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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh stands on the field during warms-ups of their NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Detroit Reuters

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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Snyder has “started the process” of planning for a new stadium

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Despite being used only 10 times per year for NFL games (plus home postseason contests and, for some, a periodic Super Bowl), NFL stadiums become obsolete in roughly a single generation.

For Washington, where FedEx Field opened in 1997, the time is approaching for a new venue.  Owner Daniel Snyder tells CSN Washington that the team has “started the process” of planning for a new home.

“Whether it’s Washington, D.C., whether it’s another stadium in Maryland, whether it’s a stadium in Virginia, we’ve started the process,” Snyder said.  “We are going to push forward.  We’ve started meeting with architectural firms.  We are in the process of developing because it is a long term that you do it.”

Snyder says the new stadium would have a throwback look and feel.

“We’ve already seen some preliminary drawings and I’m going to be very retro with it,” Snyder said.  “It’s gonna feel like RFK.  It’s gonna move like RFK.  I love that, I actually asked architectural firms to do it and they said that they can do it.  I said that I think the lower bowl sections are going to want to rock the stadium like the old days.”

Snyder didn’t give a specific timetable for opening a new stadium, but he said,  “I’d like to see it sooner than later.”  He’d also like to see it host a fairly significant annual event.

“I think this region, not only this town, this region deserves a Super Bowl,” Snyder said.  “It ought to be here, it would be a fantastic accomplishment.  It’s the biggest sporting event in the globe.  It’s the nation’s capital, it’s a no-brainer.”

It’s also a no-brainer that, as Snyder embarks on securing partial public funding (because one of the benefits of being really rich is finding a way to get other people to pay for your stuff), he’ll need to be willing to consider trading the team name for taxpayer money and, possibly, the privilege of hosting a Super Bowl.  That way, Snyder can eventually declare victory in a debate that will end either with Snyder voluntarily changing the moniker in exchange for something tangible or involuntarily losing it, without any type of compensation.

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Titans announce extension with Jurrell Casey

Jurrell Casey, Kamerion Wimbley AP

The Titans and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey were talking about a contract extension for the last couple of months and those talks have reached a fruitful conclusion.

The Titans announced Wednesday afternoon that they have reached a multiyear deal with Casey, who is coming off a 10.5-sack season that left him as one of the most productive  pass rushers at the position. PFT has learned from Casey’s agent Drew Rosenhaus that it is a four-year extension through 2018 worth as much as $36 million with $20.5 million guaranteed. It is not known how full those guarantees are, but we do know General Manager Ruston Webster is excited that the deal is done.

“We are excited to come to an agreement on an extension with Jurrell,” Webster said, via the team. “This is something Jurrell has earned not only with his play on the field but his work ethic as well. We appreciate Jurrell’s professionalism through this process and look forward to many good years to come.”

The 2011 third-round pick was heading into the final year of his deal before reaching agreement on the extension. He’s been a starter since his rookie season, but 2013 was his breakthrough year in terms of production. The Titans made it clear on Wednesday that they expect it to be his standard moving forward. If so, they have a foundation piece for their defense for years to come.

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Cowboys claim Patriots pick Jemea Thomas off waivers

jemeathomas AP

The Patriots spent a sixth-round draft pick on defensive back Jemea Thomas this year, and Thomas was so unimpressive in training camp that he didn’t even survive the first round of roster cuts. But he’ll now get a shot in Dallas.

Thomas was claimed on waivers by the Cowboys today, a day after he was placed on waivers by the Patriots.

Thomas played both cornerback and safety at Georgia Tech and was also viewed heading into the draft as a player with the potential to be a solid contributor on special teams. He didn’t show much of anything in three months of work with New England.

But in Dallas, where they’re desperate for talent on defense, there’s a decent chance that Thomas can stick around beyond Saturday’s cut down to the 53-man roster. The Patriots saw Thomas’s talent before the draft, and the Cowboys still think he has promise, even if he couldn’t cut it in New England.

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Steelers won’t suspend post-pot arrest, this time

Steelers Getty Images

When it comes to applying and enforcing internal rules, the Steelers (like most sports teams) operate not with bright lines but a golf bag.  And they carefully select a club based on, ultimately, the overriding duty to win as many football games as possible.

That’s why it’s no surprise that the Steelers won’t be suspending running back Le’Veon Bell or LeGarrette Blount for last week’s Cheech and Chong meets Dumb and Dumber marijuana episode.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains that the Steelers won’t suspend either player.  He bases his conclusion on the plain language of the labor deal, which prohibits teams from taking matters into their own hands regarding alcohol and drug offenses.

While entirely accurate, that provision didn’t stop coach Mike Tomlin from sitting former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes with pay in 2008, after a mid-week marijuana citation.  It also didn’t stop the Steelers from suspending former defensive lineman Alameda Ta’amu after a DUI incident.

In this case, a suspension of the two players involved would put the team in a tough spot for the regular-season opener against the Browns.  And so the discipline will be meted out in some other way, the team will defer (for a change) to the league office, and this specific incident of arguable compliance with the CBA will be forgotten the next time a guy who is less important to the cause gets in trouble and the team decides to make an example out of him.

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Browns admit to “strong feelings” about “timing and process” of Gordon decision

Farmer AP

The Browns shouldn’t be happy that it took more than three months for the NFL to resolve the status of receiver Josh Gordon.  And they aren’t.

“While we may have strong feelings on the timing and the process of this decision, we have also consistently communicated that we will focus on what we can control in our day-to-day approach,” G.M. Ray Farmer said in a statement issued by the team.  “Right now that is preparing our team for the 2014 season and at the same time, supporting Josh however we are able under NFL guidelines during his suspension.”

That’s a polite way of saying, “We’re pissed that it took this long to get an answer.”

But as the Browns focus on what they can control, the fact remains that the Browns could have controlled trading Gordon last year (they chose not to) or drafting Sammy Watkins in May (they chose to trade the pick).

Without Gordon, the depth chart now features Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, and a collection of no-names.  The Browns possibly will find someone who is cut by another team, or maybe swing a trade.  Either way, the receiver position quickly has become a weakness.

Although the Browns arguably (if not actually) were jerked around by the league, they knew this was coming.

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Today, Jerry Jones says season will be “uphill battle”

Jerry Jones AP

It was only about 24 hours ago that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was talking about the “glitz and glamour,” of his team.

(We just kind of assume at this point he’s always thinking about gloryhole too.)

But today, he was singing a different tune, painting a less shiny picture of what might be about to happen to his team.

At the team’s kickoff luncheon (rarely the kind of event that brings realism, much less pessimism), Jones told his players: “our back’s up against the wall.”

You know that we have an uphill battle this year,” Jones said, via Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com. “And we do have an uphill battle. But most of you had an uphill battle when you came to camp. Most of you did. And some of you have absolutely rose to the occasion.”

It’s hard to find too many who are optimistic about their chances, coming off three straight 8-8 seasons, with no real improvement to a defense that wasn’t good to begin with.

And the fact Dr. Jones himself is tempering the expectations now shouldn’t be a good sign.

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With Christine Michael injured, Seahawks bring back a back

Chicago Bears v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

We knew the Seahawks performed the man-bites-dog act of claiming a Jaguars player last night, but a new injury forced another move today.

The team announced the re-signing of running back Demetrius Bronson and the waiver claim of center Patrick Lewis today, and the release of linebacker Marcus Dowtin and guard Greg Van Roten.

Bronson was cut Monday, but they needed him back after running back Christine Michael tweaked his hamstring in practice Tuesday. As a result, he isn’t expected to play in the preseason finale tomorrow night.

And more than likely, Bronson will find his name in the transactions again soon, but not before he gets a last chance to make an impression — on the Seahawks or someone else.

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Pete Carroll: We’re trying to do things exactly right

Pete Carroll AP

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll confirmed Wednesday that reports of a minicamp fight involving cornerback Richard Sherman were the impetus for a NFL review of their offseason practices that found the team violated the rules governing contact at those workouts, but said that the team was not intentionally trying to flout the rules.

Carroll said that “we’re trying to do things exactly right” in terms of what goes on during practices after being penalized on the same grounds in 2012, but the league thought otherwise after asking to see film of the practice in question and others from the team’s minicamp. That review led to a reported fine of over $100,000 for Carroll personally and more than $200,000 for the team as well as the loss of minicamp days next year. Carroll said he didn’t feel like the Seahawks were being victimized by receiving a second penalty.

“No, I don’t feel like the victim. No, I don’t at all. I think that we practice in a manner that draws attention, and we have for a long time. And I go back: A year ago and halfway through this camp, when they observed what was going on, they said everything was just fine so we kept going and just kept working. I was really pleased with that but unfortunately it went otherwise when we got to mini camp.”

Carroll wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the penalty, although we’d imagine he could think of better uses for the money he owes the league.

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Bengals announce Burfict extension

Burfict Getty Images

It took awhile, but it’s finally official.

The Bengals have announced that linebacker Vontaze Burfict has signed a new deal.  It puts him under contract through 2017.

Burfict, the NFL’s leading tackler in 2013, was eligible for a new deal because he wasn’t drafted.  It’s a strange donut hole in the current labor deal, which forces incoming rookies to wait three years to renegotiate, if drafted.

“Vontaze is a special talent; he has shown us that from his first day here,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “He is a load physically and he’s extremely competitive, but what really makes him stand out is the instinct and feel he has for the game. It’s something born in him, you can’t coach a player to naturally react the way he does in all situations. This signing is a great move for the future of our defense.”

“It’s unusual to sign a player this early in his career to a contract extension, but Vontaze is a player who merits this,” executive vice president Katie Blackburn said. “He has proven to be an exceptional find for us, and we are happy to reward him now for his accomplishments. It’s good for him and good for our team.”

Burfict plunged through the draft due to a variety of concerns, from a failed drug test at the Scouting Combine to questions regarding whether he could control his temper on the field to a bad performance (both on the field and before the media) in Indianapolis to a bad Pro Day.  Mike Mayock described Burfict at one point as non-draftable.  Burfict remained optimistic, despite getting no pre-draft visits or workouts.

The Bengals didn’t draft Burfict, but they took a chance on him as an undrafted free agent.  It paid off for the Bengals, and it’s now paying off for Burfict.

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Tommy Kelly signing with Cardinals

Tommy Kelly AP

The Cardinals continued their search for help on the defensive line in the wake of Darnell Dockett’s ACL tear by bringing defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to town for a visit on Wednesday and it looks like they had more luck with him than Brett Keisel.

PFT has learned that Kelly will be signing with the Cardinals a couple of days after he was released by the Patriots.

Kelly is coming off an ACL tear of his own in 2013 and wasn’t able to convince the Patriots that he was worth bringing back for another season. He’ll get at least a few days to give the Cardinals a reason to draw a different conclusion. Kelly had 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks in five games last season before getting hurt last year.

Frostee Rucker is getting the first look at Dockett’s spot for the Cardinals, who also signed Isaac Sopoaga since Dockett was injured.

UPDATE 4:02 p.m. ET: The Cardinals have announced that Kelly signed a one-year deal and that they have released defensive tackle Ryan McBean to make room for him on their 75-man roster.

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How will the Browns do without Josh Gordon?

Browns Getty Images

They could have traded him last year, for a second-round draft pick and more.  They could have drafted Sammy Watkins to replace him.

They did neither, and now the Browns will proceed without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver.

So how will the Browns do without Josh Gordon?  Answer the poll question below, and then tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET for the answer on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk.

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Jeff Fisher still angry at ESPN over shower coverage

New Orleans Saints v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

ESPN has already apologized for its out-of-line story about Michael Sam’s showering habits.

But that’s not necessarily enough for Rams coach Jeff Fisher.

Via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Fisher is still quite angry with reporter Josina Anderson and her employer about the story, even after getting a follow-up apology call from ESPN president John Skipper.

I’m extremely disappointed in her piece,” Fisher said. “I think it’s unethical. I think it’s very, very unprofessional. Not only the piece itself, the content. The manner in which she did it.”

Part of Fisher’s displeasure is apparently with Anderson’s talking to players away from the team facility. Coaches don’t like anything that happens outside their controlled little world, and for that, Anderson behaved like every other professional reporter who covers the NFL.

“She was out of line because she went and contacted several players on their personal time,” Fisher said. “Misled them with questions and then put this piece together. . . .

“I’m disappointed for Mike. I’m disappointed for the players who she put in this position, and mostly I’m disappointed for her because she felt what she was doing was right — and it wasn’t right.”

Rams defensive end Chris Long followed up the initial report with a Twitter message which read: “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.”

We wish that was the truth.

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Sheldon Richardson: Eli Manning is watching the rush

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The dismal state of the Giants offense has been a frequent topic of conversation this preseason and the starters will be out there for a while in the fourth preseason game in hopes of working out the kinks before the results start to count in the standings.

Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson got an up close look at the Giants offense in last Friday’s preseason game and identified one thing that’s not working for the tenants of the other home locker room at MetLife Stadium. Richardson said that he thought quarterback Eli Manning, who struggled for most of the first half before leading a touchdown drive just before halftime, was spending too much time thinking about the guys trying to sack him.

“Got some kinks to work out, you can notice that stuff, little stuff like that — it’s to the point where he don’t trust his offensive line that much, ’cause he’s watching the rush,” Richardson said, via the New York Post. “Little stuff like that.”

Manning took a pounding last season with 39 sacks and a plethora of other hits allowed by a leaky offensive line, which the Giants worked hard to upgrade this offseason. That’s still a work in progress and Manning has looked understandably unsure of his protection this summer as a result.

That can’t continue if the Giants offense is going to rebound this season, so that offensive line is going to have to come together quickly.

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Chargers announcer suspended for anti-Semitic comment

hankbauer

Hank Bauer, a longtime broadcaster for San Diego Chargers games, has been suspended after making an anti-Semitic comment on the air last week.

After Bauer’s on-air partner Josh Lewin said at the end of last week’s game that he wouldn’t leave a game early if he had paid for the ticket, Bauer made a joke implying that Lewin is cheap because he’s Jewish.

As a result, Bauer is suspended for this week’s preseason finale. The Chargers issued a statement saying it was the broadcaster Clear Channel, not the team, that suspended Bauer.

“Although we know Hank had no ill-will behind his remarks, we agree the comments were inappropriate. Per Clear Channel’s decision, Hank will not be broadcasting Thursday night’s game,” the statement said. “Hank has been a strong radio voice for the Chargers for the past 16 years and a passionate supporter of the team since his playing days. We look forward to Chargers fans receiving the same high-quality broadcast from Josh and Hank when he returns to the booth for the regular season.”

Bauer apologized on Twitter.

“I made a hurtful insinuation that I regret and I would like to express how sorry I am. My poor choice of words were unfortunately open for negative interpretation, please know it was never my intention to offend any of my listeners. I hope you accept my apology,” Bauer wrote.

Bauer was a running back for the Chargers from 1977 to 1982, spent four seasons with the team as an assistant coach and has been broadcasting in San Diego for 27 years.

Photo via KGTV.

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Report: Lardarius Webb restructures deal

Lardarius Webb AP

Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb hasn’t been able to help the team on the field this summer because of a back injury, but he has reportedly been able to help out with their salary cap.

Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports that Webb has agreed to restructure his deal with the Ravens by converting $4 million of his $7.5 million base salary into a signing bonus. That allows the Ravens to drop further under the cap now and spread out the cap hit over the three remaining years on his contract.

If there’s an immediate reason for the Ravens to want extra cap space, it could be to sign an extension with one of the team’s other players. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, wide receiver Torrey Smith and kicker Justin Tucker are a few of the candidates for a new deal and the Ravens could use their new cap space to reach a deal with one or more of those players.

That’s a concern for the front office. Webb’s top priority is getting healthy and back on the field to help an ailing cornerback corps that added Derek Cox to the mix on Tuesday.

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