Detroit is showing off its corps of towering pass-catchers, but little Golden Tate may end up being the key to survival in the rough NFC North
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 practice—his 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 there’s nothing you can say about a walkthrough that hasn’t 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 backs—and over new Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (5-10). I’d 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. We’ll see on Saturday.”
How this team can go 12–4
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 Flacco’s 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, he’ll 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 4–12
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, there’s 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 Bush's 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 he’s 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.
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 Waddle’s 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, football’s 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 Levy's name by the time the season is over. In new coordinator Teryl Austin's 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 I’ve never seen before
An 8:30 AM practice. Jim Caldwell, if you wanted to take your players out of their comfort zone you should’ve 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 doesn’t mean the Lions won’t still finish 7-9. All three teams in the division got better (provided Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater makes a positive impact as a rookie), and there’s 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 December.