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