Allen Park – Summer vacation isn’t just for school children. After this week, the true NFL offseason kicks in – a five-week stretch where players are free from obligations before reporting to training camp at the end of July.
But before that, there’s mandatory minicamp. It’s three full days of practice and classroom work, not much different from what players will experience daily during training camp. The Lions take the field Tuesday-Thursday this week and here are five things we’re monitoring.
Filling Decker’s shoes
If the reports are accurate, Taylor Decker will be on the shelf for four to six months. That means, best-case scenario, he misses the first month of the season, and more than likely the first half of the 2017 campaign.
The Lions are in the early stages of figuring out who will replace Decker in the lineup. This week should help set the pecking order heading into training camp. During the last batch of OTAs, Cornelius Lucas and Joe Dahl shared first-team reps. Now, veteran Tony Hills has been added to the equation. How quickly can he get up to speed and be a factor in the competition? And while he hasn’t participated in the offseason program to this point, we can’t forget about Corey Robinson, who the team hopes will be ready to return to action in July.
Two rookies, cornerback Teez Tabor and wide receiver Kenny Golladay, have looked ahead of the curve in the early portions of the offseason program. Tabor came away with an impressive interception in the last practice open to the media and appeared to have another one the following day, a full-extension leaping grab, according to photos on the team’s website. That kind of playmaking breeds confidence.
As for Golladay, he’s been effective using his length on the outside and his athleticism working out of the slot. With big names like Jeremy Maclin and Eric Decker hitting the market, plus Anquan Boldin still available, the Lions haven’t felt pressed to act because their rookie looks like he’ll be ready to contribute early.
Will Whitehead be back?
Three weeks ago, Tahir Whitehead was clearly out nursing an injury. He was in uniform, but spent the OTA practice doing light stretching on the side. The past two weeks he hasn’t been around for the voluntary session, out with excused absences.
When a player has been moved to another position to make room for a rookie, like Whitehead has this offseason, a prolonged absence from the team, excused or unexcused, is a bad look and leads to speculation of discontent. But that doesn’t appear to be the case here.
Both coach Jim Caldwell and coordinator Teryl Austin have said in recent weeks that Whitehead will have an important role this season, likely as the team’s starting weakside linebacker.
The question becomes: Will Whitehead be healthy enough to work this week, and begin building on-field chemistry with Jarrad Davis? Or will the Lions take it easy with the nicked-up veterans, a list that also includes Ziggy Ansah and Theo Riddick?
In a perfect world, the Lions won’t need a backup quarterback. They haven’t the past six seasons, with Matthew Stafford making every start. But Decker’s injury proves it just takes one bad play before you’ve got to go the bench.
In the early practices, Jake Rudock has looked predictably better than Brad Kaaya, but the more experience the rookie gets, the more the race can narrow. With a dozen or so practices under his belt, will Kaaya start chiseling away at Rudock’s lead in the competition?
WR battle taking shape
Behind Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Golladay, there’s a fierce battle brewing for the fourth, and potentially fifth receiving jobs. With a strong start to the offseason program, veteran Jared Abbrederis has thrust his name to the forefront of the competition, seeking to outduel the returning TJ Jones and Jace Billingsley for a job.
Another name, who has been somewhat lost in the shuffle, is undrafted rookie Dontez Ford. The 6-foot-1, 212-pounder out of Pittsburgh has had some notable success working against the second- and third-team defenses and will have an opportunity to stack upon that early success.