On the track or the practice field, everything looks bright and shiny, with tweaks and adjustments raising hopes and expectations to a high level ... until they race for real.
The Lions have done more than change tires and apply a fresh coat of paint since the end of a wretched 2012 season.
Changes were not cosmetic. In the draft and free agency, the Lions worked to rebuild the power train – running back, defensive line, secondary, key special teams components with John Bonamego in as coordinator of the unit – and the offensive line was retooled.
“We didn’t just close our eyes and pull a name out of a hat,” head coach Jim Schwartz said after Thursday’s practice. “We had very specific roles in mind for all of those guys, and I think they have all proven that they can fill that role.
“But we have a long way to go before we’re happy with really anybody.”
Make no mistake, as the Lions stand today, they don’t have a pat hand that should roll through the NFC North and win the division. There are still players and position groups that have to prove themselves.
Continuing knee issues that have kept safety
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is committed to bouncing back from last season’s erratic performance. And the special teams have to prove that sweeping changes will produce positive results.
Position by position, here’s a breakdown of where the Lions stand with training camp six weeks away:
Quarterback: No worries about
Five quarterbacks threw 32 or more TD passes last season, and I expect that to be a reasonable level for Stafford this year.
He’s comfortable in assuming the role that this is his team. Efficiency and winning games define a quarterback more than raw numbers. Having healthy, dependable pass-catchers will help him – and he can get the ball to anyone who’s open.
Receivers/tight end: See above.
But even a player of Megatron’s ability can get better, and he will by reducing his dropped passes, many of which were caused by playing with injured fingers.
The issue with Pettigrew’s drops and fumbles is related more to concentration than ability. He’s a big, powerful target who should rule the middle for Stafford.
Smith isn’t with a team, and Williams was cut after five games. His only two carries for the season were with the Lions.
Bush is the key addition. His combination of touches – receptions and runs from scrimmage – and the threat of doing either will draw attention from defenses and provide more quality opportunities for the passing game.
Offensive line: It’s the toughest unit to call because of the changes. Left guard
There are no clear-cut answers at right guard and right tackle. Right tackle is between
Defensive line: Five key players from last year aren’t on the roster – ends Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Lawrence Jackson and tackles Sammie Lee Hill and Corey Williams.
Ziggy Ansah, the first-round pick, will have to use his phenomenal athletic ability while learning the nuances of playing right end. Ansah has the mindset to learn.
Fairley has explosive quickness, but he has missed nine of 32 games in two seasons and was limited by injuries in others.
“He’s got work to do between now and the start of training camp,” Schwartz said Thursday. “It’s not just talent, it’s not just confidence. It’s availability. For his first two years he wasn’t available enough for us.”
It would not be a shock if Williams is re-signed sometime during training camp, but only if the Lions are sure a knee injury that required surgery last season has healed. Williams would add depth at tackle, to go with C.J., Mosley, who was signed as a free agent.
Linebackers: It’s a three-man race between
Secondary: Veteran safety
Slay could win the job to start opposite
With offensive formations using three, four and five receivers, there’s a need to have quality cornerbacks in the nickel and dime packages.
Delmas is a key to the secondary, and Schwartz expressed confidence in him, despite his injury history.
“There’s no player I have more confidence in than Lou,” Schwartz said. “I’ve said so many times, he’s the heart and soul of our defense, and he’s got an incredible amount of toughness.”
If only he can hold together.
Special teams: The entire unit – returns, punting and coverage – will be better except at kicker.
There will be no upgrade over Jason Hanson, who retired after 21 seasons as the Lions’ kicker. The best
Otherwise, this should be the most improved unit and give the Lions the ability to do one thing the special teams could not do last year – not lose games.