent target this offseason, and Mikel Leshoure’s status as being a second-round pick in 2011, make them the likely choices for the top two running back spots.

Some would argue that Bell made just as much impact as Leshoure and his nine touchdowns in 2012. Bell proved to be a versatile weapon for the Lions: rushing for 414 yards and three touchdowns, catching 52 passes for 485 yards and playing a big role on special teams.

Bell made plays when given the opportunity, which could make him a second option at times, too. It certainly gives him a leg up to be the No. 3 man in the Lions’ backfield. He does have to work on ball security, though, he lost two crucial fumbles last season.

Like Bell, Riddick is a versatile back with terrific receiving skills. Bell is the more powerful of the two, but Riddick is probably a bit quicker. They are two players with a lot of the same skills.

“I think Scott (Linehan) has always done a good job of using guys that have different strengths and abilities in this offense,” Lions running backs coach and run game coordinator Curtis Modkins said.

“When I saw Theo I thought he was a guy that offered a couple of different things, He’s played receiver, he’s played running back, so he’s been exposed to the run game, the pass game and he knows how to run routes. I’m real excited about the versatility that Theo brings us and I think he’s going to help.”

The Lions kept four running backs on the roster last year, plus Stefan Logan, who was a returner/hybrid player.