ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The rest of the NFL has been waiting.
Now, starting this afternoon, every team can say they have started training camp.
The Detroit Lions are the last of the league’s 32 franchises to step onto the practice field with their full 90-man roster this summer, and it will happen at 3:30 on Monday afternoon.
So what should you be watching for if you show up or listening for if you don’t during the first week of camp? Here are five things to pay attention to:
Ezekiel Ansah's health: The second-year defensive end is a key piece of whatever the Lions are trying to do defensively this season, and he has yet to practice with the team following offseason shoulder surgery. He was put on PUP with receiver TJ Jones, and when coach Jim Caldwell was asked about a potential timeline for Ansah’s return, he essentially said it was up to the Lord. This could leave the team without one of their top pass-rushers for an undetermined amount of time. If Ansah is out for too long during camp, it will be interesting to see how fast they work him back into the lineup as he has had a concussion along with ankle and shoulder injuries since entering the league last year.
Matthew Stafford’s chemistry: The quarterback will always find a good rapport with Calvin Johnson. The two are entering their sixth season playing together and it has reached a point where one likely knows what the other is thinking when it comes to certain play calls and routes. The rest of Stafford’s most thrown-to players will all be new as the team signed receiver Golden Tate and drafted tight end Eric Ebron during the offseason. Tate missed a chunk of spring workouts with a shoulder injury, so timing will still need to be worked on between quarterback and receivers early in camp.
The interior of the line: As of now, both Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh are officially in contract years with Suh yet to sign a contract extension and the team declining the fifth-year option on Fairley. So if there is a little bit of extra motivation with the two former first-round picks, one could start there. Fairley appears to be in better shape than he was last season, when he weighed north of 320 pounds. Suh has been in his typical dominant shape as he begins his fifth season with the Lions. Having both of them healthy and in prime shape will be a key for Detroit.
The back end of the roster: Though a lot of focus will be on the stars like Johnson, Stafford and Suh, the real competition is when the reserves start receiving snaps. They are the ones truly fighting for roster spots, jobs and livelihoods. At receiver and cornerback, where there are a lot of questions after the starters, those position battles should be particularly grueling where every rep could matter. So if you’re heading out to a Lions practice, pay attention to receiver-defensive back matchups like Kevin Ogletree vs. Jonte Green or Kris Durham vs. Cassius Vaughn. By the second week, some of these battles might shake out.
Kicker: It isn’t a sexy battle, but Nate Freese vs. Giorgio Tavecchio will be more important than any roster spot competition the rest of training camp. As mentioned in this space many times, Freese is the more accurate leg. Tavecchio is the stronger leg. Both had good and bad days during spring workouts, but every kick is going to be charted now. Freese, by virtue of being a draft pick, has the upper hand entering camp, but Tavecchio isn’t too far behind. Another aspect to this is Sam Martin's kickoff duties. If Freese wins the job, it’s reasonable to think Martin remains the kickoff guy. If Tavecchio wins, kickoffs could go to him as well, letting Martin focus on punting.