June 9, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Lions minicamp set to gather some steam

Rookie tight end Eric Ebron will get another chance to learn the Lions offense at this week's minicamp. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

The Lions begin their three-day, mandatory minicamp today, the final part of the offseason program before the team takes more than a month off before training camp.

During the three practices at team headquarters in Allen Park, which are entirely open to the media, the Lions will continue to implement the new offense under coordinator Joe Lombardi and show some of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s aggressive scheme.

Attendance should be great this week considering the Lions can fine players for being absent. Of course, the team has had outstanding attendance for most of their offseason program — even with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s highly publicized absence from voluntary minicamp in April, so there’s no reason to think anyone will be gone, even players recovering from injuries.

As with the organized team activities the past three weeks, live contact will not be permitted during the practices, per the NFL’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, but the minicamp should be a bit more intense than in OTAs.

Although rookies were mostly relegated to reserve roles during the OTAs, including projected starters like tight end Eric Ebron and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, they could be a bit more involved this week after more time adjusting to the playbook. And when training camp begins at the end of July, the rookies should be prepared to handle even more.

Most of the position battles — like starting right tackle, kicker and No. 3 running back — won’t heat up until training camp, and while some players will sit out, cornerback Chris Houston’s injury is the only one of concern because coach Jim Caldwell said he’s not sure if he’ll be healthy by the start of training camp.

Here are five story lines to follow at this week’s minicamp:

1. How players catch the ball: The sloppiness of the offense was the biggest takeaway with pass catchers Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and rookie Ebron all struggling with drops. In May, drops aren’t something to worry about, especially with players thinking more about executing the play than anything else. But if those problems continue to persist, the coaches might not sleep as well during the upcoming vacation.

2. Suh and Nick Fairley working together: With Fairley missing the first two weeks of OTAs after a sleep apnea procedure, there hasn’t been much time to see how he and Suh can perform together in the new defense. The duo has been dominant at times during the past three seasons, but with Austin implementing more blitzes, they could be even tougher to block in the interior. It’d be a good sign for the Lions defense if Suh and the leaner Fairley create some simulated sacks during team drills.

3. Matthew Stafford’s footwork and accuracy: Stafford looked great in the OTA open to the media last week, but struggled mightily in the open practices the previous two weeks. With Caldwell, Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter trying to make Stafford more consistent, he has more to think about than just throwing passes, including new footwork drills. A few good days would show that the drills are working for the franchise quarterback.

4. Cornerback rotation: With Houston likely out, veteran Rashean Mathis and second-year Darius Slay should run with the first team this week, but the rotation behind them will be interesting. Free agent Cassius Vaughn made some flashy plays in the OTAs and could compete for a starting job. Third-year Bill Bentley should continue to man the slot role, but how fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson plays behind him would help indicate how strong the depth is at the position.

5. Sendoff message: After a string of off-field arrests in 2012, Lions coach Jim Schwartz made a point of reminding players to stay out of trouble during breaks. Considering the family-like atmosphere Caldwell has tried to implement, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll give them a fatherly speech when minicamp ends. What he tells them and how it is received could be a fascinating story on Thursday.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com
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