Camp Confidential: Smith, Johnson, Sims spark hope for Lions

Gosder Cherilus (left, taking on George Foster No. 72 in a blocking drill) was drafted to bring some ferocity to the Lions' ground game. The 17th player selected overall, the former Boston College star is expected to unseat Foster at right tackle. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A decidedly old-school tune played over the loudspeakers Wednesday as Detroit Lions players trudged onto the practice field.

That's the sound of the man working on the chain ... gang
That's the sound of the man working on the chain ... gang
All day long, they work so hard, 'til the sun is going down.

Sam Cooke recorded "Chain Gang" in 1960, 10 years before the oldest Lions player was born. Few of them recognized the song, but they all understood coach Rod Marinelli's message.

"It's all about grunt work," receiver Roy Williams said. "Just come to work every day. It's a grind every day."

Heading into his third year of a difficult rebuilding project, Marinelli is still working to make the Lions a more physical team. He has run a grueling training camp, abandoned a pass-happy offense in favor of a more balanced attack and preached the importance of toughness in sustaining success over a 16-game season.

Time will tell if Marinelli's plan puts the Lions on the right track.

Williams, who hasn't been on a winning team in his four previous years with the Lions, is realistic.

"Nothing is going to be easy in this league," he said. "We can very easily go 3-13. We know what that feels like. So I don't think anyone has relaxed. I think we're focused, and we can't wait for Week 1."

Key questions

1. Do the Lions have the right personnel to transition to a more balanced offense?

It's one thing to say you want to run the ball, but it's another to have the players to execute it. For the past two seasons, the Lions have collected offensive linemen with a pass-blocking bent to best fit former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme. New offensive coordinator Jim Colletto is asking the same group to focus more on zone-blocking techniques -- a task that takes time, if nothing else.

Lions president Matt Millen drafted right tackle Gosder Cherilus to help instill a new level of nastiness to the line, but Cherilus has yet to unseat veteran George Foster for the starting position. The Lions are also hoping for an immediate impact from rookie running back Kevin Smith, a smooth runner who had success in a similar offense while in college.

Said Marinelli: "All I'm going to tell you is this: We'll call [the run] and we're going to keep working at it."

2. What about those linebackers?

Marinelli made little secret of his desire to sign free agent Takeo Spikes, whom he wanted to insert as the starting strongside linebacker. Spikes, however, signed with San Francisco and left Marinelli with a group that really has only one unquestioned starter: h
itting machine Ernie Sims on the weak side.

The Lions are hoping that second-round pick Jordon Dizon can win the middle linebacker job, but for now veteran Paris Lenon is holding down the position. Alex Lewis is working with the first team on the strong side, but it's clear Marinelli isn't satisfied with that alignment.

3. Is this Roy Williams' final season with the Lions?

Williams is entering the last year of his contract and it's not clear if he is interested in returning. The Lions could always place the franchise tag on him next winter. But the truth is Williams could have a monster year playing opposite budding star Calvin Johnson, who will command regular double-teams. Even though they are moving to a more balanced attack, the Lions are poised to exploit what could be the best receiving tandem in the league -- at least for one year.

Market watch

Quarterback Jon Kitna turns 36 next month and there is talk in Detroit of finding his eventual successor -- perhaps as early as this season.
If things go south for the Lions, there are some who believe the team would be best served to find out whether Drew Stanton or Dan Orlovsky is equipped to take over the position in 2009. Kitna has had a strong training camp, and obviously the Lions' first choice is to remain in playoff contention and therefore never consider the possibility of casting him aside. Marinelli loves having a veteran quarterback in control and believes it puts the rest of the offense at ease.

Newcomer to watch

Running back Smith has been an exciting addition during training camp, proving to be a smooth and instinctive runner. The zone-blocking scheme requires knowledge of how each offensive lineman will approach his block, but Smith learned that drill while playing in college. He appears close to beating out veteran Tatum Bell for the starting job. Smith is also a confident, media-friendly player who could sell a lot of tickets in Detroit if he enjoys some early success.

Observation deck

Johnson is healthy after playing much of last season with a back injury. With his freakish 6-foot-5, 240-pound body, the Lions believe they might have the NFL's next great star. Although the Lions won't throw as often this season, their commitment to the run ultimately could open up opportunities for more big plays in the passing game. … Kitna
has maintained his fiery personality. During one training camp practice, he had to be restrained from going after linebacker Buster Davis. … Safety Dwight Smith and cornerback Brian Kelly are both probably past their athletic primes but have brought invaluable experience and playmaking ability to the secondary.

Kevin Seifert covers the NFL for ESPN.com.