Lions training camp preview: Five key storylines to watch
Allen Park -- The rookies are already in town and the veterans will report next week. In our final Detroit Lions camp preview, we'll take a look at the five stories will be monitoring not only this month, but throughout the season.
Defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Darius Slay sent a statement to the organization when they skipped out on mandatory minicamp last month. Both have sacrificed more than $300,000 in pursuit of new contracts, forgoing $250,000 workout bonuses and eating another $88,650 in fines for missing minicamp.
As two of the best players at their positions in the league, who have each outplayed their current deals, both have strong cases for extensions. But with two years remaining on both of the current pacts, forcing the team to negotiate will be a challenge, even for super agent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents both men.
The Lions can play the next-man-up card all they'd like, but they desperately need both players. Slay is the team's top cornerback by a mile, one who can be relied upon to effectively limit an opponent's best receiver each week, while Harrison's run-stopping abilities are rare and helped transform Detroit's run defense after his acquisition last year.
If either or both player opt to hold out during training camp, both sides will feel the pain, as the defense misses valuable practice time with two of its top players, while the price to sit out camp is a steep $40,000 per day.
Injuries played a role, but even before the training room had overcrowding issues down the stretch in 2018, Detroit's offense was falling well short of expectations. That resulted in the ouster of coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and the hiring of Darrell Bevell as the replacement.
Bevell has an impressive track record as a coordinator, winning a Super Bowl in Seattle and helping take the Vikings to the cusp a decade ago. He's worked with two Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Brett Favre, as well as a pair of dominant running backs in Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
The foundation of Bevell's scheme is built upon the West Coast Offense, but he's proven flexible to adapting it to his personnel. He inherits a stocked cupboard in Detroit, with a strong-armed veteran QB, a trio of talented receivers, a revamped tight end room led by this year's first-round pick and a budding star running back in Kerryon Johnson.
How quickly the players can pick up the system and how Bevell looks to deploy his arsenal will determine whether the Lions can make significant improvements from a year ago, when they finished 24th in yards and 25th in points.
No team wants to rely on first-year players, but quality production from the group can accelerate overall improvement.
For the Lions, the focus will be on tight end T.J. Hockenson, who was selected No. 8 overall. Honored as college football's best tight end in 2018, he's an advanced blocker with above-average athleticism and soft hands, which should help him to have an early impact in the passing game.
It won't be easy, but there's reason to believe Hockenson could threaten Charlie Sanders' rookie record of 40 catches.
Beyond Hockenson, there isn't an expectation any of the team's other rookies will start immediately, but several should be able to carve out meaningful roles.
Linebacker Jahlani Tavai has been doing a lot of work at the line of scrimmage during the early offseason practices, but he can back up all three spots. Safety Will Smith has the speed and length to help in nickel and dime sub-packages, while making a big splash on special teams. And defensive end Austin Bryant, cornerback Amani Oruwariye and running back Ty Johnson should provide solid depth.
What a difference a year makes
Coach Matt Patricia's defense isn't an easy one to learn. On top of the layers of multiplicity it has to combat the various offensive schemes around the league, there's a larger than normal onus on the players to problem solve in the moment and make on-the-fly adjustments.
As with anything so complex, improvement comes with experience. That's something we witnessed down the stretch last season. And the offseason addition of defensive end Trey Flowers, who played under Patricia in New England, should only accelerate improvements in 2019.
The question becomes, how good can this unit be?
Assuming Slay and Harrison get back in the fold sooner than later, a top-10 defense isn't out of the question. Opponents are going to have a tough time running against Detroit, so the key areas of improvement will need to come from the pass rush, where Flowers helps, and turning the ball over. Detroit finished 31st in that department last year.
Always comes back to the QB
As long as he's here, Matthew Stafford will always be the center of the attention in Detroit. He's the most talented and productive quarterback the franchise has ever seen, but that hasn't been enough to lead to meaningful team success, spurring an unending debate among fans on whether he'll ever take the team to the next level.
The organizational support has been unwavering, but if Stafford can't emphatically rebound from his unimpressive 2018 showing, it could be enough to shift the franchise's mindset. Stafford will turn 32 in 2020, with cap hits north of $30 million in both 2020 and 2021.
Another team would gladly pay that if they're convinced Stafford is their missing piece. Kirk Cousins proved as much as a free agent a year ago. The Chiefs and Ravens have recently laid out the blueprint for drafting a future starter and trading their veteran after a year. If Stafford shines, and the Lions find a way back into the postseason, that discussion can be delayed.