The Detroit Lions are in a conversation that seemed impossible just four years ago, when they didn’t win a game. You can actually make the argument now that they are Super Bowl contenders after going to the playoffs last season.
Here are 10 storylines to follow with training camp opening Friday and the season opener just over six weeks away:
1. There is a trend in the NFL in which a team that has a breakthrough season takes a step back the following year. For instance, Tampa Bay went from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 in 2010 and then, amid rising expectations, the Buccaneers dropped to 4-12 last season. The Lions have gone from 0-16 in 2008 to 2-14 in 2009 to 6-10 in 2010 and, finally, all the way to 10-6 last year. Can they handle these increased expectations or are they destined to take a step back, too?
2. How will the team react to all of the offseason controversy, including the dismissal of cornerback Aaron Berry, who was responsible for two of the club’s league-high seven arrests since January? Is it a sign that this team is indeed undisciplined under coach Jim Schwartz? Or will players such as defensive tackle Nick Fairley and running back Mikel Leshoure use the negative attention to motivate them to produce on the field?
3. Are running back Jahvid Best’s concussion problems a thing of the past? Or does he suffer another one, which ultimately could result in his early retirement? Best suffered a severe concussion in his final college game in 2009 and then two more last season that forced him to miss 10 games. It remains to be seen when he will be cleared for full contact. His breakaway speed, combined with Leshoure’s physical style, could take this offense to an even higher level … if they’re healthy.
4. Logic suggests that it’s going to take at least part of a season, if not a full season, before Leshoure can realistically even hope to be near full strength. He is coming off surgery nearly a year ago for a torn Achilles tendon. Obviously, that’s a tough injury for a running back’s cutting ability. Leshoure, however, has been saying he expects to be full-go for the start of training camp. We’ll see.
5. Who is going to replace Berry, who was expected to replace Eric Wright, at one of the starting cornerback positions? Wright got a big free-agent offer from Tampa Bay and bolted. Berry was filling the void but he got arrested twice in a month, including a gun charge, and now is no longer a Lion. It opens the door for Alphonso Smith, who is high-risk, high-reward. He makes big plays (eight interceptions in 23 games the last two years), but also gives them up. Jacob Lacey, a free-agent pick-up from Indianapolis, is in the mix along with third-round draft pick Bill Bentley (Louisiana-Lafayette).
6. When will defensive end Cliff Avril show up? He didn’t receive the long-term contract he wanted and now has to accept the one-year franchise tender worth $10.6 million for 2012. Avril, however, hasn’t signed the tender yet and isn’t expected to report for at least a week or two. It’s understandable that he’d rather not risk an injury early in camp. However, the Lions have a chance for a special season. They need everyone on the same page as soon as possible, especially considering all the off-season turmoil.
7. The word on first-round draft pick Riley Reiff is that the front office and coaching staff expect him to play soon. The question is, how soon? Reiff was drafted with the idea of eventually replacing Jeff Backus at left tackle. Backus, who has started 176 straight games, turns 35 in September. He’s not likely to lose his spot yet unless there’s a setback following his off-season surgery for a torn biceps. If Reiff is going to start anywhere right away, it’s more likely going to be at right tackle for Gosder Cherilus.
8. The Lions had a lot of people shaking their heads after they selected Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles in the second round. After all, the team had much bigger needs than receiver and Broyles is coming off knee surgery eight months ago for a torn anterior crucial ligament. It’s unclear at this point exactly when he will be ready to participate in all of the practice drills. For now, he remains limited and will start camp on the injured list. The Lions, however, have insisted they expect him to contribute at some point this season.
9. The assumption was that Kellen Moore would be the club’s No. 3 quarterback after he signed as an undrafted free agent. Moore became the winningest quarterback in college football history at Boise State. But he doesn’t appear to be a sure thing for that role, not after the Lions decided to bring back R.J. Archer (William & Mary), who has played in the Arena League and has a little NFL experience. The final decision likely will come down to who produces in the preseason games.
10. The Lions had the league’s second-worst net punting average last season, partly because of the punters and partly because of the coverage team. The club is hoping to get some special-teams help from its rookies although Ronnell Lewis (undisclosed injury) and Chris Greenwood (abdominal surgery) will open camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Meanwhile, the competition at punter continues between Ryan Donahue (second year out of Iowa) and Ben Graham (former Australian Rules player).