Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
It’s the slowest time of the year for the NFL, the time that cynics somewhat jokingly refer to as “arrest season”. Because that hits a little too close to home for this Lions team, here are five thoughts about the team:
1. Stemming from a discussion I had with a pro scout (he scouts the NFL for another team, not collegians), is there really a chance Mikel Leshoure doesn’t make the Lions? It’s pretty clear Reggie Bush will be the feature back, the most involved running back in the offense. His receiving skills and versatility means the team has less of a need for a third down back. Joique Bell showed enough last season to merit trust from the coaches, and he is a significantly more successful interior runner. If Bell is the better inside runner and Bush the better outside runner, with both better than Leshoure in the passing game, exactly what role does Leshoure serve in Detroit? He doesn’t play special teams to augment his value, and he is a card carrying member of the Lions inglorious police blotter squad.
The scout intimated to me that his team is carefully watching the RB situation in Detroit. He strongly believes, and I concur with his opinion, that either Leshoure or 6th round pick Theo Riddick is not going to make the team. Signing special teams specialist Montell Owens, who can serve as a de facto fullback and short yardage back if needed, took away the flexibility to keep both Leshoure and Riddick. Coach Schwartz unintentionally added a little fuel to this line of thinking when he criticized Leshoure’s inconsistency in an interview.
I have a very hard time seeing the Lions give up on Leshoure. After all, he was lethal in the red zone last season. Leshoure is also relatively affordable the next two seasons; his cap hit is only $700K more than Riddick over that time frame, while Bell is a free agent after 2013 and will probably get better offers elsewhere. Leshoure brings a slashing style with some power that does make him different enough from Bush and Bell to carve out a role, and he’s proven at times to be worthy of feature back status. Yet it intrigues me that another team sees potential for Detroit to unexpectedly cut him loose. Some of that is the opposing scout covering his bases with “what if” hypotheticals, an exercise they must constantly engage in that leads to nothing 99% of the time. But the logic behind his hypothetical is fairly sound. Still, I expect Leshoure to be an active member of the Lions backfield and get double digit touches most weeks, with rookie Riddick sticking on the practice squad as injury insurance. But if Leshoure takes even one false step during arrest season…
Editorial note: The conversation I had with this person took place the day after the Owens signing, which spurred the topic.
2. When I asked a well-placed source inside Allen Park about what the team considers its biggest concern heading into training camp, the answer came back quickly: depth at defensive tackle behind Suh and Fairly. Not wide receiver. Not offensive tackle. Not safety. Defensive tackle. The team is concerned that free agent acquisition CJ Mosley doesn’t offer as much as Sammie Lee Hill did in the 3rd tackle role, and Corey Williams is no longer around either. There is guarded optimism with Ogemdi Nwagbuo as a short yardage package specialist, but he’s bounced around the waiver wire a lot. The only other DT currently on the roster is Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, who has been signed and released 9 times by five different teams in the last 28 months. When I probed about getting higher quality depth, I was essentially rebuffed. Reading between the lines, I believe the team is going to wait and see what veterans come available later this summer to address the depth concerns. I also firmly believe the team is banking (consciously or not) on Devin Taylor and/or Willie Young to show enough at end that Jason Jones can slide inside and play more tackle than expected. This goes to show how dramatically the team has transformed from the end of the Marinelli era, when the team often carried 5 capable but largely anonymous defensive tackles. Now the team has two dynamic starters and very little else.
3. One of the moves that raised my eyebrow was claiming former Browns QB Thaddeus Lewis to compete with Kellen Moore for the 3rd quarterback position. I’ll come right out with my biases here. I do not think Kellen Moore belongs anywhere near a NFL roster, and I have been a Lewis fan dating back to his days at Duke. Deposed Browns OC Brad Childress shared my enthusiasm for Lewis, and even got him a start in Cleveland’s finale last year. In Pittsburgh, Lewis went 22-for-32 for 204 yards with one touchdown and one INT. He showed decent elusiveness despite getting sacked three times. Two of those were cases where he held onto the ball too long, a common malady for young QBs but an issue which also dogged Lewis at Duke. Lewis is about the same size as Moore but has a much bigger arm. He’s similar athletically to former Lion and Spartan Drew Stanton and plays with that same sort of barely controlled frenzy. In my eyes, Lewis offers a much more viable long-term potential as a backup than Moore. Shaun Hill will be a free agent after this season, and with cap space tight his return is unlikely at best. Lewis could fill that #2 role for a lot less cash. He also offers the Lions a better chance to win should the unthinkable happen and Matt Stafford gets hurt for an extended period.
4. All reports out of minicamp are that wideout Ryan Broyles will be 100% by the start of the season. It was certainly encouraging that he fully participated in drills and didn’t require extra treatment afterwards. Broyles claims to be going full bore in the weight room as well. Getting Broyles back on the field in the slot would be a huge boon to the Lions offense. He offers shiftiness and reliability in the intermediate routes and over the middle that the team sorely missed in his absence.
Having said that, I’m not real thrilled at being so dependent on Broyles making a full recovery from two different ACL surgeries in a little over a year. More to the point, I am more concerned about his long-term viability and durability. I love the effusive optimism Nate Burleson holds for Patrick Edwards, but he too is a significant durability question mark. With Burleson himself working back off his own injury, the health status of the receivers (that includes the TEs) is my personal top concern heading into the season. As amazing as Calvin Johnson is, he cannot do it all by himself once again. My first 2014 mock draft will almost certainly include a wideout for the Lions in the first two rounds.
5. For the first time in well over 20 years, the Lions have themselves a legitimate competition at place kicker. With Jason Hanson gone and David Akers still hobbled, all eyes were on Harvard Rugland in minicamp. Kickalicious did not disappoint in his debut in actual pads. Coach Schwartz was clearly impressed when he talked with reporters after a practice:
“He’s obviously got a strong leg,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said after one minicamp practice. “Every step you try to temper, ‘Well, let’s see what happens when there’s a snapper or holder out there. Let’s see what happens when he’s got a defense that’s rushing. … Let’s see what happens when it’s in the middle of practice rather than on their own on the side.’
“He’s passed all those tests. Every step along the way, he’s done a good job with that. So the next thing is when the game’s live and guys are really bearing down on him and there’s pressure involved in the kick. But that’s something that won’t come for a while now. He’s done a nice job working through all the different things that are new to him. That’s encouraging to see.”
It certainly is encouraging for anyone who saw the shell of David Akers in San Francisco last year. Only one kicker, Green Bay’s Mason Crosby, was less accurate on field goals in 2012 than Akers, and nobody missed more field goals between 40 and 50 yards than Akers. He ended the year with a hip injury that continues to keep him sidelined. At 38, regaining his former self is no safe bet for Akers. It will be very interesting to see how the battle settles out over the summer, but I know most fans are openly pining for Kickalicious. If he wins the gig, expect to see a lot of customized jerseys. For your viewing pleasure, here is the video that made Kickalicious famous: