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Lions Report: Tall Order

August 8, 2014 by Mark Mravi c

Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron will battle for PT at TE. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
ALLEN PARK, MICH. A wet morning dew still soaked the ground at 8:30 a.m. when new Lions coach Jim Caldwell decided to
stage a Friday practicehis rationale for a schedule of varied practice times is to keep players on their toes. As a result, The MMQB
saw what amounted to a glorified walkthrough, and theres nothing you can say about a walkthrough that hasnt already been said about
Major League Soccer. Nevertheless, we push on.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Seeing Calvin Johnson (6-5), Eric Ebron (6-4), Kris Durham (6-6), Brandon Pettigrew (6-5) and Joseph Fauria (6-7) on the field in
combinations of three, towering over defensive backsand over new Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (5-10). Id challenge anybody to
name a better combination of size and talent in a group of pass-catchers. Said Tate: I hope Stafford can find me. Well see on
How this team can go 124
Suh remains the rock up front for the Lions. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
Tate (above) will be counted on to take pressure off Calvin Johnson. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Saturday, of course, the Lions host the Cleveland Browns, and fans will get a first glimpse at the new offense that will make or break
Detroit this season. How different will it look from the one-back spread in which quarterback Matt Stafford has operated for much of his
career? If these practices are any indication: a lot. The Lions have learned a wealth of two-tight end and two-running back sets and
appear focused on exploiting the flats and the alley between linebackers, corners and safeties near the hashmarks. That makes sense
personnel-wise and could indicate a new commitment to the short and intermediate passing game stressed by Caldwell when he took
over the Baltimore offense in 2012, and which seemed to conflict with Joe Flaccos tendency to hurl it deep. (Last year under Caldwell,
Flacco threw 88 passes that travelled more than 20 yards in the air, completing 17 with one touchdown and 8 INTs, according to Pro
Football Focus.) If the Lions are to finish 12-4, Stafford has to buy in to the new offense. In the competitive NFC North, hell also need
to have a career season, and this defense, ranked 16th in yards allowed a year ago, must successfully integrate newcomer DB James
Ihedigbo and compensate for the loss of defensive end Willie Young, a free agent departure who quietly thrived in 2013. Those are a lot
of chips that will need to fall into the right place.
How this team can go 412
These guys are so much better than two years ago, when 4-12
was a reality after a 10-6 finish in 2011. For one thing the
offense was one-dimensional in 2012, with Stafford-to-
Johnson accounting for an obscene 94 targets over the last six
weeks of the season. (Compare that to 57 a year later, with a
three-win improvement.) With the addition of Tate, the free-
agent pickup from Seattle, and Ebron, the first-round tight end
out of North Carolina, Detroit can now make an argument for
having one of the top 5 offensive skill position groups in
football. Then again, the fall back to 4-12 can still happen if
Detroit takes a big step back on defense. Ndamukong Suh and
Nick Fairley are rocks up front, but cornerbacks Rashean
Mathis and Drayton Florence are a short-term bandaid for a
pass defense that has long been a sore spot. (Glover Quin,
however, is a long-term solution at safety.) Even if those two have little left to contribute, theres now enough talent in the front seven and
enough energy around the franchise to make 4-12 unlikely.
Now, from fantasyland
1. Joique Bell will continue to vulture Reggie Bushs goal-line touchdowns, and both could see a drop in production with the addition of
Tate and Ebron.
2. Tate should blossom in this offense as the leading candidate to take pressure off Calvin Johnson. The fact that hes dropped the ball
just seven times in four seasons should help build an early rapport with Stafford.
3. Avoid drafting any of these three tight ends until one of them emerges as the red-zone favorite. Smart money is on Fauria building on
his seven touchdowns of a year ago after improving as a blocker this offseason.
The starters
Itll be a tug of war between Bush and Bell at running back. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
WR1 Calvin Johnson DE Ezekiel Ansah
LT Riley Reiff DT Nick Fairley
LG Rob Sims DT Ndamukong Suh
C Dominic Raiola DE Jason Jones
RG Larry Warford OLB Ashlee Palmer/Kyle Van Noy
RT LaAdrian Waddle/Corey Hilliard MLB Stephen Tulloch
TE Brandon Pettigrew/Eric Ebron/Joseph Fauria OLB DeAndre Levy
WR2 Golden Tate CB Rashean Mathis
WR3 Kevin Ogletree/Kris Durham CB Darius Slay
QB Matthew Stafford Nickel Bill Bentley
RB Reggie Bush/Joique Bell FS Glover Quin
FB Montell Owens/Jed Collins SS James Ihedigbo
K Nate Freese P Sam Martin

Reggie Bush is the clear starter but Joique Bell had over 200 touches last season and bears mentioning in any depth chart Montell
Owens used to be listed as a running back but now appears to be in a competition with the larger, slower Collins at FB The right
tackle job is LaAdrian Waddles to lose after stepping in as a UDFA last season and starting nine games without allowing a sack On
defense, Palmer looks like a placeholder for second-round pick Kyle Van Noy, who is already taking first-team reps.
Best new player in camp
Golden Tate, footballs most well-rounded receiver under six feet tall. He can block, elude defenders and catch pretty much anything.
He has the potential to take this offense to another level.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
You will know DeAndre Levys name by the time the season is over. In new coordinator Teryl Austins defense Levy will play weakside
linebacker as opposed to staying on one side of the field, which means the Lions will be playing to the coverage strengths of the 2009
third-round pick. Levy broke up five passes a year ago, and quarterbacks had a 57.5 passer rating with one touchdown and six
interceptions when throwing at him, according to PFF. Guys like Levy are the solution to the mobile tight end scourge and will be the last
linebackers standing once the entire league eventually converts to nickel and dime.
Something Ive never seen before
An 8:30 AM practice. Jim Caldwell, if you wanted to take your players out of their comfort zone you shouldve shipped camp away to
some Division III college and stuck them in dorms. Sports reporters hate 7:30 wakeup calls.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
Good luck to the oddsmakers trying to forecast this team. The roster is more talented than a year ago, but that doesnt mean the
Lions wont still finish 7-9. All three teams in the division got better (provided Minnesotas Teddy Bridgewater makes a positive impact
as a rookie), and theres a steep learning curve ahead with a new head coach and two new coordinators. I love the use of two running
backs and the emphasis on the tight end position, but I wonder if this defensive backfield of Quin, underachieving sophomore Darius
Slay, the aforementioned old guys, and the coverage-challenged James Ihedigbo can stand up to Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler in