The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Albert Breer visits the Detroit Lions.
Where is NFL Media?
The Lions' home base is in Allen Park, next to Dearborn, down the street from the airport and about 20 minutes from downtown. The team used to have one of the more picturesque camp sites, up north in Saginaw, but it has been back at team headquarters for a decade-and-a-half now.
1) The big question at Lions camp is how the team will find a way to replace All-Pro defender Ndamukong Suh, who was the engine behind the league's second-ranked defense. And the answer is that it won't be with one player. The hope is Ziggy Ansah takes a step forward as a pass rusher in his third season, and second-year pro Caraun Reid and rookie Gabe Wright (as well as veteran Haloti Ngata) can help pick up the slack inside. Coach Jim Caldwell conceded to me that the Lions are open to tweaking the scheme some, since it won't be quite the same without Suh in the lineup: "Maybe this year, we stunt a little more than we did before." But the truth is, Caldwell's pretty worn out by the question. "Here's the thing -- it gives you guys great stuff to talk about, right? But people leave every year," he said. "The salary cap is set up that way, every single year. I mean, just take a look. Peyton (Manning) left Indianapolis. Year after year after year, every single team, you can't keep them all. It's designed that way. So when you happen to lose a guy, it's the nature of the beast. So what you have to do is adjust, don't make any excuses and find a way to win." He added, confidently, "We should be a better team (than last year) and we must; that's the way we look at it."
2) There's a lot of excitement here over the last three draft classes, which were assembled by GM Martin Mayhew, with major input from ex-Broncos GM Brian Xanders, as well as Caldwell the last two years. The belief is there are three front-line players (Ansah, Darius Slay and Larry Warford) as well as two valuable pieces (Devin Taylor and Theo Riddick) from the 2013 class, and a couple breakout candidates (Eric Ebron and Kyle Van Noy) from last year's group. Add those two classes to a rookie crop that includes a handful of guys who are capable of contributing right away. The Lions rode their stars to playoff appearances in 2011 and last year. The difference now is that the guts of the roster is in much better shape.
3) The Lions ran 73 plays in their preseason opener against the New York Jets, a significant number when you consider Detroit exceeded it only once during the 2014 season. To Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, that's proof that the tempo they've tried to get Matthew Stafford and Co. to play at has really taken root. Caldwell spent a decade coaching an up-tempo Indy system, and Lombardi worked in a fast-break scheme in New Orleans. The coaches say the key for this team has been to get Stafford to play faster, and the strong-armed passer has done that through training camp. Having a healthy Calvin Johnson doesn't hurt either, but the man to watch here might actually be Ebron, who's turned heads internally with his improvement. If the 6-foot-4, 265-pound tight end can realize his considerable athletic potential, he can be the kind of chess piece Dallas Clark was for Caldwell in Indy, and Jimmy Graham was for Lombardi in New Orleans, which is exactly what the coaches had in mind when they drafted him 10th overall.
Laken Tomlinson, G: Coaches often say the big problem linemen face when transitioning to the pros is catching up from a playing-strength standpoint. Tomlinson doesn't have that issue. He's proven in camp to be as strong as an ox, and his intelligence should serve him well at a position that can be a tough one to adapt to as a pro, because of the amount of traffic interior linemen have to sort through.
Ameer Abdullah, RB: Plenty of ink has been spilled on the Nebraska product over the last few days, following his electric debut against the Jets. But what might be missed is how well he fits what Lombardi wants to do. With big vertical targets like Ebron and Johnson carrying coverage down the field, having Abdullah underneath could be huge for Stafford, in the same way having Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles made things that much easier for Drew Brees in New Orleans.
"The word comfort makes me nervous, because you can't get comfortable in this business. There is no room for comfort. We wanna try to keep them as uncomfortable as we possibly can in terms of understanding that we've got a mission, and it's gonna take all you have and then a little bit more. That's the challenge. ... There's no question we talk about winning and winning now. It's not a three-year process. It's a right-now winning attitude. Our guys try to get that done, and it hasn't changed this year. The Ford family, I committed to them to try and make certain we make this team measure up to a winning standard, by any measure that we can find within the rules. That's exactly what we do."
-- Jim Caldwell, on players being more comfortable in a system they won in last year.
» Yes, losing Suh is big. And Nick Fairley leaving doesn't help either. But don't underestimate C.J. Mosley's departure to Miami -- a player powerful enough to eat up blocks and take on double teams against the run, who could still get after the passer on early downs. His was an underrated role that the Lions will have to work to fill.
» Worth mentioning that there is a tie that binds the Lions' draftees of the last three years: their intelligence. One thing that's stuck out to coaches is how ready they are to play, which speaks to a renewed emphasis on finding motivated players. That's a big reason why Detroit feels comfortable about guys like Tomlinson, Abdullah and Wright earning time quickly.