The Detroit Lions will enter training camp next Wednesday as they begin to prepare for the 2016 season. Last season the Lions finished 7-9 after a deflating 0-5 start to the season. In the off-season, Detroit lost one of the best players in franchise history as Calvin Johnson decided to hang them up and retire. This season the Lions have questions on both sides of the ball, but are a talented bunch that could surprise some people. Here’s what to watch for as training camp begins in Allen Park, MI.
There is no doubt that the Lions passing game in 2016 is going to be quite different without the presence of Calvin Johnson who retired as the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. The pick-up of former Cincinnati Bengals wide out Marvin Jones is a step in the right direction, but Detroit will have to utilize all of their receivers to be successful on offense.
Expect a significant jump in production from Golden Tate who is now the undisputed No. 1 receiver and should catch close to 100 balls this season. Jones had 65 receptions and 4 touchdowns last year in a Bengals offense that featured the likes of A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. The 5th-year wide receiver will have a much bigger role in Detroit as the projected starter opposite Tate.
Outside of Tate and Jones, 3rd-year tight end Eric Ebron might be who Matthew Stafford looks to in the red zone the most. The 6-foot-5 target has yet to live up to being the 10th overall pick in 2014, but is undoubtedly talented and will be an X-factor for the Lions this season.
Whichever way you slice it, how the Lions pick up the slack left by Megatron will have a major effect on the season.
DEPTH ON THE DEFENSIVE FRONT
After taking Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson with their second-round pick, the Lions are now faced with a peculiar situation as they decide who they should cut among a group of talented players.
Veterans Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker are a safe bets to make the final 53 as projected starters along with Robinson and 2014 fifth-round pick Caraun Reid. After that, it gets interesting for Detroit. Free agent acquisitions Stefan Charles and Khyri Thornton as well as 2015 fourth-round pick Gabe Wright are all expected to compete for the final few spots on the team.
The fact that a 2nd-year player like Wright could be cut goes to show that this group is among the deepest in the league. Expect the competition to be fierce in between the trenches this training camp.
EXPECTATIONS FOR TAYLOR DECKER
When the Lions selected Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker with the 16th overall pick this year they did so with the thought that he would eventually take over at left tackle. However, the rookie tackle has been making strides so far this off-season and many pundits are speculating that the former Buckeye could be protecting Matthew Stafford’s blindside from day one.
It’s no secret that the Detroit fans have been disappointed with the line play over the last few seasons and most of that frustration has been aimed at current left tackle Riley Reiff. The former first-round pick of 2012 has had his struggles and some are wondering if a move over to right tackle might be in his future.
If the Lions are to compete for a spot in the playoffs this season they will have to protect Stafford first and foremost and a competition at LT might be the best for this team.
PROGRESSION OF AMEER ABDULLAH
The former Husker Ameer Abdullah had an average rookie season for the Lions rushing for nearly 600 yards while averaging 4.2 yards per carry, notching three touchdowns. The 2015 second-round pick will be relied much more this season after veteran halfback Joique Bell was let go in the off-season.
Despite the decent YPC numbers, Abdullah struggled to hold on to the ball and must work on his ball security in year two. The Lions are hoping some improvements along the offensive line can open a running game that has been near the bottom of the league over the last few seasons. With Stafford slinging it, Detroit will never be a bruising running team but if they can effectively run the ball enough to keep defenses honest, then it will only help the passing game.
COMPETITION IN THE SECONDARY
With an up-and-coming cornerback in Darius Slay and veteran safety Glover Quin, the Lions have two of the better defensive backs in the league. What about the other two spots in the secondary though?
There will be some interesting battles among the secondary this training camp as Detroit looks for a corner to complement Slay. 2014 fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson could be a viable candidate after a quality season last year where he worked his way into the starting lineup. Another young player, Quandre Diggs, could also see significant playing time at either corner or nickelback in 2016.
With last season’s starters James Ihedigbo as well as Isa Abdul-Quddus gone via free agency, the Lions will have to find a strong safety this training camp. Detroit picked up veterans Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush this off-season and drafted safety Miles Killebrew out of Southern Utah in the fourth-round of this year’s draft. They will also have Isaiah Johnson, who made the practice squad out of training camp last year and played in the final six games of last season.
The strength of the Lions defense is undoubtedly up front, but how the back end comes along will be a significant factor in where they finish in 2016.