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NFL camp openings: Detroit Lions must rebuild wall to protect Matthew Stafford

By
The Sports Xchange
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford avoids pressure during a game against the New York Giants last season. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford avoids pressure during a game against the New York Giants last season. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When the Detroit Lions veterans reported Saturday (July 29) to fill out the training camp roster, quarterback Matthew Stafford was better prepared than previous years and, with his problematic finger healed, healthy and ready to go.

And the Lions want to keep him that way.

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That means they must focus on the offensive line, where left tackle Taylor Decker looked great as a rookie last season, but tore the labrum in his right shoulder last month and is expected to miss half the season.

Decker's potential replacements include draft bust Greg Robinson, acquired in a June trade with the Los Angeles Rams; oft-injured backup Corey Robinson, who missed all spring rehabbing from foot surgery; late-spring free-agent addition Cyrus Kouandjio, who was waived by the Buffalo Bills after a series of weird off-field incidents this year; and the underwhelming Cornelius Lucas.

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On Saturday, backup guard Brandon Thomas and erstwhile starting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah were designated as physically unable to perform (PUP), while Greg Robinson and defensive end Cornelius Washington were placed on the non-football injury list.

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On the other side of the ledger, Kouandjio and cornerback Teez Tabor were taken off injured lists and should be good to go in the first practice Sunday.

This probably means Kouandjio and not Robinson will get first shot at replacing Decker at left tackle. Also, it opens a spot for someone to push Washington early at defensive end.

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It was revealed that Stafford went against his previous beliefs in the offseason and hired a private quarterback coach. He would not name the mentor, but reports indicate it may have been Tom House of 3DQB, whose most notable recent client was Matt Ryan, who led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl last season.

"I just think I want what's best for this team -- I want what's best for me as a player," Stafford said Saturday after reporting for training camp. "If I play well, our team is going to play well. It just goes to preparation and doing everything you possibly can.

"When you're competing against yourself to be as good as you can possibly be, then why not give everything you got and find different people with different ideas who maybe can help you out?" Stafford said. "I just thought it was an opportunity and I went for it and enjoyed it."

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THE FACTS:

TRAINING CAMP: Lions Headquarters and Training Facility; Allen Park, Mich.

COACH: Jim Caldwell

4th season with Lions

27-23 overall; postseason 0-2

7th season as NFL head coach

55-47 overall; 2-4 postseason

THE BREAKDOWN

2016 finish: 2nd NFC North (9-7)

STATISTICS

TOTAL OFFENSE: 338.8 (21st)

RUSHING: 81.9 (30th)

PASSING: 256.9 (11th)

TOTAL DEFENSE: 354.8 (18th)

RUSHING: 106.3 (18th)

PASSING: 248.4 (19th)

2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE

All times Eastern

Aug. 13, at Indianapolis, 1:30

Aug. 19, N.Y. JETS (Sat), 7:30

Aug. 25, NEW ENGLAND (Fri), 7:00

Aug. 31, at Buffalo (Thu), 7:00

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matthew Stafford. Backups - Jake Rudock, Brad Kaaya.

The Lions' hope this year rests largely on Stafford and the continuing maturation of his game. Stafford had arguably his best season as a pro last year, leading the Lions to eight come-from-behind victories, and he's in line to land a record contract extension soon. If he stays healthy, the Lions should be in the NFC North race. If not, they'll turn the team over to Rudock, a sixth-round pick last year who spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad.

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RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Ameer Abdullah. Backups - Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Matt Asiata, Tion Green, Mike James.

The Lions ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing last season when Abdullah and Riddick combined to play in just 12 games because of injuries. Abdullah is healthy after undergoing Lisfranc surgery, while Riddick missed all of spring coming off double-wrist surgery. Abdullah should get the bulk of the carries this fall, with Riddick contributing as a pass-catching back and Zenner playing in a backup role.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Eric Ebron, Darren Fells. Backups - Michael Roberts, Cole Wick, Robert Tonyan, Brandon Barnes, Khari Lee.

Ebron has made steady improvement in his first three NFL seasons and the Lions are counting on another step forward this fall as he'll be an integral part of a passing game given the Lions' lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Fells is expected to play significant snaps as a blocking tight end, and the Lions spent a fourth-round pick on Roberts in April. Wick enters camp as the favorite for the fourth tight-end spot, assuming the Lions go deep at the position again.

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WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Golden Tate, Marvin Jones. Backups - Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones, Keshawn Martin, Jace Billingsley, Jared Abbrederis, Noel Thomas, Ryan Spadola, Michael Rector, Dontez Ford.

Tate led the Lions in receptions in each of his three seasons in Detroit, but he's surrounded by an underwhelming cast of receivers. Marvin Jones had a disappointing first season in Detroit last year, though he is still the team's No. 1 deep threat. Golladay, a third-round pick out of Northern Illinois, had a promising spring, but rookie receivers tend to struggle in their first season. And TJ Jones, Martin and Abbrederis are among those dueling for the No. 4 receiver spot - a competition that might be decided by who wins the return job.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Taylor Decker, LG Graham Glasgow, C Travis Swanson, RG T.J. Lang, RT Rick Wagner. Backups - LT Greg Robinson, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, T Cornelius Lucas, T Corey Robinson, T Tony Hills, T Storm Norton, G Laken Tomlinson, G Brandon Thomas, G Matt Rotheram, C Leo Koloamatangi.

The Lions have put a huge emphasis on upgrading their offensive line under general manager Bob Quinn, but still enter this season with significant questions up front. Decker is out, likely for half the season or more, following June surgery on a torn labrum. Greg Robinson is the favorite to start in his absence, though he hasn't practiced with the team after a June trade. Corey Robinson was the No. 3 tackle last year, but is coming off foot surgery. Lang, one of two big offseason additions along with Wagner, should be a fine addition at guard once he's recovered from January hip surgery, and Swanson missed a month last year with a concussion.

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DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - RDE Ziggy Ansah, DT A'Shawn Robinson, DT Haloti Ngata, LDE Kerry Hyder. Backups -- DE Armonty Bryant, DE Cornelius Washington, DE Brandon Copeland, DE Anthony Zettel, DE Pat O'Connor, DE Alex Barrett, DE Jeremiah Valoaga, DT Khyri Thornton, DT Akeem Spence, DT Jordan Hill, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Bruce Gaston, DT Jeremiah Ledbetter.

When Ansah was healthy two seasons ago, he was one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. The Lions are counting on him returning to form this fall after a high ankle sprain limited him to just two sacks last season. If Ansah can't recapture that form, the Lions could be in for a long season as they have no other proven pass rushers up front. Hyder had eight sacks last season, but just one in the last eight games (including the playoffs). Washington should push for a starting job at left end, while Robinson and Ngata are a nice tandem inside, though one that won't put up big sack numbers. Spence is the top interior backup, while Thornton will serve a six-game suspension to start the year. Bryant begins the season with a four-game suspension giving Zettel a shot to to be the fourth end in the rotation at the beginning of the season.

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LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Tahir Whitehead, MLB Jarrad Davis, OLB Paul Worrilow. Backups - Antwione Williams, Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, Thurston Armbrister, Nick Bellore, Steve Longa.

Davis, the Lions' first-round pick, takes over as the starting middle linebacker and play-caller on a defense that ranked 18th in the NFL last year. Whitehead, the team's leading tackler in 2016, is moving to outside linebacker and sat out all spring recovering from a knee injury. Worrilow can play middle or weak-side linebacker, and Williams will compete for time on the strong side. The Lions are high on fourth-round pick Reeves-Maybin, and plenty of linebackers should see the field in different packages.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Darius Slay, RCB Nevin Lawson, FS Glover Quin, SS Tavon Wilson. Backups - CB D.J. Hayden, CB Teez Tabor, CB Quandre Diggs, CB Jamal Agnew, CB Johnson Bademosi, CB Adarius Barnes, CB Des Lawrence, CB Josh Thornton, S Don Carey, S Miles Killebrew, S Alex Carter, S Rolan Milligan, S Charles Washington.

The Lions did a good job building depth in the secondary. Slay has emerged as one of the better cornerbacks in the game, and Lawson is an underrated defender. Hayden and rookies Tabor, a second-round pick, and Agnew, a fifth-rounder, should compete for time in nickel packages, with Hayden and Agnew having the ability to play inside. Quin is the NFL's ironman at safety, while Killebrew should see his role expand after playing primarily as a dime defender as a rookie. Carter, a third-round pick by Martin Mayhew at cornerback, is trying to make the team at safety.

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SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, P Sam Martin, P Kasey Redfern, LS Don Muhlbach, KOR Keshawn Martin, PR TJ Jones.

Prater and Martin form one of the best kicking tandems in the NFL. Both were Pro-Bowl alternates last season, when Prater made six game-winning or game-tying field goals and Martin set a franchise record for net punting. The ageless Muhlbach returns as long snapper, but the Lions have legitimate questions about who will handle return duties this fall. Martin and Jones can return both kickoffs and punts, and Jace Billingsley and Jamal Agnew could be in the mix as well.

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