NFC North: Teryl Austin

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Each week, we’ll take a look at who or what might be rising or falling with the Detroit Lions.


K Matt Prater: The Lions are on to kicker No. 3 and they might have found their best one yet. In signing the former Broncos kicker, they are bringing in the most accurate kicker in Denver history and a guy who theoretically should solve Detroit’s major kicking woes. At this point, if Prater can’t get the job done, then the Lions have to consider that something else in their entire field goal operation might be off instead of Nate Freese, Alex Henery and now Prater.

RB George Winn: The suburban Detroit native made his NFL debut Sunday and had 11 carries for 48 yards. Even more impressive was the way he ran. He picked up right where he finished the preseason, running hard and going right through defenders no matter who was in front of him. While he’ll still be behind Reggie Bush and Joique Bell on the depth chart, he might have made a case for inclusion on the roster even when they are both healthy.

DC Teryl Austin: No matter who gets hurt, no matter who the Lions play, the first-year defensive coordinator has been able to find a scheme that has flustered opponents. He commands the No. 1 defense in the NFL and the No. 1 defense against quarterbacks, holding them to a 33.8 QBR. Those numbers are worth noting considering he has had three players end up out for the season in six weeks.


WR Ryan Broyles: He is getting more playing time and has been active, but for whatever reason, the Lions coaching staff seems hesitant to use the third-year receiver from Oklahoma. He has only two targets this season and caught one of those for 21 yards. More concerning is that in the two games he has been active, he has only run four routes -- and only one against Buffalo last week. Considering all the Lions personnel issues, the fact he isn’t being used more is curious.

LG Rob Sims: The veteran had a rough game Sunday against Buffalo. He and Riley Reiff were often beaten by stunts and other twists by the Buffalo defensive line. He had a minus-4.4 rating by Pro Football Focus and didn’t do either phase of blocking well: He had a minus-3.3 in pass blocking and a minus-1.3 in run blocking. PFF also credited him with two of the sacks allowed on Matthew Stafford. Not a good showing -- and he’ll admit it.

Lions running game: For whatever reason, it isn’t working right now. Some of it has to do with injuries -- both Bush and Bell along with Theo Riddick have all been banged up already this season -- but the yardage just isn’t there. The Lions are 28th in the league in rushing yards per game and, more damning, 30th in the NFL in yards per rush at 3.14. Considering Jim Caldwell has a stated goal of four yards per carry, the Lions are failing heavily in that area right now.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- For three weeks, James Ihedigbo has been confident, saying that he planned on playing in games for the Detroit Lions.

And for three weeks, Ihedigbo has ended up watching those games from the sideline -- inactive as he recovered from a nerve issue in his neck that could be good one day and bothersome the next.

On Thursday, though, Ihedigbo could comfortably and confidently say that yes, he likely will make his debut Sunday against the New York Jets. Ihedigbo was cleared to practice fully Wednesday -- the first time he has fully practiced the entire regular season.

Then he woke up Thursday morning and "felt great," so barring a setback he is ready for his debut.

"Pretty much done everything that’s been asked of me," Ihedigbo said. "It’s a great sign to be back as close to 100 percent as possible and look forward to rocking."

Rocking, in tackling terms, is one of Ihedigbo’s biggest strengths with the Lions. He was signed to be more of a run stopper, a good complement to Glover Quin, who would now have the chance to roam the field more as a free safety.

While defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said nothing changed in the scheme when Ihedigbo went down and was replaced by Isa Abdul-Quddus, this wasn’t the safety tandem they envisioned when they signed Ihedigbo to replace Louis Delmas.

Now, they will show what they were hoping for from the beginning.

"We have good chemistry and great communication," Quin said. "With great communication, you have guys in the same spot, guys in the right areas knowing what to expect and allowing guys to make plays.

"If we can do a great job of making the right calls on the back end and communicating effectively, me trusting him, him trusting me, us working off each other, we can do a good job hopefully confusing the quarterback."

Sunday presents a good opportunity, as Jets quarterback Geno Smith has thrown four interceptions in three games and is completing 63.1 percent of his passes. In his first 19 games, Smith has thrown 25 interceptions.

But Ihedigbo's physical style and run-stopping capability is especially important this week because New York has the top-rated rushing offense in the NFL. Chris Johnson, who is the speed back, and Chris Ivory ,the power runner, are essentially splitting carries.

Johnson has 123 yards rushing and a touchdown. Ivory has 190 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

Plus, having Ihedigbo back gives the Lions some depth at safety for the first time this season. He had 99 tackles last season for Baltimore and had a plus-8.0 run-defense grade for the Ravens last season, best among the team’s defensive backs.

"It’ll be good in the running game," Austin said. "He’s a big body. He is a good tackler. He plays well close to the line of scrimmage.

"So it’ll be good to get him back."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Since coming into the NFL, Jordy Nelson has been a good target for Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

This season, though, the former Kansas State receiver has been playing at an even higher level. Through two games, Nelson is leading the NFL in receiving yards (292) and targets (30), is tied for the lead in receptions (18) and first downs (13) with the Saints' Jimmy Graham and is among the top 10 in yards after catch (107).

When Green Bay plays Detroit on Sunday afternoon, Nelson will again be a main target for Rodgers and a primary concern for the Detroit Lions.

In their own words, here’s what they see when they watch the 6-foot-3, 217-pound receiver.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJordy Nelson is Aaron Rodgers' favorite target these days.
Cornerback Darius Slay: "Him and Rodgers got a good connection, you know. They been with each other since I don’t know when. They got a real good connection. A lot of back-shoulders, trusting that the guy can make plays in the deep ball area, so what I’m going to try to do is eliminate them big plays."

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin: "You have to know where he is. Last year, when we were in Baltimore, they had those three guys and we had to know where he was. He hit us for a big play. We know about him and we know why he gets targeted. He catches the ball, has run-after-catch ability and he can take a small one and make it a big one."

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi: "The thing that stands out for me is seeing all these back-shoulder catches. So body control, great hands, good route-runner. Competitor."

Safety Glover Quin: "They gave him all that money -- he should be on a different level. Probably out there feeling good, having fun. He’s the quarterback’s favorite target, so he’s like, 'Hey man, gets to go into these games and know the quarterback is going to throw me the ball and they gave me all that money,' so hey, he’s living the good life right now. But Jordy’s a great player. I love playing against Jordy. We have a lot of fun."

Quin on Nelson and Rodgers: "It looks like a best-friend connection (between Nelson and Rodgers). It’s one of those things when he gets in trouble, he trusts Jordy to be in the right spot, in a certain spot. He trusts Jordy. If nothing else, if all else fails, he trusts Jordy. If he has to and he’s forced into that situation, and he has a lot of targets, if it comes down to it, he’s probably going down to Jordy."

Safety Jerome Couplin III: "[Nelson is] a playmaker. He finds way to get himself some very good catches. That’s something that you can’t really necessarily always coach. He has the ability to find the ball and track the ball good. So he’s a playmaker."

Safety Don Carey: "He has a good combination of size and speed. Great hands. Smart football player. Any time you come across a player like that, you have to [mind] your P’s and Q’s."

Linebacker DeAndre Levy: "He’s a great route-runner. Catches the ball. Gets open. I think him and [Aaron] Rodgers have a good connection. He can take a slant, make a guy miss and get 10, 12, 15 more yards on it."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Nevin Lawson was prepared for anything, although the Detroit Lions' rookie cornerback didn’t want the "anything" to really happen like this.

Ever since the Lions drafted him in the fourth round, Lawson had mentally prepared himself to be a starter, or at least a contributor, during his rookie season. He did so even if everything about him, from his size to his skill to the somewhat small Utah State school he attended, screamed that he’d be a developmental project.

That development needs to be quicker now. Bill Bentley’s season-ending injury means Lawson is about to play a whole lot.

“In my head, especially coming in as a rookie, it’s always to play and be the best that you can be,” Lawson said. “In my head, I always thought I could be a starter or eventually be a starter.”

Lions coach Jim Caldwell committed to Lawson as his slot cornerback Friday, merely confirming what had appeared obvious from the time Bentley was put on injured reserve after he suffered a torn ACL against the New York Giants.

It was an immediate indoctrination to the NFL for Bentley, who was forced to match up against one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, Victor Cruz, when he was put into the game for 49 snaps against the Giants.

Considering the circumstances and that the Lions were planning on using him exclusively on special teams Monday night, he handled it well.

“We weren’t planning on him playing a whole bunch,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “… Nevin went in there and the thing we talk to our guys about is they are always one play away, and I think that’s a testament to what Tony [Oden] and Alan [Williams] are doing in the back end, teaching those guys.

“That a young guy who wasn’t supposed to play or people thought he wasn’t ready to play went in there and played well. They did a great job with him.”

The competent play came in pass coverage, too. Pro Football Focus charted Lawson as being targeted four times by New York quarterback Eli Manning, allowing three completions. One was a 20-yard reception to Cruz, according to PFF, but that was the only pass Cruz caught against the rookie.

Lawson, for his first go-round, will take that. He’ll also take the experience facing Cruz in his debut will give him both this week against Carolina and the rest of the season, where he’s likely to stay in the nickel role.

“It definitely helps,” Lawson said. “It’s game experience and going against good quarterbacks and good receivers like that definitely helps you to move forward into the next week, to help your preparation.

“[Such as] 'OK, I should do this better and I did this good, so I can keep on doing this.' It definitely helps.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are already preparing to unleash wide receiver Calvin Johnson on Friday for the first time this preseason.

Now, another player might be joining him.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday that he is hopeful defensive end Ezekiel Ansah will also make his preseason debut against Jacksonville at home on Friday night.

Ansah was activated from the PUP list last week and was immediately ruled out for last week’s game at Oakland. Now, he’s played a little bit more and is closer to being on the field.

"He’s responded well. We got him in a little bit more scrimmage plays in practice," Caldwell said. "We increased him on a daily basis. Hopefully, we’ll check with the doctors to see after today’s practice where he is, and hopefully he’ll be able to get some snaps."

Ansah missed spring workouts and the beginning of training camp as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. He practiced for the first time last Tuesday night.

When Ansah does return to the lineup, he is expected to play the open defensive end position in coordinator Teryl Austin’s new scheme. Ansah was a surprise as a pass-rusher during his rookie season for Detroit, when he led all first-year players with eight sacks.

Expect him to fill a similar role this season with the Lions.

"We’ve only had him back for a week or so but when you look at him, he’s extremely talented. Explosive. Big. Fast," Austin said. "So for him, it’s just going to be a matter of technique, continuing to work on his technique, because he’s still pretty young as a football player, but work on his technique and knowing how to apply that to offensive tackles and the guy that he’s going to attack and being able to use that in a game.

"But he has a chance to be an outstanding rusher."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It started in Houston, shortly after James Ihedigbo signed with the Detroit Lions during free agency. His new safety-mate, Glover Quin, also lived in town during the offseason. So the idea was hatched.

Quin and Ihedigbo decided as a way to learn about each other and to start to build the chemistry needed between safeties before they arrived in Michigan, they would work out together. So each day this offseason, Quin and Ihedigbo showed up at Nine Innovations, a gym in Houston, to train together.

[+] EnlargeJames Ihedigbo
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe Lions say that safety James Ihedigbo has used his communication skills to help boost the secondary.
This lessened the getting-to-know-you period and also put both players in a habitat they were innately comfortable with: Where they actually live. Immediately, the players saw a significant bond. They both have children. They both have similar approaches to how they study the game.

And through that, the bond began to grow.

“It helps a lot because I get to see how he works, he gets to see how I work, we get to encourage each other, push each other,” Quin said. “We get to work together and you can build chemistry doing that just by learning how he works, him learning how I work. Learning what he likes to do, him learning what I like to do.

“Just little things like that. You can get a lot done just hanging out with each other every single day.”

Quin learned Ihedigbo likes to cook, although he said he hasn’t had one of Ihedigbo’s meals just yet. He also would ask the occasional football question, not about new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, but about the scheme they were going to end up running.

Austin wasn’t calling the defensive schemes in Baltimore, but he was Ihedigbo’s position coach so he had more understanding of what Detroit might run than other players. And part of the reason Iheidgbo ended up with the Lions at all was the trust Austin has in him. Knowing him and how he would likely mesh with Quin was a big factor in Austin’s pursuit of Ihedigbo.

“You have two high-character veterans, so they know for us to play well, they have to play well,” Austin said. “They have to communicate and they have to be problem-solvers in the back. They’ve done that with the young guys and it helps.

“What that’ll do is cut down on big plays, cut down on breakout runs, all those different things.”

They are able to do that with the chemistry they’ve built -- and a similarity between them their teammates have seen. Last season, Quin and Louis Delmas were exceedingly different, both in personality and in style of play.

Delmas was the extremely aggressive playmaker who relied heavily on instinct and would be prone to sometimes pushing too hard. He was also loud and boisterous -- in many ways the emotional heart of the defense. Quin was the more studious player who offered a consistency and always appeared to be in the correct place at the correct time.

Ihedigbo, in many ways, is like Quin. Having two players who are similar could offer more flexibility -- something paramount at almost every position in Austin’s defense. Both Ihedigbo and Quin can play closer to the line of scrimmage if necessary, giving the Lions options both in disguising defensive backfield coverage, safety blitzes and run support.

“They work great because it’s a bond, more of a sense,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “They’ve been there just communicating before practice, working with each other. They are more likely to get a bond with each other outside of football.

“…You could tell when [Ihedigbo] came into meetings. He came in and said things like, you know, we’re young here and we’ve got to communicate [with] film study and everything.”

It’s an influence Austin and the safeties hope percolates throughout the defensive backfield. The Lions' secondary has been one of the bigger questions of the offseason and other than Ihedigbo, the Lions did not add much to bolster it.

So a lot should be expected of the safety pairing in both making plays and educating the rest of the secondary.

“We fit great,” Ihedigbo said. “We think alike. We can play off each other. Really have that good chemistry.”

Detroit is counting on it.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The hands stuck out the most.

That is what Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay remembers about Johnny Manziel (a.k.a. Johnny Football, a.k.a. the quarterback sensation in Cleveland) before he even took a single NFL snap, which happens Saturday night in Detroit. Manziel is not an overly imposing guy for a quarterback, but then Slay saw the hands he throws the ball with.

And perhaps more than his legs and his moxie and his elusiveness, they caught his attention.

“Biggest hands I’ve seen,” Slay said. “Yeah, you know. Most quarterbacks that [are] 6-foot ain’t got that big of hands like that. I think his hands are bigger than most people I ever saw.

"They are real big. He probably wears a four-inch glove or something."

Slay should remember Manziel well. The then-redshirt freshman quarterback destroyed Mississippi State during Slay's redshirt freshman season, completing 30 of 36 passes for 311 yards and rushing 21 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns, part of a season that led to a Heisman Trophy and the quarterback turning into a household name.

Slay had four tackles and a pass breakup in what was a 38-13 Texas A&M trouncing.

"I ain’t never heard of him until that year," Slay said. "But he is very talented. Got a good gift."

Part of that gift is making plays when everything looks lost for his team. It is what makes him both an unpredictable quarterback and an incredibly gifted one.

So what does Slay consider the biggest challenge facing him? He offered something that might be the best advice in dealing with the rookie quarterback. Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and head coach Jim Caldwell, when asked about Manziel this week, said they are focused on the Lions right now.

"Just keeping him in the pocket," Slay said. "He gets outside the pocket, he’s a dangerous guy. Just keep him in the pocket and play ball. Make him make the tough throws."

College is different than the NFL, though, and one of the more interesting things for Manziel will be what happens when he does end up outside of the pocket.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Ndamukong Suh insisted he would not let his lack of a contract beyond the 2014 season distract him at all throughout this season.

A week in, it would appear that he is being true to his word.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Ndamukong Suh
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh's focus has been on point during the Detroit Lions' training camp thus far.
The fifth-year defensive tackle has left a strong impression on his new coaches and teammates during the first week as he has shown up exactly as they would have expected: Ready to play and focused on having a strong season.

“He’s outstanding,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “Being in the league, you watch him. You know he’s a great player. Then you get here and you have a chance to work with him and you see why he’s a great player.

“He works his tail off. He’s a true professional in every sense of the word and every time he comes out here to practice, he practices. He practices like you’re supposed to.”

That includes making life difficult for the Lions’ offensive line, something he has done often during the first week of practice as Detroit continues to pick up the offensive and defensive schemes. He has been in the backfield often during team periods -- even if it is a difficult situation for defensive linemen because they can’t hit quarterbacks Matthew Stafford, Dan Orlovsky and Kellen Moore.

But to one observer at practice Tuesday, Suh remains the best defensive tackle in the league.

“If there’s one that’s better in the league, I want to see him, you know,” said former Lions coach Steve Mariucci, who was in town with his job on NFL Network. “And he can get better, too. He can still improve his technique and all of that and he’s around other good defensive linemen, so they can’t just concentrate on Suh.”

That was supposed to be an attractive commodity last season as well, but teams still focused heavily on Suh in the Wide 9 defensive scheme the Lions used that resulted in little blitzing and a dearth of sacks. Earlier in the offseason, team president Tom Lewand said the Lions built their defense around a strong defensive line -- one that now features three first-round picks in Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, along with contributors Jason Jones, Devin Taylor and C.J. Mosley in heavy rotation.

All those players except for Jones -- who was injured -- had roles last season. So despite the talent on the line, the Lions managed only 33 sacks last season and had seven games with less than two sacks as a team.

That should change this season, as the Lions are going to be a defense that sends much more pressure from a variety of different spots -- not just the defensive line. Last season, Detroit blitzed only 19.6 percent of the time.

“It’s fun. Obviously we have a new regime here and a new coordinator,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “We can get after it a little bit more. We can fly around and make plays.”

That begins with the defensive line being able to gain pressure both on its own and with the aid of the blitz. And any defensive line talk begins with Suh, who is a dominant player in the middle.

It was the entirety of the defensive line that stood out to Mariucci on Tuesday, though.

“Starting with that defensive line in their individual period, I haven’t seen anything like that in a long time,” Mariucci said. “It’s a talented group with a lot of energy getting well coached.

“That’s a scary defensive line.”

And one that needs to play up to its talent level for the Lions to have success this season.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Cassius Vaughn broke on the ball, intercepted Dan Orlovsky, and the entire Detroit Lions defensive sideline went nuts – celebrating like the pick had happened in a real game and resulted in tangible points instead of what it really was, a play made against the team’s backup quarterback during a May workout.

This, though, is perhaps one of the changes for Detroit this upcoming season.

It may only be May and it is still a long way from training camp and the start of the regular season, but one of the definitive things new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has brought to the Lions is an abundance of exuberance.

[+] EnlargeWide receiver Jacoby Jones #12 of the Baltimore Ravens
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesPress coverage will likely be the norm for Detroit's cornerbacks, including Rashean Mathis, this season.
“We do like what’s going on,” cornerback Rashean Mathis said. “We do believe in the process. That makes you have a little more energy, when everybody on the team is sold out and sold into the process and buying into what coach is doing. And everybody believes in what he’s doing.”

Part of that could just be the change in coaching staff from Jim Schwartz to Jim Caldwell – of which the most defining shift would be a personality change, for better or worse. But on defense, more seems to be changing.

The Lions will almost definitely be more multiple in their looks and their packages in 2014 – the way the team drafted somewhat hinted at that, as well as Austin being straightforward about that. They will employ specific ends – an open end and a closed end – instead of being more interchangeable last season.

The open end – likely Ezekiel Ansah – will play on the side opposite of the tight end in any formation. The closed end, for now Jason Jones, is typically bigger and will be used to try and bump on the tight end side of the field in an attempt to disrupt his route.

That will happen up front.

In the back end, there will be separate free and strong safety designations – that’s been known for a while – but how they play corner also will be changing. Expect everything to be much more aggressive with the Lions’ cornerbacks.

“I feel we’ll press way more this year,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “Way, way more. Probably every play.”

There are risks and benefits to that. The benefit is if the Lions are successful there, it will push receivers off of their routes to start. That might alleviate some of the problems Detroit had reaching the quarterback last season. Too often, they were a step or two from sacking opponents.

This could give the Lions that extra half-second to force those plays. While the true implementation and success of this will not be known until September, the beginnings of it are already there.

They look faster. They look more excited. They look more like a defense focused on causing havoc and creating turnovers from the back to the front.

“Yeah, for sure,” receiver Kevin Ogletree said. “Those guys are playing like it and bringing an intensity that we need on defense.”

While a lot of that has to do with the fiery Austin and the defensive staff he retained – Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek on the line – and hired – Bill Sheridan with linebackers and Alan Williams with defensive backs – that’s not all of it.

It isn’t necessarily the coaching or the scheme. It is how they are selling it. That type of convincing doesn’t always happen. And that begins with Caldwell.

“I’ve been a part of a new coaching staff where everything is not agreeable or coaches are not selling whatever they should sell well,” Mathis said. “But you know, you can deny a lot of things but you can’t deny honest and truth and that’s what Caldwell is.

“He’s straight and to the point. He doesn’t have to scream, doesn’t have to yell.”

He leaves that to his players when they make plays instead.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Kyle Van Noy bounced a little bit of everywhere in college. Dropped back in coverage. Rushed the passer. Forced turnovers and made plays over and over and over again.

In the NFL, it would be logical to think his role might sharpen, especially as the second- round pick of the Detroit Lions learns his role as a Sam linebacker. Apparently not.

[+] EnlargeKyle Van Noy
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe Lions will be relying on rookie Kyle Van Noy's versatile skill set this season.
Van Noy expects he’ll be used in a variety of ways, from a rushing linebacker to dropping into coverage to even playing some defensive end in some cases depending on the lineup and the down-distance situation.

Things like that have already happened a week into his time as a pro.

“A little bit of everything,” Van Noy said. “Do it all-kinda backer, to be able to rush, to be in coverage and stuff like that, a variety of things that Coach is going to put me in different places, and I’m excited about it.”

Being a stand-up rusher from the end spot has been among those things, but even that isn’t completely different for him. He said he did some standing up at the end at BYU. While this could be a lot for a rookie to pick up, Van Noy seems to be comfortable with all of this for now.

Time management has been among the bigger issues he has had so far – not surprising considering in the past week players have been drafted, flown to their new city and immediately tossed into workouts and the professional environment.

For any player starting out, that would take some getting used to.

“What he does is give us a big backer who can play on the ball, he can play off the ball and he can rush the passer,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said after the team drafted Van Noy. “With those three things, you know you are going to get a three-down player for us.”

Part of Van Noy’s versatility comes from his background. He played basketball, baseball and ran track in high school. When he played football, he was both a linebacker and a receiver, where he caught 35 passes for 731 yards and 18 touchdowns at McQueen High in Reno, Nevada.

That could help explain his hands – he intercepted seven passes in his college career – and why he was good enough in coverage that he broke up 17 passes in that time.

“That’s something I downplay a lot because I haven’t played for a while, but it’s helped me on my ball skills tremendously, I think,” Van Noy said. “To be able to know route combinations and to slow down because you have to watch everything develop helps out a ton.”

It helped in college. How it helps in the NFL – and how versatile he will actually be – is what the Lions have to discover next.
As free agency begins Tuesday and the Detroit Lions figure out exactly how to fill their holes, certain players will stand out.

And over the past three days, the Lions have spent time in the beginnings of talks with free agents as they try to maximize about $11 million in salary-cap space.

It might sound like a lot -- and it will be enough to get a couple of deals done -- but the total is in the lower half of the NFL and could keep the Lions from being major movers in the market, at least until a new contract is worked out with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

If that happens.

As everyone settles in for the insanity of free agency, here is a look at players the Lions could target on defense.


Why: This could be predicated on what happens with defensive end Willie Young. If the team is able to bring Young back, the Lions might be done at the position in the near term. If not, they might look for a replacement. At defensive tackle, the team already signed Corvey Irvin and has depth.

Two candidates:
  • Young: Last season was his first consistent extended action, and he was effective. He had 47 tackles and three sacks, but his size and speed make him an attractive free agent for teams. At 28, he is in his prime.
  • Brett Keisel: He is a 3-4 defensive end who can play defensive tackle in the 4-3. Though 35 years old, he had 29 tackles and four sacks in 12 games last season. He could be a cheap alternative if the team feels there is a need for another veteran on the line.

Why not: Sure, there could be a deal made with someone for cheap or a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, but with DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch returning and the team playing more nickel than ever, it could be tough for them to lure a big-name player.

Two options:
  • LaMarr Woodley: Expected to be released by the Steelers later Tuesday, he has connections to the state and can play both linebacker and defensive end, making him a potentially cheap, versatile piece.
  • Larry Foote: Like Woodley, this is more about someone who has connections to Michigan. If Foote is planning on being a starter, he isn’t going to come to Detroit -- and his price tag would likely be too much anyway.

Why: Despite the team having money wrapped up in Chris Houston and a bunch of younger cornerbacks ready to seek out playing time, the Lions might be wise to invest in another veteran, much like they did with Rashean Mathis a season ago.

Four candidates:
  • Mathis: He showed he can still play after becoming the team’s top cornerback last season and was a steadying influence in the Detroit locker room for those younger cornerbacks. He would probably still come cheap.
  • Corey Graham: He played last season under new Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and has familiarity with Austin's schemes. At 6 feet, Graham has the height Austin wants, made 68 tackles and intercepted four passes a season ago. He could be a strong fit.
  • Alterraun Verner: The Lions reportedly reached out to the former Tennessee cornerback, but he is expected to be pursued heavily in free agency. Though the Lions could be a fit, Verner might end up being too expensive.
  • Charles Tillman: He told reporters during Super Bowl week that he wouldn’t rule out playing for the Lions, and he could be an interesting cornerback/safety hybrid. He also has familiarity with the division, having played for Chicago, and has the respect of receiver Calvin Johnson.

Why: Other than receiver, this might be the biggest need of all for Detroit after the team released starter Louis Delmas. Though the Lions could address this spot in the draft, they likely would like to put someone experienced opposite Glover Quin.

Some candidates:
  • T.J. Ward: The Cleveland safety has been the name most tied to the Lions during the four-day lead up to the beginning of free agency. He had 112 tackles and two interceptions last season and could be a good complement to Quin. He is going to be highly sought after, so if Detroit lands him, he might be the team’s big free agency move.
  • Chris Clemons: His former team, the Dolphins, signed Delmas on Monday, meaning Clemons is likely headed elsewhere. He has been productive the past two seasons with 90-plus tackles in each. If the Lions don’t land Ward, Clemons could be a strong second option for Detroit. Insider Matt Williamson considers Clemons one of the best bargains of this free agent class.
  • James Ihedigbo: He doesn’t have the name recognition of Ward or Clemons, but like Corey Graham, he is someone Austin is familiar with from Baltimore. Ihedigbo, 30, had a career year in 2013, making 99 tackles and intercepting the first three passes of his career.
  • Ryan Clark: The Steelers safety could be a cheap, valuable addition and an instant locker room leader like Delmas and Nate Burleson were. At age 34, Clark has had three straight seasons of 100 tackles or more.
  • Charles Woodson: This would almost scream cheap, one-year deal for an aging veteran with ties to the state. He made 97 tackles last season and still seems in shape to play. He could provide good tutoring and a high level of play for Detroit, and told the Detroit News “never say never” when asked about playing for the Lions. He has also been around the state the past few days, but that likely means nothing in terms of free agency.
The new league year gets started in one week and four hours, with the free agent frenzy about to begin. While the enlarged salary cap for 2014 offers the Detroit Lions a bit more flexiblity than it initially appeared the team would have, there are still some major front office decisions to be figured out.

Those decisions -- along with a look at the roster, salary cap and free agency -- are all part of the offseason blueprint Insider put together by our ESPN Insiders.

Of all those things, the priorities set by the front office, something Louis Riddick looked at, are the most important for the Lions to deal with. All of the things Riddick hit on are major questions or needs for the Lions, including how the returning players will adjust to the new coaching staff led by Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

Two of the other issues -- including finding a complement for Calvin Johnson and dealing with Ndamukong Suh's contract -- have been covered often in this space over the past two months.

If the Detroit Lions are going to lock up Ndamukong Suh for the long term, it would behoove the organization to get the move done as quickly as possible.

As in before March. Before the start of this free agency cycle, where Suh’s $22,412,000 cap number for 2014 becomes a giant albatross for Detroit as it tries to bring in more talented players and construct the team how new coach Jim Caldwell would like it to be.

Knocking Suh’s number down would go a long way to opening up more space to possibly sign some mid-range price range free agents, much like the Lions did last season in bringing in running back Reggie Bush and safety Glover Quin -- two of the team’s better offseason acquisitions.

Of course, keeping Suh around helps on the field as well, as he has been one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the NFL. Teams routinely scheme around him, sending double teams at him almost every play.

Having Suh as one of the defensive anchors, much like having Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on the offensive side, can attract other players to the Lions. It is as simple as good players want to play with other good players, especially in football, where the only way a team can be successful is by having top players at as many positions as possible.

So getting a deal done would be helpful for the Lions on multiple levels. It would open up cap space. It would tie Suh to Detroit. And it could give the Lions freedom to perhaps pursue higher-level free agents at cornerback, safety and wide receiver, three areas where the team needs the most help.

The biggest question about the actual deal is whether the team can come to terms with Suh, who would be a valuable commodity on the free agent market if he tested it out. That is what he and his camp need to weigh -- the value of keeping themselves in the same place long term versus a potentially bigger payday elsewhere. That is a decision the Lions' front office needs to figure out as well. How much is too much for Suh, and how critical are defensive tackles in Teryl Austin's new defensive scheme.

Those two factors will almost certainly play into any negotiation from the team's side of things.

Both Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew have said in the past two weeks that there is mutual interest in keeping Suh. Suh told MLive in May that the Lions are “an organization I love being a part of and playing for.”

How much longer he’ll be doing that will likely be seen within a few months.
New Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell met with the team's assistants still under contract Thursday afternoon and came away with at least one holdover hire from Jim Schwartz's staff.

Special-teams coach John Bonamego will return to the team for a second season.

Bonamego was instrumental in the success of Detroit rookie punter Sam Martin, who had a 41-yard net average this season and a 47.2-yard gross average. He was almost a consensus pick as an All-Rookie punter this season.

The Lions were also seventh in punt return yardage this season with 474 yards. The team had a punt and kick returned for a touchdown -- both from returner Jeremy Ross.

Detroit also was strong in coverage, finding two capable gunners in Ross and Don Carey. The Lions' punt coverage team was among the best in the NFL.

Bonamego came over from Jacksonville after the 2012 season.

Detroit struggled with field goals this season, having two blocked as well as an extra point. But kicker David Akers is a free agent as well as long-snapper Don Muhlbach. Akers is not expected to be brought back by the team as the Lions have signed two kickers, John Potter and Giorgio Tavecchio, to reserve/futures contracts.

The Lions have also not retained three coaches -- with more staying and going likely to come. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and wide receivers coach Tim Lappano were let go the day Schwartz was fired. The Lions' team reporter also said assistant wide receiver coach Kyle Valero was let go. According to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, quarterbacks coach Todd Downing has not been retained by the team.

The Lions are also expected to hire Baltimore defensive backs coach Teryl Austin as the team's defensive coordinator, but that has not been officially announced yet.
In the midst of his introductory news conference Wednesday, new Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell confirmed the Lions would continue running a 4-3 defense under his regime.

This was expected from the outset, when general manager Martin Mayhew said they would prefer a coach who ran a 4-3 because that is what they have built this defense to be, centered around defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley along with 4-3 linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy.

And while it is not official yet, from the outset of Caldwell’s candidacy, his defensive coordinator has been expected to be the defensive backs coach at Baltimore the past three seasons and his defensive backs coach at Wake Forest from 1993 to 1995, Teryl Austin.

Teryl Austin
AP Photo/Scott BoehmTeryl Austin has coached defensive backs for much of his career and was defensive coordinator for the Florida Gators in 2010.
Here’s a look at Austin’s career to give an idea of what the Lions might end up getting should he officially be hired.

As a coordinator:
Austin’s defense at Florida in 2010 had your typical level of SEC talent, including Will Hill (now of the Giants) at free safety and Jelani Jenkins (now with the Dolphins) at linebacker and Janoris Jenkins at cornerback.

Its top tacklers were safety Ahmad Black, who ended up drafted in the fifth round by Tampa Bay in 2011, and Jenkins. Jon Bostic, the Bears linebacker, was the team’s third-leading tackler.

It was certainly a talented defense, at least in the secondary. A lot of that talent was young.

Draft picks from that defense:
Ahmad Black, S, Pick 151 (Tampa Bay)

Janoris Jenkins, CB, Pick 39 (St. Louis) *ended up at North Alabama before the NFL
Jaye Howard, DE, Pick 114 (Seattle)

Sharrif Floyd, DL, Pick 23 (Minnesota)
Matt Elam, S, Pick 32 (Baltimore)
Jon Bostic, LB, Pick 50 (Chicago)
Jelani Jenkins, LB, Pick 104 (Miami)
Josh Evans, S, Pick 169 (Jacksonville)

Potential 2014 draft picks:
Dominique Easley, DL
Jaylen Watkins, DB

One thing he did not do was recruit or coach Marcus Roberson or Louchiez Purifoy, two of the top cornerbacks coming out in this year’s NFL draft. So the obvious potential tie to drafting them there is not there despite their common Florida background.

Numbers for Austin’s defense at Florida in 2010:

  • Rushing defense: 31st (130.62 yards)
  • Pass efficiency defense: 12th (108.69)
  • Total defense: 9th (306.54 yards)
  • Scoring defense: 29th (21.31 points)
  • Pass defense: 12th (175.92 yards)
  • Sacks: T-86th (1.62 per game)
  • Tackles for loss: 40th (6.38 per game)

Here’s some thoughts from our Jaguars reporter, Michael DiRocco, who covered Austin at Florida in 2010:
Teryl Austin stepped into a tough spot when he became Florida’s defensive coordinator in 2010. He was taking over for Charlie Strong, who led defenses that were the main reasons the Gators won national titles in 2006 and 2008.

Austin did a solid job -- UF finished ninth nationally in total defense and 29th nationally in scoring -- considering he didn’t have much to work with up front. The 2009 defense featured a pair of defensive ends that would go on to become second-round NFL draft picks (Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap) but the 2010 defense had just one player on the defensive line two-deep depth chart that would go on to be drafted (Jaye Howard).

Not surprisingly, the Gators struggled against the run that season, giving up 130.6 yards per game on the ground, the worst mark since the 2004 defense gave up 142 yards per game. But Austin’s defense was pretty good at linebacker and in the secondary, finishing 12th in the nation in pass defense (176 yards per game) and intercepting 22 passes, the third-highest total in the nation that season.

The defense’s biggest issue was inconsistency, especially against better teams. UF lost all four games against ranked opponents (Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State) and was outscored 131-56 and gave up at least 31 points in each game.

Austin was pretty aggressive with blitzes, though that was partly due to the fact that the front four was unable to get much pressure on its own. That lack of pressure forced Austin to blitz more than he anticipated. The Gators managed just 21 sacks in 2010, the third-lowest single-season total since the school began tracking sacks in 1981.”
As a position coach:
This year, the Ravens were 12th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 230.06 yards a game and 12th in interception percentage at 2.9. In 2012, the Ravens were 17th in pass defense (228.13) and 19th in interception percentage (2.3).

In Austin’s first year in Baltimore, the team was fourth in pass defense (196.25) and 19th in interception percentage (2.8).

In Arizona from 2007 to 2009, his pass defense was 23rd in 2009 (233.69), 22nd in 2008 (221.25) and 28th in 2007 (232.25). The team’s interception percentage was eighth in 2009 (3.5), 19th in 2008 (2.5) and 17th in 2007 (3.2).

As a position coach, he didn’t have complete control over his secondary, but his cornerbacks were typically 5-foot-11 in Arizona his first two seasons until his third year, when he had Bryant McFadden (6-foot) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6-foot-2).

In Baltimore, he clearly preferred taller cornerbacks. Only one corner, Lardarius Webb, was under 6-foot among his starting corners in his three seasons with the Ravens.

At Michigan, he coached Cato June, Marlin Jackson, Charles Drake and Jeremy LeSueur -- all of whom were drafted. At Syracuse, he coached former Detroit Lion Kevin Abrams, who was drafted in the second round of the 1997 draft as well as Tebucky Jones, Donovin Darius and Phil Nash, who signed with the Lions as a free agent in 1999.