MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Time for answers

Posted Jul 28, 2014

This week’s Monday Countdown reverses a page on Tim Twentyman’s weekly 10 Questions and gives 13 answers to the key issues facing the Lions as they prepare for the season.

With the Lions set to start their first training camp under head coach Jim Caldwell, it’s time for answers, not more questions.

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.

From Matthew Stafford, to position battles, to Ndamukong Suh’s contract status – which I don’t see at this point having a major impact on the 2014 season – here are the answers. We start with obvious:

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.

4. Darius Slay: It’s a passing league, which makes defending the pass crucial – and begs the question: which cornerback has to step up? It’s Slay. He moves up to start at left cornerback after a rookie season that can be classified most charitably as a learning experience.

Darius SlayCB Darius Slay (Photo: Detroit Lions)

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 Nick Fairley, and how important is that with him becoming a free agent after this year? Fairley said Sunday that he reported at 305 pounds, which is about 20 less than he weighed a year ago.

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.

Barring injury, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick are set at tailback. Mikel Leshoure, who had only two carries in three games last year, will get a chance to win a job, but there are no guarantees.

Jed Collins, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has the edge at fullback because of the three seasons he spent with offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in New Orleans. However, Montell Owens cannot be discounted. He was limited to playing part of one game last year because of injuries, but he can play tailback and fullback, and he’s a strong special-teams player.

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, Eric Ebron, RBs:  Tough question to answer because of variables at other positions, but what is the prime position to get trimmed to make room for a fifth man in the backfield? How many roster spots are available? And if the Lions go into the season with receivers, who picks up the slack?

Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are solid as the starters. Jeremy Ross has a role because he doubles as a return man. After that, the scramble is on for Kris Durham, Kevin Ogletree, rookie T. Jones, Ryan Broyles and others.

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.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a second-round pick, has to beat out Ashlee Palmer at strong-side linebacker. Whoever plays that spot will get a chance to rush the passer.

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.

Defensive end Larry Webster and cornerback Nevin Lawson are intriguing prospects from the fourth round who might do more than expected.

9. Sophomore jump or slump: Last year’s draft class – enhanced by free agents LaAdrian Waddle and Joseph Fauria -- was one of the best in a decade for the Lions, but which direction will the rookies of 2013 take in 2014?

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.

Larry Warford was a steal in the third round and played liked a six-year vet. He can be a Pro Bowl guard.

Punter Sam Martin needs to add consistency to his strong leg.

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 Corey Hilliard to keep the starting job at right tackle.

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 – Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green.

Bentley has had good moments as a nickel back. He’s the leader of this group.

11. Nate Freese: It’s not a hard question to answer, because he was drafted in the seventh round, but Freese is the top candidate to be the kicker. Giorgio Tavecchio was in training camp the last two years with the 49ers and Packers but has not kicked in a regular-season game.

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? Kellen Moore has been No. 3 the last two seasons but faces a challenge from rookie James Franklin. The fact that Franklin can be put on the practice squad, thus leaving a spot open on the 53-player active roster, could influence the decision.

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.