O'Hara's top breakout candidates for the 2013 season

Posted Jun 28, 2013

Mike O'Hara looks at eight individuals or position groups that are prime candidates to lead a revival from last season's 4-12 record

Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Reggie Bush and Matthew Stafford are the marquee players the Lions should count on to lead them in the 2013 season. All have track records that establish them as token veterans.

Johnson can be counted on to be the most dominant receiver in the league. Bush's addition gives the offense a player who can be a threat running the ball or as a receiver out of the backfield. Suh is a formidable force at defensive tackle.

Quarterbacks always carry the heaviest burden, and that is no different for Stafford.

But any team that makes a serious run at a division championship and playoff berth must get contributions from the depth of the roster. Players who step up and contribute when given larger roles are critical.

Coach Jim Schwartz looked forward to training camp for some key position battles to be settled. Players in those categories put themselves in position to compete with their work in the offseason, including the mandatory mini-camp, but the real work to solidify positions starts in training camp.

"That's where the real competition will occur," Schwartz said at the end of mini-camp. "Training camp, training camp practices, our padded practices, our preseason games -- that's where those jobs will be won."

Following are eight individuals or position groups that are prime candidates to lead a revival from last season's 4-12 record:

1. Riley Reiff: A recent Sports Illustrated column listed Reiff as one of 10 rookies from 2012 who are in line for a breakout season this year. Reiff was drafted in the first round as the heir to Jeff Backus at left tackle on the offensive line.

Reiff started one game when Backus was out with an injury. Reiff also got substantial playing time as an extra blocker. He is a tenacious blocker who has added a good 10-12 pounds of muscle.

Riley ReiffT Riley Reiff

2. Jason Fox/Corey Hilliard: One of the two will win the starting job at right tackle. Fox has played only five games in three seasons since coming to the Lions as a fourth-round draft pick in 2010. Hilliard is in his sixth pro season and his fourth as a Lion. He has five starts in Detroit.

Left tackle is a glamour position because the quarterback needs his blind side protected, but the right tackle has to keep pass-rushers out of Stafford's face.

The battle between Hilliard and Fox could go down to the last preseason game.

3. Nick Fairley: His first two seasons have been a tease of how good the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2011 can be. Playing next to Suh, Fairley's explosive quickness gives him the potential to be a pocket-crusher.

However, as Schwartz said in mini-camp, Fairley hasn't been available often enough because of injuries, and questions remain about his physical condition.

In the offseason, Fairley said he and Suh formed the NFL's best defensive tackle tandem.

The 2013 season could well define what Fairley is, not what he has the potential to become.

4. Brandon Pettigrew: It's hard to project a breakout season for a first-round draft pick in 2009, but Pettigrew could establish a level of consistency in his fifth year as the starting tight end. Pettigrew has been candid in assessing his inconsistent performance last season as being below expectations.

Pettigrew should be a big, inviting mid-range target for Stafford, but he has to reduce the drops and turnovers that have plagued him.

5. Ashlee Palmer: He has taken the hard route to competing for a starting job at outside linebacker. Palmer, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009, begins his fourth season as a Lion. He has the inside track to beat out Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis, both from the 2012 draft class.

Palmer made his mark with the Lions as a hardcore performer on special teams. It's his turn to move up.

Ashlee PalmerLB Ashlee Palmer

6. Young cornerbacks: The Lions have their best collection of young cornerbacks in years, with rookie Darius Slay joining three players from the 2012 draft class – Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green. Veteran Ron Bartell Jr. was the starter opposite Chris Houston in the offseason workouts, but the young corners will push for playing time.

Greenwood, from Martin Luther King High in Detroit and Albion College, was injured in the offseason last year and missed his rookie season. It's a big jump from a Division III school to competing in the pros, but Greenwood has eye-catching ability. He bears watching.

7. Joique Bell: He has advanced from trying to win a roster spot to competing for quality time at running back. Bell looked lighter and quicker in the offseason, and he carries himself with confidence.

Bush is the leader of the running backs, but Bell can build on last year's performance as a runner/receiver who is capable of big plays. And he can help on special teams.

8. John Bonamego: The new special teams coordinator established his reputation in previous stops at Jacksonville, Green Bay, New Orleans and Miami.

There were too many breakdowns last year, especially early, and not enough production in the return game to overcome them.

Adding Pro Bowl cover man Montell Owens and rookie punter Sam Martin should upgrade two weak spots. Whoever wins the return job has to be solid, not spectacular, to be an improvement over last year.