By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Despite plenty of potential, the Detroit Lions disappointed fans again last season. Sunday, however, players report for training camp, and a new season begins, with practices starting Monday. Here are a few elements to keep an eye on.
New Head Coach Jim Caldwell
When Caldwell took questions about players during voluntary workouts and during minicamp, he often refrained from offering much analysis, citing that padded practices would reveal more about each individual. The new coach plays it close to the vest when it comes to talking with media, but it will be interesting to see what insights he shares once he gets to see the group playing in pads.
What fans who attend training camp will likely notice first is how Caldwell’s demeanor contrasts sharply with that of former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who once thrashed an unsuspecting headset in public and who also made headlines thanks to an attempted postgame run-in with Jim Harbaugh following an apparently offensive handshake.
Players – and former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who is still with the team – have raved about Caldwell and his new staff. Whether that apparent respect for Caldwell produces a better team in terms of effort, chemistry and on-field execution remains to be seen, and while ultimately only the games matter, training camp should provide a sneak peek at Caldwell’s effect on the Lions.
Right tackle – Jason Fox won the starting job last season, but when he got hurt, Corey Hilliard filled in competently. When Hilliard went down, undrafted rookie free agent LaAdrian Waddle took his place, and Waddle turned out to be one of the most surprising and impressive rookies in the entire league. Fox is now with the Miami Dolphins, so Hilliard and Waddle will compete for the starting role. Since Waddle handled the job so well last season, he probably enters training camp with the advantage over the veteran Hilliard. A close competition, no matter which way it goes, should yield a solid backup.
Running back – Reggie Bush and Joique Bell established themselves as one of the NFL’s most formidable tandems in 2013, but the buzz in the offseason has been all about Theo Riddick, who got increased carries in the absence of Bell, who is out due to injury. Bush and Bell looked solid together in 2013, while Riddick did not see many carries or catches, but since the Lions have a new coaching staff and a new offense to boot, Bush, Bell and Riddick could all be used in various combinations this season.
Tight end – Joe Fauria danced his way into the hearts of many Lions fans in 2013, bursting onto the scene as an undrafted rookie free agent who found his way into the end zone and made a spectacle once he got there. Used primarily in the red zone in 2013 and often classified as only average in terms of blocking, Fauria’s role in 2014 is uncertain. The Lions already have veteran Brandon Pettigrew, and they added another tight end in first-round pick Eric Ebron. The Lions could use all three, however, and coaches have said Fauria still has a role. How it all unfolds should be fascinating to watch.
The Lions have listed defensive end Ziggy Ansah and wide receivers Golden Tate and TJ Jones as physically unable to perform. Ansah had eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013, when he played in 14 games for the Lions. Tate is the team’s splashiest offseason acquisition, fresh from the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks. Jones is a sixth-round draft pick, so the loss of his services, while unfortunate for him, would not impact the Lions much this season, but Ansah and Tate are expected to play major roles in the defense and offense, respectively, so their progress will be another story line to follow.