NFC North: Joseph Fauria

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It all came at Joseph Fauria really fast last season, from training camp, where he was trying to find his way onto the Detroit Lions roster as an undrafted free agent, to learning a different way to play the position he excelled at during his college career at UCLA.

That’s part of the conundrum of playing tight end in a spread-type offense in college, where the tight end is essentially a larger wide receiver and not playing with his hand down or next to the offensive line. Blocking? It's essentially not required in that kind of offense. So while Fauria was trying to make the Lions in 2013, he also knew he had to learn something fairly foreign to him through no fault of his own.

In the NFL, blocking was going to be a requirement.

Fauria realized this early on as he began the season on the roster but the clear backup to Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Then Scheffler suffered another concussion and was eventually released, while Fauria became a legitimate threat in the red zone, using his 6-foot-7 size and reliable hands to make a rookie impact.

Except Fauria, even then, stressed he wanted more. He knew his key to longevity in the NFL and to seeing more than red-zone snaps was to run his routes crisper and focus more on the part of the game he didn’t have to worry as much about before: his blocking.

This was his offseason focus -- and so far, so good for the second-year tight end.

“(I’m) a tremendous amount more comfortable, just because I’m not going from standing up the whole year in college to now just putting my hand down the whole time,” Fauria said. “Now I’m mixing it up a little bit, have a year under my belt and I know what to do as a pro.”

Yes, that includes blocking -- which Fauria handled well, opening up holes for backs to run through. Pro Football Focus gave him a positive grade on his run blocking, which the site said he did for 11 plays. He knows, though, his blocking will have to be consistent for him to be on the field more this season, especially with rookie Eric Ebron vying for some of his snaps.

But Fauria has shown throughout the first two weeks that he has improved at his perceived weakness -- blocking -- and still provides the reliable hands and large target he did during his rookie season.

Through a few weeks, though, Fauria looks like a more complete player than he was a season ago, and that should be expected. Unlike last season, he has less theoretical off-field stuff to worry about, so he can concentrate on what he needs to do to stay on the field during the entirety of games.

“More so not worrying about doing the numbers game, if I’m going to make the team or if I’m going to do this or if I’m going to do this dance of if I’m going to be able to stretch before practice because I don’t know the schedule because I’m a rookie,” Fauria said. “All those things kind of were messing my brain up a little bit because it was my first year in the NFL.

“Now I’m a veteran and I know what to expect and it just comes with me doing my job.”

Lions Camp Report: Day 10

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • With receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Eric Ebron -- two of Detroit's biggest offensive pieces both physically and in terms of usage -- not practicing Thursday, there were more opportunities for others to try and stand out during practice. Joseph Fauria, who has been used with the first team often during the first two weeks of camp, saw a significant uptick in reps and appeared to fare fairly well. Fauria is going to make the team, but he needs to prove in this camp he has taken a step from last season, where he was primarily used in the red zone. If Ebron doesn't play Saturday, he'll have a large opportunity to do so before likely giving way to Jordan Thompson and Andrew Maxwell later in the game. Johnson, meanwhile, had an excused absence. With Johnson not at practice, Kris Durham appeared to receive more first-team reps than normal.
  • Speaking of Maxwell, the essentially unknown tight end had the play of practice in a rep with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford fired the ball to Maxwell and it hit off of him. Then, it bounced off of safety Glover Quin and somehow right back into the hands of Maxwell, who made the catch and kept on running. It looked like one of those plays you'd see on an NFL Films highlight reel for years if it happened in a game instead of a preseason practice.
  • DeJon Gomes is making a strong push to win the fourth safety spot behind starters Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo and third safety/special teams leader Don Carey. Gomes has consistently backed up Ihedigbo, including when the starter briefly left practice after being kicked in the leg. Gomes has also shown up a lot on the first-team special teams units, which is critical for any depth player trying to make a roster.
  • As part of the veterans-getting-rest plan mentioned multiple times earlier in the week, rookie offensive lineman Travis Swanson has received a lot of time with the first-team offense, either at left guard spelling Rob Sims or at center, replacing Dominic Raiola. While there is no indication Sims or Raiola have anything to worry about when it comes to their jobs, this sort of experience can only provide value to Swanson both this season and down the road, when he eventually becomes a starter. Don't be surprised to see a lot of him Saturday night, perhaps in multiple positions.
  • The Ford family made another appearance at practice Thursday afternoon. While this is my first training camp covering the Lions, veteran reporter Dave Birkett noted the family has been out at camp more often than in the past few seasons. Of course, the team sort of changed ownership in the offseason after the death of William Clay Ford Sr. His wife, Martha, now is the owner of the team and she was at practice.
  • Darren Keyton missed another practice Thursday, as did Ezekiel Ansah, who continued doing side work. Also missing practice -- and not being in attendance at all -- was linebacker Cory Greenwood. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday night that Greenwood has an excused absence. Both Ansah and receiver TJ Jones remain on the active PUP list.
  • The Lions have their final practice before the preseason opener at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Allen Park. It is not open to the public.

Lions Camp Report: Day 2

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • One of the players making a big early impression in a position of competition is wide receiver Kevin Ogletree. Tucked in a tight battle with Kris Durham, Ryan Broyles, Jeremy Ross and Corey Fuller for receiving spots behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, Ogletree has spent time with the top unit both days as the No. 3 receiver. This comes on top of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi singling him out during the spring as someone who impressed him. Ogletree has speed as well as the ability to make catches both over the middle and the sideline. Johnson, meanwhile, called Ogletree “smooth” when discussing him Tuesday.
  • An interesting thing occurred during individual periods Tuesday. Instead of working on their own, the Lions split their tight ends up between the offensive line and with the pass-catching receivers and running backs catching passes. So Brandon Pettigrew, for instance, was working with the line blocking while Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron were catching passes. This, Pettigrew said, was different than how the Lions operated under former coach Jim Schwartz.“We rotate and go down there during periods,” Pettigrew said. “We have five guys here, why not split it up and have some guys down there and some guys down here.” Pettigrew sees this as not only helping his blocking fundamentals, but an aid to Ebron and Fauria as well.
  • It’s early, but the kicking situation is going to be something to watch. Detroit hasn’t done many pressure field-goal situations over the first two days, but the Lions did have both Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio attempt a 49-yard field goal under pressure in the final moments of practice. It did not end well and went counter to their supposed strengths. Freese had the distance but missed wide left. Tavecchio was right on line -- but about a yard or so short. It’s only one day, but this is going to be a major thing to pay attention to throughout the next few weeks.
  • It would appear the Lions are going to give both Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle an equal shot at right tackle. Hilliard worked with the first team during the first practice Monday and Waddle received the first-team snaps Tuesday. We’ll have more on the offensive line Wednesday, but this appears to be the one true spot up for grabs on what is otherwise a fairly strong front five.
  • The Lions have managed to have fairly short practices the first two days, wrapping up in well under two hours. Some of it might come from the team still practicing without pads, but Lions safety Glover Quin explained the reason for the shorter practices is kind of simple: The team has plays they want to run through and things they need to accomplish. If they limit mistakes and run through the plays at a good pace, they finish quicker. It’s a long way from the marathon practices of the past, although practices should get longer once the team goes into pads.
  • Ownership made its first public appearance at camp Tuesday as Martha Ford, the wife of the late William Clay Ford Sr., attended practice. Ford gained controlling interest in the team after her husband’s death in the offseason. Also visiting practice Tuesday were some of Michigan State’s football coaches, although head coach Mark Dantonio was not spotted, as he was in Chicago for Big Ten media days.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- After the Detroit Lions hired Joe Lombardi earlier this season and the new offensive coordinator made it obvious he was going to pattern the team after what he learned in New Orleans, the thought of Jimmy Graham has been prevalent.

When the Lions spurned defense Thursday night to take tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of the NFL draft -- despite already having two capable tight ends on the roster, a fairly deep draft class at the position and major needs on defense -- it focused the team's dependence on the position even more.

[+] EnlargeEric Ebron
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsEric Ebron gives Detroit the option of running more three-tight-end sets.
Then Lombardi mentioned something more interesting. When asked about the role tight end Joseph Fauria could still provide, he said he could envision the Lions lining up three tight ends on the field at one time. In the past, that type of package typically has meant a jumbo-type set designed for short-yardage or goal-line offense.

Not now. Not in Detroit.

The Lions could use three tight ends all across the field. Between Lombardi's talk about the formation and the six tight ends currently on the roster, it's clear there will be more emphasis on the position overall.

"Listen, Joseph is still going to have a strong role in the red zone," Lombardi said. "There is nothing to say that we aren't going to have three tight ends on the field at some point."

In Lombardi's five years with New Orleans, where he was primarily the quarterbacks coach, the Saints played 141 snaps with three tight ends on the field at once, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They ran the ball 69 times out of that set and also completed 44 of 71 passes in those five seasons.

The team used it the most in 2013, for 49 snaps, scoring seven touchdowns when three tight ends were on the field. The Saints completed 16 of 32 passes with a three-tight-end look last season, good for 185 yards and four touchdowns. Interestingly, 100 of those yards were after the catch, likely signifying it wasn't only used in the red zone.

Ten of those 16 catches in the formation went to tight ends.

At the very least, drafting Ebron probably means the definitive end of the favored formation under then-offensive coordinator Scott Linehan last season, which was one running back, three wide receivers and Brandon Pettigrew somewhere on the field.

Now, it could be Calvin Johnson, Ebron, Pettigrew and Golden Tate lining up a bit of everywhere. So don't think Ebron will be primarily in the slot. At North Carolina last season, Ebron caught the majority of his passes lined up as a wide receiver.

"I never want to say primarily anything," Lombardi said. "He is going to line up all over the place and you are going to have to find him. That's kind of one of our goals in not wanting to be predictable for defenses.

"We don't want them to say, 'Calvin is always here, we know how to deal with it.' You just want to keep mixing it up so the defense can never really hone in on what your plan is."

Realistically, Detroit is not going to sit Ebron or Pettigrew very often -- not after drafting Ebron in the first round and guaranteeing Pettigrew $8 million of his new four-year deal. So the multiplicity of the Lions' offense in 2014 could give Detroit a crazy amount of options. It can use anything from two-back sets with Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, to three- and four-receiver sets, to sets with one, two or three tight ends at once.

This is probably why the Lions felt comfortable drafting offense so early at the expense of addressing the defense.

Detroit will likely cater its offensive plan to what Ebron can do once he arrives this week and starts working in rookie minicamp this weekend. Once the Lions see how well he runs, and how far away his blocking or in-line capabilities might be, then they can further assess his value.

If the team really does view him as what he was at North Carolina, which was a bulkier, taller wide receiver with a tight end designation, Detroit could place him anywhere on the field, much like they do with Johnson. It is also highly likely Ebron's role at the start of the season will be different from his role at the end.

He is still learning the position. He only really started playing football his junior year of high school, after he was offered a scholarship by North Carolina following a one-day camp he attended. So his room for growth is large, and as he improves, the opportunities for Detroit's offense are likely to multiply.

Don't expect Ebron to become Graham, though. He was adamant about that after he was drafted. While he might play a similar role in the Detroit offense as Graham does in New Orleans, it isn't fair to compare Ebron to Graham, a converted basketball player.

If you're looking for a clue of how he'll be utilized, and how the Lions might end up using their tight ends, New Orleans is a good place to start.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- With top cornerbacks, the top safety and top defensive tackle on the board, the Detroit Lions instead chose to add to their offense on Thursday night, selecting the draft's top-rated tight end, North Carolina's Eric Ebron.

To find out more about Ebron, ESPN ACC blogger Andrea Adelson gave this scouting report on him.

"Ebron is essentially a glorified wide receiver, and became the biggest threat in the North Carolina pass game last season," Adelson wrote. "An first-team All-American, Ebron set school records for single-season receptions (62) and receiving yards (973), and career receptions and career receiving yards for a tight end. To further prove his threat in the pass game, Ebron became the first North Carolina tight end to lead the team in receiving since Mike Chatham in 1979 and 1980.

"There are some questions about Ebron, however. He is not known for his blocking ability, and he has also his share of dropped passes. North Carolina runs a high-tempo spread offense, so because the Tar Heels want to spread the field, Ebron was utilized more for his pass-catching ability. He is not your prototypical blocking tight end by any stretch. But if Detroit envisions using him as a complement to Calvin Johnson, Ebron could thrive."

Ebron becomes the sixth tight end on the roster, joining Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria, Mike Williams, Matt Veldman and Jordan Thompson.
videoALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The pick: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

My take: Not the best selection. With defensive tackle Aaron Donald on the board, as well as Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, the Lions chose to ignore their defensive issues in the first round and continued to try and bolster their offense, going with Ebron. He’s a nice player but not the biggest need by any stretch for Detroit. He can’t really block well, and while he’s a good route runner, I don’t exactly love his hands. He drops catchable passes at times. He gives the Lions a Jimmy Graham-like player, but this comes after the Lions gave a three-year deal to Brandon Pettigrew.

For a team with desperate defensive needs, this pick makes such little sense. The Lions could have solidified their defensive line and offered protection for losing Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley with Donald. They could have taken the best cover corner in the draft in Dennard or the top safety in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. They even could have investigated trading down. But they chose not to.

What does this mean for Joseph Fauria: This could be problematic for last season’s red zone threat and rookie standout. Ebron and Fauria kind of play the same type of tight end position -- guys who can run down the field a little bit but can’t block all that well. He could be fighting for a position in training camp now -- unless the Lions actually view him as more of a wide receiver.

What’s next: Detroit still needs a pass-catcher but should really focus on defense on Friday. Cornerbacks, safeties and pass-rushers should be the main focus in Rounds 2 and 3.

The Detroit Lions are bringing back Brandon Pettigrew and this ensures one thing in Detroit: While the team will have an offense that might look schematically like the New Orleans Saints' offense, this guarantees it won’t be Saints-like.

At least not in the same construct of what New Orleans likes to do.

Pettigrew is not a Jimmy Graham-like tight end. He won’t stretch the field. He won’t create an obvious mismatch against anyone who lines up against him. Though Detroit had said he was a priority free agent throughout the offseason, he is a different type of tight end than Graham.

He is more of a dual-threat tight end, as much of a blocker as a pass-catcher. He was integral in Detroit’s running game as a player who can line up on the line of scrimmage as well as in the slot and even outside. His versatility and flexibility has been one of the more attractive things about him.

He will not, though, break a defense.

In his five seasons in Detroit, his longest-ever reception has been 35 yards. In 2010. He has had only four games in which he had a reception of 30 yards or more, and only one of them came after the 2010 season. Last season he had fewer yards (416) than any season but his rookie year, and also fewer drops (four) than any season in his career. His two touchdowns were his fewest since his rookie year.

He also had declining receptions the past two seasons after an 87-catch, 826-yard season in 2011.

While Pettigrew is still productive and still young enough at age 29, part of the reason Detroit might have brought him back is the lack of experience at the position otherwise. If the team had not kept Pettigrew, the only tight ends on the roster would have been Joseph Fauria, Michael Williams and Matt Veldman. Fauria and Williams were rookies last season, and of the three, only Fauria had any extended playing time or even caught a pass.

Williams spent last season on injured reserve and Veldman was signed for the last game of the season from the practice squad.

With a thin tight end market, there were not going to be any options better than Pettigrew available for Detroit to sign as a veteran. Owen Daniels, Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller all could have been intriguing options, but they have significant injury histories that made them more of a risk than Pettigrew, who the team drafted in 2009. And Pettigrew has developed a rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Pettigrew’s signing also probably means the team might avoid taking a tight end early in May’s draft, although depending on how the Lions really feel about Fauria and Williams, it might not completely preclude them from doing so.

But this was the safe signing for Detroit. He was the player the team knew and the one the front office was the most familiar with. With little other options out there, it was also the one that ended up making the most sense.

Even if he can’t do some of the things the team might want him to be able to in the offense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Brandon Pettigrew presents a conundrum for the Detroit Lions.

On one side, Pettigrew is one of the tight ends in the NFL who can run routes and also line up on the offensive line and block oncoming defenders. But with what Detroit might run in the future, with the base being the New Orleans Saints offense that used Jimmy Graham in the slot often, the question remains of how Pettigrew might fit with the potentially-new-look Lions.

“Pettigrew, he’s a talented guy. Big, talented,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said during the NFL combine Thursday. “Can block you at the line of scrimmage but also can catch the ball as well. He’s a talented guy.

“Across the board, I think you find guys that have certain skill sets. He’s got a real fine skill set and [I] obviously think you’ve been able to see that through the years.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean Detroit will bring him back, though. Caldwell wouldn’t give an indication one way or another whether he would have the Lions try to retain the Oklahoma State product, who has caught 284 passes for 2,828 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first five years in Detroit.

If the Lions are unable to retain him, the team would have two tight ends returning to the team -- Joseph Fauria and Michael Williams. Williams spent last season on injured reserve with a broken hand and Fauria played mostly in passing and red zone situations.

When asked if he intended to try to re-sign Pettigrew, however, Caldwell became very vague.

“We’ve got to look at every option and that’s one of the things,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to have contingencies for every single thing and that’s one of the things. We have to have contingencies for every single thing so we look at it on both sides of it and see how things work out.”

The Lions may also look to fill tight end needs through the draft. The tight end pool is a deep crop, led by North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro and Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas. Niklas told on Thursday he was scheduled to speak with the team at some point during the combine.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Throughout last season, Brandon Pettigrew didn’t want to talk about the looming offseason and where things could be headed.

He preferred to stay focused on the present, on his fifth year with the Detroit Lions and trying to turn himself into one of the NFL’s top multi-purpose tight ends. He was in a contract year, but tried not to worry much about that.

He would deflect all of those questions and say he wasn’t concerned about it. That he would deal with it after his season ended. Now he has no choice. Free agency is a month away and the team’s decision on whether to pursue re-signing Pettigrew is one of the biggest left for the team after they chose to bring back center Dominic Raiola on a one-year deal.

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesBrandon Pettigrew is the type of well-rounded tight end that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi covets.
Throughout his five years in Detroit, Pettigrew has gained the trust of Matthew Stafford, but has also had streaks of inconsistency where he dropped passes. He improved in that area last season. He had a career-low in drops in 2013 (four) but that also came with the fewest receptions, targets, yards and touchdowns since his rookie season in 2009.

It wasn’t that he was being shuffled out of the Lions' offense as he played 925 of 1,158 snaps according to Pro Football Focus and started every game until an ankle injury in Week 15 against Baltimore ended his season. But with a young offensive line and more of a focus on the running game with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, the team needed him to run block and pass protect just as much as they needed him to run routes.

His dual ability could lead Detroit to decide it wants to try and keep the 28-year-old Texan. He was, by far, the most well-rounded tight end on the Lions' roster last season as rookie Joseph Fauria was more of a route-runner and pass-catcher and Dorin Dickerson was a fill-in replacement when Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, who was released, were injured.

And Lions new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi values what Pettigrew is able to do.

“It’s important to have a guy that can block the point of attack,” Lombardi said. “That’s important. A lot of teams are going to back-or-forth these days and you need a tight end that can hold up against those guys. And then, you want a guy who can be a pass receiver so you’re always looking for those well-rounded guys.

“But, again, I’ve never been in a mode of I want to define exactly what this player is and then you have to go find him for me. Go find the best player you can. And if it is Jimmy Graham, we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’re going to find plays to help him be successful . When it was Jeremy Shockey, we might have had a little different philosophy with his strengths and weakness. So you want a guy who is a great blocker and a great receiver, obviously, and those guys are rare and hard to find.”

Pettigrew, theoretically, is one of those guys and his potential free-agent value could force the Lions to look somewhere else to replace him.

That could be in the draft, although Detroit has bigger needs than addressing the tight end spot in the first round. But if North Carolina’s Eric Ebron or Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins were available in the second round, it could be worth a pick investment. Same with Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third or fourth rounds.

Of these players, Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas could be the two most intriguing prospects -- although Ebron is the most talented pass-catching tight end in the draft.

If the Lions choose to re-sign Pettigrew, it would be unlikely the team would also draft a tight end.

The other option, of course, is free agency. While Graham could be the marquee name there, it is highly unlikely he reaches free agency. Even if he did, he would be well out of the Lions' price range. The non-Graham options in the free-agent pool aren't huge names, but there are some players who could fit.

Dennis Pitta played for Jim Caldwell in Baltimore and has shown to be a combination tight end when he was healthy in 2011 and 2012. Dallas Clark also played for Caldwell, but he is 33 years old and probably not worth an investment at this point.

Dustin Keller, the former New York Jet and current Miami Dolphin, is a free agent and after the knee injury that ended his 2013 season in the preseason, he could be available cheap on a one-year deal. That would give the team a chance to figure out whether or not Fauria or Michael Williams, the seventh-round pick last year that ended up on injured reserve, could grow into the full-time starter role. Keller had a $4.25 million cap number in 2013, but after the injury he could be looking for a spot to prove himself again.

While these are some of the potential options, the main thing for the Lions in the next few days and weeks is figuring out how much Pettigrew is worth to them as an organization and whether or not they can find someone to replace him.
He was high on the Detroit Lions' 2013 NFL draft from the start, grading the team as a B in the days following the draft.

Now, with a season of evidence, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had an even higher opinion of how the Lions did.

He gave them an A.

Kiper particularly praised what we have also praised in this space all season long -- general manager Martin Mayhew and senior personnel executive Brian Xanders' ability to find talent in the later rounds of the draft and also after the draft with undrafted free agents.

It was in the undrafted free agent pool, where the Lions picked up starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle and starting tight end Joseph Fauria, that really made Detroit's rookie class even more impressive.

To read Kiper's whole evaluation, click the link here .

To give a quick recap, here's a look at Detroit's rookies and where they fit in with Detroit last year.
  • First round -- Ziggy Ansah, DE: Starter. Led rookies in sacks with eight.
  • Second round -- Darius Slay, CB: Contributor. Showed promise toward the end of the season.
  • Third round -- Larry Warford, RG: Started every game this season. Was one of the top guards in the league and perhaps the steal of the draft.
  • Fourth round -- Devin Taylor, DE: Contributor. Played more and also had more consistency toward the end of the season.
  • Fifth round -- Sam Martin, P: Starter. Was in the top 10 for punters for most of the year. Could be with the team longer than anyone else in the locker room right now.
  • Sixth round -- Corey Fuller, WR: Practice squad all year.
  • Sixth round -- Theo Riddick, HB: Mostly a special-teams player, but turned into a reliable contributor there throughout the season.
  • Seventh round -- Michael Williams, TE: On injured reserve all season.
  • Seventh round -- Brandon Hepburn, LB: Practice squad all year.
  • Undrafted -- LaAdrian Waddle, RT: Starter by midseason. Tackle of the future for Detroit.
  • Undrafted -- Joseph Fauria, TE: Contributor/starter. Became a legitimate red zone threat and should see a bigger role in 2014.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 24

Biggest surprise: The offensive line was supposed to be one of the biggest question marks for the Lions this season with three new starters and a center who was supposed to be on the tail end of his career. Instead, the group ended up being one of the top units in the NFL. Larry Warford, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, looks to be an anchor at right guard for the next decade. Center Dominic Raiola had arguably his best season and the Lions discovered another rookie, undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle, as a consistent starter at right tackle. Four of the five -- all but Raiola -- are under contract for next season. Raiola has expressed a desire to return if possible.

Biggest disappointment: At one point, Detroit was 6-3 and looked to be in control of the NFC North and a playoff berth. Then everything unraveled. The Lions lost five of their next six to fall out of playoff contention. In each of those losses, Detroit had three or more turnovers. Matthew Stafford, who appeared in the first half of the season to be moving closer to becoming an elite quarterback, regressed. Reggie Bush, brought in as a high-profile free agent in the offseason, had issues with fumbles. Calvin Johnson had the most drops in a season in his career. Almost everything imploded on the Lions, who will watch the playoffs from home again this year.

Biggest need: In the draft, the Lions need to look at a speedy wide receiver on the outside to complement Johnson along with finding a young, shutdown cornerback early on to play alongside Darius Slay, last season’s second-round draft pick. Depending on whether tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Raiola return, those are two other positions to look at, and the Lions could also use depth at linebacker. Perhaps the biggest need of all is a guru to work with Stafford to help fix his mechanical issues and decision making. Whether that person is brought on staff as a dedicated quarterback coach or an outside influence like Steve Clarkson or George Whitfield Jr., Stafford could use some specialized refresher courses at least.

Team MVP: Johnson was the team's best player, and he showed his value when he was out, as the Detroit offense couldn’t move the ball well in games he missed. But the most valuable Lions player this season was linebacker DeAndre Levy. He had career highs in tackles, solo tackles and interceptions this season. But to me, the image of him hobbling out of the locker room after the Lions’ 23-20 loss to the Giants in Week 16, after he legitimately gave every piece of himself to his team only to lose, showed his value. Levy doesn’t say much, but he was the top player on the Lions' defense and consistently made plays for Detroit all season long.

There are less than 12 hours left in the 2013 calendar year, and it is probably a year to forget for the Detroit Lions.

For every positive Detroit had -- a good draft, a good start -- there was a much more difficult negative. Ziggy Ansah had multiple injuries that cost him two games this season and the Lions, of course, crumpled over the last two months of the year, eventually leading to the firing of coach Jim Schwartz.

So on the final day of this year, we look at 10 moments that stood out over the past 12 months. And from me to you, have a happy and safe New Year's Eve. See you in 2014.

Here are the 10 moments that stood out about the Lions in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiFiring Jim Schwartz starts a new era in Detroit.
1. The firing. It came on the 364th day of 2013, but the Lions' decision to fire Schwartz changes everything for the team next year. As general managers are wont to do when they make a switch, Martin Mayhew wants to change the culture a little with the next hire. The only change that will truly shift the culture is winning, however that happens. Schwartz finished his Lions tenure with a 29-51 record.

2. Kickalicious. He was an international sensation, a YouTube kicking find that actually lasted a few weeks in training camp and even earned a trip back to Michigan for a midseason tryout. But Havard Rugland never made the Lions roster -- or any other NFL roster -- in 2013. The Lions had more fun with this by signing Carlin Isles, the rugby star, during the last week of the season to the practice squad and, eventually, a futures contract.

3. The collapse. No other way to put it. The way the Lions fell apart at the end of the 2013 season, going from 6-3 to 7-9 and out of the playoffs entirely, was a failure of the entire organization. It cost Schwartz his job, cost the Lions millions of dollars in revenue for a home playoff game, and left the future of many veterans in flux with a new staff coming in.

4. Schwartz and the fans. Maybe this is too high because it is fresh in the mind, but Schwartz yelling at the Lions fans for booing after taking a knee to go to overtime was a standout moment this season. You don't see a coach scream at fans in the middle of a game too many times. Schwartz lost his cool and then it took question upon question for him to admit anything the next day talking to the media. If anything locked up his fate no matter how the season ended, that episode was it.

5. "Don't say I'm scared, cause we ain't:" That's what Schwartz told the media after a failed fake field goal against Pittsburgh, and then watched as the Steelers drove 97 yards to take the lead and eventually, the game from Detroit in the middle of November. That play might have changed the entire season for the Lions.

6. The 2013 draft. This might be one of the high points for the Lions in this calendar year. Mayhew drafted well, including finding immediate starters in defensive end Ansah (first round), right guard Larry Warford (third round), punter Sam Martin (fifth round) and a starter by midseason in right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (undrafted free agent). Add cornerback Darius Slay (second round), defensive end Devin Taylor (fourth round) and tight end Joseph Fauria (undrafted) and that's a strong, strong rookie class.

7. The snow bowl. It was a game where Reggie Bush hurt himself in warmups, Calvin Johnson came up from one tackle with a facemask full of snow and you couldn't see from one side of the stadium to the other. Also in that game, LeSean McCoy ran for 217 yards and the Lions fumbled seven times, losing three.

8. Matthew Stafford's leap. This is as low as it is mostly because of everything that followed after. Stafford only had one good game following the last-minute win over Dallas in October when he jumped over the Cowboys defensive line after faking a spike at the goal-line. It looked like a moment of maturation and a next step for Stafford. Instead it turned into one of the last good moments the quarterback had this year.

9. Johnson's big day. It corresponded with Stafford's game, but really, that Dallas game might have been one of two big highlights of the season for the Lions, along with the Thanksgiving win over Green Bay. Johnson had the second-best receiving yardage game in NFL history, catching 14 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown in a 31-30 win over the Cowboys. Perhaps this should have been a sign to come, as the Lions needed all of those catches and all of those yards to beat Dallas.

10. The field goal endings. The Lions lost three games this season on field goals that shouldn't have happened. A shanked Sam Martin punt set up the game-winner for Cincinnati in October. Then Detroit saw Baltimore's Justin Tucker make a 61-yarder on Monday night to severely damage the Lions playoff hopes and the New York Giants' Josh Brown make a 45-yarder to fully extinguish them.

BONUS MOMENT: Johnson's catch. He leapt between three Cincinnati defenders, including one who took a horrific jumping angle on the ball, and caught the ball between all of them. The catch gave the Lions a touchdown and another how-did-he-make-that-catch to a career's worth of them for the top receiver in the NFL.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There is no way the Detroit Lions would do this, no matter the public front it might show. There’s just no possible way the Lions would possibly risk their franchise player, Calvin Johnson, on Sunday.


Detroit coach Jim Schwartz continues to play coy about Johnson’s availability for the season finale against Minnesota, saying it will be a decision that could go until Sunday before the game. Johnson, as he usually does, declined to answer many questions about his status other than it is a two-way decision and that he’ll see how he progresses throughout the week.
That the Lions are contemplating playing Johnson this weekend makes absolutely no sense. There's nothing on the line but pride and Johnson is ailing at best and outright hurt at worst.

None at all.

Johnson won’t confirm or deny the extent of his knee injury or if he’ll have to have surgery on it after the season. He won’t even say what, exactly, is wrong with his knee. We know he has missed a ton of practice time this season, missed one game and was limited in two others.

That alone is enough to sit the best player the Lions have, the player whom your entire offense flows through. He was limited last Sunday in what was essentially an elimination game against the New York Giants, and that should tell you everything you need to know about Johnson’s health.

Or lack thereof.

Don’t push him to play. If he says he wants to play, sit him down and tell him it is in the best interest of his future and the franchise’s future that he sit out.

The first priority should be Johnson’s health and that is the first -- and most important -- reason he should sit.

One of the most obvious things about Detroit this season is its ineffectiveness without Johnson in the lineup. The Lions, whether or not Schwartz is around a week from now or a season from now, can use Sunday to figure out other wide receiver plans.

How does free agent-to-be Kevin Ogletree look with a full complement of game day snaps? Can Nate Burleson still play on the outside if need be? Could tight end Joseph Fauria line up outside? What about new-to-the-53-man-roster Matt Veldman, who will play his first NFL game Sunday? Is Jeremy Ross a potential weapon as a receiver as well as a returner?

A lot of these things can be accomplished by not playing Johnson on Sunday. If Detroit plays him, at best the Lions will get a decent, but likely limited, effort from him. At worst, he could injure himself further.

And that’s something no one around the Lions should even want to think about.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Brandon Pettigrew hobbled through the Detroit Lions' locker room on Wednesday on crutches. On Thursday, he sat out the second straight day with an ankle injury.

And Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said Wednesday that of some of the players who missed practice because of injury that day, Pettigrew was the most concerning. So there is at least a decent chance the Lions’ top tight end doesn’t play Sunday against the New York Giants.

That can leave Detroit in an interesting predicament. Neither of the other tight ends on the roster, Joseph Fauria or Dorin Dickerson, present the full blocking-and-catching arsenal that Pettigrew does.

[+] EnlargeJoseph Fauria
AP Photo/David RichardThe Detroit Lions will turn to Joseph Fauria, 80, and a host of others if starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew can't play.
Much of what the Lions do, especially in the run game, is aided by Pettigrew’s ability as a blocker, so it could leave Detroit with two potential conundrums. Either use Fauria or Dickerson in blocking roles, or bring in an extra offensive lineman, perhaps giving away what the Lions are going to do on a specific play.

“We’re going to have some scenarios there. We’ve got to wait until we get the word on Brandon,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “If anyone’s going to answer the bell, it’s going to be him. So Saturday night we’ll figure that out.

“The contingency is to have the next two guys ready to go. Joe’s been in the system all year. Dorin has done a really nice job of picking up what we’re doing. We’ve done extra tackle stuff before, so that’s not new to us.”

The Lions have seen what Fauria and Dickerson have been able to do this season. More and more each week, Fauria has played next to offensive linemen with his hand on the ground, showing signs of becoming an improved blocker.

But even he’ll admit he isn’t fully there yet toward the end of his rookie season. And Dickerson only plays a handful of snaps as it is, so it is unknown how effective he can be in that role.

So that leaves the offensive linemen -- specifically Dylan Gandy and possibly Rodney Austin -- as the sixth offensive linemen. When Tony Scheffler was injured this season, the Lions discussed using Gandy as an emergency tight end/sixth offensive lineman.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Gandy said. “You just get ready for whatever comes and you take advantage of any opportunity you get.”

For Austin, that could be a first chance. He was signed off the practice squad last month and has yet to be active in a game. But he has consistently worked on his hands, including after practice Thursday.

This is not new for Austin. He did this last season and throughout OTAs in the offseason. He just had not done it as frequently during the regular season.

“Just trying to get back to it,” Austin said Thursday. “Working on my hands. The more you can do, you know.”

Interestingly, Austin seemed more comfortable with his left hand instead of his right hand. This is because he said while his mother made him write with his right hand when he was a kid, he thinks he is a natural lefty.

He said she just didn’t like to see him writing with his left, so he learned with his right.

But if he were to be called on to be an extra lineman or even run routes, Austin would be comfortable with that. After all, it would be a way on the field for a guy who has yet to be active for a game this season.

“I would love that. I run pretty good routes,” Austin said. “I’m pretty quick for a big man. My coach, he prides himself on working on my footwork and getting me right. (Jeremiah Washburn) and (Terry Heffernan), they been getting my footwork down.

“Footwork in one drill can only help you in any other drill, making sure you’re doing the right things with every part of your body that you’re supposed to just makes you a better player overall.”

While having options is nice, Detroit also knows it would be at a loss without Pettigrew, who has been a comfortable target for quarterback Matthew Stafford and a more-than-capable blocker.

Pettigrew has 41 catches for 416 yards this season and, according to Pro Football Focus, has only allowed one sack of Stafford this season.

“Brandon is a good, veteran player and a multidimensional player,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “He’s done a really nice job for us. I think what you would see is a lot of different people replacing parts of what he did, rather than one person stepping into his role.

“It is still too son to really have a good handle on that. We’ll be ready for a lot of different contingencies, just like a lot of other injuries that we have.”

At a thin position group, though, the Lions will have to have more plans than most.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

December, 16, 2013

DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 18-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

What it means: The Lions defense did exactly what it needed to do Monday night: It kept Baltimore from scoring a touchdown. The Lions found a way to lose anyway, putting their season and perhaps the coaching career of Jim Schwartz in jeopardy.

Detroit's team was built on its offense, with the firepower of Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush as well as an emerging quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Stafford threw three interceptions. The Lions scored two touchdowns -- on the first drive of the game and another on their last -- and showed almost no urgency in between. It was just a completely brutal loss for Detroit. This was a team that at one point looked poised to win the division.

Now, at 7-7, the Lions are third in the NFC North and a team that will need a lot of help to make the playoffs.

Stock Watch: Rising -- Detroit's defense. Saddled by an ineffective offense for much of the day, the Lions didn't allow a touchdown and held Ray Rice to 56 yards rushing and Torrey Smith to 69 yards receiving. They also pressured Joe Flacco fairly well for most of the game, keeping him off balance. Falling -- Stafford's accuracy. In addition to the three interceptions, he had a completion percentage under 55 for the fourth time in the past six games.

Fauria reappears: He had not caught a pass since Week 12 against Tampa Bay, but Joseph Fauria grabbed what was the go-ahead touchdown on a tough pass over the middle in the end zone. It was perhaps Stafford's best throw of the day and also a very, very difficult catch by the rookie tight end. He has 12 receptions this season. Seven of them are touchdowns.

What's next: The Lions have their home finale Sunday against the New York Giants followed by a trip to Minnesota to close the regular season.