Running backs Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure head off field after some down-field pass drills with quarterback Matthew Stafford near the end of practice this week. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Allen Park — As the Lions head off for a five-week hiatus, I leave you with some final observations from the 10-week offseason program.
1.The Bush Doctrine
Some may have snickered when Reggie Bush said there was no reason for the Lions not to have the most productive offense in the league, but he was dead-on. The weaponry is there and, just as importantly, so is the diversity of attack.
Without a running game last season and with Calvin Johnson standing alone as the only threat at wide receiver, the Lions became fatally predictable. Once Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles went down, and Titus Young went off, the Lions became a predominantly two-tight end offense with one consistent pass catcher.
No matter how offensive coordinator Scott Linehan worked to disguise things — and he did some phenomenal work in that regard — defenses knew the only combination that could beat them was Matthew Stafford to Johnson.
It’s not going to be like that this year (barring injuries, of course). With Broyles and Burleson both healthy, and Patrick Edwards emerging, we are going to see more three-receiver sets with Bush in motion and becoming a fourth receiver.
“We’ll probably be a little more personnel versatile,” Linehan said. “Your depth gets back to where you want it. We definitely would like to use groupings where we can utilize to the best of their abilities. So now having someone that has a dual role as a running back and receiving threat in Reggie, you can use that. You’ve got a slot receiver that was coming on real good for us (Broyles).
“You’re going to use the slot receiver not just for the pass game, but also, he can also get in those formations to run the football. So, those are the things we try to do and when you have your depth back where you want it, it certainly helps.”
2. The tight-end quandary
Brandon Pettigrew is going to have a big year — I am just going to put that out there right now. He’s healthy and he’s determined not to be defined by his struggles last season. He’s also in a contract year, though knowing him, that motivates him less than all the drops and fumbles he had last year.
Pettigrew is as integral a piece of this offense as anyone not named Stafford or Johnson. A tight end that can block and catch 80 to 90 passes a year is a rare and valuable commodity. Pettigrew has been that guy and will be that guy again.
The questions come with the rest of the unit. Coming into the offseason, it seemed like Tony Scheffler might be in trouble. He’s also in the last year of his contract and coming off a bad season. His cap hit is just under $3 million and the Lions drafted a blocking tight end, Michael Williams, in the seventh round, and signed undrafted free agent Joseph Fauria, a 6-foot-7 pass catcher from UCLA.
Scheffler must have sensed this, too, because he came into OTAs and minicamp in great shape and seemed to have a bounce in his step that was not evident at any point last year. He’s looked impressive, but so has Fauria.
Something is going to have to shake out here because the Lions typically keep just three tight ends. Williams is probably a lock to make the 53-man roster as the Will Heller-type third tight end. If Fauria is as productive catching the ball when the pads come on and the contact starts as he has been during offseason team drills, it’s going to give the Lions something to think about.
If they kept Fauria over Scheffler, they would clear more than $2 million off the cap, money which could be spent on a veteran free agent like, well, move ahead to the next observation.
3. Filling roster holes
If general manager Martin Mayhew stays true to form, there is more roster shuffling to do, particularly on the defensive line. It wouldn’t surprise me if they brought in another veteran end and tackle.
Jason Jones is the only veteran end, though Willie Young is in his fourth season in the Lions’ system. Two rookies, Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor, are in the rotation.
And if the season started today, the fourth defensive tackle behind Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley would be either Ogemdi Nwagbuo or Jimmy Saddler-McQueen.
I would not be surprised if the Lions reached out to Corey Williams before training camp. I thought it was interesting that with 13 defensive linemen in camp, none of them were issued Williams’ No. 99.
The other position that seems unfinished is receiver. Edwards and Kris Durham appear to have taken a step or two ahead of the other candidates for the third outside spot.
Brian Robiskie is injured and hasn’t been able to participate, which has set him way back. Rookie Corey Fuller is going to need a least a year of development. The Lions have been using Mike Thomas, normally a slot receiver, on the outside, as well, which seems like a reach.
Micheal Spurlock and Devin Thomas are going to make the team based on their special teams work.
So, I will hold to what I said before OTAs started — the third receiver still may not be on the roster.
4. A heavier Raiola
Dominic Raiola took every first-team rep at center this offseason. The big showdown for his starting spot never materialized because Bill Nagy continues to limp around on his injured foot. Nagy was unable to participate in any team drills this offseason.
Raiola, in his 13th season, wasn’t going to be beaten out anyway. He spent the offseason redoing his body. He added weight, playing at 310 pounds, the heaviest he’s ever been. But he combined the weight gain with an extraordinary fitness regimen that included yoga and palates.
So he’s bigger, better able to hold his position in the middle of the line, but he’s also maintained his agility and athleticism.
5. Position battle - offensive tackle
Riley Reiff is who we thought he was. The team’s first-round pick in 2012, he appears more than ready to lock down the left tackle spot for the next 10 years and I feel OK saying that before a single exhibition game has been played.
At right tackle, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard alternated first-team reps throughout the offseason and probably will continue to do so through training camp. This one is too close to call.
As for the fourth tackle, it seems rookie LaAdrian Waddle has an edge over rookie Austin Holtz. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if they add a veteran here, too.
6. Position battle - right guard
With Nagy still a major question mark, veteran Dylan Gandy’s value is increased. He took most of the first-team reps at right guard, but he’s also the second-team center. Typically, the Lions keep only two extra linemen active on game days, a guard-center and a tackle. Gandy has been the extra guard-center the last couple of years and he’s the leader in the clubhouse for that role again.
As for the starting right guard, though, that’s still up in the air. The Lions would love for third-round pick Larry Warford to rise up and win the job in training camp. If he doesn’t, they have veterans Jake Scott and Leroy Harris ready to step in.
Rodney Austin, who spent last season on the practice squad, is also in the mix. He took some first-team reps during minicamp, as well.
7. Position battle - right cornerback
The old vet won’t be easily dethroned. Ron Bartell, in his ninth season, took first reps at right corner all offseason. I kept waiting for the day when Bill Bentley or Darius Slay would unseat him, but it never happened.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham continually praised Bartell for his length, speed and general acumen. He also praised another veteran, Dominique Johnson, who is a sleeper pick to make the roster.
Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood are not in the mix to start right now. Green sat out minicamp with an undisclosed injury. Greenwood took mostly second-team reps and showed his tremendous athleticism. But he also showed his lack of experience.
Bentley, at the very least, is going to be the nickel. I think the Lions would like Slay to rise up and take the right corner spot, but Bartell isn’t going down without a fight.
8. On the bubble
There is a real good battle brewing at running back between Theo Riddick, the team’s sixth round pick, and Steven Miller, an undrafted free agent.
The Lions will probably keep six running backs on the 53-man roster, the fifth being special teams leader Montell Owens. After Bush, Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure, there is one spot left.
Miller has been getting a lot of reps, both as a returner and in the offense. His speed is electrifying. Riddick, though he isn’t the sub-4.4 sprinter that Miller is, plays fast. His burst through the line was every bit as quick as Bush’s.
Interestingly, Riddick hasn’t been in the mix as a return man. But his skill set in terms of being able to run and catch is as advertised.
Can’t wait to see if these two play as fast when the pads are on.
9. Leshoure vs. Bell
It was interesting to hear Leshoure say last week that he didn’t have anything to prove to his coaches or teammates. I would say he has a lot to prove.
Bush is going to be the lead back. The Lions want to complement his skills with more of a power component. They want Leshoure to be that guy, but Bell has the same set of tools and is better in the pass game.
The Lions always say they don’t have depth charts just position groupings. OK, then here’s how the running backs will be grouped coming into training camp: first group, Bush; second group, Bell; third group Leshoure.
10. Unsung standout
While Louis Delmas sat out, Don Carey took every first-team rep opposite Glover Quin at safety. The two looked very comfortable together and the Lions would be comfortable if they had to start the season that way.
Carey’s emergence has been a god-send. Make no mistake, they would be better with a healthy Delmas. With Delmas, who loves to play closer to the line of scrimmage, Quin would be free to do what he does best — cover people. With Carey, a converted cornerback who is better in coverage, Quin will have more strong safety-type responsibility.
But, with Carey, there is no longer that huge drop-off in the back end when Delmas is out.