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Monday, August 12, 2013
Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

By Kevin Seifert

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

Riley Reiff
The 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.

Glover Quin
The 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