Camp Confidential: Turning the page in Detroit

August, 21, 2009
8/21/09
1:00
PM ET
 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  New Lions coach Jim Schwartz is attempting to change the atmosphere in Detroit.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Upon arriving in Detroit to begin offseason workouts, Lions players found their locker room had been painted. Their lockers had been moved around. They had been assigned new parking spaces. Their lifting regimen had been changed. Their uniforms looked different.

Most symbolic, a number of motivational signs were replaced by one that simply read: "National Football League" -- a reminder of the high standards set for everyone who walks into the building.

Camp Confidential: NFC North
Vikings: Sun., Aug. 2
Packers: Sun., Aug. 9
Bears: Thurs., Aug. 13
Lions: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index
"It sort of made a little statement to the players," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "The whole idea was that when the players came back, they didn't walk into the building and have the same old thing. ... The objective was for them not to say, 'Whoop, same old stuff around here.' That was the plan."

That approach has extended into training camp, where more than half of the players on Detroit's 80-man roster are newcomers. Schwartz has tweaked his practice plan for every day of camp, both to reinforce the message and provide variety. After taking over the first 0-16 team in NFL history, he really had no other choice.

"You can't stand pat," Schwartz said. "That's something that gives the players a little bit of comfort, that we're not standing pat. ... Every time they come to practice, they're working on a different situation, a little bit different drill, different emphasis of periods and things like that. There's drudgery in walking out of the hotel every morning and going to bed and walking to the next meeting. But when they walk onto the practice field, it's a fresh plan that day. It's not the same old thing."

(Note: Due to circumstances, my stay in Detroit was cut short. But for additional information, make sure you've checked out this practice report posted earlier this week.)

Key questions

 
  Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
  Detroit rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has played well enough to be the starter.
1. Who will start at quarterback?
I hope it doesn't sound patronizing to praise Daunte Culpepper for losing 30 pounds during the offseason. Culpepper reported to camp at 260 pounds and has never looked lighter in his NFL career. During the practice I attended this week, he was decisive and his passes were sharp.

To be honest, Culpepper probably couldn't have done more thus far to win the Lions' starting job. And he still might not see the field this season.

Rookie Matthew Stafford, whose pre-draft contract agreement ensured he would not miss a day of training camp, has practiced his way into a legitimate opportunity to start the Sept. 13 opener at New Orleans. (Let that be a lesson to all future No. 1 draft picks.) In practice, at least, it's difficult to see much difference between him and Culpepper. If that remains the case, it's hard to imagine Stafford opening the year on the bench.

Stafford still has plenty of work to do, beginning with his anticipated start Saturday night against at Cleveland. But at the very least, it looks like Stafford is going to give Schwartz a very difficult decision.

2. Can the Lions retrofit their defensive line?
You won't find two more dissimilar defensive schemes than when you compare the Lions' 2008 approach with the one Schwartz is implementing now.

"The philosophy here in the past had been small and quick," he said. "The philosophy here now is big and powerful."

That put the Lions' personnel department on a search for larger defensive linemen, while incumbents were required to gain weight in the offseason. Such changes don't occur overnight, and it appears the Lions are about halfway there.

They've added some interior bulk in Grady Jackson (340ish pounds), Shaun Smith (325 pounds) and rookie Sammie Lee Hill (329 pounds). Based on pure size, that trio should be more difficult to drive off the ball than the players Detroit used last year.

On the outside, however, the Lions will miss veteran Jared DeVries, who ruptured his Achilles tendon early in camp and is lost for the season. Their current depth at end -- led by Cliff Avril, Jason Hunter and Dewayne White -- is thin.

3. What impact will the free agent/trade crop have?
The Lions' revolving personnel door has continued into training camp, most recently with Shaun Smith. New veterans are sprinkled all over the field, from Smith and Jackson
to cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, from linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson to receivers Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt.

Considering the personnel deficit that contributed to last season's record, an influx seemed unavoidable. The Lions decided to pursue the veteran route in hopes of establishing some short-term credibility while building for the long term behind the scenes. In all, it looks like the Lions will have at least 11 new starters when the season opens.

Market watch

Henry
The Lions acquired Henry, 33, in exchange for quarterback Jon Kitna. Henry is of the age where cornerbacks typically convert to nickel backs or safety, but for now the Lions have him listed as a starter opposite Buchanon.

You wonder whether that will last all season or if Henry will eventually make his way to safety. From the outside, he doesn't appear to be a good matchup for the speedy receivers in this division, be it Green Bay's Greg Jennings, Minnesota's Bernard Berrian or Chicago's Devin Hester.

A previous surplus of safeties has been whittled down to the point where this move might make sense, if the Lions can find another cornerback they feel comfortable inserting into the lineup.

Peterson
Newcomer to watch
During the best portion of his career, Peterson was a pass-rushing, play-making force to be reckoned with. Offenses had to account for him on every play.

At 32, Peterson might be past that prime. But the Lions believe he can still be a disruptive player who will help cover for some pass-rushing deficiency in other areas. His success or failure will play a big role in whether the Lions can improve their takeaway totals from last season.

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has said he could blitz as often as 40 percent of the time this season. Expect him to lean heavily on Peterson in those situations.

Observation deck
The Lions signed veteran Maurice Morris to back up starting running back Kevin Smith, but you wonder what Morris' role will be if rookie Aaron Brown continues to display big-play capabilities. Brown's speed might make it difficult to keep him off the field. ... When the summer began, the Lions had too many safeties. But their surplus has thinned out considerably after the trade of Gerald Alexander and a season-ending knee injury to Daniel Bullocks. Rookie Louis Delmas and veteran Marquand Manuel have been limited by injuries. When it's all said and done, expect Delmas and Kalvin Pearson to hold starting jobs. ... Receiver Demir Boldin, the brother of Arizona's Anquan Boldin, is a long shot to make the roster but made a number of professional-level catches during the practice I watched. ... Receiver Calvin Johnson has been limited by a thumb injury during much of camp and will miss his second consecutive preseason game Saturday at Cleveland. But Johnson is expected to be healed in time for the regular season. ... Quarterback Drew Stanton appears close to locking down a roster spot after seeming to be on the brink of release during the offseason.

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