NFC North: Detroit Lions
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Eric Ebron understands there is a level of pressure there now, a level of expectation heaped upon him from the moment the Detroit Lions selected him with the No. 10 pick in May’s NFL draft.
He didn’t necessarily ask for it or expect it, but he appears to be embracing it at least. The extremely confident tight end has no other choice, really. He is going to be looked at differently than the rest of his class. He is going to be called on more.
And if he wants to end up being the NFL’s top rookie when this season comes to a close, he knows he has to produce on a major level -- a level befitting the pick the Lions used on him. His goals, though, go a little bit deeper.
Ebron’s goals encompass the entire state he now resides in.
“That’s really what I don’t, that’s sort of like my goals. Don’t let Michigan down. Don’t let the team down.”
Ebron knows Detroit’s offensive success this season is going to be somewhat tied to his ability to pick up the offense, to catch passes with regularity and to develop a rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford.
He also knows his room for making mistakes -- like he did from time to time during spring workouts -- will diminish with every practice leading up to the regular season. He needs to transition his mentality from making mistakes and learning from them to no longer making those errors at all.
He isn’t concerned about his physical condition with any of that. It is all about his mental status.
“I’ve never really worried about my body physically,” Ebron said. “Mentally, it is what it is. It’s the NFL, it’s my first year. I’m going to have migraines. I have Advil sitting in my desk in the tight end room ready to chew on. I’m ready.”
As part of getting ready, Ebron had to do one thing first -- clean out his locker. A Lions coach sent Ebron a picture of his mess of a stall asking if he could keep it neat. The reason for the mess? He was using it as storage.
A lot of storage.
“I had about, a smooth 35 pair of shoes. I had a couple systems for my house, by Sonos. They are some people I deal with, the speakers are incredible,” Ebron said. “I had some customized cleats for the season come through from Nike. The Ebrons ain’t dropped yet. Next year.
“That was it. Just shoes took up most of my locker. Now they in the back of my car.”
They were moved into the same car Ebron is leasing right now as he starts to find a way to navigate in his new world both as a Michigan resident and as an NFL first-round draft pick.
Jaworski, who ranked 32 quarterbacks, placed Stafford firmly in the middle at No. 16 -- and it has nothing to do with his talent. Jaworski lauds Stafford's arm, saying his physical skills belong in the top 10. But as many have pointed out -- including in this space -- his decisions and certain throws have always been his problem.
General manager Martin Mayhew fired Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan in part because of this, replacing them with an offensive-minded staff focused on quarterback development. The Lions' hope is Stafford has a strong enough season where he finally climbs into the top 10 on this list, since it was based on last season's production and throws.
Jaworski also took issue with Stafford's accuracy and reading of coverages, common concerns when it comes to the franchise quarterback in Detroit.
Stafford is not the lowest-rated quarterback in the NFC North. Not even close. To find out who is -- check out his rankings at this link .
James Franklin to give the team more flexibility at other spots. If the team keeps Kellen Moore, then the Lions will go with three quarterbacks. Stafford is a lock to start, and it is tough to see Moore unseating Orlovsky as the No. 2.
RUNNING BACKS (6)
Bush, Bell and Riddick are likely locks. If the team believes Owens can play both spots -- he has experience at running back and fullback -- Leshoure could be in trouble. Chad Abram is an undrafted rookie who could steal a roster spot at fullback or end up on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVER (6)
This is one of the more interesting positions on the roster. Johnson and Tate are the starters, and Ross will be on the roster as a returner and possibly the No. 3 receiver. If he can handle both roles, that could leave an interesting question for a healthy Broyles. Durham is competing for a spot at outside receiver with Kevin Ogletree and Corey Fuller, who is practice squad eligible. Jones missed the end of spring workouts with an excused absence. Depending what that is, it could open up another spot for a receiver.
TIGHT END (3)
All three will make the roster. All three will have roles in the offense. The Lions know what Pettigrew is -- a good blocker who can make some catches. They need to focus on the development of Ebron and Fauria, two potential defense stretchers in the middle of the field.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- Riley Reiff
- Rob Sims
- Dominic Raiola
- Larry Warford
- LaAdrian Waddle
- Corey Hilliard
- Rodney Austin
- Travis Swanson
- Cornelius Lucas
As of now, this is somewhat easy to project. The five starters on the offensive line return from last season. Hilliard will be the swing tackle and Lucas the fourth tackle who is a project. Austin and Swanson can play both guard and center if need be, offering some flexibility for the Lions on the interior. Don't be surprised to see Alex Bullard on the practice squad. He can play any position on the line.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Ndamukong Suh
- Nick Fairley
- Ezekiel Ansah
- Jason Jones
- Devin Taylor
- Darryl Tapp
- Larry Webster
- C.J. Mosley
- Caraun Reid
Three of the four starters are set here with Ansah, Fairley and Suh. Both Jones and Taylor offer outside-inside movement for the Lions. Mosley is the team's third tackle, and Tapp could back up Ansah at the open defensive end. Webster and Reid are mostly developmental, but Reid specifically should have a large role on punt and kick blocks.
Levy, Tulloch and Van Noy are the likely starters. Palmer can back up at either outside spot, and Whitehead appears to be the backup in the middle. One of the tougher cuts to make would be a potential sixth linebacker between special-teams standouts Travis Lewis and Julian Stanford. One of these two could easily make the roster.
Slay, Mathis, Bentley and Lawson are making the team. This probably means there are two other spots for corners -- perhaps even one if the team chooses to go with a sixth linebacker. I went with Vaughn and Greenwood, leaving Jonte Green out of the equation for now. This will be a fluid battle throughout camp. Mohammed Seisay is a potential practice-squad candidate.
Yet another tough roster cut choosing between Abdul-Quddus and DeJon Gomes. As mentioned above, there is easily a scenario where both Abdul-Quddus and Gomes make the squad, especially if the new staff thinks Carey could be an emergency corner as well as the third safety. Jerome Couplin is a practice-squad candidate here with potential.
Martin and Muhlbach are roster locks barring injury. Freese, as of now, should beat out Giorgio Tavecchio, but as mentioned earlier this morning, this will be one of the more intriguing and intense battles of training camp as neither completely stood out in the spring.
NFL Nation's Michael Rothstein examines the three biggest issues facing the Detroit Lions heading into training camp:
Offensive knowledge: The Lions looked better over the final two weeks of spring workouts than they did during the first few weeks, when the offense and quarterback Matthew Stafford looked completely out of rhythm. However, there is still a lot of learning and adjusting to go, including the re-entry of receiver Golden Tate and running back Joique Bell into the offense after they sat out part (Tate) or all (Bell) of the spring with injury. By the time training camp begins, the terminology for the new Detroit offense should be down. It'll be the implementation and the repetition of it that likely will still need some work, this time against a defense that eventually will be allowed to bump, press and blitz. The key here, as it always is lately when it comes to Detroit, will be Stafford and his comfort level with the new offense. Most of the players remain the same for him -- but making sure the routes and terminology are correct is going to be one of the most important things for the Lions as they prepare for the season.
What's up at corner: Chris Houston is gone. Darius Slay, barring injury, will almost certainly be a starter in his second year with the Lions. So, too, will Rashean Mathis, who spent almost all of the spring as the cornerback opposite Slay. The question is who ends up behind them. While looking at backups might seem an odd issue for camp, the Lions have been struggling at corner for years now, and having depth there is going to be a key. Bill Bentley will likely end up in the slot -- although expect him to be pushed at least a little by safety Don Carey and rookie Nevin Lawson. The outside cornerback roles, though, will be interesting to see. Cassius Vaughn had a good spring, and the veteran could end up earning a roster spot with a strong summer. Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood both enter their third seasons with the club and could be fighting for one roster spot between the two of them, especially if the Lions choose to keep Vaughn. This is also an area for which Detroit could end up trying to find a veteran upgrade through the free-agent wire, much like the team did with Mathis a season ago. A signing during camp, he turned into the leader of the Lions' cornerbacks and the team's top performer at the position by midseason.
The kicker: For almost two decades, this was not a problem position for the Lions. Jason Hanson showed up to camp. Jason Hanson kicked the ball. Jason Hanson won the job. Simple. Done. Last season, the Lions went with veteran David Akers, a situation that didn't work out. Now, the Lions are hunting for a player they hope will have the same consistency and longevity of Hanson, who retired after the 2012 season. Nate Freese, on whom the team spent a seventh-round pick, and Giorgio Tavecchio, a former Cal kicker who has bounced around training camps the past two years, are the candidates. Tavecchio has the stronger leg. Freese is likely the more accurate kicker and, due to having a draft pick invested, would appear to be the favorite. However, Detroit understands the importance of having a strong kicker. Justin Tucker made six field goals against the Lions last season to help crush their playoff hopes. That was just the latest example of a strong kicker hurting the Lions. So figuring out which player gives the team the best shot will be an underrated -- but vital -- portion of camp.
The former Michigan strength and conditioning coach had been used to this in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Morgantown, West Virginia, and occasionally in airports before. It was a small part of celebrity for someone involved with college athletics, for a man who has helped paralyzed individuals walk again and who has a distinct personality even in the world of strength training.
Usually, the recognition would come as thanks for training college athletes or for doing a good job with a specific player. The past few weeks, that has changed.
Strength coach – welcome to the new reality of reality television star.
“Literally came out of the Mandarin, hit the street, walked on the sidewalk and the bellhop, he said, ‘Hey man, your show is absolutely sick,’" Barwis told ESPN earlier this week. “I had to stop for a minute because I’m used to, ‘I really respect you and your coaching and I love your energy.’ I’m not used to ‘your show is really sick.’"
The attention might grow after Wednesday night. After a debut episode featuring Richard Sherman, the second episode features polarizing Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who worked out with Barwis and his crew for a few days during the offseason.
After the show was greenlit, producers Chris and Mike Farah – "Funny or Die" producers who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, – hoped Suh could participate because of his national name along with his local ties to Detroit.
Suh’s sister and manager, Ngum, had come down to the facility and helped work everything out for her brother, who is becoming a reality television show veteran. This is his third foray into reality TV after “Splash” and a dating show called “The Choice.”
The difference with this show is there is actual benefit in terms of training and strength for Suh.
During Wednesday night’s episode, Suh was challenged heavily by Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Mike Martin, who trained with Barwis both at Michigan and then during every offseason since leaving school prior to the 2012 NFL draft.
Martin particularly went after Suh during lifts and then during sprints. Part of what Barwis and his crew of people were trying to do was push Suh to his mental limit to see if they could get him to react. By the end, almost everyone involved had a positive impression of Suh.
“His physiological capabilities are extremely impressive,” Barwis said. “He is a different guy. He’s not your average dude. What he can do physically, it’s impressive. To me, the way he does it, as strong as he is, as good of body control [as he has] and making adjustments on the fly.
“To biomechanical assessments and things that we were saying, like move this foot here, place that there, this guy can just do it. He’s a world class athlete. There’s a reason he’s an All-Pro status football player. He is the real deal when it comes to his physical capabilities.”
One of the things Barwis tried to fix was foot placement when Suh was coming off the line. This is detailed in the episode, but he fixed Suh’s mechanics with his toes to help with his speed coming off the line.
And Suh was clearly challenged throughout the episode – but he expected that.
“People like to definitely challenge me,” Suh said during the episode. “They see the way I play and they want to see how they measure up to me.”
Some other highlights from Wednesday night’s episode:
- One of the other trainers at the facility, known as “Tank Dog,” is a die-hard Packers fan. When Suh showed up, the trainer was wearing a Packers jersey, to which Suh said “Take that weak jersey off.” He also covered Suh's car with a Packers banner and Packers signs.
- Tank Dog also questioned Suh on his 2011 stomp of Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, but Suh wouldn’t go there. He continually just said “Man, that’s in the woods, man. That’s in the woods, man.”
- Suh on people judging him: “People are always going to judge you. It’s a matter of do they take the time to make that correct judgment of who you are. There’s things that I’ve done in the season in the past that I can learn from and do better, so I don’t make the same mistakes.”
- To me, one of the notable things in the episode was toward the end, when Suh was determined to finish a workout even though his sister was telling him he had to go. Suh ignored it and kept going. That also seemed to strike Barwis.
“That’s the kind of guy you want,” Barwis said. “It’s like picking a team and you’re telling me the guy has ridiculous athletic ability, is incredibly bright and likes to train? Sign him up.”
Score: Vikings 12, Lions 10
Date: Oct. 12, 2008. Site: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Minneapolis
Here's why I believe Orlovsky's safety in the end zone should be the most memorable play in the team's history and it has little to do with Orlovsky, who is a better quarterback than people give him credit.
Considering the franchise's woebegone history, it is representative of so much of what has happened to the franchise in the Super Bowl era. One playoff win. No Super Bowl appearances. Losing season after losing season, no matter who was the coach and what players they had -- other than a brief respite with Barry Sanders.
The Orlovsky play stands out as a reminder of all that.
The embarrassing play is emblematic of the Lions, who put a good player in a tough situation. But it is, without question, a play that will be remembered and replayed over and over again for a long time. That is what the definition of a memorable play is -- and none are at the level of the Orlovsky safety with the Lions.
Stafford has to use those tools to turn into the elite quarterback the team has been hoping for since they drafted him first overall in 2009. Statistically, Stafford has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, putting up massive numbers for the Lions during his first five seasons.
Yet for every fourth-quarter comeback he completed and remarkable play he made, he has also made a decision leaving those watching and wondering what he saw or thought on that play. That has been the conundrum of Stafford's career. The Lions believe any issues Stafford has are correctable and these are the guys to do it after working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
If the Lions turn Stafford into the consistent quarterback that led them to the playoffs in 2011 full-time, then the entire shift in coaching staffs and upgrading the offensive roster will have been worth it. But it all falls to Stafford -- as it often does to quarterbacks around the league.
There's a reason many franchises believe they can go only as far as the quarterback plays. Thus far, Stafford has taken them from a club that didn't win a game in 2008 to one with realistic playoff expectations each season.
Detroit has set itself up for more than that now, though. The Lions have a roster with enough talent to at least make a run at the playoffs, if not succeed in the postseason. If they do, Stafford and his improvement will play a major role in making it that far.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Detroit Lions history. In the past two days, we have featured Barry Sanders' touchdown run in the Lions' playoff win over Dallas in 1992 and Calvin Johnson's touchdown catch in triple coverage against the Cowboys in 2011. Please vote for your choice as the Lions' most memorable play.
Score: Minnesota Vikings 12, Detroit Lions 10
Date: Oct. 12, 2008 Site: Herbert H. Humphrey Metrodome
Where to start?
When one thinks of the Lions, the season that immediately comes to mind has everything to do with futility. That's what happens with a franchise when winning seasons are rare, playoff appearances are sporadic and a Super Bowl appearance is yet to happen.
This is where Dan Orlovsky and the play comes in. It came early in the game during Orlovsky's first NFL start, when the Lions' starting quarterback ran out of the Minnesota end zone with 18 seconds left in the first quarter to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead over the Lions.
What makes the play so memorable is that Orlovsky, being chased by Jared Allen, clearly had no idea where he was on the field. Even after he stepped out of bounds, Orlovsky kept rolling right trying to make a play. He took almost 10 steps running before he slowed up, realizing what he had done.
"When they started blowing the whistle," Orlovsky told USA Today after the game, "I was like, 'Did we false start or were they offsides or something?' Then I looked and I was like, 'You are an idiot.' "
It was, in many ways, the play that symbolized the entire Lions 2008 season, a year when legitimately nothing went right for the Lions.
It likely wouldn't be remembered nearly as much had Detroit actually won the game -- or lost by anything other than two points.
Detroit took a 10-2 lead in the game after Orlovsky threw a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson only to lose 12-10 on a Ryan Longwell field goal with nine seconds left.
The play also overshadowed an otherwise decent first start for Orlovsky. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown. For the season, he completed 143 of 255 passes for 1,616 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The combination of all these events, plus the Lions' winless season, left Orlovsky with a play still replayed from time to time. It was also why there was trepidation from some when Orlovsky decided to return to Detroit this season as the backup to Matthew Stafford -- and to try to rectify some of the past.
“I get the fears maybe with obviously fans and whatnot,” Orlovsky said soon after signing. "But the organization knows what they're doing and I know I'm a good player and I certainly hope to be a part of changing some of that past, whether that's directly or indirectly."
@mikerothstein Orlovsky is the worst play of the worst season in NFL history.— Josh (@jgalbreath82) June 13, 2014
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Detroit Lions history. On Monday, we featured Barry Sanders' touchdown run to cap off the Lions' only Super Bowl era playoff win. On Wednesday, we'll feature Dan Orlovsky running out of the end zone for a safety in 2008. Please vote for your choice as the Lions' most memorable play.
Score: Lions 34, Cowboys 30
Date: Oct. 2, 2011 Site: Cowboys Stadium
What Barry Sanders was to running with the Detroit Lions, the team found the pass-catching equivalent less than a decade later when they drafted wide receiver Calvin Johnson with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. And for that, the Lions should be forever thankful to Oakland's decision to take JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall selection.
And sometimes, every once in a while, he’ll do it when there are three defenders on him. That there were two such touchdown receptions to pick from in Johnson’s career is unbelievable enough. So one of them definitely deserved to be on this list.
The one we chose came on the road at Dallas during the team's last playoff season in 2011. Matthew Stafford waited for what seemed like an eternity, continuously patting the ball as he waited for Johnson to come free. He didn't, but it didn't matter. As has happened so often in the careers of Stafford and Johnson, the duo went for the play anyway.
Stafford threw the ball toward the end zone with Johnson surrounded by three Dallas defenders. Johnson had sprinted toward the end zone and posted up safety Barry Church, who was fighting with Johnson in the end zone. Stafford had thrown the ball during the post-up, which Johnson routinely wins.
By the time the ball reached Johnson, Church had help from cornerback Mike Jenkins and linebacker Sean Lee. It didn’t matter. Johnson had already snagged the ball out of the air and when he is able to do that, defenders typically don’t have much of a chance.
The play was one of some significance for the season, too. The touchdown began a come-from-behind win for Detroit in which the team scored 17 points in the final quarter to stun the Cowboys. This was the fourth win in a row to start the season for the Lions. The team began the year 5-0 and finished 10-6 to make the playoffs. Without Johnson's triple-coverage catch -- and the second touchdown he caught in the fourth quarter -- the team may not have reached the playoffs.
This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Detroit Lions history. In the next two days we'll feature: Calvin Johnson's catch between three defenders for a touchdown against Dallas, and Dan Orlovsky's infamous run out of the end zone during the winless 2008 season. Please vote for your choice as the Lion's most memorable play.
Score: Lions 38, Cowboys 6
Date: Jan. 5, 1992 Site: Pontiac Silverdome
Let’s face it. In the long, long legacy of the Detroit Lions, there are not many positive plays out there. This is a franchise to which the unexpected and unfathomable usually happens -- with negative connotations everywhere.
Yes, the game was somewhat wrapped up already by the time Barry Sanders touched the ball in the fourth quarter in the Silverdome, but as was true every time Sanders ran the ball, something extraordinary was potentially going to happen.
This time around, Sanders took the ball on the Dallas 47-yard line and immediately went right. He blew past one defender and ran straight into two other Cowboys. This moment, right here, is why this play is on this list. Instead of falling down or even slowing down, Sanders merely bounced back off the defenders, paused, shimmied his body a couple of times to juke without moving and waited for the hole to open. When it did, he took off again, blowing past one more Dallas defender on his way to the end zone.
The little-caught part of that play is what happened after the bounce-back shimmy juke. Dallas defensive tackle Tony Casillas swiveled his head in every direction, as if he both lost sight of Sanders and also had no idea how Sanders got past the entire Dallas defense. Detroit wide receiver Aubrey Matthews had the same reaction on the play before running upfield to follow Sanders on his dash to the end zone. This was the magic and the breath-holding nature of watching Sanders run the ball during his 10-year NFL career.
It’s why he is probably the most beloved Lions player in history. To watch Sanders run the ball was to understand that almost no one else could ever duplicate what he was doing. And this run, in the playoffs, to give his team a shot at the NFC title for the first and only time in the Super Bowl era, epitomized that.
And for the record, there are about five Sanders runs that could have made this list.
What else is there to potentially look for before training camp starts in late July? A few things pop up as possibilities between now and then.
A veteran signing: Yes, cornerback Brandon Flowers is on the market, as are a multitude of veteran wide receivers. These seem to be the two areas of need for the Lions at this point and general manager Martin Mayhew has shown in the past he is comfortable making veteran moves to improve his roster whenever necessary. Look at the Rashean Mathis signing from last year. So don't be surprised if there is a little bit of a roster shift between now and training camp. Another player to watch here could be defensive tackle Derek Landri, whom the team brought in earlier this spring.
Accountability and the unexpected: Without fail, during every offseason around the NFL, something happens. Before the players left, new head coach Jim Caldwell preached accountability both on the field and off of it. This will be their longest time away from the team until next offseason, so whether his message stuck will be displayed here.
Cool traveling on Twitter and Instagram: This is the time of year where players often take some of their more exotic vacations. Reggie Bush -- it's for a sponsorship thing, it seems -- has been in Australia most of this week. DeAndre Levy is likely headed somewhere interesting as well and he already spent part of that offseason out of the country. Then there's Suh, who will be on television again in an episode of "American Muscle" on July 16 on the Discovery Channel. (It was already filmed with former Michigan strength coach Mike Barwis at Barwis' training facility in suburban Detroit.)
This was part of his reasoning for returning to the Detroit Lions this offseason, to come back to where it all started. It wasn't necessarily a goal to come full circle, but the belief that the Lions would be a good team -- and for once, Orlovsky wanted to be on a good team.
Now, he's also looking to his post-football future. The backup quarterback was one of 25 players selected to participate in the NFL's Broadcast Boot Camp this week at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey -- somewhat of a crash course on what it could take to make the move from playing football to discussing it every day on television or radio.
"Throughout interviews and whatnot, they've said, 'Hey, you're really good at that,'" Orlovsky said. "I'm going to give it a try and see if I like it and if something can come from it and meet some people and really just challenge myself and experience it.
"Who knows what can come from it in the future? I've always enjoyed the broadcasting and that people can express football to people who may not understand it on an X's and O's level, a schematic level, a Monday-through-Saturday level. I can appreciate those people."
There are hints Orlovsky, one of the better quotes and nicer guys in the Detroit locker room, will make a smooth transition to television. He is clearly comfortable when he is speaking, be it about football, his family or anything else you might ask him about.
He has knowledge of the game as a quarterback and as someone who has been in the league for 10 seasons. Frankly, he also has the look that will translate well to TV. Then there are his hands.
Even when he was discussing the broadcast boot camp and his potential future career, his excitement was evident. His hands started moving. He felt completely at ease during the entire situation.
That's something television coaches tell you. Be comfortable. Be knowledgeable. Don't be afraid to let your hands move while you talk because you're relating to the viewer and making the viewer feel as if the conversation is more intimate -- between the analyst and an individual viewer -- instead of the reality of a broad audience.
Orlovsky has some of that down already and planned on picking up more at the broadcast boot camp this week. He is one of two players currently on a team, along with Mike Adams, to participate in the program. Former Lions players Dre' Bly and Tyoka Jackson were also on the list of selected participants.
This is Orlovsky's first shot at his future, though.
"I've always had an intriguing viewpoint on the broadcasting world and I know that I don't have 10 more years left to play, so I want to start preparing and planning for that," Orlovsky said. "I've been around football a long time and understand the game, X's and O's wise and schematically, so I feel like I can bring that to the table and express that to people that may not.
"It keeps me close to the game. I'm certainly intrigued by it and want to try it out and see if I'm any good at it."
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.
Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?
Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?
Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?
And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?
These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.
Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.
Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.
Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.
@GoesslingESPN True, and it won't be close. Like asking which will have the more pleasant winter: North Dakota, Manitoba, or Hawaii?— Steven Macks (@semacks) June 17, 2014
The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.
Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.
@mikerothstein If Stafford plays the way he can play then fact. Good O-Line, balance runners, best WR and other WR/TE opt— Tom (@tomarmetta) June 16, 2014
Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.
Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.
Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.
The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.
@RobDemovsky True. Defense will be much better this year & flynn/tolzien will have a full training camp to run offense.— Jules Parmentier (@JulesPthe5th) June 12, 2014
Up until May, this would not have been an issue in Detroit. By the time Brandon Pettigrew's next contract is up, he will be old enough that the team won’t use the franchise tag on him. Joseph Fauria has not shown enough at this point to warrant the tag.
But in May the Lions drafted Eric Ebron, a fast, rangy, tight end who made the majority of his plays in college lined up essentially as a wide receiver. And the Lions are implementing an offense similar to what New Orleans runs -- one where Graham has been utilized all over the field in varying ways -- so how the ruling comes down could be of massive interest for Detroit’s distant future.
While Ebron has maintained he does not want to be the next Jimmy Graham or anything like that -- he has consistently said he’s Eric Ebron, not Jimmy Graham -- his role in the Detroit offense is going to be somewhat similar to how the Saints used Graham.
Though Ebron has the tight end designation, the way he plays is almost like a tall wide receiver both in his route running and where he will line up on the field. While he will have the same positional designation as Pettigrew, they won’t be used in the same way at all.
This is part of the evolution of the tight end from a player used primarily close to the offensive line or as an in-line player to someone utilized everywhere on the field, in-line, in the slot and on the outside. This is likely part of Graham’s argument now.
And it will likely be part of the conversation if Ebron ever reaches the point of a grievance. Yes, it is a distant future where much can change between now and then since only two coaches in the Super Bowl era have lasted with Detroit to a sixth season -- Wayne Fontes and Monte Clark -- but the team is hoping Ebron’s skills transcend whatever happens with the franchise.
Of course, the team drafted him to help them win.
So decisions like this are worth paying attention to -- and even Ebron himself acknowledged Wednesday that he is watching what is happening with Graham in New Orleans.
“Really Interested To See What Happens To Jimmy Graham,” Ebron tweeted Wednesday morning.
He likely isn’t the only one within the Lions organization with a major interest in the outcome.
The questions about Flowers, a Pro Bowler last season, started almost immediately. The Lions still need help in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. On the surface, it would seem like a logical thing for Detroit to do and Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reported the Lions are one of a multitude of teams that have shown interest in Flowers.
Here’s why it shouldn’t be now -- or at least should be carefully considered: Multiple reports explained part of the concern with Flowers was he didn’t really fit in the Kansas City scheme implemented last season. It was one heavily reliant on press coverage from the outside cornerbacks. Well, this could be a problem for the Lions with Flowers.
All indications – including from Slay himself – is that Detroit is going to be heavily aggressive this season and will likely use a lot of press coverage in man situations on the outside. This doesn’t mean Flowers wouldn’t be able to adapt to it, but signing him would be a risk in this scenario because of the money they would have to likely pay the former second-round pick.
His 2013 Pro Football Focus overall rating was minus-5.9, 87th among cornerbacks, although his plus-1.1 rush grade was sixth in the NFL last season according to PFF. Worse, his minus-9.8 grade on PFF in coverage was 96th among cornerbacks -- one slot ahead of Houston, the cornerback Detroit released and well behind Slay, Mathis, Bill Bentley and Cassius Vaughn.
So those would also be numbers for concern for Detroit.
Of course, if the Lions think they can work with Flowers and turn him into a dependable press-coverage corner on the outside, then the team should go after him. However, it would seem less than ideal for the Lions to take a chance on a player who has shown he might not fit the team's scheme.
The counterargument would be that right now, Detroit should take any talent it could get at cornerback considering the questions surrounding the the unit. And there is no doubt Flowers is talented. But when you look at his statistics, he had 68 tackles -- matching his career high -- but a career-low one interception and according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, a career-low nine passes defended. It is the first time in his career he has less than 10 passes defended in a season.
Considering Kansas City's scheme, that should be one concern in any pursuit of Flowers.
Another one, for Detroit's purposes, is his build. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has said multiple times he would prefer taller cornerbacks with range. So far, the Lions have not gone after that, drafting 5-foot-9 Nevin Lawson in the fourth round of May's draft. Flowers is 5-foot-9, well below the 6-foot mark it was believed Austin had.
Adding another smaller cornerback won’t fix the size problem at the position. If the team wanted to move Flowers into the slot, they already have Bill Bentley, Don Carey and Lawson there and a move to add a slot corner doesn’t make a ton of sense for the Lions right now.
So while Flowers is talented and will likely get a look from Detroit, he may not be the best fit for the club.