Football is officially back. Today, the Detroit Lions will take on the New York Jets in their first week of preseason football for the 2015 season. The starters will not play much, maybe just the first quarter, possibly less. There are several changes to the team that both coaches and fans want to see in action. Fans want to see that the team is not worse off after the offseason that the Lions had. Coaches want to see who can earn a starting role. And like every other year, Martin Mayhew wants to see which undrafted free agents are actually good enough to make the team. With all of that being said, I would like to outline a few things to watch for in tonight’s pre-season battle.
Ameer Abdullah – The Detroit Lions let Reggie Bush go in the offseason and replaced him with second round pick Ameer Abdullah. At the time of Abdullah’s selection, there were several highly touted running backs available, including 2000 yard rusher Tevin Coleman. The Lions selected Abdullah and since then, he has impressed. Players are calling him a play maker. His catching skills are said to be better than Reggie Bush’s. He is elusive, as one player put it “we cant even touch the guy”. Barry Sanders has even chimed in stating that he is impressed with what he has seen of Abdullah. The problem here is, we heard similar about Theo Riddick. Riddick ended up being mostly hype, although his receiving skills are excellent. Watch Adbullah run. See if he appears elusive. Watch for him to hit the holes and gain positive yards. Ultimately, we need to see if he is what we have heard he is.
The Offensive Line – While this is not going to be a definitive picture of what to expect this season with starters still being determined and players still recovering from injuries, but it will give us an idea of whether or not the team’s work to improve the offensive line this season was successful. The Lions chose to not re-sign Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims in the offseason. Those players were replaced with Travis Swanson, Laken Tomlinson, and Manny Ramirez. Ramirez has experience as a starter in the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos so he is expected to be a very good addition to the offensive line, at least in terms of leadership and knowledge. Tomlinson and Swanson are going to be the future of the team, and paired with veteran Larry Warford, the running game should improve. Sims and Raiola were a part of a unit that struggled to run the ball over their years in Detroit. As a fan, I am interested in seeing if the run blocking improves and if the quarterback has more time to make a decision with the ball.
Backup Running Backs – Behind Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, and Theo Riddick the Lions are thin at running back. Several undrafted players are competing for a chance to make the team as the fourth running back should the Lions keep four. George Winn, in theory, has the edge due to his year of experience in the offense and his special teams ability. Zach Zenner and Dez Martin are fighting for that spot as well, but they would have to stand out as a runner in order to take the edge over Winn. Zenner was excellent in college, but he played against weaker competition. Martin played locally at Wayne State and could earn a practice squad spot if he shines in pre-season. Especially since current Detroit starter Joique Bell was a practice squad player from Wayne State.
Wide Receivers – The focus here is which receivers will stand out to take the third, fourth, and maybe fifth spots. Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson are locks. Behind them is a logjam of Corey Fuller, Lance Moore, Ryan Broyles, Andrew Peacock, TJ Jones, Jeremy Ross and a few other undrafted guys. In all likelihood, the spots will go to some combination of Fuller, Moore, Broyles, Ross and Jones. With only two or three spots open, expect at least two of those five to not be Lions this season. Broyles seems likely to get the axe given his injury history and lack of playing time last season while healthy. Ross could be another given his only hold on the position was his return abilities and now he has plenty of competition there as well. Jones is a big question mark as he is a second year player who was hurt all last season. He may make the team or he may end up getting cut with the hopes of him making the practice squad. This pre-season should show us.
While there are plenty more concerns, especially the defensive line, this first game is not really going to show us much. I would expect to see more from these other positions, and even the ones listed above, in later pre-season games. With Abdullah expected to get a good share of the carries tonight, watching for him and the receivers will be a good indicator of what we have going forward.