|If Matt Stafford stays healthy, the potent Lions offense should score a lot of points. (AP)|
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are in a rare position of being a team that's expected to succeed. After years -- well, really decades -- of failure, they enter camp coming off a playoff season, and with a bright young nucleus that is being ask to mold into a winner.
Coach Jim Schwartz, aware of the challenge at hand, is preaching to his team how difficult it is to make this next jump, to go from being "good to great." Some wonder if the Lions, after an offseason marred by six arrests and questionable decision making by several of its young players, are truly primed to make that leap, or if immaturity and inexperience will result in a setback.
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The team could well end up dipping back into the free-agent market to address issues at corner and running back, and while the roster has been adroitly built and massaged by general manager Martin Mayhew, who doesn't get enough of the credit he richly deserves, it's going to take some time for anyone to go from 0-16 team to perennial contender.
Lions fans are certainly excited and energized about what they've seen, but there was a sense at camp that some still had their guard up as well, waiting to see if the good times will continue and taken aback by all the offseason legal incidents.
Stay Out Of Jail. Okay, so that's a bit harsh, but the reality is another incident, now with everyone being supervised at camp, would be damning. Discipline has to be the rule, and everyone is on notice about another slip up. The Lions had to act swiftly to cut Aaron Berry after his latest arrest, which should have sent a message to the rest of the roster. This team has come too far to allow knuckleheads to bring them down and derail them from building what could be a very formidable organization for years to come.
Don't Believe The Hype. The Lions need to utilize this time together at camp to focus on the future. It's much harder to stay good than it is to be good for one season. The time for reflecting on their 10-6 season is over and, as noted, Schwartz will harp on that message. But will it get through? The good news is that its best players, like Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson are fully on board, and their work ethic sets the right example. "I'm a worker, man," Johnson said. Johnson and Stafford looked in midseason form the practice I attended and they don't take plays off.
Sort Out The Secondary. This was an area of concern last season and following Berry's release and the departure of Eric Wright as a free agent, and with rising safety Louis Delmas possibly missing the majority of camp with his knee injury, those concerns are more heightened. Chris Houston will start, but who starts opposite him is anyone's guess, with Alphonso Smith, who has struggled mightily at times, and Colts castoff Jacob Lacey among the candidates. "They've had some tough times here and overcome it," Lacey said, "and they're willing to give guys a second chance."
Running Back. At this point Kevin Smith, who revived his career when injuries marred Detroit's backfield last season, would have to be the favorite to start Week 1, but that's all subject to change. Mikel Leshoure was drafted in 2011 to take that role, but he got arrested and still can't get healthy enough to get on the field. "It's not like we sent him home," Schwartz said in noting Leshoure is still participating in meetings and walkthroughs while too hurt to practice. But with Jahvid Best also out indefinitely with his concussion issues, guys like 5-foot-6 Stefan Logan and Joique Bell, from nearby Wayne State, are getting a look back there.
Cornerback. This is pretty wide open. Rookie Dwight Bentley was making some plays in camp, but I wouldn't rule out the Lions continuing to mine the waiver wire for corners as cuts are made around the league. They're on the lookout. Schwartz generally doesn't want to bring numbers on the blitz and plays numbers in coverage, but especially with Delmas banged up, the Lions' lack of depth here could shine through in nickel and dime situations. A trade could be a possibility as well. I don't see the roster being set at this position yet.
Defensive Tackle. Nick Fairley fell behind early as a rookie due to injuries and then fell prey to the arrest jinx this offseason. He could be facing a suspension as well, which again won't boost his stock. So anything he could do to push for more playing in what may be the deepest rotation in the league would be huge. I have a hard time seeing him unseat veteran Corey Williams, who is vastly underrated, but Fairley could perhaps get more reps in a reserve duty. (Williams, it should be noted, is facing a DWI charge).
It's telling how little Delmas is able to do. The Lions aren't saying much about the situation and it seems the goal is just trying to find a way to have him ready to go for Week 1. His absence would be significant.
Starting tackle Jeff Backus is sporting a bulky cast on his right hand, but he said it's not a big deal, and Schwartz called it "life in the NFL" for a lineman to be dealing with a club like that.
You have to start wondering about whether Best is going to play at all this season given how long he has been out. Starting the season on PUP might be in his future.
The Lions hope Leshoure is back and playing in these preseason games, which will be vital to him after a lost 2011.
The Last Word
This team is going to score a lot of points ... and probably yield a fair amount as well. Guys like Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, who the Lions have to face twice a year, and going to feast on certain matchups against these corners. Getting that pass rush with four or five men will be the key to the season.
I believe Schwartz will use all of the off-field turmoil to his advantage, utilizing it as a teaching tool and a motivating tactic. They have the talent to win 10 games again and get back in the playoffs and people I spoke to close to Ndamukong Suh say he is quietly simmering and primed to have a monster season after all of his troubles in 2011. This team hasn't come close to peaking yet and the future is very bright in Detroit.