NFL Nation: Dominic Raiola

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Walking in from the distance, slowly creeping closer to his former teammates and still friends for part of this reunion weekend, Nate Burleson looked like a giant traffic cone.

This may have been a charity softball game put on by Detroit Lions Stephen Tulloch and Dominic Raiola, but the former receiver made sure that even as he visited his old team, he wanted to make sure everyone knew where he went as well.

[+] EnlargeNate Burleson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsFormer Lions WR Nate Burleson said he's glad to serve as a mentor to his new teammates in Cleveland.
Hence the orange shirt, orange shorts and straw hat with an orange piece of cloth on it. Make no mistake, Burleson is a Cleveland Browns wide receiver now. Detroit may feel like his second home, but his job is now a state away.

“I’m enjoying it, man. I’m having a good time,” Burleson said before the Tulloch charity softball game Saturday. “We’re a young team. We’ve got a good team. It’s good to be a part of a team that’s doing something.

“It’s similar to the situation when I came here. It wasn’t a desirable place, but Cleveland is one of those places where they deserve to have a good season.”

Much like he tried to do with the Lions the past few seasons, Burleson is aiming to be a mentor to a young team with stars like Josh Gordon and Johnny Manziel. Considering Burleson was close to retirement after being released by Detroit in February -- he said he had conversations with a television network for an analyst role this season -- he understands part of his role with the Browns is to teach the young players to become professionals.

Even as he started his time in Cleveland, he wasn’t sure how everything would go. He looked around and saw players a decade younger than him. Then he worked through one-on-one drills and everything still felt like it was working out well.

So he knew he made the right decision to return for at least one more season in the NFL. After all, television networks aren’t going anywhere even if he was on the move from the Lions.

Burleson had indicated throughout last season he wanted to finish his career in Detroit. He had made plans to do so, but understood he was an injury risk after missing almost half of the 2013 season with a broken forearm suffered in a pizza-related crash on Interstate 696 in Michigan. The season before, he broke his leg on Monday Night Football.

For a team that is focused on winning now, they couldn’t take that risk. Burleson played in 15 games the past two seasons, totaling 66 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns.

“There’s no hard feelings, I think mostly because of the injuries,” Burleson said. “When I was on the field I was productive. I feel I was a great complement to Calvin [Johnson]. Just too many injuries and as an organization, I understand it. It would have been great to have me back for one more year but there’s such a big question mark, 'can he stay healthy?' Unfortunately, that’s part of the game and I was OK with it.”

There wasn’t anything wistful for Burleson about his return to Michigan this time. He continued to mesh with his old teammates on offense -- they were Team Raiola in the softball game -- but his next trip back might carry a bit more emotion.

The Lions and Browns play in the preseason opener, meaning the first-ever game for Manziel, the first-ever game for Jim Caldwell as the coach of the Detroit Lions and in a small sidebar, the return of Burleson to a place he outwardly seemed to love.

“Have I thought about it? Are you kidding me? Man, I’m racking my brain figuring out what celebration I’m gonna do because I’m gonna get a fine,” Burleson said. “I’m gonna get a fine. Seriously. I'm going to go to my coach and say, ‘Hey, look, I’m going to get a fine. I’m going to do something crazy.’

“It’s going to be a little bit of an appreciation celebration to the fans and the city of Detroit. It’s also going to be kind of a poke in the back saying you should of kept me because I’m still ballin'. Nah, you know me, I’m a prideful individual so I’m going to do something that’s representing Cleveland, representing Ohio, and it’s going to be fun and classy.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The pick: Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas

My take: The Lions knew they would need to draft a center to compete with veteran Dominic Raiola this season -- either to beat Raiola for the starting job or learn from him for a season or two before taking over in 2015 or 2016. While they missed out on Marcus Martin from USC -- likely the top center on their board -- they decided to go with one of the top players remaining at the position.

This is probably also indicative of the team not really liking the available secondary and defensive line prospects remaining. Swanson was the fourth-rated center in the draft by ESPN.com and has good leadership qualities. He is going to be more of a run blocker than a pass blocker at first, but considering what will be around him, Detroit can handle that. This means that almost all of Detroit’s line by 2015 could be players drafted by Martin Mayhew. Swanson could potentially play center or guard, according to Mayhew.

Secondary question: This could mean the Lions, who have obvious needs in the defensive backfield, could go the first two days of the draft without taking a cornerback or safety. Considering those were considered among their top needs in the draft, perhaps the team has confidence in Chris Houston returning to form or the young cornerbacks are coming along better than expected.

What’s next: The Lions will continue drafting Saturday with a pair of selections in the fourth round.
Every day we’ll take a look at one of the Detroit Lions heading for free agency, what he has meant to the team before and a prognosis on whether or not he’ll be back with the club in 2014.

To see the Meet the Free Agents series thus far, click this link.

Free agent to be: Dylan Gandy

Position: Guard/center

Age: 31

Years in the league: 9

What he made last season: $620,000 (cap value); $905,000 (cash value) -- $840,000 (base), $50,000 (roster bonus); $15,000 (workout bonus)

What he did last season: Gandy played in 15 games, mostly as a special-teams player and, due to injuries, as a receiving-eligible sixth offensive lineman. Gandy played 15 offensive snaps last season but primarily served as a backup to center Dominic Raiola and guards Rob Sims and Larry Warford. They missed a combined two snaps all year.

His potential market value: Tough to say. He hasn’t been a consistent starter since the 2009 season, his first with the Lions. It is important to at least have some veteran backups and that he can play multiple positions helps, but it will depend on the needs of various teams on the offensive line. He’ll likely be in a situation where he will be taking the veteran minimum or slightly more.

Will he fit the Lions still: Not particularly. The team has the interior of their offensive line set with Raiola, Sims and Warford all set to come back for 2014, as well as Rodney Austin under contract. The team is also expected to draft a center in May. If the team releases Leroy Harris, who is supposed to count $2,062,500 against the cap next season and didn’t play a game in 2013, perhaps the team could bring back Gandy with part of that cap room.

What happens: Detroit will have other priorities ahead of looking at Gandy, so if he is able to find another offer from a team, he would probably be wise to take it. Unless the Lions are planning on filling every “major” hole through the draft -- receiver, cornerback, safety and potentially tight end and linebacker -- Gandy will not be the first priority and as a veteran could be expensive for Detroit to retain. If he is still around after the initial wave of free-agent signings, then the team could bring him back. But if Harris remains on the roster, don’t expect it. It might be an either/or situation there. He does have some familiarity with new head coach Jim Caldwell from their time together in Indianapolis, so that could be a help as well.
The Detroit Lions solved one of their biggest offseason questions this week, locking up their center position for at least one more season.

Bringing back veteran Dominic Raiola was the correct move for Detroit at this time. He was an anchor on the offensive line last season, and had perhaps the best season of his career.

Raiola
Considering the other holes the Lions will need to fill -- wide receiver, tight end, cornerback and safety -- bringing back Raiola gives the team one less thing to worry about, especially as the offense learns Joe Lombardi’s new offensive system.

In theory, the Detroit offensive line will remain intact for a second season, giving the Lions continuity with the men blocking for Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.

Plus, Raiola never wanted to go anywhere else. He has spent his entire career with Detroit. He was more than willing during this season to take a leadership role even though he didn’t have the captain’s ‘C’ on his jersey. Though the Lions struggled through the second half of the season, he attempted to keep things positive and focused on continually trying to turn things around.

He is one of the few Detroit players left from the 0-16 season in 2008, and has been completely focused on trying to return to the playoffs for the second time in his career. He thought he might get there last season, especially when the Lions were 6-3.

But now, as his career will likely be winding down at some point in the near future, he will be even more focused on obtaining that this season.

The second benefit for Detroit bringing back Raiola for another season is he can now play the role of mentor to his replacement. There is a decent chance the Lions could draft a center this season in the later rounds of the draft. By bringing Raiola back, there will be no pressure on that player to start from the beginning.

He can learn for a year and get used to the speed of the NFL -- and what Lombardi and Stafford are comfortable with -- before he really competes for the starting job. That can be invaluable to the Lions as they make that transition.

That Raiola will be around for that grooming process, whether it is for one season or more, will be extremely important for whatever rookie the team is likely to bring in.

The next big thing: Lions

January, 23, 2014
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Now that the Detroit Lions have hired their coach and are in the latter stages of assembling a staff, both head coach Jim Caldwell and the front office can look toward free agency, which begins in March.

The Lions likely won't be massive players here this season, unlike last year when they brought in Reggie Bush and Glover Quin, but they should make some moves. The biggest players to pay attention to, in some respect, are two of their own free-agent veterans. The club needs to make decisions whether to try and bring back center Dominic Raiola and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Raiola seems like an easy choice. He wants to return. He'll likely take less money to return and if Detroit does bring him back, it keeps its entire offensive line from last season intact. Plus, by bringing Raiola in and potentially drafting a replacement for him in May, he can spend a season or two mentoring the younger player.

Pettigrew is the more interesting question, and it might come down to how much Caldwell values what Pettigrew can bring as a tight end versus what other options exist in free agency or the draft.
Over the past two weeks, we looked at critical plays in the 2013 Detroit Lions season, counting back from 10 all the way to today.

Not all of them were bad and certainly, with the way the Lions cratered to a 7-9 finish, were not all good. Some may be have just been fantastic plays.

As always when it comes to these sorts of lists, this is subjective and are plays, for good or bad, that stuck out to me when I made this list. Agree or disagree vehemently, let’s chat about it.

Past plays: No. 10 -- PI in Arizona; No. 9 -- Reggie Bush’s screen vs. Minnesota; No. 8 -- Calvin Johnson gets the drops; No. 7 -- Jeremy Ross’ snow-covered return; No. 6 -- Matthew Stafford’s pick-six; No. 5 -- Mike Nugent’s game-winning field goal; No. 4 -- The kneel to end regulation in Giants-Lions; No. 3 -- Stafford’s fake spike; No. 2 -- Justin Tucker’s field goal

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Don WrightCoach Jim Schwartz made a gutsy call on Nov. 17 at Pittsburgh that changed the Lions' season.
Today, we present what I believe to be the play that most shaped this Lions season.

When: Nov. 17, 2013

Where: Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Detroit Lions, 37-27.

What happened: It was, at best, a questionable call and a gutsy call. It was also a bizarre call and, considering both how it turned out combined with the logic behind it, a silly decision. The Lions led, 27-23, with 12:56 left in the fourth quarter on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. Fourth down. Five yards to go. Logic says kick the field goal and take the 30-23 lead.

Not for Jim Schwartz. Schwartz instead chose to fake the field goal, sending punter Sam Martin -- who had never attempted a fake in his life -- running over to the right side. He was hit short of the first down and fumbled. Pittsburgh then drove 97 yards and scored what would be the game-winning touchdown.

But, as Schwartz said, "don't say I'm scared." That call clearly showed that.

What they said about it: Schwartz: “It had to do with trying to make the plays to win the game. We didn’t make it. But look, you could say whatever you want,” Schwartz said. “Y’all say whatever you want about me, OK. Don’t say I’m scared. Cause we ain’t, OK? This team is going to be aggressive. We’re going to play our very best. We didn’t play well enough to win this game, OK. But it’s not because we’re passive or anything.”

Martin: “I got hit by a 350-pound man. I don't think I had the first down, but regardless, that guy made a great play. You have to give him credit. When you looked at initially, it was a big hole.”

Center Dominic Raiola: “I don’t know how much momentum we’re going to lose from this. Going back home with Tampa coming into town, everything’s right in front of us. You know, we’re not, we don’t need a State of the Union. It’s just a loss. We lost, you know. They got us. Just bounce back like we do after every loss."

Kicker David Akers: "It comes down to a mentality. 'Are you going to play it safe or are you going to be aggressive and go after it?'"

How the Lions’ season was impacted: Usually, I’m not a believer in one play or one decision completely derailing a season, but walking down to the media scrum after the loss, I distinctly remember turning to another reporter and openly wondering if that decision shifted the karma of the entire Lions' season. Yes, Detroit's players praised the aggressiveness of Schwartz with the call, but it just simply wasn’t logical. In every game Detroit lost after the Pittsburgh game, the Lions lost a fourth-quarter lead. Turnovers started to pile up by the bunches. Detroit still might have lost the game had Schwartz kicked the field goal. The Lions’ season still might have collapsed. But there was a crack in the stability there. It was a meltdown where the offense, defense and special teams did nothing from the moment the fake was called. Whether the players, coaches or anyone else realized it that afternoon, the fake field goal changed the mood of the season.
Jim Caldwell is the new Detroit Lions coach, and though there has been a lot of consternation about the hire, the Lions will succeed or fail based upon his decisions and his ability to develop players, notably quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Caldwell will meet with the media for the first time Wednesday, and based on what I’ve heard and been told about his interview on Jan. 3, he has a detailed plan for how he is going to fix both the Lions and Stafford.

Those are his two most important tasks as Detroit’s head coach. If he is unable to do that, he’ll join the line of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz as coaches who couldn’t quite reach the level the team wanted.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDeveloping Matthew Stafford is one of the most important tasks facing new Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
If he can succeed, he’ll have a chance to do something only one coach in the Super Bowl era, Wayne Fontes, has even come close to doing with the Lions: turn the team into a consistent winner.

Here’s a look at five things Caldwell will have to do early in his tenure with the Lions.

1. Hire a competent staff: He could have some names as early as his introductory news conference, but Teryl Austin is a name I’ve been told multiple times as a likely defensive coordinator. Bill Lazor was a name for offensive coordinator, but h has been hired by Miami. If Caldwell doesn’t put together a strong staff, that will be an issue early on. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also could end up on Caldwell’s staff.

2. Make smart decisions about free agents with GM Martin Mayhew: Dominic Raiola and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the bigger free agents for the Lions. Raiola is a strong presence in the locker room, and it might be smart to bring him back for continuity on an offensive line that was one of the best in the league last season. Pettigrew could be interesting. He is an important cog, as was Dallas Clark, Caldwell’s tight end in Indianapolis and with the Ravens this season. Of course, Clark is also a free agent, so Caldwell might push to get him to Detroit.

3. Matthew Stafford: Part of the reason Caldwell was hired was to work with Stafford, with whom the coach met on his interview. Stafford, according to receiver Kris Durham, seemed to like Caldwell. That relationship will be critical to any success Caldwell has in Detroit. He believes he has a plan to fix Stafford -- both Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning are high on Caldwell's ability to help quarterbacks -- and the coach will have to be able to implement that plan as soon as possible.

4. Keep at least two current assistants: This goes with the first point. John Bonamego did a really good job with special teams almost all season, including finding strong gunners in Don Carey and Jeremy Ross. Jeremiah Washburn turned an offensive line with two rookies on the right side into one of the top groups in the NFL, and players seemed to really like him. Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek did a good job with the defensive line, and Matt Burke was strong with the linebackers. Consider at least some of them to keep some continuity.

5. Get out in the community: This might sound silly, but Caldwell is not a popular hire with the Detroit fan base. By all accounts, he is a good, well-intentioned man, so by doing a lot of community outreach early on, he could turn some people who are currently not pleased about the hire. Of course, the best way to do that is to win games, but getting out in the community would be a strong start.
Not surprising at all, really, but Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team Friday.

Suh
Johnson
They were the only two Lions to make either the first or second team, which shouldn't be too surprising considering the plethora of good running backs and linebackers in the league.

The only players who could have argued to be on the team were right guard Larry Warford, center Dominic Raiola and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy.

Levy not making the team is not a surprise, again, due to the difference between 3-4 and 4-3 outside linebackers and the statistics 3-4 outside linebackers accrue. Thought Warford would have a shot to slip in on the second team, but he did not.

Also, Warford was not among the five finalists for the NFL Rookie of the Year. No offensive or defensive linemen were among the finalists. Instead there were two wide receivers (Cordarrelle Patterson, Keenan Allen), two running backs (Giovani Bernard and Eddie Lacy) and a linebacker (Kiko Alonso).

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 24

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

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

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

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

All-NFC North: Detroit Lions

January, 2, 2014
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Despite their collapse in the second half of the season, the Lions were well-represented on the ESPN.com All-NFC North team, placing four players on the offense and six on its defense.

This, though, might speak to the overall rough nature of the NFC North, where injuries took a lot of stars on other teams away. Every player I felt that should have made it for the Lions did, other than maybe punter Sam Martin.

But even for some of those who did make it from the Lions, it was more a case of limited pickings in the division than anything else. That has to be why Matthew Stafford was named as the division’s quarterback -- due to injuries to Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, along with the dysfunction at quarterback in Minnesota.

The other surprise to make it was Louis Delmas, but there was a lack of safeties in the division and Delmas was the only player other than Glover Quin to receive a vote, so he made the team.

Otherwise, status quo for the Lions, who expectedly had Calvin Johnson, Dominic Raiola and Larry Warford join Stafford on the offense. And they had Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Willie Young join Quin and Delmas on the defense.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There isn’t a particular moment, it seems, where Jim Schwartz definitively lost his job with the Detroit Lions. At least it doesn’t feel like that.

Instead, over the past two months of this season, as the Lions collapsed yet again under his watch with so many of the same mistakes happening in perpetuity, there were multiple moments that seemed to doom Schwartz in Detroit.

There was the interception party that appeared to take over Detroit’s offense the second half of the season. There were key penalties -- both phantom and legitimate -- that extended opposing drives in third-down situations.

And there were coaching and management mistakes, be it the fake field goal in Pittsburgh that the Lions never really appeared to recover from, all the way to the poorly-used timeouts in Sunday's season finale against Minnesota.

So it wasn’t one thing, besides the obvious wins and losses, that went wrong for Schwartz in Detroit this season. It was a combination of everything.

On a day when change was everywhere around the Detroit Lions facility, where some players were cleaning out their lockers for possibly the last time, there was some retrospect of what went wrong.

What was that one thing they could change that might have saved Schwartz from being fired? The one thing that could have kept the Lions on the path to the playoffs that they seemed to inhabit for the first two months of the season?

“Getting more turnovers,” linebacker Ashlee Palmer said. “If we had gotten more turnovers like we were earlier in the year, things could have changed, you know?”

That is one area where the Lions could have been better that went somewhat unnoticed. During Detroit’s 6-3 start, the Lions forced 14 turnovers. During their 1-6 finish, they forced eight, two of them in the meaningless finale against Minnesota.

But more players, even now, 24 hours removed from the end of their season, were still somewhat baffled as they packed up their belongings into garbage bags to head home or on vacation and into an unknown future with a new coaching staff looming.

“I really can’t. It’s 6-3 and in a good spot. And for some reason, for whatever it was, we couldn’t find ways to get wins down the stretch,” safety Glover Quin said. “We come, had a big win against Green Bay on Thanksgiving and we couldn’t find a way to get two more wins.”

They couldn’t. The Lions didn’t win in December, losing games by throwing the ball away on offense, getting gashed in the snow on defense and watching their playoff hopes expire on not one, but two game-winning field goals two weeks in a row.

And for the past two months or so, the Lions all talked about being one play short, one drive short. One everything short. It was a theme with this season -- with the later part of Schwartz’s tenure, really.

It appeared Monday, after Schwartz was fired, that general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand were no longer happy with that mentality. No longer happy with close but nothing to show for it but a bunch of losses.

So one of the things they are going to look for in a new coach is a new belief, a new approach. A new type of character in their next coach.

“It is a mentality,” Mayhew said. “It has to be a belief that no matter what’s happening, you have an opportunity to win. You can’t put yourself in a situation where you get a fatalistic attitude or you get the belief that you can’t get over the hump, so to speak.

“I think that’s something that will need to be addressed in terms of the coach of our football team.”

That will be up to the next coach. Because this coach, no matter what he did, what he said or how much he pushed or didn’t push players during the week and in games, these Lions under Schwartz just couldn’t finish things off.

And even after Schwartz was gone and had addressed the team for the last time, they still took some of the blame for what went wrong.

“Jim wasn’t on the field. We were on the field after Thanksgiving, we were 7-5. We were on the field, not Jim,” center Dominic Raiola said. “It was the guys on the field that didn’t make enough plays.

“We didn’t make enough plays on the field and it cost him his job.”

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

December, 29, 2013
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' season-ending 14-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

What it means: The end. The end of a lot of things. The certain end of the Lions' season, a collapse from holding their own destiny in the NFC North two weeks ago to flying home for the season before New Year's.

The possible end of the Detroit coaching career of Jim Schwartz, who likely will learn whether he'll be fired or retained by Monday, the typical day of firing of coaches in the NFL. Also the possible end of some NFL careers, from kicker David Akers to the uncertain nature of the future for Rashean Mathis, Dominic Raiola and Nate Burleson.

This, of course, came in the most predictable way possible. Detroit took a lead in the fourth quarter and, as the Lions have done in the five losses before this one, watched it disappear by the time the game was over. This week it came because of a 50-yard punt return by Marcus Sherels that led to a Vikings touchdown that took a 13-10 Detroit lead and turned it into a 14-13 Minnesota lead.

Stock watch: Rising -- Kevin Ogletree. Starting in place of Calvin Johnson, the free-agent-to-be had five catches for 75 yards and was open on two other occasions. He was the only Lions receiver to show any ability to get open Sunday. Rising -- Lions' draft pick. Depending on what else happens Sunday, the Lions could end up with a top-10 pick. Falling -- Everything else. Few Lions played well Sunday, and for the most part, it was a fairly uninspired effort from a team that said it would try to stay focused throughout the week.

Bush hits 1,000: Reggie Bush needed 26 yards entering the game, and it took three-and-a-half quarters, but he finally eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in his career. He did it with a 7-yard run up the middle in the fourth quarter. A couple of weeks ago, when it looked like Bush would surpass 1,000 yards then, I asked him about the benchmark number, and he said it wasn't necessarily a big deal to him. That's understandable, considering in a 16-game season, a running back needs to average only 62.5 yards a game to get there. But he is the first Lions running back since 2004 to get to 1,000 yards. Actually impressive was what Bush and Joique Bell were able to do. They became the first running back tandem in NFL history to each rush for 500 yards and have 500 yards receiving in a season. Combined, they were effective for Detroit for most of the season.

What's next: The NFL draft is a few short months away -- taking place from May 8-10 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Jim Schwartz did not want to discuss his job status for almost the entirety of this week, despite the fact that it was the hottest topic surrounding the Detroit Lions after they were eliminated from the playoffs last Sunday.

Instead, he wanted to keep the focus on Detroit’s season finale against Minnesota, another franchise going through a disappointing season that could end with a coaching search.

So since Schwartz wants to keep the focus on the game, here’s four things to watch for Sunday when the Lions close out their season against Minnesota, where a win would give Detroit an 8-8 record this season.

Veterans' last stand: There is a chance this could be it for veteran players like Dominic Raiola, Nate Burleson and Rashean Mathis -- three guys who have played well for the Lions this season. Willie Young is also a free agent after the season and has been an emerging defensive end for the Lions. There are also a bunch of players who could be fighting for jobs this season, either with Detroit or with another team down the road. So this could be the final time a lot of these guys play for the Lions.

None of the three main vets, Raiola, Burleson or Mathis, has expressed an intention to retire after the season, but they all know if there are changes within the Lions organization, they may not have a choice when it comes to Detroit.

Mathis, for one, isn’t looking at Sunday as it for him.

“I don’t see it that way. I understand what you’re saying,” Mathis said. In that way, I haven’t viewed it in that sense. You’re not going to make me view it in that sense. The reason why is I wasn’t healthy last year in Jacksonville and I’ve been healthy this year and I put enough on film to say, ‘OK, I can still play good football.’ So that’s why I’m not looking at it like that.

“But if I was viewing it the way you just said, it would mean a lot more.”

Play for themselves and each other: There has not been any feeling of win one for Jim Schwartz around the Lions this week. If anything, it has kind of been business as usual, and a lot of talk about playing for pride and their careers. So use that to try and win a game one final time to try and reverse the feeling of a rough second half of the season.

Find confidence for Matthew Stafford: The quarterback needs some -- or at least needs to have a turnover-free game. That would be big for Stafford as he heads into an offseason where there are a lot of questions and he has to make improvements to both his accuracy and the decisions he makes on the field. He’s had a brutal second half of the season, one of the worst of any quarterbacks in the league, and could use a final good game to have some confidence for the offseason.

Control the emotions: This goes to the first point for the veterans, but also how Minnesota deals with the last game in the Metrodome. That is a big deal for the Vikings, so they have built-in desire to win this game. The Lions only have, as mentioned earlier, themselves to play for with playoff hopes extinguished. The Vikings are probably going to come out strong and take an early lead, so be able to withstand that, stay within their own emotions and wait for that to calm down after a quarter.

Pro Bowl selections: Detroit Lions

December, 27, 2013
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He had the best season of his career, led the NFL in interceptions a good portion of the season and week after week made plays for the Detroit Lions.

Yet DeAndre Levy saw Friday night come and go without what would have been a Pro Bowl selection, something that seemed likely throughout the season.

Only two Lions are definite Pro Bowlers this season, as receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were picked. What is more surprising is the players who were named alternates -- and those who weren't.

That's where the real surprise of Levy comes into play. He wasn't even named as an alternate despite having career bests in interceptions (six) and tackles this season. He was also a main component of why the Lions were among the top run defenses in the league and was a constant screen snuffer-outer.

But what probably hurt Levy is playing in a 4-3, where outside linebackers aren't going to bring in some of the statistics those who play in 3-4 defenses do. So that may have hurt his candidacy; he was only 10th among fans and not known among players and coaches.

Equally surprising to Levy not being included were two other snubs as alternates -- rookie guard Larry Warford and center Dominic Raiola. Raiola had the best season of his career and Warford was considered by Pro Football Focus as one of the top five guards in the league -- period -- and one of the top rookies in his entire class.

Then there are the alternates who were selected -- and two of them are surprising, too.

Reggie Bush makes sense. He is closing in on 1,000 yards rushing and is eighth in the NFL (1,447 yards) in total yards from scrimmage.

The other two are more questionable. Nick Fairley is an alternate at defensive tackle despite having a decent, but inconsistent, season for the Lions even though he had fewer tackles and sacks than he did a season ago.

There is the case of quarterback Matthew Stafford, another alternate. Stafford had an elite first half of the season and a terrible second half of the year, yet could end up in Hawaii.

Through the first half of the season, he completed 62.4 percent of his passes, 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Then came the second half, when he completed only 52.5 percent of his passes, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. And in that, the Lions skidded from 6-3 to out of the playoffs at 7-8 entering the final week of the season.

But he has a chance to go to Hawaii.

So some good and some bad for the Detroit Lions, but more interesting decisions than anything else.

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Reggie Bush has been in these scenarios before, one of the few Lions who have been there more than once.

He has won a Super Bowl. He has made the playoffs consistently when he was with New Orleans, and has been in playoff pushes. So he understands exactly what is about to happen with Detroit over the final three weeks of the season.

And why he says the playoffs start for the Lions, well, now.

“The playoffs start in a couple weeks,” Bush said. “But for us, the playoffs are starting now. Every game is kind of win-or-go-home. We have to understand the unique opportunity, the situation that we’re in right now.

[+] EnlargeDominic Raiola
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIDominic Raiola and the Lions know another loss could knock them from the postseason.
“To be in a position to clinch the division, that’s something that hasn’t been done here in a long time, and also understanding that we still have three games left to go, it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere here on Monday.”

It is a playoff atmosphere, because for the Lions -- and for the Ravens -- it essentially is the playoffs. Because the teams play on Monday night, they both could be temporarily knocked out of the top six (playoff) spots in their respective conferences when they play, depending on what Chicago and Miami do Sunday.

In many ways for Detroit, Monday night does represent a situation where a loss could mean peril as far as making the playoffs. Jay Cutler has returned at quarterback for Chicago. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers could return soon. And the Lions, those Lions who were healthy at the most important position in football the entire time, couldn’t pull away.

Instead, they are tied (though holding a tiebreaker advantage), with Chicago, and a just a half game ahead of the Rodgers-less Packers.

Lately, the problem has been closing out games. Detroit has lost fourth-quarter leads in its past three losses for a variety of reasons, and trying to figure out why -- especially because the Lions were good late in games during the first half of the season -- has been flummoxing.

“I don’t know, man. If I had the answer I’d definitely be able to tell these guys,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “Maybe it’s an intensity thing. Maybe we got to come out and bring that same level of intensity in the second half.

“When we’re jumping around and barking and guys are damn near tears pregame, we got to come out with that same thing. We can’t come out trotting out of the tunnel or relaxing on the sideline.”

Has that been a problem? Not necessarily, from what Burleson sees, but he is often off in his own space to get himself prepared. He did, though, say the leaders and veterans maybe need to change what their message is.

Create more intensity. More urgency. More focus. That has started this week.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but all we can do is just keep working and not hope that it’ll change,” center Dominic Raiola said. “It’s just going to change as long as we keep doing the right thing. I told everybody, 'let’s meet better, work harder this week, whatever that might be in the weight room, on the field. Practice better. Eat better. Sleep better. Let’s do everything we have to do these last three weeks and nip everything in the bud. Everybody early, all that stuff.'"

Much of that has to come from Detroit’s veterans, some who have made the playoffs before, and others for whom this has been a rarity. But it has to come. Detroit has no choice now.

It has to win. Otherwise its season will end, again, with no playoffs, and changes -- they might come. Reasonably, that would seem like added pressure for the veterans like Burleson and Raiola and others who are the elders in the Detroit locker room.

The personal pressure for their future, they say, isn’t there. Because they know if they win, they are still in a good position.

“I don’t think there’s more pressure,” Burleson said. “I’ve been in too long to kind of let the pressure affect me. But there’s consequences of what could be if we don’t do what we need to do, yeah. Like I know that there is reality. Changes being made. So I don’t feel the pressure, I apply pressure so I try to go out and make these guys realize how important it is.

“I don’t walk around here panicked, because then these guys are in panic. I understand what is at stake, which is the team as a whole, certain individuals, I’m probably on that list being an older guy. I gotta go out, one, and make sure this team wins and two, ball out.”

All of it is simple, really. To avoid any sort of change, the Lions have to do one thing: Win.

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