The Detroit Lions aren't expected to contend for the NFC North title, but they could be one of the surprise teams of the 2020 season. Detroit was one of the surprising teams through the first half of last season, getting off to a 3-3-1 start thanks to the MVP-caliber play of Matthew Stafford.
Once Detroit's franchise quarterback went down with a back injury, the Lions didn't win a game for the rest of the year. Detroit was one of the worst teams in football last season (3-12-1) as head coach Matt Patricia fights for his job in Year 3 at the helm.
The Lions have quite a few questions that need to be answered heading into the season, especially since Stafford and Pro Bowl wide receiver Kenny Golladay open camp on the COVID-19 list. Both players should be back for the start of the regular season, but Detroit will still have to figure out how to build a competitive roster around their two stars.
There are plenty of position battles as the Lions start camp. Here's a look at five training camp battles for fans to keep an eye on.
1. Kerryon Johnson vs. D'Andre Swift
The Lions are just two years removed from selecting Johnson in the third round of the draft and one year past making him their "running back of the future." Finishing 21st in the league in rushing yards and 29th in rushing touchdowns forces a change in philosophy, which is part of the reason why the team took Swift in the second round this year -- he was too good to pass up at No. 35 overall.
Based on Swift's draft selection and how productive he was at Georgia, it's expected he'll take over the role as primary ball carrier at some point. Swift rushed for 1,218 yards and seven touchdowns for the Georgia Bulldogs last season (6.2 yards per carry) on 196 carries. He split carries with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel his freshman year (2017) and with Elijah Holyfield in his sophomore campaign, so splitting the reps in Detroit won't be unfamiliar territory.
A Grade 1 knee strain and a torn meniscus has limited Johnson to just 18 games in two seasons, another reason why Detroit used such a high draft pick on Swift. Johnson still is the No. 1 back for now, looking to prove he is the back who finished third in the NFL is rookie season when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
The Lions will split the reps between the two, but Swift is patiently waiting to take over the lead back role -- which probably won't take long based on Johnson's injury history.
2. Bo Scarbrough vs. Ty Johnson vs. Jason Huntley
We know Johnson and Swift will be the top two running backs on this roster, but the No. 3 and potentially No. 4 running back spot -- assuming the Lions keep four running backs -- are up for grabs.
Scarbrough has a head start on making this roster as a power back after averaging 4.2 yards per carry in eight games last season, but Johnson shouldn't be discredited. Johnson averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 63 carries and was more of a receiving threat out of the backfield, a plus for new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The Lions are going to run the ball with Bevell calling the shots, which makes the battle for the No. 3 running back spot even more intriguing.
Detroit selected Huntley in the fifth round, but he's more of a speed back (he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, though he wasn't invited to the combine). He also can line up in the slot as Huntley was the only running back in this draft class to have over 1,000 receiving yards in his career. Huntley also had five kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career, so there's a role for him on this team.
Basically this battle is between Scarbrough and Johnson if the Lions keep four running backs.
3. Joe Dahl vs. Jonah Jackson
Even with the coronavirus outbreak hindering the development of rookies around the NFL, Jackson should still be a front-runner to start at one of the guard positions on the offensive line. Detroit rotated its guards throughout the year in 2019, which led to some major continuity issues. That rotation may remain the same in 2020, but it shouldn't be.
Jackson has the versatility to play both guard spots, but he was dominant at left guard for Ohio State last year in earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. Jackson's strength is in run blocking, which gives him a leg up on the job if the Lions are going to run the ball more. He needs work in pass protection, which is why Dahl may open camp as the starter.
Dahl is an enigma considering his inconsistent season at left guard. Pro Football Focus graded Dahl third in the NFL in pass blocking through the first quarter of last season, but Dahl finished 30th in pass blocking efficiency amongst guards who played at least 50 percent of snaps for the year. In other words, he was really bad after Week 4.
New Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley will have a say in who wins this job. Dahl should be the front-runner to win the job, but it will be difficult to keep a player as talented as Jackson on the sidelines for long.
4. Duron Harmon vs. Will Harris
Tracy Walker should have one of the starting safety spots locked up, but who is going to start beside him? The Lions revamped their safety position over the past two years after trading Quandre Diggs and releasing Glover Quin, adding some youth in the defensive backfield.
Detroit acquired Harmon and a seventh-round pick this offseason, sending the New England Patriots a fifth-round pick to complete the deal. Harmon is another former Patriots defensive player who played under Matt Patricia, spending his first five seasons under Patricia's watch in New England. Despite being a third safety in New England's defense, opposing quarterbacks had just a 39.7 passer rating targeting Harmon (15 targets) as he record two interceptions and five passes defensed.
Harmon wanted the opportunity to start again and his versatility will be huge for Detroit, but Harris was impressive as a third-round rookie in 2019. While Harris allowed 15.7 yards per completion and three touchdowns, he displayed his versatility in the box as an strong tackler. Harris is athletic enough to grow in the passing game and is expected to take strides in Year 2.
Harris and Harmon will both likely end up as part of a three-man rotation with Walker at both safety spots, but Harmon should get the edge to start the year based on his knowledge of Patricia's system and his familiarity with former Patriots.
5. Austin Bryant vs. Julian Okwara
The Lions prioritize the pass rush, yet had just 124 pressures last season -- the fifth-fewest in the NFL. Detroit prioritizes the JACK linebacker as a pass rush specialist, making this position even more vital toward Patricia's defense being competent in 2020. Jamie Colins could take this job, but Detroit needs him at middle linebacker.
This leaves the JACK linebacker spot between Bryant and Okwara, so one of the two has to step up so Patricia doesn't have to use the alternative. Bryant, a fourth-round pick in 2019, played just 133 snaps and four games so he doesn't have a lot of experience in game reps. This gives Okwara, a 2020 third-round pick, a golden opportunity to start Week 1.
Okwara, the brother of Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara, produced a 19.1% pressure rate over the last two seasons at Notre Dame -- the highest in the nation (per PFF). This comes with some caution, as Okwara's 2019 season was full of inconsistency, especially against the run. The Lions are looking for an extra edge rusher that can get to the quarterback and drop back in coverage, which is where Okwara can showcase his talent to the Lions.
If Okwara, coming off a broken fibula, showcases anything close to his 2018 season (61 pressures, 21 quarterback hits/sacks) -- the Lions should give him an opportunity to open the season at the JACK.