Allen Park — The Detroit Lions veterans reported to training camp on Thursday and the first full-team practice will be conducted Friday morning. Here are five storylines will be watching throughout camp and the preseason.
What feels like every offseason for nearly two decades, the Lions have made a commitment to improving the team’s ground game. On paper, the recent set of moves look good. From the addition of offensive lineman Frank Ragnow and running back Kerryon Johnson in the first two rounds of the draft, to bringing on veteran power back LeGarrette Blount via free agency, the Lions have the pieces in place to get things moving in the right direction.
But the addition of Johnson and Blount leave the backfield depth chart crowded. The Lions already began to address the logjam, releasing Tion Green in May. Still, two new additions joining the returning mix of Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington means one, probably two if the team keeps a fullback, are going to be left on the outside looking in.
Abdullah, last year’s Week 1 starter, appears to have the murkiest path to remaining in Detroit. On the final year of his rookie deal and carrying a modest $1 million cap hit, he could be a trade chip next month, depending on the health of Detroit’s current collective.
Riddick, while costlier, is a more proven as a route runner and pass protector, while Zenner is offers a versatile special teams contributor.
Often the biggest jump in a player’s development comes between their first and second year, when they can focus an entire offseason on preparing for football and not combine measurements, plus there’s been time to process the adjustment to the pros, both mentally and physically.
The Lions will be looking for increased contributions from a number of players from the 2017 draft class, starting with middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, a defensive leader who will be tasked with getting his teammates in position each play, while shoring up his own inconsistencies in coverage and pursuit angles from a year ago.
After spending most of his rookie season glued to the bench, cornerback Teez Tabor will have an opportunity to win a starting job in camp in one of the most compelling position competitions, while wide receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Michael Roberts will shoulder a larger role in the passing game, helping fill the void created by Eric Ebron’s departure. Finally, Jamal Agnew still might struggle to carve out a role on defense, but if he can come anywhere close to repeating his All-Pro success as a punt returner last year, he brings plenty of value to the table.
Despite quality talent at a number of key spots, the Lions had a below-average defense last year, finishing in the bottom third of the league in both yards and points allowed. Now they’ll be tasked with adapting to a complex new scheme.
There were some troubling underlying metrics to Matt Patricia’s defenses in recent years, but one thing they’ve typically done well is limiting the damage on the scoreboard. For five straight seasons, New England’s opponents averaged fewer than 20 points per game.
The biggest change for the Lions will be the shift from an attacking to a gap-control front. When executed properly, it’s tough to run against. The team must also solve its pass-rush woes from a year ago. Patricia has a reputation of generating pressure from his fronts and isn’t afraid to blitz to do so, bringing an extra rusher on 27 percent of passing snaps last season.
Time to prove it
Beyond Abdullah, there are a couple of other young veterans who could need a strong camp to maintain a job with the organization. Two that come to mind are quarterback Jake Rudock and safety Miles Killebrew.
Rudock has shown steady improvement during his two offseasons with the team, but his readiness to step in for Matthew Stafford in an emergency situation remains largely unknown. The Lions went out and added experienced veteran Matt Cassel, who has history with Patricia, to push for the job.
As for Killebrew, his career seems in limbo. He has exceptional physical gifts and has played really well in stretches, but his developmental ascension fizzled out the second half of last season. The Lions brought back Tavon Wilson this offseason and drafted Tracy Walker, putting pressure on Killebrew to step up his game.
While Julio Jones and Aaron Donald have had contentious contract situations with their teams this offseason, Detroit has had no such issues with wide receiver Golden Tate, the team’s premier impending free agent.
General manager Bob Quinn has extended a number of his key contributors during training camp his first two years — Matthew Stafford, Darius Slay, Glover Quin, Sam Martin and Riddick — and it will be interesting to see if the team works out something similar with Tate, who turns 30 next week.