Wednesday, July 23, 2014
A look at Detroit Lions position battles
By Michael Rothstein
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- This is a somewhat odd training camp for the Detroit Lions. Unlike some past seasons, there are not a ton of starting positions up for grabs once camp opens Monday.
Yes, there are many positions to be won or lost and injuries could change the entire dynamic of some of these position battles. Right now, though, there are precious few starting slots to be won.
Here, though, are a look at five important battles for the composition of the Lions' roster entering the 2014 season with an early prediction of who wins the slots.
The battle: Nate Freese vs. Giorgio Tavecchio
Why this is important: The Lions are searching for their third starting kicker in as many seasons after the retirement of Jason Hanson following the 2012 season, and then a poor performance from David Akers in 2013. The team is specifically looking toward a younger kicker this time around, as neither Freese nor Tavecchio have kicked in a regular-season game. Freese is the more accurate of the two, having made all of his field goals last season for Boston College and was drafted in the seventh round by the Lions in May. Tavecchio has spent the past two training camps attempting to earn his way onto a roster, but was eventually cut from San Francisco and Green Bay. This is his third shot at a job and possibly his most realistic chance to make a team. Tavecchio has a stronger leg than Freese and if he can show accuracy, he could end up pushing the rookie hard.
Who wins: Freese (but it's close).
The battle: LaAdrian Waddle vs. Corey Hilliard
Why this is important: The other four positions on the offensive line, barring injury, are fairly set with Larry Warford and Rob Sims at guard, Riley Reiff at left tackle and Dominic Raiola at center. The right tackle slot, though, should have some actual competition. Both Waddle and Hilliard started games there last season and Waddle would have never received the starting opportunity had Hilliard (and the since-departed Jason Fox) not been hurt. Considering the success of Detroit's offensive line last season, particularly in pass protection, there is pressure on the unit to replicate 2013's success in 2014. Both Waddle and Hilliard should make the roster, but who wins this battle could make a difference for line chemistry.
Who wins: Waddle, but Hilliard keeps it interesting.
The battle: Ryan Broyles vs. Jeremy Ross vs. TJ Jones (maybe)
Why is this important: This is an interesting scenario because of the many options the Lions have as pass-catchers. If the team wanted, both Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron could line up in the slot and depending where pieces are placed on the field, both will end up there at some point. But from a pure slot perspective, it'll be a fairly tight competition. The main question with Broyles is his health. He has not played a full season since the middle of his college career and will be pushed throughout camp by Ross, who is the team's primary returner. Broyles insisted this spring he is healthy for the first time in a long time and Ross has a stated goal of becoming more than a returner in the league. If Ross wins the job and the Lions feel rookie TJ Jones can be productive in the slot, too, Broyles' roster spot could be in question. If Broyles wins the gig, all three of these players will likely end up on the roster, possibly squeezing out an outside receiver or running back.
Who wins: If he's healthy, Broyles.
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The battle: Jason Jones vs. Devin Taylor
Why is this important: Considering the attention given to Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, this spot is often forgotten on the line. However, if the Lions are going to have success pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run, the competition between Jones and Taylor will be an important one. Jones, who was signed before last season, was a starter before a season-ending knee injury. Taylor emerged in his absence and became a productive player in spot duty. Taylor's length and athleticism make him intriguing here and both he and Jones can play both on the interior and at end.
Who wins: Taylor, but both will play a lot of snaps.
The battle: Ashlee Palmer vs. Kyle Van Noy
Why is this important: How critical this position is will depend on both the week and the scheme the Lions plan on running. If Detroit has to use mostly nickel, neither Palmer nor Van Noy will be on the field a ton. If the Lions go with a 4-3, then there will be both pass rush and coverage expectations here. At some point, Van Noy will be the starter, but the bigger question is how ready he is. If he is, he should win this competition and throw Palmer's roster spot in flux. If Van Noy is not ready, then Palmer -- the incumbent on the final season of his deal -- will hold on to his role for a little while longer.
Who wins: Van Noy.