There have been enough questions since the end of last season: the firing of Jim Schwartz and the coaching search that ended in the hiring of Caldwell; the building of his staff; free-agent signings and the draft; offseason workouts that have prepared the Lions mentally and physically for the season.
How will all of this mesh to make the Lions efficient, productive playoff contenders?
This week’s Monday Countdown reverses a page on Tim Twentyman’s weekly 10 Questions and gives 13 answers (some call it a baker’s dozen, but it’s really the product of being a wind bag) to the key issues facing the Lions as they prepare for the season.
1. Matthew Stafford: It’s the same question for almost every other team. Who gets the most scrutiny? The spotlight shines brightest on the quarterback.
Even the Broncos have questions about Peyton Manning. How will the most prolific passer in regular-season history rebound from last season’s playoff disaster? Can he go the distance physically again in his 16th active season? (Manning missed 2011 with a neck injury.)
Winning quarterbacks face questions every season, and they answer them.
It’s no different in Detroit for Stafford at the start of camp.
2. Priority 1 -- consistency: Arm strength, leadership and durability aren’t issues. Stafford is the iron man among NFC North quarterbacks. He’s the only one to start all 48 regular-season games the last three years.
But what is the biggest step he must take to elevate his game? It’s getting sharper and more consistent on some of the routine throws that top-echelon quarterbacks make routinely. There’s an old saying: consistency thou are a jewel. Every quarterback strives to attain it.
Training camp is an extension of the offseason workouts that have tweaked Stafford’s delivery to make him more consistent. The offensive design that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was used to in New Orleans will give Stafford some safer throws, just like it has for Drew Brees in New Orleans.
It all leads to getting the offense grooved for the start of the regular season.
3. Team discipline: The question people ask most often is whether Caldwell and his staff can instill discipline in a team that has hurt itself repeatedly in recent years with big breakdowns and penalties.
When he was hired in January, Caldwell talked about the importance of mental toughness, saying: “Mental toughness really keeps you out of situations in which you make big mistakes at the end of ballgames when the game’s on the line. That’s huge. I think that can be developed.”
Penalties cannot be avoided. All teams get them. But teams that are strong mentally produce in the clutch and do not beat themselves.
Slay was a second-round draft pick, and he has a lot of natural ability – speed, size and athleticism. He started the first two games, but it was clear that he wasn’t ready for the NFL. He didn’t start again until the final game, and he showed improvement.
He has to carry through training camp and into the season. If he does, it will give the secondary a young, talented starter at cornerback that has been lacking for years.
5. Weight, conditioning, endurance: What represents a good start to camp for
Fairley has enormous athletic ability, and if he’s in top condition, performance and production will follow – and he’ll hit it big in the free-agent market next year, either with another team or re-signing with the Lions.
6. Five-man heavy rotation: How many roster spots are available in the offensive backfield, and what is the expected plan to use them?
Competition is heavy, and tight, at running back.
Four tailbacks and a fullback are likely to make up the five spots. The toughest and tightest competition shapes up at fullback and the No. 4 tailback.
Whoever makes the final roster will share the load in a running back by committee approach designed to keep fresh legs in the game.
7. Wide receivers, 4,
The question is how many roster spots are available for receivers – four or five, and if Ross counts as one of them.
The squeeze: Some of it comes from Ebron’s ability to create mismatches. If he develops fast enough in training camp, he can run routes from the tight end position, in the slot as a third receiver or split wide.
And Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick can run routes from the slot, or split wide.
However it works out, here is one man’s advice to all job seekers: catch the ball, even in practice warm-ups.
8. Ebron and Van Noy: Which of this year’s draft picks will help immediately?
It’s set up for Ebron to help immediately. His skill set – speed, athleticism, play-making – fits what the Lions were seeking when they took him 10th overall.
Unless there is an injury-based promotion, the rest of the draft picks are looking at a season of development for depth and special-teams play.
9. Sophomore jump or slump: Last year’s draft class – enhanced by free agents
Possibilities for last year’s rookies:
Ziggy Ansah can be a double-digit sack man if healthy.
Slay starts camp with a starting job but has to keep it.
Riddick has an opportunity for an expanded role in an offense, as noted, that will use tailbacks in a heavy rotation.
Waddle has to hold off
It’s not realistic for Fauria to catch seven TD passes again, but he’ll get his chances to use his superior hands. He has to take advantage.
10. Third-year corners: GM Martin Mayhew has said that if cornerbacks don’t make it by their third season, it’s likely that they’ll never make it. That puts pressure on three cornerbacks drafted in 2012 –
Bentley has had good moments as a nickel back. He’s the leader of this group.
Jason Hanson’s steady excellence for 21 years makes it unusual for the Lions to have a kicking competition, but David Akers’ struggles last year created the opening for this year’s camp battle.
It won’t be a surprise if it goes down to the last exhibition game.
12. Quarterback count: Will the Lions keep three quarterbacks, as they’ve done in the past and as Mayhew prefers to do, or will they go with two?
13. None: That’s my one-word answer on what impact the status of Ndamukong Suh’s contract will have this year on his performance and on his teammates. What it means for 2015 and beyond is one thing, but for the 2014 season it won’t be more than an annoyance for teammates when they have to answer questions from the media.
The questions are fair game. Suh is a big name in the NFL, and he generates a lot of interest. But if anyone is equipped mentally to not let issues involving his contract have a negative impact on his performance, it’s Suh.
As he has shown in his first four seasons with the Lions, his focus in practice and games is on performance and nothing else.