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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: Detroit Lions

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In 2011, the Lions looked like one of the NFL’s up-and-coming teams, with young high draft picks like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh leading them to the playoffs.

And then the Lions came back to earth with a thud in 2012.

The Lions’ 12-loss season in ’12 was a disaster on the field, not to mention off the field, where the Lions became the poster boys for bad behavior in the NFL. This offseason has been a little quieter in Detroit, but will that lead to a better season on the field?

Our six-person PFT panel voted the Lions the NFL’s No. 20 team this season. We explore the reasons for that ranking below.

Strengths.

It all starts with the passing game, where the highly paid Matthew Stafford and the even more highly paid Calvin Johnson are one of the best young combinations in football. Johnson, who broke the all-time single-season receiving yards record last year, is one of the most talented receivers in NFL history. Players with his size, athletic ability and sure hands just don’t come along very often, and there’s every reason to believe that Megatron will continue to be one of the league’s elite offensive players.

Based on pure talent, the Lions also have a defensive line that could make scouts drool, but it remains to be seen whether that talent will translate into great results. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has said that he thinks he and Ndamukong Suh are the best pair of tackles in the NFL, although Suh wisely said he’d rather let his play do the talking on that one. Ziggy Ansah, the defensive end whom the Lions picked with the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft, also has freakish athletic talent, but he’s still new to the sport and may not be ready to be an every-down player as a rookie.

The secondary has been a weakness of the Lions, but they could be strong at safety if Louis Delmas can stay healthy and new arrival Glover Quin can play as well for Detroit as he did for Houston. Delmas and Quin have the ability to be one of the better safety combinations in the league.

Weaknesses.

The Lions’ offensive line struggled last season, and it remains to be seen whether things will get any better this year. At first blush, it would actually appear that the line has gotten worse: Starting left tackle Jeff Backus retired, starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus left to take a big contract with the Colts, and starting right guard Stephen Peterman was a cap casualty who ended up signing with the Jets. The best the Lions can hope for is that 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff proves to be ready to fill Backus’s shoes and that some combination of holdovers Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox, rookie Larry Warford and veteran additions Jake Scott and Leroy Harris can take up the two spots on the right side of the line.

Special teams were a disaster for the Lions last year, and kick coverage was the biggest reason that the Lions quickly dropped to the bottom of the NFC North: Detroit’s 1-3 start included back-to-back losses to the Vikings and Titans in which the Lions gave up both a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown, making them the first team in NFL history to accomplish that dubious feat. If the Lions’ kick coverage had gotten the job done, there’s a good chance they would have started 3-1 instead of 1-3. Kick returner Stefan Logan also had a disastrous season. The special teams absolutely must get better this year.

Changes.

Reggie Bush is the highest-profile addition to the Lions, and he has the potential to be a game-changer. The Lions got just about nothing in the way of big plays from their running game last year: Mikel Leshoure, their leading rusher, never had a run of more than 16 yards all season. Bush is the kind of big-play threat who can change that, and he said after he signed with the Lions that he’s licking his chops from watching film of the way defenses leave running lanes open while focusing most of their attention on stopping Megatron. Bush could also have the kind of impact on the passing game that Jahvid Best had before concussions derailed him during the 2011 season. Best had 27 catches for 287 yards in six games in 2011 before his season came to an end.

An even more noteworthy change may be that Jason Hanson, the Lions kicker who set an all-time NFL record for the most games played with one team, has finally called it a career. He’s been replaced by David Akers, who struggled with accuracy last year with the 49ers but who has a stronger leg than Hanson. The Lions need Akers to find his accuracy, but if he can, he’ll help turn around their special teams.

Both of last year’s starting defensive ends, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, are gone. Ansah will take over one of the starting spots, and the other is likely to be filled by Jason Jones, who was a backup for the Seahawks last season. The Lions have to hope that Ansah and Jones can fill in for Vanden Bosch and Avril without missing a beat.

Camp Battles.

The right side of the offensive line will be up in the air going into training camp. At right tackle, Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox will compete, but it’s unlikely that either will be as good as last year’s starter, Gosder Cherilus. At right guard, rookie Larry Warford is the favorite to start, but Jake Scott and Leroy Harris will be around if Warford isn’t ready yet.

At cornerback, Chris Houston will be one of the starters, but the other starting spot is wide open. The Lions would love it if second-round pick Darius Slay can prove in training camp that he’s ready to be an NFL starter from Day One of his pro career, but if Slay needs some time to develop, the starting job could go to any of last year’s three cornerback draft picks (Jonte Green, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood) or veteran Ronald Bartell.

Prospects.

The Lions’ leadership simply can’t afford another 4-12 season. It would be hard to justify G.M. Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz keeping their jobs in that scenario. So improvement is important.

And improvement is also likely: This team has too much talent to be as bad this year as it was last year.

Still, the outlook for the Lions isn’t great. They look like the worst team in the NFC North, and a second consecutive last-place finish is likely.

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Gareon Conley to give DNA sample, interview with police Monday

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Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley will speak to Cleveland police about the sexual assault allegations made against him on Monday.

That was the word from Conley’s attorney Kevin Spellacy on Thursday, a few hours ahead of the start of the first round of the NFL Draft. Conley, who has not been charged with any crime, was considered to be a likely pick during that round before the allegations surfaced, but the uncertainty could leave him on the board until Friday.

Spellacy also told Cleveland.com that his client will provide a DNA sample to authorities and that he is trying to get video footage from the hotel where the alleged incident took place. Conley called the allegations “untrue, wrongful and malicious” in a statement released on Wednesday.

Conley was initially scheduled to attend the draft in Philadelphia, but changed those plans after the allegations went public earlier this week.

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Report: Browns will pick Myles Garrett first overall

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With the first overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns will select Myles Garrett, defensive end from Texas A&M.

That’s the word from Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, who reports that the Browns’ decision makers had one last meeting this afternoon and solidified the decision to draft Garrett.

Garrett has been the favorite to be the first overall pick for months, but in the last couple of days a slew of reports have suggested that the Browns could go with North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky instead.

It’s still possible that Trubisky could land in Cleveland, as the Browns also own the 12th overall pick and might move up to get the quarterback they want. But with the first pick, they’re going with Garrett, just as everyone thought they would all along.

And with that, the San Francisco 49ers are on the clock at No. 2.

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Cowboys waive suspended wideout Shaquelle Evans

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Wide receiver Shaquelle Evans will serve a four-game suspension to start the 2017 season, but he won’t have a chance to show the Cowboys he’s worth keeping around until he’s eligible to play.

The Cowboys announced Thursday that they have waived Evans off of their 90-man roster. The league announced Evans was suspended for violating the substance-abuse policy last Friday.

Evans was drafted by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, but spent his rookie year on injured reserve and was waived coming out of the preseason in 2015. He spent time on the Jaguars and Patriots practice squads before landing with the Cowboys and has never seen any regular season action.

The Cowboys already had enough space on their roster to fit in all of their draft picks, but Evans’ departure opens up a spot they can fill with an undrafted free agent when that signing frenzy takes place after the end of the seventh round on Saturday.

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Cowboys still showing interest in Gareon Conley

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Two years ago, the Cowboys signed La’El Collins after he fell all the way from the first round to undrafted when he was falsely suspected of being involved in the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Now the Cowboys may think they can get another bargain on a prospect who is under criminal investigation.

The Cowboys are still showing interest in Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley and called him yesterday, according to Tom Pelissero of USA Today. Conley previously took a pre-draft visit to Dallas.

Conley, the Ohio State cornerback who was expected to be drafted in the first round, was named this week as a suspect in a rape investigation. He has professed his innocence and has not been charged.

Unlike Collins, Conley is still expected to be drafted, and there is still an outside chance he could be drafted tonight.

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Report: Falcons could trade up in first round

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We’ve heard a lot this week about teams drafting early that would like to trade down in the first round and the lack of interest from buyers, but there are some teams that are reportedly open to such a move.

The Broncos are reportedly looking to move up from No. 20 and the 2016 NFC champions may be joining them in that pursuit. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the Falcons are “plotting a potential move” during the first round on Thursday.

Any move up wouldn’t be done just for the sake of picking earlier in the process, so any deal will almost certainly be contingent on a player the Falcons want being available at the right spot. It’s not clear who that player would be, but pass rusher and guard would be two spots where an addition would make sense.

Unless they are planning something similar to the trade that netted them the pick they used to select Julio Jones, that would seem likely to be somewhere near the end of the round as moving way up from No. 31 would cost Atlanta a lot.

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Report: Broncos looking to trade up

AP

At a time when plenty of teams in the first round would like to trade down, there’s not an overabundance looking to trade up. One franchise exploring it, according to Adam “Stella Liebeck” Schefter of ESPN is the Broncos.

Denver currently sits at No. 20. If they’re looking to move up, it’s not because they generally want a higher position; it’s because they have a specific player or two in mind.

One could be local product Christian McCaffrey, the son of former Broncos receiver Ed. Earlier this week, Broncos G.M. John Elway laughed off the team’s pre-draft meeting with McCaffrey.

“He was close and it was free,” Elway said, laughing. “And we wanted to meet with him. He’s a great kid. We like Christian a lot and we wanted to bring him in. It was one of those [where] he was in the area, so we wanted to take advantage of that to get to see him again. He’s a great kid.”

With McCaffrey expected to go between No. 5 and No. 15, the Broncos could possibly get him without having to go up very far.

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Carson Wentz had laser eye surgery

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Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz should be able to see downfield better this season.

Wentz revealed that he had laser eye surgery this offseason after playing with contact lenses during his rookie year.

“I had PRK done, so it was very helpful,” Wentz said on WIP. “It’s pretty cool to wake up in the morning and not have to throw contacts in. It’s been very beneficial.”

Wentz isn’t the only NFC East quarterback who’s had laser eye surgery. Washington’s Kirk Cousins said the surgery left him with vision that was better than 20/20.

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Morgan Moses signs five-year contract extension

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Morgan Moses had to wait until the third round of the 2014 draft before he heard his name called, but he won’t have to wait for the expiration of his rookie contract before he signs another one.

According to multiple reports, Moses has signed a five-year extension with the Redskins. Full financial details haven’t been reported, but Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the deal will leave Moses as the second highest-paid right tackle in the league. Lane Johnson of the Eagles is currently at the top of that list with a deal that averages $11.25 million a year.

Moses, who wound up as the 66th pick of that draft, has started every game for Washington over the last two seasons. He has shown steady improvement over that span and it’s a good bet that the Redskins see more of that in his future to lock him up at this point.

Left tackle Trent Williams is signed through the 2020 season, so the team has their tackles under contract for a good long time as a result of Moses’ agreement.

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Why does the Commissioner keep calling out player names at the draft?

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Here’s a question that usually emerges during or after the first night of the draft: Why does Commissioner Roger Goodell continue to subject himself to this?

He’ll be booed tonight. Relentlessly. And not just because the draft is being held in Philadelphia. (He’d get booed in Fargo, too. Albeit politely.)

It’s become a given for Goodell. Loud boos. Long boos. Boos that last well beyond the first day of the draft. So why do it? From Goodell’s perspective, he can view it as a cost of doing business. And the business includes getting paid a lot of money to be a gigantic pin cushion for the owners.

But the owners surely don’t like having the scene undermined by open displays of derision. At what point do they intervene and say, “Look, we need to hire Morgan Freeman or Sam Elliott or someone else with a distinctive voice, a commanding presence, and no other connection to the league to call out these names”?

It doesn’t have to be the Commissioner. And, really, it shouldn’t be the Commissioner. Unless the goal is to keep as much reality as possible in the ultimate reality show, the NFL should realize that the event has grown to the point where the guy in charge doesn’t have to be the guy who saunters to the microphone and calls out the pick.

Of course, change could be viewed as capitulation to the masses. Goodell likely isn’t interested in doing that. Which means he’ll continue to bite his lip, fill his ears with cotton (if he isn’t doing that he should), and get through it.

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McCaffrey’s likely window: No. 5 to No. 15

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As the draft has approached, a popular theory has emerged linking running back Christian McCaffrey to the Panthers at No. 8. (Indeed, that’s where he resides in the 2017 PFT Worst Mock Draft Ever.)

A source with knowledge of the dynamics believes the McCaffrey chatter is likely a smokescreen, one of the many that are wafting through the air like whatever Phil Simms pushed in the direction of Jim Nantz. Regardless of whether Carolina pulls the trigger, the expected range for McCaffrey currently is No. 5 through No. 15.

This means that if a team picking between No. 9 and No. 15 believes the Panthers chatter, that team could trade up to jump the Panthers.

If McCaffrey indeed goes in the top 15, the team that takes him needs to be ready to embrace him, fully and completely and not as a member of a three-man rotation. Picks that high should be reserved only to players who will be on the field all the time; if the team that takes him isn’t prepared to do that, the team shouldn’t take him.

McCaffrey’s ability to play tailback and slot receiver makes him conducive to a team that will use the no-huddle offense from time to time, allowing McCaffrey to be deployed in various ways in the hopes of creating mismatches. If McCaffrey plays at the next level like he played in college, he could instantly be a difference-maker. The current indications are that at least one team picking in the first half of round one will feel that way.

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Report: Scot McCloughan has advised teams on draft since being fired

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Earlier this offseason, Scot McCloughan was relieved of his duties as the General Manager of the Redskins in a move that came after the team had already started work on this year’s draft board.

Director of college scouting Scott Campbell confirmed this week that McCloughan’s influence could be seen on that draft board although he added that there have been adjustments made to any work that McCloughan was familiar with before his departure. They might not be the only team to have McCloughan’s influence on their pre-draft work.

Mike Garafolo of NFL Media reports that McCloughan has returned to run the scouting service he operated between jobs with the 49ers and Redskins and has worked as an advisor with other teams on this year’s draft since being fired. Per Garafolo, McCloughan is “not giving up” Washington’s information although it seems likely that some of the thoughts he shared with other teams will be similar to what he did before being let go.

There’s no reason to think that his former team has stuck with what McCloughan gave them before he was ousted, but if they remain high on any players McCloughan was pushing they should likely be prepared for other teams to have strong recommendations about some of the same names.

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How many quarterbacks will go in round one?

Every year, it’s one of the biggest questions entering the first night of the draft. And every year we seem to be surprised in some way by the outcome.

This year, it’s still unclear how many quarterbacks will go in round one. Three is the safest guess. Four accounts for a team like the Chiefs or Steelers taking Davis Webb, or some other team trading back in to the first round to get him. Five is even possible, if someone decides to grab DeShone Kizer before teams at the top of round two get a crack at him.

And then there’s Nathan Peterman, who most likely won’t have a shot at going in round one, but who could end up being a second-day bargain — a guy who develops more quietly and without the expectations that come from being a first-round pick.

This year, I’ve interviewed each of the top six quarterbacks, some more than once: Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Webb, Kizer, and Peterman. They each came off as smart and engaging, as guys who could capably lead an NFL offense.

Trubisky has a demeanor that seems confident, humble, and even-keeled. Watson has a quiet fire that he seems to know how to harness — and how to unleash on the biggest stages. Mahomes exudes a more youthful vibe, and he seems to be unfazed by the prospect of taking his game to the next level.

Webb comes off as earnest but sincere, a kid who loves football and can’t get enough of it, with a clear plan to coach once his playing career ends. Kizer seems like anything but a diva; he’s fully self-aware and eager to embrace the challenge of playing pro football. And Peterman has a relaxed demeanor that will allow a player to get the most out of his skills.

Of course, the biggest factors that will allow these quarterbacks to get the most out of their skills relate not to them but to their situations — coaches, systems, teammates, front offices, owners, etc. Also, the higher a guy goes, the greater the weight on his shoulders. (Conversely, the lower he goes the bigger the chip.)

Any of them could be successful, if they land in the right spot. The nature of the draft takes that completely out of their hands, putting each at the mercy of which teams pick them and whether those teams can make them successful. It’s one more reason why the players should be picking the teams and not vice-versa, but that unpopular, player-friendly view is never less popular than it will be today.

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Marshon Lattimore on inexperience concerns: I’m only going to get better

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Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been a staple in the top end of mock drafts over the last few months and he will be in Philadelphia on Thursday night with the expectation that his name will be among the first called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

If Lattimore does go any later than expected, two of the possible reasons why will likely be his injury history from college and resulting inexperience. Lattimore played in just 16 games, 13 of them last year, during his time in Columbus because of hamstring injuries.

Lattimore said Wednesday that his hamstrings are “fine” and that teams will regret passing on him for either reason over the long run.

“I’m only going to get better,” Lattimore said, via NJ.com. “I’m not even in my prime yet. I showed [last season] that I can play, and people saw that. But with the body of work, man, I feel like I did a lot to contribute to my team. If people want to drop me because of that, too, it’s fine with me.”

It doesn’t seem like too many teams have dropped Lattimore too far down their boards, but we’ll find out for sure sooner rather than later.

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18 players are sure-thing first-round picks, if mock drafts are right

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As we wade through the final mock drafts in the hours before the real draft allows us to throw the mocks away, there are 18 players who appear to be sure-thing first-round draft picks.

That’s based on this compilation of mock drafts from Tom Gower of Football Outsiders, which has 18 players who make every mock draft.

At the top is Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, who is either the first overall pick or the second overall pick in all 14 of the mock drafts included by Gower. In all the mock drafts where Garrett doesn’t go first overall, North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky goes first.

Other than Garrett, no one is a Top 5 pick in every mock draft. Only three other players are in the Top 10 in every mock: LSU safety Jamal Adams, who ranges from No. 2 to No. 6, Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, who ranges from No. 2 to No. 9, and LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who ranges from No. 4 to No. 9.

Here’s the list of 18 players who appear in every first round mock draft, with the range of picks in which they go off the board.

Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett 1-2
North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky 1-12
LSU S Jamal Adams 2-6
Stanford DE Solomon Thomas 2-9
Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore 3-12
LSU RB Leonard Fournette 4-9
Alabama DE Jonathan Allen 4-17
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson 4-32
Alabama TE O.J. Howard 5-12
Clemson WR Mike Williams 5-30
Ohio State S Malik Hooker 6-19
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey 7-14
Temple LB Haason Reddick 9-16
Alabama LB Reuben Foster 9-32
Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey 11-28
Missouri DE Charles Harris 11-28
Western Kentucky G Forrest Lamp 16-29
Alabama OT Cam Robinson 16-31

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Forrest Lamp is lighting it up with endorsements already

Forrest Lamp might be a pretty good NFL guard. He’s definitely a marketing genius.

The Western Kentucky offensive lineman, who could be a first-round pick tonight, has signed an endorsement deal with Los Angeles-based lighting retailer Lamps Plus.

“The opportunity to partner with Lamps Plus before my rookie NFL season, especially with my last name, is the perfect scenario,” Lamp said in a press release. “I’m confident that my girlfriend Natosha and I will have the best-decorated and most well-lit rookie home in our new team city!”

But wait, there’s more.

“While his name is perfect to endorse our company, we really like Forrest’s work ethic and enthusiasm,” Lamps Plus CEO Dennis Swanson added. “He will shine at the professional level.”

Of course, he’s still waiting to see how long he has to wait to walk into the spotlight, and if he goes too soon, there will be the inevitable shade.

But it’s a good deal for him, and it got us to mention Lamps Plus when we ordinarily wouldn’t have.

More than anything, however, it makes us wonder what Michigan tight end Jake Butt has up his, ummm, . . . sleeve.

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