NFC North: Shaun Hill

The St. Louis Rams found their replacement for Kellen Clemens on Wednesday, agreeing to a one-year deal with Shaun Hill to become the team's backup quarterback behind Sam Bradford.

While Hill doesn't have the same knowledge of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense that Clemens did, he brings plenty of experience and a solid record of production as a backup.

[+] EnlargeShaun Hill
AP Photo/Scott BoehmQB Shaun Hill has played in 34 NFL games since 2005, throwing for 6,381 yards and 41 touchdowns.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss what Hill brings to the table in St. Louis.

Wagoner: The Rams actually began pursuing Hill in 2012 and were unable to get him signed when he opted to return to the Lions for a more lucrative, two-year deal. Although it might have flown beneath the radar, Hill had some success in Detroit. Did the Lions want him back and how much effort did they put into keeping him?

Rothstein: The Lions definitely had interest in retaining Hill, as the Lions consider him one of the top backups in the NFL. He also has a comfort with starter Matthew Stafford and has won games for the team in the past. But the one thing Detroit could not offer Hill is a chance to be any sort of starter, as the Lions hired head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter simply to help develop Stafford into an elite starter. St. Louis is closer to Hill’s offseason home and gives him a chance to potentially start, so that might have been the reason for his move there.

Wagoner: Interesting that you point to the potential to start, though I suppose that could be as simple as waiting and wondering about Bradford's health. Given his track record, it's fair to wonder if health is going to be an issue for Bradford again in 2014 and Hill is a logical choice to play in his place, especially if it happens early in the season. For what it's worth, I believe the Rams still will look to add a quarterback in the draft, probably sometime in the middle rounds. That's been the plan all along and now Hill can help bring whoever that draft pick is along.

As for Hill, what are some of the things he does well and what are some of his weaknesses?

Rothstein: Let’s start with the negatives. Hill doesn’t have the strongest arm and he doesn’t have all that much mobility. But he is a smart quarterback and he won’t lose games for you off the bench, either. He is a good game manager and can make a lot of the short-to-intermediate throws. He hasn’t had to do much of that the past few years thanks to Stafford’s durability, so it would be interesting to see where his skills are now if he were placed in a regular-season game situation. Hill was also a good mentor to Stafford, and he could be the same for Bradford.

Wagoner: I'm glad you touched on that, Michael. A big part of what Hill will do in St. Louis is replace the leadership void left by Clemens. He might not have been a guy you'd want starting games, but Clemens' leadership for a young offense was really valuable. He was instrumental in helping Bradford and he was also really helpful for the team's young receivers and backs.

Although Bradford should be far enough along in his development where he is a leader, what type of locker room presence is Hill and how can he help a potential drafted rookie?

Rothstein: Going back to what I mentioned earlier, he proved a good mentor for Stafford and is extremely easy to get along with. He has a dry sense of humor but understands how to prepare as a starter and how to be a backup quarterback, so he has worked in either role. He can absolutely be a leader if need be and should be able to fill that void. It was a smart signing by the Rams and the Lions definitely would have liked to have him back in Detroit if the money and situation were right. Hill is a consummate pro and should be able to help in the development of any rookie.
The NFL released its performance-based pay list Monday, where every team is to allocate $3.46 million amongst its players for things they have accomplished during the season.

Here is the full pdf.

When it came to Detroit, the Lions gave the most money to rookie right guard Larry Warford, who earned an extra $260,630.09 for his standout first season with the Lions.

His rookie linemate, LaAdrian Waddle, picked up an extra $181,182, behind only Warford, receiver Kris Durham ($220,174.55) and cornerback Rashean Mathis ($188,695). The common thread with all the players is that they were reliable starters for Detroit by the end of the season.

Most players received some sort of payout, and here are the bottom five: Quarterback Shaun Hill ($76.90); tight end Matt Veldman ($309.09); guard Leroy Harris ($400.28); fullback Montell Owens ($641.50); tackle Barry Richardson ($875.40).

Hill shouldn't go spending that money just yet, though. The players will receive this money on April 1, 2016.

Free-agency review: Lions

March, 18, 2014
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A week in, here's a quick review of the free-agency period for the Detroit Lions:

Tate
Tate
Most significant signing: Considering that Detroit has mostly signed depth or re-signed its own free agents, the obvious choice is receiver Golden Tate. The former Seattle Seahawk will complement Calvin Johnson and should take pressure and attention off of the Lions' top receiver. He can also spread the field, has elite hands and can block extremely well for a 5-foot-10 receiver. He plays taller than he is and should be a good addition to Detroit.

Most significant loss: Defensive end Willie Young was a productive player who often became overlooked because of the star power in the middle (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley) and the emergence of Ziggy Ansah at the other end. But Young is a long, rangy end who was good against the run and showed improvement. That he went to one of Detroit's top rivals, Chicago, adds to the significance because the Lions will see him at least twice a year.

Biggest surprise: That the Lions didn't make a bigger play earlier in the safety market. Like receiver on offense, safety is Detroit's biggest need on defense after the release of Louis Delmas. The team looked like it was interested in Chris Clemons and had reportedly expressed interest in T.J. Ward, but so far the only safety the team has brought in is James Ihedigbo. While Ihedigbo could fill a need if he signs, Detroit could have tried to make a bigger play here considering the market and the need. Unless the Lions draft one.

What's next: Solving the backup quarterback issue. The Lions need to have a veteran behind Matthew Stafford, and Kellen Moore just is not going to be a viable option there right now. Detroit, be it through re-signing Shaun Hill or signing someone like Luke McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick, has to have a player with some experience ready to come in if Stafford were to get hurt. Detroit has too many other pieces to let that be an actual issue.
DETROIT -- Tom Lewand wouldn't go into specifics and declined to chat about individual players Monday night, but he gave a hint that the Detroit Lions might not be done in free agency yet.

This despite not having a ton of cap room remaining to sign players and the rookie class, but that can always be worked around with contract restructures and a potential Ndamukong Suh contract extension.

[+] EnlargeTom Lewand
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiTom Lewand and the Lions may still have a move to make in free agency.
Of course, Lewand indicated Monday that even if Suh did sign an extension, it wouldn't free up as much cap room as one might think and that the entire salary cap process is more complicated than looking at one year, but rather a multi-year plan.

That said, don't expect Detroit to be finished finding players.

“I wouldn't say that,” Lewand said following an appearance at the MGM Grand in Detroit. “We're always looking at ways to improve the team.”

He wouldn't project anything, but Detroit still needs to sign a safety -- they brought James Ihedigbo in for a visit last week -- and a veteran backup quarterback, so some moves will still make sense.

Lewand said the team's backup last season, Shaun Hill, is in St. Louis visiting the Rams, but that he has kept lines of communication open with Hill and his representatives for a potential return to the Lions.

Hill has been with the Lions for four seasons, primarily as the backup to Matthew Stafford, who the team drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.

“Having a good backup is hopefully never necessary,” Lewand said. “But it is a good insurance policy.”

The Lions have signed five free agents since the start of the new league year Tuesday afternoon: Receivers Kevin Ogletree and Golden Tate, defensive linemen Darryl Tapp and Vaughn Martin and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

The team also kept running back Joique Bell on the roster for the next three seasons with an extension on Tuesday, right before the start of the new league year.

“Joique is a great guy,” Lewand said. “Great running back. Great story for the city.”

Lewand said part of the reason Detroit has been able to attract higher-profile free agents -- Tate this offseason and Reggie Bush last season -- is because of the dynamic of playing with Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Suh along with being able to create cap-friendly, non-top dollar deals with players.

That, he said, didn't exist as much a few seasons ago. Of course, the Lions were also one of the worst teams in the NFL a few seasons ago.

That is no longer an issue, as the Lions have now become a franchise that is at least able to be competitive, although has still not won their division since the NFL shifted to their current makeup.
The Lions, lying in wait for this new year ...

After a week of free agency, one of the areas the Detroit Lions still need to fill is who, exactly, will back up starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.

For the past four seasons, that job has gone to veteran Shaun Hill, who played in 15 games over his four seasons in Detroit throwing 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. And now, Hill is a free agent and at age 34, is likely reaching the point where he needs to figure out where he wants to finish his career.

After the season and even last week, it looked like that destination could still be Detroit. But on Sunday night, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Hill is headed to visit the St. Louis Rams on Monday.

While a visit is not a deal, by getting a player in a facility, it increases their chances for committing to a deal. And the Rams need a backup quarterback after Kellen Clemens left for San Diego.

Hill is from Kansas and started his college career at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. And Missouri is closer to Detroit than Kansas, if that matters to Hill. So this could be something worth watching Monday as free agency enters its second week.

If Hill were to head elsewhere, 32-year-old Luke McCown could be looked at to be his replacement. McCown has familiarity with offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's offensive scheme.

And now a look at other Lions news from around the Interwebs.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Shaun Hill is apparently still an option to return to the Detroit Lions.

Hill
A source told ESPN.com on Thursday that Tampa Bay had expressed interest in the Lions' backup quarterback, but the Buccaneers ended up going with Josh McCown instead as someone to compete with and potentially back up Mike Glennon.

The source said the Lions are still a potential landing spot for Hill, who has spent the past four seasons backing up Matthew Stafford. Other teams have reached out to Hill, and the Lions have also been looking around, the source said, but the sides are expected to touch base again soon.

Hill has played in 15 games for the Lions since signing in 2010, completing 269 of 432 passes for 2,891 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

In his career, he has completed 591 of 954 passes for 6,381 yards, 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.

Finding a backup quarterback to Stafford is one of the areas Detroit needs to fill during the offseason. Other than Stafford, the only quarterback on the roster is Kellen Moore, who has yet to play in a game.

Free agency primer: Lions

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

.Key free agents: QB Shaun Hill; RB Joique Bell (restricted); WR Nate Burleson; TE Brandon Pettigrew; DE Willie Young; CB Rashean Mathis; S Louis Delmas.

Where they stand: Of Detroit’s major free agents, Bell is almost certainly returning to the team and Burleson and Delmas almost certainly will not after being released as cap cuts last month. The rest are likely headed toward free agency when it opens Tuesday. Detroit already took care of some of its free agents, Dominic Raiola and Don Muhlbach, bringing them back with one-year deals. Pettigrew and Young are likely to test the market fairly heavily and should have multiple suitors. Mathis’ age is a question, but he will end up somewhere next season. Whether it is in Detroit is an unknown. Hill has to make a decision if he wants to go somewhere he can push for a starting gig or if he is content backing up Matthew Stafford. Detroit’s other free agents either won’t be back with the team or should come cheap if the Lions want them back.

What to expect: The Lions are going to make a run at wide receivers and potentially some secondary help in free agency. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Detroit try to bring back Pettigrew, and to do it sooner in free agency before he can talk to more teams as one of the top free agents at his position. Pay attention to sure-handed wide receivers, as that was a major issue with the Lions last season. Also, the team could go after a mid-level safety and possibly a mid-level cornerback if either is available at the right price. Other than that, Detroit might look at value plays to bolster the offensive line and front seven. Backup quarterback could be interesting -- Luke McCown could be a target -- but again, that has to be at the right price.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A year ago, things were a bit different with the Detroit Lions. The team was losing. People weren’t happy. The Lions looked like a team headed toward the bottom of the NFL.

“Last year it was kind of like position groups with their position groups,” left guard Rob Sims said. “That’s, any time you’re losing, that’s what it looks like. Stick to your guns, never pointing fingers, but maybe we didn’t associate with everybody like we should've.”

Now you look in the Detroit locker room today and players are, for the most part, happy. Position groups intermingle. The team appears to genuinely get along.

You have a wide receiver, Kevin Ogletree, rooming with a defensive back, Louis Delmas. You have players congregating at events outside of the Lions facility. There’s a different attitude around the team now, and if you think that doesn’t have something to do with their play -- and that the play doesn't have something to do with their attitude -- you’d be wrong.

There’s a chemistry within this Detroit team now, a comfort with one another that has helped on Sundays.

“The real change came in the offseason, when everyone got back here,” backup quarterback Shaun Hill said. “You could tell there was a different mentality around. The leaders were really stepping up and came in with a new focus.

“There’s a lot of things. One was just attention to detail in the offseason program and everybody came with the intentions of working hard and then, aside from that, there was kind of a high priority put on coming together and being a cohesive team, just coming together and being a better team.”

This new mentality began in April, when Detroit returned for its organized team activities and started to slowly prepare for this season. In those first few days, the returning Lions were able to sense that something was changing.

Some of it might have had to do with the changes in the on-field personnel -- Reggie Bush and others were brought in -- and some of it had to do with understanding what happened in 2012, from players who were distractions to chemistry that did not exist.

“Overall demeanor,” safety Don Carey said. “You could tell everyone still had that 4-12 season in the back of their head and we didn’t want that to happen again. So guys worked really hard this offseason, and you could see it from the first time they stepped on the field.”

Then there is the maturity. The free agents the Lions brought in were veterans of either multiple teams or multiple years in the league. Bush, Rashean Mathis and C.J. Mosley all are good presences in the locker room. And the players who were there before all grew up a bit, both in knowing their roles and in understanding what it takes to be a pro.

“There was a lot said about guys not being a distraction and getting into trouble,” Hill said. “And to this point, we’ve held up that end of it. I think that would fall into the maturity category.”

So when you look at the Lions, at 6-3 and leading the NFC North, understand that for all the talent on the outside, it starts inside their locker room, where there is a greater sense of comfort than there was 12 months ago.
Question of the Week is a new feature where we ask different Lions the same question on various topics -- some funny, some issue-based, some football-related and some completely off the wall. To suggest a potential question for QOTW, email michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or make the suggestion on Twitter @mikerothstein.

Previous QOTW: Nicknamed jerseys; Super hero alter ego; Entrance music; TV character.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It is the most important question in mankind, without any question. It is a debate that will continue for as long as humans will consume food, for as long as they decide to eat meat.

There is no wrong answer, only two unbelievably delectable correct ones. This is what faced the Detroit Lions this week. The question for the ages.

Cake? Or Steak? And then there is the unanswerable -- what about a steak cake.

Center Dominic Raiola: Steak. Steak, it kind of looks better on you after you eat it than a piece of cake. Bone-in filet. Leanest and that bone makes it juicy.

Quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Matthew Stafford:
Both: Steak.

Reporter: Why?

Stafford: I like salt and stuff more than I like sweets. I’d rather have chips and salsa.

Hill: What if they had a steak cake?

Stafford: It’d be interesting. I don’t know. I just love steak.

Reporter: You’re from Texas, what steak?

Stafford: I like New York Strip, that’s a good one for me. Bone-in.

Reporter: So, Shaun, what type of steak would you get?

Hill: Filet.

Stafford: Petite.

Hill: I don’t know.

Running back Montell Owens: I love cake, man. I’m a vanilla cake guy with vanilla icing. Always. Always. If I had a birthday cake it would be vanilla cake with vanilla icing. Triple layer.

Quarterback Kellen Moore: I’ll go steak. If you said cheesecake, I’d probably go cheesecake.

Reporter: It could be any type of cake.

Moore: I was thinking birthday cake. I’ll still go steak. I’ll stick with steak. Nothing better than a steak dinner with some mashed potatoes and a couple green things on the side.

Reporter: Was that typical fare at Boise?

Moore: No, we were not one of those programs that had the nice filet mignon every day, no. Not at all. Usually once a week, pregame meal, you got the good steak. We enjoyed it.

Right tackle Corey Hilliard: Cake. I’m a sucker for sweets. Love sweets. If I had to have one cake, red velvet. It’s delicious.

Right guard Larry Warford: Steak. I’m not a sweets fan. Honestly, I’m not even a steak fan. I’d just rather not eat cake. I don’t know.

Reporter: You’re a lineman, you’d think cake would be...

Warford: Misconception. I’m not even a steak guy but cake would make my stomach hurt. It makes my stomach hurt.

Reporter: So what steak would you eat?

Warford: I’d choose not steak. Freaking chicken or lobster or something. I’m not even a steak guy, really.

Cornerback Chris Houston: Cake. Just a regular vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. That’s my favorite. It’s my favorite. My base. My birthday is (last) Friday and my mom will be down here (last) week and I know I’m going to get one of them.

Punter Sam Martin: Steak. Steak’s one of my favorite foods for one but also I’m not a big cake guy. There are very few cakes I really like and if I do, I’m eating half a slice. Too heavy for me. Steak all day.

Reporter: What type?

Martin: Um, filet medium rare. Hyde Park has a great one, the place in Birmingham (Mich.). It’s Matt’s bone-in filet. Great steak. One of the best I’ve had in a while.

Wide Receiver Kris Durham: I would eat a steak. Well, it would depend on what type of cake it is, obviously, and what type of steak, but Friday nights usually I go and get myself a nice steak. I like to get a filet, a good bone-in filet is probably my favorite.

Observation deck: Lions-Bills

August, 29, 2013
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Reviewing the merciful end of the Detroit Lions' preseason, a 35-13 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday:
  • The biggest news of any preseason finale is whether any prominent players suffered injuries. The Lions suffered no obvious ailments, partly because they rested six (relatively) healthy starters: running back Reggie Bush, receiver Calvin Johnson, safeties Louis Delmas and Glover Quin, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Ziggy Ansah. Also sidelined were receiver Ryan Broyles, running back Montell Owens, tight end Michael Williams and safety John Wendling.
  • The remainder of the starters played two series. First, the good news: The defense didn't allow a first down. It forced a three-and-out on the first possession against Bills emergency quarterback Matt Leinart, and nickelback Bill Bentley intercepted Leinart on the third play of the second.
  • The bad news: The remainder of the Lions' offensive starters -- including quarterback Matthew Stafford -- weren't sharp. Guards Rob Sims and Larry Warford collided in the backfield when both pulled, an error I'm going to attribute to Warford, and Stafford completed only 1 of 6 passes for 12 yards. He threw one interception when a high pass glanced off receiver Nate Burleson's hands. I'm not sure what to make of Stafford's preseason. It wasn't sharp by any means. He completed 49 percent of his passes for 310 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 64.9 passer rating. But Johnson hardly played, and Bush's absence took away Stafford's comfort receiver Thursday night.
  • As long as we're talking about Lions personal fouls -- Oh, wait. Were we? -- let's get on the record that center Dominic Raiola cost the team 15 yards with a personal foul while trying to make a tackle on the interception return.
  • With Johnson and Broyles inactive, the Lions gave receiver Patrick Edwards a long look. Results were mixed. Stafford overthrew him on the first play of the game for what could have been a 63-yard touchdown. On another deep pass, Edwards got open but seemed to slow down when looking for the ball. It glanced off his hands. Meanwhile, he let a third-down catch bounce off his chest but later broke a tackle to score on an 8-yard pass from backup quarterback Shaun Hill. Have the Lions seen enough from Edwards to give him a regular spot in their rotation? I think the better question as final cuts loom this weekend is whether they'll have a choice. It's worth noting that competitor Matt Willis made a sensational 39-yard catch from Hill and just missed a touchdown from Kellen Moore when he couldn't get both feet down in the end zone.
  • Moore wrapped up a strong preseason with a performance that suggests the Lions will at least have a very difficult decision to make. Moore entered in the second quarter and played the second half, throwing two touchdown passes to rookie running back Theo Riddick. Moore finished the preseason with four touchdown passes and a 99.4 passer rating. The Lions might want to use his roster spot to keep a player at another position, but this preseason he has looked at least like a future No. 2.
  • For what it's worth, the Lions started Jason Fox at right tackle and Warford at right guard for the second consecutive week. Does that mean they have won the Week 1 starting jobs? I suppose it depends on how their film grades out from Thursday night. But things appear to be going in that direction.
  • Joique Bell got the start at running back with Bush sidelined, and his best run was a 23-yard scoring jaunt. Mikel Leshoure managed 24 yards on seven carries. Each lost a fumble. At the very least, Bell has earned himself regular-season playing time even with Bush locked in as the starter.
  • Did you notice rookie cornerback Darius Slay matching Bills speedster Marquise Goodwin stride for stride on a go route in the first quarter? I did. I realize speed is a skill and not a reflection of technique, but it's nice to know the Lions have a cornerback who can run step for step with one of the fastest receivers in the 2013 draft.

Kellen Moore takes a big step

August, 28, 2013
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You weren't alone last summer if you questioned whether Kellen Moore was an NFL-caliber quarterback, let alone if he deserved a spot on a Detroit Lions' roster that seemed primed for a playoff run. Backing the league's decision not to draft him, Moore appeared weak-armed and a step slow in his 2012 preseason outings.

So go ahead and knock me and everyone else over with a feather. Moore has looked like a different player this summer, throwing confidently and with better velocity and accuracy this summer. He beat out Thaddeus Lewis for a No. 3 job that I presume will be part of the Lions' 53-man roster, and by most accounts has improved enough to be considered a potential No. 2 quarterback behind Matthew Stafford as early as 2014.

In three preseason games this summer, Moore has completed 66.7 percent of his passes (20 of 30) for 223 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn't committed a turnover or taken a sack, and has a 110.8 passer rating. He is expected to get the majority of playing time in Thursday night's preseason finale at the Buffalo Bills.

"He's a very improved player," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters. "He has played well when given the opportunities and has improved a lot from over the course of the season last year, but then particularly in our offseason program and training camp. In all facets his understanding of our offense, his understanding of what defenses do, and also physically, he's improved."

I suppose it's possible the Lions might try to sneak Moore through waivers if they need his roster spot during final cuts this weekend. But it sure doesn't sound like Schwartz wants to expose him, and talking him up in that fashion will only draw further attention from other teams in a quarterback-starved league.

The Lions' likeliest scenario is to keep Moore in the capable hands of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing for at least one more year as current backup Shaun Hill approaches the expiration of his contract. Hill, 33, isn't thought to be considering retirement. But Moore has developed into a cheaper alternative if it comes to that. Who would have thought it? Not me.

Some thoughts on the Detroit Lions' third preseason game, a 40-9 win Thursday night over New England, in extended form for those who have felt short-changed this preseason:

  • The first-team offense might not have been as sharp as desired, but it made a definite step in the right direction in accounting for its first touchdown of the preseason and 16 points in one half of play. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had some accuracy issues, most noticeably on a sequence of three consecutive incomplete passes in the second quarter, but his sidearm sling of a screen pass started Reggie Bush on a 67-yard play. He also threw a quick-strike 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Scheffler. It's important once again to remember that receiver Calvin Johnson did not play because of a minor knee injury.
  • We discussed the Lions' hopes for creating more turnovers this season, and the first-team defense did just that in the second half. Cornerback Chris Houston intercepted a pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on a pick play, and the Lions also forced three first-half fumbles. Safety Glover Quin forced one of the fumbles before a hip injury ended his night.
  • After much debate, safety Louis Delmas did indeed start and was active in two series of play. He knifed into the backfield to make a tackle for loss on the second play of the game and also recovered the fumble that was forced by Quin. Overall, it was an important and encouraging step. With Delmas making just the brief appearance and Quin departing with an injury, the Lions played much of the half with Don Carey and Chris Hope at safety.
  • The Lions' most significant injury appeared to be to running back/special-teams ace Montell Owens, who got some work with the first-team offense but crumpled to the ground on his second carry. He didn't put any weight on his left knee as Lions officials helped him off the field.
  • The Lions couldn't get through the first half without three personal fouls, two of which backed up their field position after fumble recoveries. The dumbest play was that of defensive end Willie Young, who grabbed Brady by the jersey and pointed his finger in his face. Inexcusable.
  • Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah definitely has a flair for the dramatic. Shortly after returning from having his knee checked out, Ansah made a big play on fourth-and-1 to stop 255-pound Patriots running back James Develin for no gain. Another rookie, cornerback Darius Slay, got picked on right away by Brady for a 37-yard pass to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.
  • I loved watching Joique Bell make defenders miss and grind for extra yards while in a competition with Mikel Leshoure for the No. 2 running back job. Playing a good portion of the second half, Bell finished with 101 yards of offense on seven touches. If I had to choose between Bell and Leshoure, well, it wouldn't be difficult at this point.
  • Backup quarterback Shaun Hill got the night off, so No. 3 quarterback Kellen Moore played the third quarter and part of the fourth. If nothing else, Moore gave the Lions something to think about as they decide whether to keep three quarterbacks on their final roster. He completed 9 of 12 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, including a nice seam pass to tight end Joseph Fauria for a 22-yard score.
  • Even with Johnson out, the Lions didn't get receiver Ryan Broyles into the game until the second half. Presumably, the Lions wanted to get a long look at Nate Burleson in the slot and Patrick Edwards on the outside with the first-team offense.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 12, 2013
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions opened training camp expressing unprecedented confidence in the direction of their program, and, if anything, their steam has picked up since then. A relatively injury-free camp, the obvious impact of multiple newcomers and a rousing victory in the first week of the preseason have the Lions and many of their fans convinced they will bounce back from last season's 4-12 record.

"We're every bit as optimistic now as we were then," coach Jim Schwartz said late last week, "and probably more so -- particularly with some of our rookies and younger players. Now, we're saying that two weeks into camp, before we've even played a preseason game. The tale of the tape is going to be consistency over the course of time. But certainly our stance hasn't changed."

Importantly, that optimism isn't based solely on anticipation of another year of development between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. It's a nod toward the early returns on the fit with tailback Reggie Bush. There is relief that receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, who both suffered significant leg injuries last season, have returned healthy.

There's more. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were unblockable during the practices I watched last week. Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game action. New safety Glover Quin's leadership is notable, and rookie punter Sam Martin has been perhaps the most impressive newcomer of all.

The good vibes, and presumed results, come at a crucial time for the franchise. The Lions are entering their fifth season under Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew, and there might not be a sixth if this team misses the playoffs.

"I'm a vet," Burleson said. "I've been at this 11 years. I'm trying to get everyone to understand that if we don't do what we need to do, these name plates above these lockers, this furniture, [everything] is going to be shipped up out of here -- including myself. So I've got to be productive, and everybody has to have the mindset that the time is now, so in order for us to do something special and bring something special to this city, we're going to have to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions are counting on Riley Reiff to protect Matt Stafford's blind side.
1. Offensive line transition: The Lions will have three new starters on the line, and here's the good news: The player in the most important position appears to be making a smooth transition. Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012, has replaced retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and he held his own against the Lions' talented defensive line during my training camp visit last week.

Reiff bulked up this offseason after spending his rookie year in a quasi-tight end role. He might be the most soft-spoken player in the Lions' otherwise-boisterous locker room -- when I asked him about the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "They asked me to play left tackle so I'm playing left tackle" -- but he more than passed the eyeball test as a credible left tackle.

The same can't be said, at least not yet, about the wide-open jobs on the right side of the line. The Lions are rotating two players at right tackle and up to four at right guard, and no clear leaders had emerged by the weekend. (It was notable, however, that the Lions played rookie right guard Larry Warford for three-quarters of Friday night's game against the New York Jets.) In this case, time will tell.

2. Stafford's next step: He failed to build on his breakout 2011 season in 2012, but in the big picture, Stafford is an experienced starter who has thrown for 10,005 yards in two seasons and who, at 25, still has plenty of room to grow.

That status, however, has generated rare expectations for a Lions quarterback, leading to training camp reports of missed passes and microanalyses of mechanics in a space once reserved for delineating various levels of incompetence. The franchise endorsed his progress with a contract extension that in essence locks him in for another three years at the helm, but the football world is waiting anxiously to see whether Stafford can elevate his career to an elite level.

My time at Lions camp suggested he is aware of but unaffected by those expectations. I saw no worrisome incompletions, no signs of malaise and an important sense of context as voiced by Schwartz.

"You don't [want to] take him for granted," Schwartz said. "We have a couple of guys new to our organization that come out to practice, and that's one of the first things that they want to say is, 'Holy mackerel, did you see the throw he made here?' It's a little bit like Calvin. You watch him a lot, and you forget how big he is and the plays he made."

3. Special-teams overhaul: Lost in the Lions' busy offseason was a near-total reconstruction of their special teams. New coordinator John Bonamego has welcomed newcomers at place-kicker (likely David Akers), punter (likely Martin) and returner (a wide-open competition to replace Stefan Logan). The Lions also signed longtime special-teams ace Montell Owens to anchor their coverage units.

Akers is working on a limited regimen after an injury-plagued season with the San Francisco 49ers, but he appears healthy and will benefit from both indoor home games and Martin's strong kickoff skills. Martin has been booming punts throughout camp, and his three touchbacks (in as many attempts) in the preseason opener suggest the Lions might have found a long-term answer at the position.

The return game is unsettled and probably dependent on bottom-of-the-roster decisions at other positions. Undrafted rookie Steven Miller has demonstrated elite quickness while getting the majority of reps in training camp, but can the Lions squeeze a return specialist onto their roster? His minimal action as a returner in the preseason opener makes you wonder whether he is a candidate for the practice squad.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Of all the factors I rattled off earlier this post, the most significant might be the attention the Lions placed on their defense this offseason. You're doing pretty well if the worst thing you can say is that the strongside linebacker position is unsettled, especially when you realize that whoever wins the job will come off the field in nickel situations, anyway.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions believe Glover Quin can provide steady leadership as well as solidify the secondary.
The Lions invested heavily at defensive end (drafting Ansah and Devin Taylor, signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (re-signing Chris Houston, drafting Darius Slay) and safety (re-signing Louis Delmas and acquiring Quin). After two weeks of camp, Stafford said, "This is probably the most talented secondary we've had since I've been here," and Schwartz was lauding the leadership Quin will provide.

"A lot was made a few years back when we signed Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson," Schwartz said, "and the difference that they made on the team was a big part of us making it to the playoffs [the] next year. I think the same thing, when it's all said and done, will be said about Quin because he brings that same kind of leadership, that same sort of professionalism."

We all expect the Lions' offense to score this season. If their defense can keep pace, as it appears it is equipped to do, the Lions will be a playoff team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schwartz said "there is no doubt" that the Lions have enough good pieces to make up a competent offensive line. But on the list of potential problem spots that could derail their season, the Lions' offensive line sits most prominently. If you believe in the law of averages, you wonder whether any team could come up with three good starters in one offseason, as the Lions are hoping to accomplish.

Warford has his work cut out to win the right guard job, as many have assumed he would. (The Lions got him 53 snaps in the preseason opener to accelerate that process.) Many have considered Jason Fox the favorite to win the right tackle job, but competitor Corey Hilliard got the first start of the preseason.

It's too early to judge the outcome of this overhaul, but there is no doubting the challenge it entails and the ramifications if it falls short.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Excitement about the Bush acquisition has centered around his receiving skills and ability to break long runs. But you'll have to trust me on this: The Lions are just as intrigued by his ability to run between the tackles. There will be just as many opportunities for that kind of yardage in a Calvin Johnson offense as there will be anywhere else. "The things that Jahvid [Best] was able to do for us, when he got outside of the tackles, Reggie can do those things," Johnson said. "But Reggie can run inside the tackles as well. He's a good overall back."
  • Along those lines, the Lions also are trying to identify a change-of-pace back behind Bush, and my sense is that they're past the point of giving Mikel Leshoure an inherent advantage over Joique Bell because of his pedigree as a second-round draft pick. If Leshoure isn't any more explosive than he was last season -- and I didn't see any evidence of that at camp -- there is a real opportunity for Bell to win the job.
  • One of the more intriguing prospects in camp is rookie running back Theo Riddick, who has a relatively similar skill set as Bush. He is quick, a good receiver, smart in the open field and in contention for a kick return job. And like Bush, he isn't afraid to bust it inside the tackles, either.
  • Another interesting prospect who has gotten plenty of attention is 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. He can get to balls no one else on the field can reach, with the exception of Johnson when he leaps, and he is a natural receiver. It will be really tough for him to be a good blocker with his lean build, but the Lions need him to be just good enough. I sensed real optimism that he can qualify for that modest expectation.
  • Players such as Riddick, Fauria, tight end Michael Williams and others will give the Lions some interesting roster decisions. You wonder whether they will find some room by deciding against having a No. 3 quarterback on their roster. Kellen Moore looks improved and Thaddeus Lewis is intriguing, but the only real reason to keep one of them is if he is projected to someday succeed No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill. Otherwise, that roster spot might be more valuable elsewhere. "It's about talent and about having a plan for guys," Schwartz said. "We're flexible, and that's not just at quarterback. That's all positions."
  • Receiver Patrick Edwards has gotten plenty of work with the first team in camp and has the unwavering support of Burleson, who said: "In my eyes, he is going to be the surprise player that changes games this year." But Edwards didn't show much in 29 snaps Friday night, going without a catch amid two targets. He got a step on Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the end zone, but Milliner out-jumped him to knock away Stafford's pass. At some point, Edwards will need to demonstrate some game production if he is going to be in the Lions' receiver rotation.
  • Delmas (knees) has worked in a little less than half of the Lions' practices and did not suit up for the preseason opener, but the Lions remain confident his limited schedule will leave him ready to play in games when the regular season starts. Schwartz: "We're working hard to get there right now. ... He's feeling good right now, and we're trying to keep it that way. Lou has the advantage of having played in this defense the past few years, even though we have new wrinkles each year. The terminology is the same. He's a really hard worker. We need to balance being on the field and practicing with the point of diminishing returns. I think we've been very proactive in camp doing that. Time will tell how effective that plan has been."
  • Much like his week at the Senior Bowl, Ansah wasn't nearly as noticeable during practice as he was during the preseason opener. Nothing he did in three days of training camp jumped out to suggest he was on the cusp of being an elite playmaker, but he stood out immediately against the Jets. In addition to his 14-yard scoring return of an interception, he nailed running back Bilal Powell for a 2-yard loss among his 20 snaps.
  • Take this for what it's worth: Even the amateur observer could notice a big upswing in man coverage from the Lions' defense during 11-on-11 drills. Stafford concurred but suggested the shift was more about evaluating the Lions' newly fortified secondary than it was a scheme change. "They're trying to figure out who can cover and who can't," he said. "But they're doing pretty good out there."
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The arrival of a new quarterback always generates offseason buzz, even if it's to a team such as the Detroit Lions -- whose starter and backup appear firmly in place. Just the same, the Lions claimed former Cleveland Browns quarterback Thaddeus Lewis on waivers this week, according to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News among others, and he will at least give them an intriguing arm to evaluate this spring.

Matthew Stafford is the Lions' starter and veteran Shaun Hill would appear set as his backup, but No. 3 quarterback Kellen Moore's job could be available. Also, Hill is recovering from minor foot surgery and has been in a walking boot this spring. If nothing else, Lewis gives the Lions a live arm during organized team activities while Hill completes his recovery.

Lewis, a second-year player out of Duke, started the Browns' season finale last season, completing 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions are looking for progress from linebacker Tahir Whitehead, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Retired left tackle Jeff Backus will work with the team's linemen as a part-time coaching intern, notes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji on his contract situation, via USA Today: "Obviously, the Packers are a great organization and I'm sure they'll do right by me. I'll leave it at that."
  • Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers on experimenting with defensive end Mike Neal at linebacker, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "The more he can do, the more versatile it's going to make us, make it harder for the offense to identify some of the things we're doing. He's been more of primarily an inside rusher for us, and we liked the way he rushed inside for us last year. We're just trying to expand his role. If he can be both an inside and an outside rusher, then that's an asset to us. … Mike's a guy that has a combination of strength, size, speed, quickness, power. We're trying to get him a little more work rushing outside than inside because we know what he can do inside. He'll be involved in different packages in different places."
  • Packers tight end Andrew Quarless apparently is recovered from a devastating knee injury and is ready to resume his role, writes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Defensive lineman Johnny Jolly hasn't joined the Packers yet this offseason, but the team remains supportive of his path. Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has more.
  • Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen was the only missing player from the first day of organized team activities (OTAs), according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com. Allen traditionally works out on his own in the offseason.
  • Mike Wobschall of vikings.com offers highlights of the first OTA practice.
  • The NFC North is wide open behind the Packers, write Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. Dickerson: "So the real question is: Have the Lions passed up the Bears in the offseason? That's tough to say for sure with the regular season still over three months away. Let's start with what we know -- both teams desperately need to make the playoffs in 2013."
  • Patrick Rishe of Forbes.com wonders if the Bears' decision to retire Mike Ditka's No. 89 was based on public relations.
On the occasion of Matt Cassel's release by the Kansas City Chiefs, we should review the NFC North's pair of backup quarterback openings. Cassel figures in at least one, if not both, of those situations.

First off, the Detroit Lions (Shaun Hill) and Green Bay Packers (Graham Harrell) wouldn't seem like candidates to be in on the free-agent market at this position. But the Minnesota Vikings have acknowledged they plan to bring in a veteran to compete with Joe Webb to back up Christian Ponder, and the Chicago Bears don't have their 2012 backup (Jason Campbell) under contract either.

Cassel, Campbell and Ryan Fitzpatrick are the top three free agents available. The Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb could soon join them, and as we've discussed, the Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman have a long history with Tyler Thigpen -- dating back to the 2007 draft.

It wouldn't be surprising to see the Vikings make a quick move toward Cassel, who has been a backup for four years and a starter for five in his career. Thigpen could be their backup (backup) plan. If the market continues to dwindle, the Bears might consider Cassel or, more likely, be able to bring Campbell back at a lower price than he might have been seeking.

Now that the first wave of free agency is largely over, these are the kinds of stories we'll be following.

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