After an up and down season, the Lions added talent in the offseason through both free agency and the NFL Draft. Those new additions have created training camp battles for starting roles. Justin Twell looks at three Detroit Lions training camp battles that he’s watching.
The 2015 NFL season was an interesting one for the Detroit Lions to say the least. Entering their Week 9 bye they were 1-7 with their season all but over. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was fired after Week 7 while Team President Tom Lewand and General Manager Martin Mayhew joined him on the unemployment list during the bye week. But the Lions staged an impressive turnaround coming out of the bye, going 6-2 the rest of the way to finish 7-9.
Can the Lions build off that impressive second half of 2015? As they enter training camp, expect them to look back at what they accomplished to generate some confidence heading into 2016. In that vein, let’s now look at some expected training camp battles to see how things might shape up for the 2016 Detroit Lions.
Left and Right Tackle
This will be perhaps the most interesting area to watch heading into training camp. The last two seasons the Lions had 2012 first-round draft pick Riley Reiff protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford’s blind side. With Reiff entering the last year of his contract, the Lions drafted Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker with the 16th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, and signs point to the Lions slotting him into the left tackle spot – where he has been lined up during OTAs. However, we don’t know what that means for Reiff.
We probably won’t know for sure if this is how the tackle positions will shake out until the end of preseason; by the end of training camp, however, we may get a better idea as to who will play left and who will play right.
Who wins the battle?
Don’t rule out Reiff keeping the left tackle spot. He is entering a contract year and will be aware that this upcoming training camp may well be the most important of his career. Reiff brings experience to the left side of the line, and while not an elite LT, he is not a bad player either.
With the reps Decker has been receiving during OTAs, the Lions are clearly looking to the future, so expect Decker eventually to play at left tackle. For now, though, I see the Lions keeping Reiff at left tackle, giving him a chance to really impress in his contract year. If he doesn’t, then the Lions know their left tackle of the future is waiting in the wings in Decker.
Ezekiel Ansah is a lock to start at one of the defensive end spots. He’s coming off of a 14.5-sack campaign and the Lions have picked up his fifth-year option. Question is, who will line up at the other end spot in the Lions 4-3 defense?
The answer to this question looks to be a choice between career backup Devin Taylor and recently acquired, veteran journeyman Wallace Gilberry. The Lions are thin at the position with the only other defensive ends on the roster entering training camp being rookie sixth-round pick Anthony Zettel, undrafted free agent Deonte Gibson, and Brandon Copeland, who saw his first NFL action last season after bouncing between the NFL and Arena Football League since 2013, and was signed only after participating in the veterans combine.
Who wins the battle?
This is an easier battle to predict with Taylor the front-runner to be named starter. Taylor is coming off a nice season, registering a combined 35 tackles with 7 sacks, 4 of which came in the last five games of 2015.
At 26 years old he is younger than Gilberry, who did not show he can be an effective starter the last two seasons in Cincinnati. Zettel could also be worth watching in training camp, as he could very well enter the race for a backup spot.
Another area where the Lions are pretty thin and need improved play is at strong safety. James Ihedigbo, who began last year as the starter, is still a free agent, and Isa Abdul-Quddus, who ended the year as the starter, left in free agency to join the Miami Dolphins.
Enter former New Orleans Saints safety Rafael Bush and former New England Patriots backup safety Tavon Wilson. The Lions also drafted Southern Utah safety Miles Killebrew in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft; this certainly looks to be quite the open competition.
Who wins the battle?
Bush enters this battle with something of an injury history. Last season he only played in one game before a torn pectoral muscle injury sidelined him for the season. He has, however, shown that he can be a solid contributor – when healthy – and is the likely favorite to start opposite Glover Quin.
He’ll be constantly looking over his shoulder during training camp, though, as Killebrew could unseat Bush with a strong showing. Killebrew is a hybrid safety who can come up and play a linebacker-type role in certain situations. What works against Killebrew is his lack of anticipation, but he is definitely a dark horse candidate for the position. However, I give the edge to the more experienced Bush to be named the starter leaving camp.
Note: The Detroit Lions rookies report to training camp on July 23, followed by the veterans on the 28th, at the Detroit Lions training facility in Allen Park, MI.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Brandon Copeland had not played in the NFL since 2013. Copeland played for the Lions last season, recording 6 tackles and 0.5 sacks. Thanks to @mork1215 for the heads up.