June 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Young players attract early notice in Lions minicamp

Chris Greenwood, left, didn't do much to help himself in minicamp. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

The Lions’ offseason program was filled with storylines, starting with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s absence from voluntary minicamp and ending with the surprising release of cornerback Chris Houston on Friday.

But there was plenty of football in between, and some standout performances should give the Lions optimism that they’ll have better overall depth than they’ve had the past two seasons.

Even though several younger players shined given more opportunity due to injuries, coach Jim Caldwell cautioned that how their play in the spring translates to the fall remains an unknown.

“Some guys have a track record,” he said. “It’s not only what they’ve done out here in the spring, but they’ve also played the game. ... You know pretty much how the veterans are going to play.

“Some of the younger guys that are maybe going to be required to play a little bit more or called upon to play a little bit more for us are some guys that maybe there’s a bit of an unknown factor.”

Here are some highlights from the offseason program that could remain storylines when training camp begins in July:

Players who stood out

CB Darius Slay: Slay’s play this spring could’ve been the final push the Lions needed to release Houston. Lining up as the No. 1 cornerback on the first-team defense, the 2013 second-round pick fit right in and played confidently. Slay even had a few nice pass breakups against All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson and had tight coverage on most other receivers.

RB Theo Riddick: Many people inside and outside the organization have praised Riddick recently, and he took full advantage of the extra practice reps he received with Joique Bell nursing a knee injury. Riddick ran well and looked better catching passes out of the backfield. He also blocked well and will continue to have a special teams role, which should help keep him ahead of Mikel Leshoure on the depth chart.

DT Nick Fairley: Fairley missed the first two weeks of OTAs due to a recent sleep apnea procedure, but when he arrived a couple weeks ago, he looked as healthy as he’s ever been in the NFL. Down 27 pounds from last season to 295, Fairley looks like someone who could make the Lions regret not picking up his option for the 2015 season.

WR Jeremy Ross: With prized free-agent Golden Tate missing the last week of OTAs and the three-day mandatory minicamp, Ross filled in with the first team and caught nearly every pass thrown his direction. Ross should have no problem winning the return job, and if he continues to play like he did, he’ll battle Ryan Broyles and Kris Durham for the No. 3 receiver spot.

CB Cassius Vaughn: The boisterous Vaughn brought a lot of energy to the offseason practices, and he backed it up with strong play, including an interception returned for a touchdown during the first week of OTAs. He should battle Rashean Mathis for the starting cornerback spot opposite Slay.

TE Joseph Fauria: Fauria’s role remains a mystery because he’s behind two tight ends on the depth chart and the Lions will likely have a fullback playing in red zone situations. That didn’t stop him from showing why he should still be a red-zone target in his second season. Fauria made some really impressive high-point catches this spring, and at 6-foot-7, he could still be a factor.

Players who struggled

TE Eric Ebron: This year’s first-round pick certainly looks like he belongs on the first-team offense, but he had too many drops in practice. Drops were a bit of an issue with Ebron in college, but more for a lack of focus than hand talent. Because he’s learning a new offense, it’s reasonable to expect the issue to improve as he becomes more comfortable in Detroit.

WR Corey Fuller: Last year’s sixth-round pick landed on the practice squad after being too raw last year, and it doesn’t look like much has changed this year, despite his improved physique. Although his straight-line speed is impressive, Fuller struggled to create separation this spring. He also looks uncomfortable at the beginning of routes, so for now, he’s still behind receivers like Ross, Durham, Kevin Ogletree and Patrick Edwards (rookie TJ Jones missed mandatory minicamp).

QB Kellen Moore: Moore is still the frontrunner to be the No. 3 quarterback this season, but undrafted rookie James Franklin never had a chance to play in team drills during minicamp. In OTAs, Moore’s accuracy and arm strength looked good indoors, but he really struggled in the outdoor practices last week.

CB Chris Greenwood: Missing most of OTAs due to injury didn’t help, but while most of the cornerbacks had some head-turning plays, Greenwood didn’t do much to help himself in minicamp. Out of the cornerbacks drafted in 2012, he’s still behind Bill Bentley and Jonte Green.

K Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio: Neither kicker played exceptionally well during the practices open to the media. Freese, a sixth-round pick this year, missed from 46 yards and 48 yards in one OTA, and Tavecchio really struggled during minicamp. This will be a key competition in training camp.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com
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