Top 5 stories entering Lions Training Camp
By Matt Urben
On July 28th, the Detroit Lions report for training camp. Here are the five most interesting story-lines to keep an eye on this year.
Marvin Jones’ debut
When Calvin Johnson retired, the first move the Lions made was inking Marvin Jones to a 5-year, $40 million contract the very next day. Nobody is mistaking Jones for Johnson, but he is a true deep-threat that should complement Golden Tate and Eric Ebron nicely. Jones was extremely explosive in Hue Jackson’s offense in Cincinnati. His ability to run past corners will help the Lions get defensive safeties to back off, something that will be needed without Calvin drawing double and triple coverage. Jones reportedly chose Detroit over New England because he wanted to have an expanded role and felt Detroit’s offense would be a good fit for him. Tate and Jones will fight it out for that number-one receiver role. It seems more likely that Tate has the bigger year since he’s familiar with both Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Both Tate and Jones are probably high-end, number-two receivers, so combined should become a very dynamic duo over the next few seasons. What will be interesting to watch is how fast Jones is able to click in this offense and develop chemistry with quarterback Matthew Stafford, who likes to take deep shots. This is probably the biggest move Detroit made this off-season.
Ameer Abdullah’s progress
After the Lions released Joique Bell, many assumed Abdullah was the likely starter going into the season. That’s still probably true, but the Lions did add Stevan Ridley, still have Zach Zenner, and pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick. The Lions were interested in Arian Foster last week before he signed with Miami and could still bring in someone else like Knowshon Moreno, as Brandon suggested earlier this week. Abdullah struggled with fumbles as a rookie and wasn’t as effective as the team had hoped when they selected him in the 2nd-round of the 2015 Draft. It will be exciting to see if Abdullah can breakout this season without Bell taking so many touches. He has good vision and breakaway speed. He also played much better after Cooter took over the play-calling and made tweaks along the offensive line. If he’s healthy entering the regular season, it’ll be hard to imagine that anyone else can overtake him as the lead-back. Zach Zenner has some potential, but as Jeff wrote, the hype may have gotten a little out of hand based on his 2015 Preseason performance. We will have to wait until the 1st Preseason game before we know who poses the biggest threat to Abdullah.
Miles Killebrew’s rookie potential
Killebrew is the kind of player Lions fans hope gets drafted every year. He’s a fearless, physical safety that should complement free safety Glover Quin well. It’s hard to know what to make of Killebrew’s role next season. In all likelihood, he will be relegated to special-teams duties early in the season. But there is a small chance he performs well enough to get a shot at the starting lineup next season. Without James Ihedigbo, there is no clear-cut starting strong safety on the roster. There are a couple of more experienced guys, in Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson, but neither the likely long-term answer at the position. Killebrew should be able to make his presence felt on special-teams right away and will need a good showing in training camp to be considered a realistic option to start. Whatever happens, fans will be watching Killebrew closely, even as a 4th-round pick.
Offensive Line’s new look
After striking out in the Russell Okung sweepstakes, the Lions had a clear need at right tackle and took Decker in an unsurprising 1st-round pick. Decker is exactly what the Lions needed — an unsexy pick that can help the run game and protect Stafford– instead of another offensive weapon, as some fans wanted. Decker was assumed to be taking the vacant right tackle position but the Lions are using him mainly on the left side. Riley Reiff, the previous starting left tackle has been moved over to the right side. The team returns last year’s 1st-rounder, Laken Tomlinson, along with Larry Warford. The biggest battle will be at center, between 3rd-round pick out of Michigan, Graham Glasgow, and 3rd-year center, Travis Swanson. Swanson figures to have a heads up but he didn’t do enough to assure himself the starting position going into this season. Glasgow is a big, physical center with versatility to backup both guard spots if needed. The shift in the offensive line truly represents the new competition-driven philosophy of Lions GM Bob Quinn. Even with so much youth at the position, it’s hard to imagine they could be worse than last year.
The Return of DeAndre Levy
Finally, the Lions get back their best defensive player and can try to put the pieces back together from their 2nd-ranked group of 2014. Levy is arguably the best 4-3, outside linebacker in the NFL. He is physical, fast, stout against the run and excellent in coverage. He can handle covering some of the more athletic tight ends and running backs. Levy’s on-field leadership is something the team missed last year. Many believe the reason the Lions fell off on defense last season was primarily because of Ndamukong Suh’s departure to Miami. It’s definitely true that Suh was probably the biggest factor in the decline, but Levy’s absence may have been overlooked. After being remarkably durable in his first six seasons, he missed basically the whole year in 2015. Levy figures to boost what should be an improved defense, with the addition of A’Shawn Robinson, defensive tackle out of Alabama from the draft, along with middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead re-signing. Levy and Whitehead are both versatile linebackers, capable of playing inside or outside and should feed off getting back on the field together. There are several other story-lines to keep an eye on as Training Camp gets started next week.