NFC North: Detroit Lions

Detroit’s potential dalliance with trading up for Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins might scream splash, but practicality might be the better approach for the Lions in the upcoming draft, as they need to upgrade on defense.

The Lions hold the 10th overall selection and will have plenty of strong defensive prospects capable of contributing immediately available in addition to several solid options for the offense in the later rounds. Mel Kiper’s fourth 2014 NFL mock draft (this one covering two rounds) is out Thursday, and his picks appear to fall right in line with what ultimately might be best for the Lions.


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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – He’s able to come in and meet with his coaches now, finally able to pick their brains about what the new Detroit Lions offense will look like. What he might be expected to do under his new coaching staff that he didn’t have to do before.

Already this week, Matthew Stafford has spent time watching old game tape of both the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens offenses to try and learn. He’s studied the routes those receivers ran, the varying plays both teams implemented.

He knows it won’t all be the same and he anticipates having a lot of questions – but it’s a start.

[+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDetroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a fixture in the film room during the offseason.
“It’s exciting. These guys have great track records, have worked with some really great players at the quarterback position, specifically,” Stafford said. “I’ll be picking their brains as much as they’ll allow. Obviously Golden [Tate] is a big-time addition to our team.

“He’s going to be a big contributor this year and we’re excited to have him.”

Much of the offseason has been focused around Stafford because of what happened to Detroit at the end of last season. The Lions collapsed at the end of the 2013 season, eventually costing former coach Jim Schwartz his job, mostly due to an inefficient offense prone on drops from receivers and turnovers from Stafford.

So look at what the Lions did this offseason. They hired a head coach, Jim Caldwell, and quarterbacks coach, Jim Bob Cooter, who has worked with Peyton Manning. They hired an offensive coordinator -- Joe Lombardi -- whose main experience was as the quarterbacks coach for Drew Brees in New Orleans. Their two biggest free-agent signings were pass-catchers – Tate and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. They also brought back another big offensive piece, Joique Bell, to complement Reggie Bush.

The focus has been offensive at almost every turn, all to help Stafford be the best version of himself as a quarterback. He also recognizes for the Lions to be good, he has to be good.

“In the NFL, if your quarterback plays really well, your team generally plays really well, and I understand that. We’re no different than any team,” Stafford said. “The better I play, the better we’ll play as a team. Common theory says that. Nobody puts more pressure on me than I do. I want to be as good as I can possibly be, not for myself but to help this team win, and that’s the No. 1 goal.”

Stafford said he has not spoken with Brees about Lombardi but had texted with Manning about Caldwell and the progression Manning made under his former head coach. Since the hiring of this staff, that has been the focus of the questions -- how will they work with Stafford to turn him from a good quarterback with inconsistencies and some accuracy issues into one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

“He’s a sharp guy,” Caldwell said. “He’s smart. He’s dedicated. He wants to be good and still, it’s obviously quite present in his attitude today, yesterday and tomorrow, right? He’s a worker. I have no doubt, with a guy that has that kind of attitude and obviously he has ability, both physically and mentally.

“He has the intellect to do it and I think he’ll be fine.”

Stafford has already put some of the work in by grabbing the old game film to understand the receiver route trees he might now be throwing to as opposed to what he worked with under Scott Linehan. He doesn’t know the terminology yet -- that’ll come -- because the offensive installation has been in meeting-form only thus far.

He knows he needs to improve and make smarter, better decisions. From what he says, he’s committed to doing so. That’ll start now, by making sure he learns as much as possible and asks so many questions it is almost like he’s turning into a reporter.

“I think I can always improve. I’ve had some really great moments, some bad moments, for sure,” Stafford said. “But the biggest thing I want to do is help this team win any way I can. I’m going to be learning a new system and I want to be coached in that system as well as I can.

“I don’t know everything there is to know about this system, for sure, and so I’m going to ask a bunch of questions and do everything as right as I possibly can.”

Detroit’s success depends on it.
The Detroit Lions are in the midst of a somewhat public lovefest with Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins -- a player they would certainly have to trade up for to acquire.

But until they make that trade -- if they make that trade -- the best we can project is what Detroit will do if the team stays at No. 10. And considering the Lions are not in need of a quarterback (or an offensive tackle, really), they have a bunch of options.


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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The offense will be both old and new to running back Reggie Bush. Old in that he has seen all of this before, the Saints' terminology, the Saints' playbook. New in that he is with a different team now, the Detroit Lions, and his offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, has a New Orleans background but has never called plays.

But the one thing he can anticipate -- probably correctly -- is that the workload for both he and Joique Bell will be a little bit different. And Bush is fine with that.

Bush
Bush
Bell
“We had a pretty good rotation going last (season), so, you know, we did some pretty special things with that,” Bush said. “It can only go up from there, even if the workload is less for both of us, that’s only going to help us toward the end of the season, help us to stay healthy and probably play a little bit stronger and better toward the end of the season.”

Last season, both Bush and Bell topped 500 yards in rushing and receiving -- the first time two running backs on the same team accomplished that in the same season. Considering the way the New Orleans offense is run, it could happen again in 2014.

Some of that speculation comes from the New Orleans Saints history. Under Sean Payton -- and this is the offense Lombardi said his attack will be based on -- the Saints used more running backs in varying rushing and route-running situations than the Lions did last season, when the team primarily used Bush and Bell with small doses of then-rookie Theo Riddick.

Last season, no New Orleans running back had more than 150 carries, although four had at least 60. Two, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, had more than 70 catches. That type of breakdown has been typical of a Saints' offense in recent years.

One of the other differences will be the use of a fullback. Detroit was determined during the offseason to find a fullback, and the team signed Jed Collins, who last played in New Orleans, to a one-year deal. They also envision Montell Owens, who was on the team last season but injured, as a hybrid fullback/halfback.

Does that change how Bush and Bell will run? Kind of.

“It’s just a guy in front of you,” Bush said. “The reads are a little bit different because you have to wait on the fullback to make their move and make their block.

“There’s a little bit more patience involved when you have a fullback in front of you as opposed to when you’re back there by yourself and you can just read the defense and you’re just waiting on the offensive line.”

This will be one piece of the offense for Detroit, a team that believes it has the personnel in place on that side of the ball to win.
 Mike EvansThomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsIf Mike Evans is available when the Detroit Lions pick at No. 10, Mel Kiper Jr. would select the Texas A&M wide receiver.
Since the end of the 2013 season, when the Detroit Lions once again found themselves in the familiar position of being in the top 10 of an NFL draft, many questions have been asked about what the team will do with the pick.

Could they trade it and try to move up to nab receiver Sammy Watkins? Could they try to trade back to acquire a position of need – perhaps a cornerback – and also to stockpile picks? If they stay at No. 10, what could happen?

Would they draft a wide receiver? Reach for a corner? Take the best defensive player available or best player available (other than a quarterback) period?

With Detroit not in the market for a starting quarterback this season, the Lions have many, many options available to them a month from now when the NFL draft starts at Radio City Music Hall.

And with so many potential scenarios playing out, I gave one to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. last week. Four names, four different positions, one slot – assuming Detroit stays at No. 10 – available. What does he think the Lions would do if wide receiver Mike Evans, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Anthony Barr and cornerback Justin Gilbert were all available at No. 10?

This came on the heels of his Grade A draft last week , when he selected defense for the Lions in the first three rounds. He did that, in part, because he doesn’t seem to believe Evans will be available for Detroit at No. 10.

So what does he think Detroit would do if those aforementioned four players were all sitting there for the Lions?

“If Evans, Barr, Clinton-Dix and Gilbert are there, it’s a no-brainer for me,” Kiper Jr. said. “It’s Mike Evans because he’s the highest-rated player, by a pretty good margin now. I always say, if you’re picking at 10, you have to get a guy who is six, seven or eight. He’s number five on the board right now. Five, six on my board, right on the heels of Sammy Watkins as the second-best receiver in this draft and some may even have Evans ahead of Watkins. He’s a big-time talent. He’s a physical freak.

“People say, well, he reminds some of us of Mike Williams, well, yeah, you could make that argument but he’s much more consistent catching the ball and is more explosive. But there’s always going to be that comparison. So I would say Evans.”

The Lions, of course, drafted Mike Williams in 2005 -- the first draft Martin Mayhew was the assistant general manager for. That selection did not work out too well for the Lions, who were hoping to pair Mike Williams with Roy Williams for a dynamic receiver pairing.

Unlike 2005, receiver isn’t as big of a need position since the team signed Golden Tate to be the team’s No. 2 receiver this offseason.

Kiper went on, though, and explained what he thinks the Lions might do if Evans is unavailable at No. 10 – and considering Tampa Bay traded the other receiving Mike Williams (Syracuse-and-still-in-the-NFL variety) to Buffalo – the Bucs are now in desperate need for a receiver and pick ahead of Detroit.

“Clinton-Dix is still the major need. He’s a hot guy right now and is clearly, I think, the consensus best safety,” Kiper said. “So if you want to stretch it a bit and fill a need, I’m not saying they are stretching because their rating may have Clinton-Dix in the top 10, but I would say just on need alone in a division with Aaron Rodgers and [Jay] Cutler and you know Minnesota is going to address the cornerback spot, I would say they may stretch it a bit for Clinton-Dix if Evans was gone at that point.”

This would be a fairly logical selection for Detroit even though the team signed James Ihedigbo to a two-year deal this offseason to play next to Glover Quin. Ihedigbo will be 31 years old by the end of the season, and if the team can pick someone up to be a third safety this year and a starter by 2015, that scenario would put them in a good position in the defensive backfield for the first time in a long time.
The Detroit Lions appear to be falling in love with wide receiver Sammy Watkins and while that is nice, they appear to be entering the same territory they did a decade ago.

Bolster the offense and deal with the defense later on.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsSammy Watkins set Orange Bowl records for catches (16) and receiving yards (227).
Considering this is a team that wants to win now, it should be much more cognizant of its other needs instead of making what will likely end up being a large move up to grab a receiver it believes has a bright future.

Especially in this draft, which boasts one of the best receiver groups in recent history and where second- and third-round value at the position is high.

Detroit has too many concerns on the defensive side, from safety to cornerback and even to linebacker and defensive line, to ignore. Going with a wide receiver in the first round -- and even more so, by trading away more draft picks or even a player to do so -- reeks of a team that has not learned its own focused-on-offense lesson from before (Mike Williams over DeMarcus Ware in 2005) and one that hasn’t learned from mistakes other teams have made in the past.

In 2011, Atlanta traded way up in the first round to nab Julio Jones -- a receiver like Watkins who was considered an immediate difference-maker. In return, Cleveland got the Falcons' first-round pick (No. 27), second-round pick, fourth-round pick and Atlanta’s first-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2012.

Atlanta did this, in part, to pair Jones with one of the top receivers in the game: Roddy White. That sound familiar in this case?

So far in his three seasons in the NFL, Jones has been a fantastic receiver, albeit one who has played in every game just once -- in 2012. The Falcons were also a team that had three straight winning records entering the 2011 draft. They had gone 13-3 the season before.

Since drafting Jones, Atlanta has gone 10-6, 13-3 and then 4-12 in 2013. They have not made a Super Bowl. But they were a team with a lot of strong pieces and saw Jones as the difference to reach the championship game they haven't gotten to yet with him.

In 2012, Jacksonville traded up two spots to make sure it grabbed Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, a player who didn’t have the credentials of Jones or Watkins coming out of college. Blackmon played in four games last season and has yet to hit a 1,000-yard year.

This is just recent history, and we're not even mentioning the Saints giving away the equivalent of a roster (OK, not a whole roster, but a boatload of draft picks) for Ricky Williams.

If you're noticing something familiar, it is this: All of those trades were for offensive skill position players. They worked or didn't to varying degrees, but none of the teams that made the big moves ended up making the Super Bowl with the player they made the move for.

Atlanta still can, but three years is a long window to wait with this Detroit team, for instance.

To get Watkins, the Lions would have to make a similar move up -- but this team is nowhere near one player or two players away from turning the franchise into a Super Bowl contender. They have pieces to be one at some point, maybe even in 2014.

To get there, Detroit needs defensive difference-makers, not another shiny offensive toy for Matthew Stafford to throw to. And this is a team that seems solely focused on winning in 2014, even if it means sacrificing the future for a successful present. And that would seem like why they would be looking to grab Watkins.

Since rumors of Detroit maybe making a move up started, one thing has stuck out. After he was fired, Jim Schwartz discussed on a Nashville radio station how depth was a major problem for the Lions. That there were a lot of talented front-line players there, but when injuries hit, they didn’t have as capable a group of replacements.

That problem hasn’t changed with the Lions, which are star-heavy but have added very little in terms of experienced and talented depth.

Moving up and sacrificing draft picks in a deep draft at multiple positions -- including receiver and cornerback -- doesn't seem to be the correct answer here. It seems to be one of desperation and one of wanting to make the big splash instead of the systematic build Detroit has tried to do in other areas the past few years. Draft for true need with the best player available, something the Lions have done smartly over the past four seasons under general manager Martin Mayhew. And this is a draft where depth can be built both for now and in the future.

Not moving up has little to do with Watkins' ability -- he is likely to become an excellent player in the NFL and could end up as an All-Pro at some point in his career. And if Detroit were a 10- or 11-win team a few years running, this move would make sense.

But the Lions aren't and haven't been, well, ever. If they want to reach that point -- and want to be sustained there -- not making this move would probably end up being the smarter answer.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He was on a rival a year ago, unsure about his future in the NFL and not knowing whether he would have a job with the Green Bay Packers for much longer. Jeremy Ross made the roster then fumbled away his opportunity early in the season.

This is all known by now, part of Ross’ past. The receiver/returner in some ways had to go through all of that to find his home now, to get released from Green Bay and then land in Detroit weeks later, first on the practice squad and then as the team’s primary returner when he replaced Micheal Spurlock.

Here he is now a year later, on the first day of voluntary workouts for Detroit, and his role with the Lions appears to be somewhat set. After returning both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown last season and also being dynamic in his ability to bring back kicks and punts along with being a gunner on punt coverage, he has a place with the Lions.

So now he’s trying to expand on it and work himself into a refurbished receiver rotation behind Calvin Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Ross wants to be more than a special-teams player for the Detroit Lions.
“I feel like I have a lot to offer,” Ross said Monday afternoon after dropping his bags in his car. “My versatility is something good. I can play slot. I can play outside. I can be in the backfield. I can do a lot of different things for the offense.”

While winning one of the receiver slots would increase his standing with Detroit and help to solidify a roster spot come fall, his primary value entering the offseason workouts will be as a returner and special-teams player.

He trained in the offseason for everything, but worked specifically on both his straight-line speed and his ability to change directions quickly. He also worked on his strength and his quickness, the former to help give him a better foundation than he had a season ago.

Last season, Ross essentially was a returner and an occasional offensive player. He played 175 offensive snaps for the Lions last season, caught five passes for 59 yards and dropped two balls. He was also targeted on only 10.2 percent of the routes he ran. He also had two rushes for 40 yards.

His role was smaller last season, though. He was playing behind Johnson, Kris Durham, Nate Burleson and, at points, Kevin Ogletree and Ryan Broyles. He had to, in some ways, wait. Now with a new coaching staff, he can try to move up on his own merit.

“It’s good. New coaching staff. Fresh start,” Ross said. “Everybody’s coming in and coming in to compete. So when they are looking and evaluating, they aren’t going off of previous years. They are seeing what’s in front of them and that’s how they are going to make their decisions.”

That includes the spot where he has worked out the best -- on returns. With the Lions signing Golden Tate in the offseason and Tate expressing a desire to keep returning punts if possible, Ross will have competition from a player the team has invested a lot of money in as both a receiver and, if possible, returner.

Will that change how Ross does things? It won’t. After all, he is in a much better place than a season ago no matter what happens.

“I go out there and I work hard. I don’t really need any external motivation,” Ross said. “I’m pretty motivated.

“So I’ll just continue to do what I do to work on technique, catch balls after practice, watch film, all the things I’ve done in the past to do well.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- As odd as it might sound, as weird as it might seem, when quarterback Dan Orlovsky knew he would be headed to free agency this offseason, he had one place he wanted to go.

Never mind it was a place that, for many in his position, would elicit thoughts of frustration and pain, of mistakes made and games lost. No, the 30-year-old Orlovsky understood those questions would come when he told his friends and family he wanted to return to the team that initially drafted him, the Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeDan Orlovsky
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDan Orlovsky is looking forward to returning to the place where he started his NFL career.
So when Orlovsky, one of the quarterbacks on the 2008 Lions team that went 0-16, returned to Detroit last week, those closest to him had the same question fans and others had: "What?"

"Not everyone's, but 99 percent of people's reactions were the same," Orlovsky said Monday. "But after expressing to them kind of my views on it and I'm at the point in my career where it's important for me to really enjoy going to work every day, really enjoy the people I'm working for and also go to a place where I think I'm not, I'm tired of kind of being on bad teams so trying to be a part of a good team and I think this place has a chance to be a good team."

Orlovsky has spent the majority of his career on teams that have missed the playoffs and in some cases been historically bad. Besides the 2008 Lions, he was also on the 2011 Indianapolis team that went 2-14, Jim Caldwell's final season with the Colts.

It was in Indianapolis, though, where this reunion of old player and coach started to take shape. Working with Caldwell again was an attractive option for Orlovsky, who had his triplets born right at the end of the 2011 season.

What stuck with him the most is what Caldwell did after that season. Three weeks after the year was over, the coach called the quarterback. The quarterback figured it was about football. It wasn't. Caldwell was instead checking in to see how his wife and kids were doing.

"Not knocking in any way people I have played for, but he is one of the best if not the best man I've ever worked for and played for," Orlovsky said. "What he stands for, who he is and how he treats people and how every day at work is going to be.

"I'm a believer in working hard and going about your business and doing it the right way and Jim is a lot like that. I'm just looking forward to enjoying the process with him. I had a lot of conversations with him and kind of expressing to him the kind of things I'm looking for."

First was someone who would be honest with him, and Orlovsky's familiarity with Caldwell assured him of that. The second was understanding what his role would be. Orlovsky said Monday he understands he is coming to Detroit to back up and help Matthew Stafford, not to try and win his job.

Instead, he is hoping to impart some of what he has learned as a veteran with four teams throughout his nine-year career. He's played in 24 games, completed 276 of 472 passes, threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Much of that came during his season in Detroit -- which comes back to why he wants to come back and the trepidation he understands some have about his return to the Lions. He knows people are going to link him to the 2008 team and, specifically, to Jared Allen chasing him out of the end zone for a safety during that season.

And he wants a chance to rectify some of that. In his first day back at the Lions facilities, he said the culture around the place "it's vastly different." A lot of that, he said, has to do with Caldwell and what has changed within the organization since the 2008 season.

It is why even if others had worries about Orlovsky heading back to Detroit, he was not concerned at all.

"I guess, in the fact that there's not much I can say to unmask the things that happened or erase those things. I've always, in my personal aspect of it, I knew I played well. We were just not a good football team," Orlovsky said. "Did I have a part of that? Sure. I wish I played better in certain spaces. But I knew I played well and I kind of look at it like this. It's hard to play in this league for four years. It's really hard to play in it for 10 years.

"My personal look, my goal is just to come in and do my job and help my team. But I get the fears maybe with obviously fans and whatnot. 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."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions have been spending part of the offseason trying to upgrade their secondary.

On Monday, the team added what could be another piece, signing cornerback Cassius Vaughn to a one-year deal according to the Detroit Free Press.

The 26-year-old Vaughn played college ball at Ole Miss and went undrafted in 2010. He spent two seasons with Denver before heading to Indianapolis for 2012 and 2013.

He played in every game for the Colts over the past two seasons and has played in 54 games in his NFL career, making 116 tackles and intercepting five passes. He has also recovered four fumbles in his career.

Vaughn adds to a large group of cornerbacks already on the roster, including veteran Chris Houston and younger players Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood. The Lions are also expected to add a cornerback during May's NFL draft, perhaps even with a first round selection.
He won't be someone Detroit will take at No. 10, but if the Lions choose to look at defense early in May's NFL draft, the player visiting the team Thursday could be a big option on the second day.

Clemson wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who played opposite Sammy Watkins with the Tigers, visited the Lions.

Bryant is an intriguing prospect because of his size and his speed. Rated as the No. 12 receiver and No. 76 player overall in the draft by ESPN.com, his 6-foot-3, 211-pound frame is a nice one for an outside complementary receiver.

He is a dynamic vertical threat and has very long arms at 32 5/8 inches and also has 9 1/2-inch hands, large for a wide receiver. His 4.42-second 40-yard dash time was tied for fifth among wide receivers at the combine.

The biggest questions about him are about production, although that could be a tricky one considering he played opposite Watkins, the top receiver in this draft.

Bryant caught 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns last season and 83.3 percent of his catches resulted in first downs.

He kind of disappeared in the fourth quarters of games, however, as he only had five receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown in the final portion of games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

All of those catches, though, went for first downs. He had four catches in the red zone last season -- all of them for touchdowns.

He had only one 100-yard game last season -- a 176-yard effort against Georgia Tech in November.

The numbers are somewhat difficult to analyze because of Watkins' insane production, but because of that he also knows how to be a complementary receiver, something he'll have to be comfortable with playing alongside Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
The Detroit Lions have the 10th pick in May's NFL draft, and after upgrading a lot of their needs offensively during free agency, they might well turn to drafting heavily on defense.

The Lions have obvious needs in the secondary and can also upgrade at both linebacker and defensive line -- all areas that are fairly deep with this year's crop of players.


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If you’re the Detroit Lions, tempting the world of fate must not really bother you because, well, you know your history. So sure, look at all of the quarterbacks left in the NFL, all of the quarterbacks available in the draft and there’s only one guy out there where if you brought him back to Detroit, you’d wonder what the heck the Lions were doing.

Dan Orlovsky.

Why wouldn’t the Lions want to bring back one of the few players left in the NFL who can conjure memories of the team’s 0-16 season in 2008 -- when he was the team’s starting quarterback for seven games. Why wouldn’t their new head coach, Jim Caldwell, want to bring in a guy who helped quarterback Indianapolis to a 2-14 record in 2011 -- the season that cost Caldwell his job.

And why not bring in a guy whose last job was in Tampa Bay -- a franchise that spent the first half of last season unable to get out of its own way.

Sure, Orlovsky was only the backup in Tampa and he didn’t have much to do with it, but if you’re the Lions and you’re talking about winning and winning now and how important this is, do you really mess with the karma -- even if you think it is hogwash.

Other than in 2009, when Houston went 9-7, Orlovsky has never been part of a winning team. But he has been a part of some historically bad ones. This is what Detroit will get in its backup quarterback.

Yes, the thought is he’ll never play at all, that Matthew Stafford has been healthy for the past three seasons and that perhaps Kellen Moore ends up beating Orlovsky out for the job anyway. And Orlovsky isn’t a terrible quarterback -- he has completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his career -- but it’s not about that with Detroit.

It’s about karma and fate, and why if you’re Detroit would you even want to go tempting any of that? Seriously, man? Seriously. This is a guy who during his last stint in Detroit managed to be chased out of the end zone by Jared Allen for a safety -- and he didn’t even realize it.

Orlovsky likely came as a cheap option, and the team wasn’t going to find a veteran with the experience or skill of the departed Shaun Hill, but there were other options out there. Matt Flynn is still available, although likely nowhere as cheap as Orlovsky will end up being. So is Brady Quinn, if any sort of experience is what you’re looking for.

But to bring in Orlovsky shows an immense amount of confidence in three things for Detroit: In Stafford’s health. In Orlovsky’s ability. And in the ability of the new staff to make history and bad memories a thing of the past.
The grade came back a season ago and all at once it told Aaron Donald everything he kind of already knew. He was contemplating leaving Pittsburgh, his college and childhood home, before his final season of college for the NFL.

He thought he might be ready. The pros told him not quite. If he had left early, he would be a third-day pick, somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds. He was a good player and an undersized player, not a great player. Being competent in college is one thing. There are a lot of nice college players.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsAaron Donald's attention to detail helped him become one of college football's top defenders in 2013.
Being a dominant one is different. Being a pro, something else entirely.

“I thought I was a better player but making the choice, I felt I wasn’t 100 percent ready for the next level. I think I had not dominated enough on the college level,” Donald told ESPN.com last week. “Even though I had success my sophomore year and my junior year I felt like I didn’t have that year where I felt comfortable that I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in college, and now I’m ready to move on.

“My senior year I felt I put a lot more time into the offseason to make a lot more happen. Going out my senior year, I felt like I did everything I wanted to do and more. I felt like I dominated and I feel comfortable going to the next level and that I’m ready.”

The grade and the subsequent decision turned Donald from that decent late-round player into the game-changing defensive lineman in college football. The one whose statistics compared favorably to Ndamukong Suh’s last year at Nebraska and who transformed from a final-day prospect into a first-day one.

He swept essentially every major defensive award he was up for: The Nagurski, Bednarik, Outland and Lombardi Awards. He drew comparisons, even at 6-foot, 285 pounds, to both Suh and Geno Atkins, two of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.

Donald, despite his size, became a marketable and coveted prospect for NFL franchises – even one the Lions could consider at No. 10 since their top six defensive tackles are all due to be unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season. Declining to pick up Nick Fairley’s fifth-year contract option opened up Detroit to the possibility of taking their third defensive tackle in the first round since 2010.

Doing so could turn defensive tackle into the same position for general manager Martin Mayhew that wide receiver was for his predecessor, Matt Millen, and could link the Lions with drafting tackles in the first round in the 2010s like wide receivers were for Detroit in the 2000s. Except the Lions need to upgrade a defense built on a pressure-and-chaos causing line.

In one season, Donald solidified himself as a player who could improve the Lions' defense – and most defenses in the NFL.

Some of the shift had to do with scheme and familiarity. He spent his junior season adjusting to being a 4-3 defensive tackle after spending his first two seasons in a 3-4 as a nose tackle and defensive end. Returning for his final season allowed him to cause havoc across every offensive line he faced, with slide protections and double- and triple-teams coming his way every play.

He won all those awards anyway.

“He understands the game so well he could put himself in position,” Pittsburgh’s defensive line coach, Inoke Breckterfield, said. “He knows what play is coming off of film study. He can narrow it down to two or three plays and off the first step, he knows what play he’s getting.

“I think film study has really helped his game grow in terms of what techniques would be needed here or what are his tendencies on that.”

Donald’s studying changed. He knew to get from late-round prospect to the best defensive player in college football, he had to know everything about himself and his opponent.

So every Saturday after he finished being beaten up and chipped and doubled on the Panthers’ defense, he lugged himself up to the team’s defensive line room. He popped in a DVD of the game he just played in and watched every play at least twice and sometimes four or five times.

Coaches never said anything to him about it – they weren’t going to tell him no – but they would smile at him when they saw him either leaving the facility late at night or the next morning. They understood that he, too, understood.

“I don’t care if it was 2 o’clock in the morning after a night game,” Donald said. “I had to break down the film by myself before I watched it with the team. I wanted to see everything I did wrong and did right or I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“After games, you think about the play you missed. I had to see it.”

What he saw was an ever-growing collection of pass-rush and run-stopping moves he added throughout the course of his career. He saw how opponents would try to stifle him and then he would start watching his next opponent to both learn their plays and to get a feel for what they might do to him.

By Saturday, he usually knew almost every play an opponent was going to try and run at him, so he could glance at an opposing offensive line or backfield and narrow things down before the ball was snapped.

It confirmed everything Breckterfield initially saw when he started coaching Donald.

“I would tell anyone who wanted to listen there was something special about that kid,” Breckterfield said. “I said, but he’s 6-foot tall, 6-1, that’s what he is, but I knew he was a special one. I knew he was a special player.”

On the college level, he was. He’ll need to learn even more to reach that on the professional level. But what he did last season will at least give him a chance.
Dinner, apparently, is part of Jim Caldwell’s grand scouting and drafting plan. This has little to do with any actual food consumed, though. It has everything to do with more time with prospects.

The first-year Detroit Lions coach had dinner with prospect Sammy Watkins, part of the process to see exactly what the Clemson wide receiver --and likely first receiver taken in May’s NFL draft -- is all about.

“You get a chance to see them in a different light even though you have an opportunity to interview them,” Caldwell said at the owner's meetings in Orlando, Fla. “In this situation, you get them for an extended period of time on his turf. He’s a lot more comfortable.

“That incident, we had an opportunity to visit with his mother and father. You get a good feel. One of the things I’ve learned from my days at college is that I love to watch the interaction between the individual and his parents. You can tell what type of young man it is, particularly in college you always get those young guys and most people think they can change them, but you watch the people they are closest to and hold dearest to their heart and how they treat them gives you a pretty good indication of what’s going to happen in your program when you get them.”

That, Caldwell said, translates from college to the pros as well as it does from high school to college.

Caldwell was able to do this more often when he was a college assistant and then as the head coach at Wake Forest from 1993 to 2000, but now that he’s a head coach again in the NFL, he can use a similar approach.

That the team is spending this much time with Watkins could also be a clue that the Lions are at least considering making a move to land the receiver. The chances he is available at No. 10, where the Lions are slated to pick, is minimal. So that Detroit would invest that amount of time in getting to know him means they are at least considering a possibility where they could make a move for him.

If the Lions somehow nabbed Watkins, it would likely cost picks, players or a combination of both -- and that would be a weighing point for general manager Martin Mayhew and Caldwell as to what the cost/benefit would be.

It would still be somewhat surprising to see Watkins land in Detroit, even with the attention paid to him, mostly because the team has other areas it needs to fill with immediate help.

But Caldwell’s strategy in getting to know players is a strong one and one that should be looked at positively.

And not just for a good meal.

Indianapolis Colts reporter Mike Wells contributed reporting from Orlando, Fla.
James Ihedigbo isn't the flashiest player and he might not have been the best safety available when free agency began, but the Detroit Lions focused early on him.

And it would appear they did so with familiarity in mind.

Ihedigbo
When coaches take new jobs, there seems to be a comfort in bringing in players they already know and who they believe can fit their system. That makes a lot of sense, especially in the case of Detroit, where both offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin are running NFL schemes on their own for the first time.

In Austin's case, he coached Ihedigbo the past two seasons in Baltimore, so he knows what the safety can and can't do. Perhaps they view him as a strong pairing with Glover Quin, whom the team signed last offseason and may have been a better free-agent acquisition for Detroit than the more-heralded Reggie Bush.

The Lions made a smart pairing at safety when they signed Ihedigbo. Quin was the 10th-best coverage safety in the NFL last season according to Pro Football Focus -- one spot ahead of his now-former teammate, Louis Delmas. Neither, though, ranked in the top 50 against the run.

Ihedigbo, meanwhile, was second among safeties against the run last season according to PFF, so the team might have put together a stronger complementary pair than what they had a season ago.

But signing Ihedigbo shouldn’t deter Detroit from going after a safety potentially early in May’s NFL draft. This signing, in some ways, feels like a stop-gap -- a chance to win immediately with an established, experienced player who will know what Austin expects.

But Ihedigbo will turn 31 in December, and while he hasn’t been a starter for a lot of seasons, the body often begins to slow down from the elite levels needed after 30. So the Lions would be wise to search for Ihedigbo's eventual replacement almost as soon as he steps foot inside the Allen Park, Mich., facilities as a Lions player for the first time.

This could mean investigating safeties early -- the team has already brought in former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for a visit and went to check out Louisville's Calvin Pryor at his pro day -- and possibly taking one with the intention of that player learning for a season before starting.

Usually, that doesn’t happen with the No. 10 pick in the draft. But Detroit is filling its win-now needs during free agency, so it might be able to afford taking depth for the future -- whether it's in the defensive backfield, at wide receiver or at defensive tackle.

This, of course, is what good teams in the NFL do and something the Lions haven’t had the luxury or ability to do in years past. Signing Ihedigbo shouldn’t keep them from looking to do that, especially at a position where the team has needed help for years.

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