NFC North: Isa Abdul-Quddus

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – There is now one day left.

The Detroit Lions finished up the second day of their mandatory minicamp Wednesday and it was probably the most balanced day the team has had during their sessions. After the first two weeks of open practices where the defense was dominant and the last couple of practices where the offense has been better, neither group seemed to take over the practice.

Johnson
That might be a good sign for the Lions that the offense is catching up to the defense even if both sides of the ball were without key contributors. Here are some thoughts, notes and observations from the day.
  • A decent amount of players missed practice Wednesday. Wide receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Chris Houston and linebacker Stephen Tulloch were not spotted at practice. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), guard Rob Sims, wide receiver Golden Tate (shoulder), wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, running back Mikel Leshoure and running back Joique Bell (knee) all sat out practice. Ansah, Tate and Bell were expected. Sims has missed team drills all offseason, as had Glover Quin, who only worked in individual drills Wednesday.
  • Jason Jones appears to be slowly moving back to health. He seemed more active Wednesday than he has during past open practices, including working some with the first unit. He is still coming back from a ruptured patella tendon suffered last season, but he will be a contender for the closed defensive end spot in the fall opposite Ansah on the defensive line.
  • Player of the practice: For the second straight day, it is Calvin Johnson. Any question about Johnson’s health are now gone. He was once again the best player on the field and caught everything around him. He appears to be completely over his injuries and has his timing with Matthew Stafford down once again. He beat any cornerback the Lions lined up against him during 1-on-1 periods and on one play leapt over DeAndre Levy to catch a pass that he ended up running in for a touchdown.
  • During those 1-on-1 drills between defensive backs and receivers, the receivers clearly won the day. They had at least six completions to start the drill, including Kris Durham reaching out to make a difficult catch in front of Darius Slay. Corey Fuller also beat Aaron Hester on a post route that was pretty impressive.
  • Sequence of the day: Two impressive plays in a row. First, safety James Ihedigbo jumped a route from Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew to break up the pass. It was a great break on the ball by Ihedigbo. Stafford followed it up, though, with a perfectly threaded ball to Patrick Edwards into a small window over safety Don Carey. It was the best throw Stafford made on the day.
  • Carey is starting to really emerge as the probable third safety, although this is not unexpected. He once again filled in for Quin during team drills and has been a decent presence back there. In the secondary, Jonte Green is the one player who doesn’t seem to be getting as many reps as one might think.
  • As they did Tuesday, Rodney Austin and rookie Travis Swanson both took first-team reps at guard and center. While Austin worked some at center Tuesday, Swanson was there Wednesday. In some ways, this is a test from Jim Caldwell to see if both of them can play both guard and center, something imperative for a reserve interior lineman. With Sims out, Austin has spent the majority of spring working with the first team at left guard.
  • This is getting repetitive, but Theo Riddick continues to be impressive. He seems a little faster than last season and might have improved more than anyone else on the roster from last season. He is putting himself in position to have a real role in this offense this season after being primarily a backup in 2013.
  • Written about Eric Ebron’s drops here a bit, so worth noting when he makes the type of catch the Lions drafted him for. He extended on what looked like a poorly thrown ball to stretch in front of safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to make the grab before hitting the ground. It is one of the best catches he has made in the open practice setting this spring.
  • With Tulloch not in attendance, Tahir Whitehead took a lot of the first-team snaps at linebacker next to Levy. He was pretty active there. While he is primarily a special-teams standout – he’ll end up having a roster spot because of his special-teams play – that the Lions staff inserted him there behind Tulloch would appear to indicate he is having a pretty good spring. After practice, Caldwell cited how Whitehead controls the movement of other players in that space as one of the reasons they like him behind Tulloch.
  • Really good day for Sam Martin. The second-year punter had some help with the wind, but he crushed almost all of his punts. It is tough to see yard lines because of how the Lions’ outdoor practice fields are set up, but he said after practice one of his punts went over 80 yards and had a few go at least 70 yards. He said his shortest on the day was 63 yards. Strong day for him.
The NFL draft is less than 12 hours away, which means soon enough the Detroit Lions will have to reveal whether all of their Sammy Watkins attention and visits from Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack had substance or were designed to throw everyone off.

But the draft will be more than just one round for the Lions, who will need to use the three days in May to build depth on a roster that is big on stars but small on those players beyond the big names that can turn the Lions into a playoff team.

Every day up until the first day of the draft, we’ll look at a different position grouping and see what Detroit has and what the team could end up looking for during the 2014 draft.

Today concludes with safeties.

Other previews

Players Lost: Louis Delmas (signed with Miami)

Players Signed: Isa Abdul-Quddus (from New Orleans); James Ihedigbo (from Baltimore); Nate Ness.

Players on the roster: Glover Quin; Don Carey; DeJon Gomes; Ihedigbo; Abdul-Quddus; Ness.

Draft priority: High

Potential Rounds: Any

Players who have visited or the Lions have met with: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama; Deone Bucannon, Washington State; Jaylen Watkins, Florida (per Detroit Free Press).

Analysis: Much like cornerback, safety is a definitive need for Detroit in this draft. The Lions tried to assist themselves at the position in free agency by signing Ihedigbo and Abdul-Quddus. The problem there is Abdul-Quddus is more of a four-unit special teams player and Ihedigbo appears to be more of a stop-gap option for the Lions than the safety of the future.

This is a position group Detroit needs to upgrade and it is a somewhat tough class to do it in unless the Lions make a move early. That’s part of the reason why I had the Lions taking Clinton-Dix in the first round of the NFL Nation mock draft earlier this week and why he could very well be the team’s choice Thursday night.

Clinton-Dix
In letting go of Delmas, the team signified it wanted to find a more reliable playmaker than Delmas. Too often, Delmas would miss on plays and his injured knees were a concern. The Lions let him go and he signed with Miami, but it also all but guaranteed the team would look to safety early in the draft.

If Detroit is going to really go after winning now, it needs to improve its defensive backfield with a top pick or two. In doing so, it should also improve the front seven, which would then have that extra half-second they so often seemed to need last season to sack quarterbacks.

Depending how the board falls Thursday -- and really, other than a trade, that will dictate all of the Lions’ decisions -- Clinton-Dix could be taken by Detroit or left on the board for someone else. That’s part of the fun of the draft, truly no one can accurately predict what is going to happen.

Of all reasonable options, I’d take: Clinton-Dix in the first round if the board falls even as close to expected. I know Bill Polian disagreed with me on "SportsCenter" on Wednesday, but the Alabama safety does not feel like a stretch at No. 10 and would fill an immediate need. Drafting Clinton-Dix could also move Ihedigbo into a more flexible role. Of course, the Lions haven't drafted a safety in the first round since Bennie Blades in 1988.

If the Lions passed on Clinton-Dix in the first round, a player to watch in later rounds could be Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward in the second round; Minnesota’s Brock Vereen in the third or fourth round and Wisconsin’s Dez Southward in the fourth or fifth round.

Possible targets: Clinton-Dix; Calvin Pryor, Louisville; Bucannon; Ward; Craig Loston, LSU; Vereen; Southward; Dion Bailey, USC.
Every day we’ll take a look at one of the Detroit Lions heading for free agency, what he has meant to the team before and a prognosis on whether or not he’ll be back with the club in 2014.

To view the entire series to date, click this link.

Free agent to be: John Wendling

Position: Safety

Age: 30

Years in the league: 7

What he made last season: $938,334 (cap number); $715,000 (base salary), $15,000 (roster bonus)

What he did last season: Wendling wasn’t needed at all defensively in 2013, playing one snap the entire season with the defense. But his real role is on special teams, where he made 14 tackles and was one of the team’s most used and effective special teamers. That was part of why he was brought over from Buffalo after the 2009 season and why he made an impact with the Lions over the past four seasons.

His potential market value: Could be decent, although not as a priority free agent by any means. He will be a player who will eventually be brought into a camp by a team that struggled on special teams coverage last season. The Washington Redskins, for example, was one of the worst teams in the league on both punt and kick coverage.

Will he fit the Lions still: No. It initially looked like Wendling could be a candidate to return to Detroit through free agency because of his role on special teams and familiarity with John Bonamego’s coverage systems. However, once the Lions claimed Isa Abdul-Quddus off waivers earlier this year and then kept him off the restricted free agent market by giving him a one-year deal that counts $695,000 against the cap, that likely took Wendling’s potential special teams spot. Bonamego was the person general manager Martin Mayhew said went into his office to campaign for Abdul-Quddus. At the NFL combine, Mayhew said Wendling would not be back with Detroit in 2014.

What happens: As mentioned above, Wendling will likely find a spot in a training camp because of his special teams prowess, not any potential he has as a safety. At 30 years old, Wendling is likely on his last few years in the NFL as player who specializes in special teams play, but he should still be productive enough for a team to take a look at him and give him a shot to make a roster.

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