Mike O'Hara takes a look at each position as it stands now

Posted Jun 14, 2013

Mike O'Hara offers a position-by-position breakdown where the Lions stand with training camp six weeks away

There is a correlation between the Lions breaking mini-camp on Thursday and putting their offseason workouts in idle until the start of training camp, and the NASCAR crews arriving at Michigan International Speedway in the Irish Hills to begin their testing and qualifying runs for the race on Sunday.

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 Louis Delmas from participating in any part of the offseason workouts are a concern. So is the durability of the receiving corps (except for Calvin Johnson) and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

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 Matthew Stafford, his contract, or anything related to the position. He dropped to 20 TD passes in 2012 from 41 in 2011. He should be somewhere between those two points this year.

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. Nate Burleson is back after playing only six games last year because of a broken leg. Ryan Broyles is on a fast track in his return from a torn ACL in his right knee. And Calvin Johnson is called Megatron for a reason. He’s the best receiver in football, and one of the top five non-quarterbacks overall.

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.

Running back: No comparison to a year ago. The Lions started the season with Kevin Smith and Keiland Williams as their top two running backs. Mikel Leshoure was under suspension for the first two games, and Joique Bell had yet to assert himself in the depth chart.

Smith isn’t with a team, and Williams was cut after five games. His only two carries for the season were with the Lions.

Reggie Bush gives the Lions a two-way threat that they’ve lacked in Jahvid Best’s absence. Bell has developed from project to contributor, while Leshoure is more of a power threat.

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 Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola are the only returning starters. Riley Reiff looks comfortable at left tackle, where Jeff Backus was a fixture for 12 seasons.

There are no clear-cut answers at right guard and right tackle. Right tackle is between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard. If rookie Larry Warford isn’t ready to play right guard on opening day, the position is wide open, but there has to be someone with the versatility to play center.

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. Jason Jones adds a power element at left end that Avril didn’t.

Ndamukong Suh re-established himself last year as a dominating force at tackle and he should build on that. Nick Fairley’s proclamation that he and Suh are the league’s best tandem at defensive tackle made for good reading, but he has to hold up his end.

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.

Willie Young and rookie Devin Taylor provide pass-rush depth at end. Taylor, at 6-7 and 276 pounds, could be special.

Linebackers: It’s a three-man race between Ashlee Palmer, Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead for one spot at outside linebacker to go with Stephen Tulloch in the middle and DeAndre Levy on the other side. Palmer’s experience gives him the edge.

Secondary: Veteran safety Glover Quin and rookie cornerback Darius Slay are solid upgrades. Slay’s size adds a physical dimension that’s been lacking, as does veteran Ron Bartell Jr., who was signed late last season after being released by the Raiders.

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Slay could win the job to start opposite Chris Houston, who is coming off his best season and was rewarded with a long-term contract.

With offensive formations using three, four and five receivers, there’s a need to have quality cornerbacks in the nickel and dime packages. Bill Bentley, a starter as a rookie last year whose season ended early with a persistent shoulder injury, can be an asset as a third cornerback because of his feet.

Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood are members from last year’s rookie class who can provide depth.

Don Carey played well after being signed during the season. He started the last five games and will be a factor in some role.

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 David Akers can do is provide the same consistency.

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.