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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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Bills strike first at “home” in Detroit

billsfans AP

The strange scene of an NFL game on a neutral field with a quiet crowd is unfolding in Detroit tonight. But while the Bills don’t have a home-field advantage thanks to the snowstorm that forced them from Buffalo, they did get off to a good start.

Buffalo’s defense held the Jets to a three-and-out after the opening kickoff, and when Buffalo’s offense took over, the Bills marched down the field deep into Jets territory. Buffalo’s nine-play, 44-yard opening drive ended with a sensational touchdown catch by wide receiver Robert Woods on a throw from Kyle Orton.

The Bills lead 7-0 and are showing no signs of their rough week in Buffalo affecting their preparation. Now the Jets need to answer.

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Fred Jackson active for Bills vs. Jets

Fred Jackson, Kyle Orton AP

After missing two of the Bills’ last three games, running back Fred Jackson is ready to go tonight.

Jackson, who was listed as questionable with a groin injury, is active for tonight’s Jets-Bills game at Ford Field in Detroit.

The Bills’ inactives are FB Frank Summers, TE MarQuies Gray, LB Randell Johnson, NT Bryan Johnson, OT Cyrus Kouandjio, WR Marquise Goodwin and DE Jarius Wynn.

The Jets’ inactives are QB Matt Simms, WR Walter Powell, RB Bilal Powell, CB Josh Thomas, LB IK Enemkpali, OL Dakota Dozier and OL Wesley Johnson.

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Eric Berry headed to non-football illness list due to mass in chest

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

Mondays are always full of injury news, but most of them aren’t as serious as what Chiefs safety Eric Berry may be facing.

The Chiefs are putting Berry on the non-football illness list, which ends his season. There may be bigger issues for Berry to deal with in the immediate future, however.

Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder announced, via Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star, that Berry reported discomfort in his chest after the team’s game last week and doctors found a mass in the right side of his chest. Burkholder said that the “leading consideration” for what Berry has is lymphoma and that he’s heading to Atlanta for further evaluation.

“Right now, he needs to be a beast. He’ll attack this,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.

Berry released a statement via the team.

“I am truly thankful for all of the support from family, friends, coaches, teammates and the entire Chiefs kingdom. At first I was in shock with the diagnosis on Saturday and did not even want to miss a game, but I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent. I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight. I believe that I am in God’s hands and I have great peace in that. I know my coaches and teammates will hold things down here the rest of the season and until I am back running out of the tunnel at Arrowhead. I am so thankful and appreciative of being a part of this franchise and playing in front of the best fans in the NFL. I will be back!”

We’re hopeful that further evaluation finds Berry cancer-free and share Reid’s hope that he attacks it with all his might in the event that things go the other way.

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Hugh Thornton dealing with a sprained MCL

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

There was good news and bad news about the health of the offensive line in Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s Monday meeting with the media.

The bad news is that right guard Hugh Thornton sprained his MCL during Sunday’s victory over the Jaguars and Pagano described him, via Kevin Bowen of the team’s website, as week-to-week. That makes it all but certain that Thornton will miss at least this week’s game, although Pagano didn’t specify who would replace him in the lineup.

The good news is that the Colts expect to have right tackle Gosder Cherilus back in the lineup after he missed the Jaguars game with a shoulder injury. That will avoid being forced to start backups at both spots on the right side of the line, although whoever is in the lineup needs to do a better job than the Colts managed to do in the first half against Jacksonville.

Pagano also said that tight end Dwayne Allen is “trending in the right direction” after missing Sunday with an ankle injury, but that he didn’t know if he’d be able to practice on Wednesday.

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Browns “never considered” going to Manziel

Picks AP

It may take only three licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, but it apparently takes more than three picks to get Brian Hoyer benched.

On Monday, a day after the Browns stuck with Hoyer for the game-winning drive after his third interception nearly lost the game for Cleveland, coach Mike Pettine told reporters that the team “never considered” sitting Hoyer for rookie Johnny Manziel, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

After a sluggish loss to the Jaguars several weeks ago, Pettine admitted that a brief conversation occurred regarding the possibility of benching Hoyer for Manziel.  It didn’t happen then, and it sounds like it won’t be happening any time soon.

“I think the guys realize that we certainly wouldn’t be where we are without Brian,” Pettine said Monday.

Where the Browns are is at 7-4 through 11 games, their best record this late in the season since 2007, when 10-6 eventually wasn’t good enough to get a seat at the postseason table with Derek Anderson playing quarterback and then-rookie Brady Quinn on the bench.

The Browns easily could have been 6-5 after Sunday, thanks to Hoyer’s mistakes.  As Pettine told Peter King of TheMMQB.com after Sunday’s win, “This is a game [Hoyer] kept both teams in.”

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Bennie Logan: I don’t know what’s so great about Cowboys offensive line

Zack Martin, Doug Free, Andre Hal AP

The Eagles and Cowboys will meet for the first time this season on Thanksgiving, which means that the Eagles Defense will get their first in-person look at Dallas’s much-praised offensive line.

They’ve taken a look at them on film, however, and one member of the Eagles defense hasn’t been impressed by what he’s seen. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan had some praise for DeMarco Murray, but he isn’t buying that this year’s group is any better than the one he faced as a rookie last season.

“Yeah, they’re OK. I don’t really know what’s great about them,” Logan said, via CSNPhilly.com. “The running back’s having a good year running, but I don’t see anything spectacular about them. Same offensive line we faced last year and they have one new guy. We faced them [before]. They’re OK linemen.”

Sunday night’s game-winning drive against the Giants the latest illustration of how well the Cowboys linemen are playing. Tony Romo had time to do his taxes before delivering passes that moved Dallas quickly down the field. Were that an aberration, you couldn’t read much into it but the fact that the Cowboys have done it all year suggests they’re better than OK.

Logan and the rest of the Eagles will get their chance to prove otherwise on Thursday.

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Still no practice this week for NaVorro Bowman

St Louis Rams v San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have until Dec. 9 to see if linebacker NaVorro Bowman can return this season.

And they’re willing to wait another week to see if he can.

According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Bowman won’t practice this week.

Bowman, who blew out his knee last year during the NFC Championship Game, was eligible to return to practice last week. But the 49ers have decided to wait before activating him from the physically unable to perform list.

He’s had an MRI which was declared “fine,” and spent last weekend visiting Dr. James Andrews.

As long as they have something to play for, they’re going to continue to wait, and could even put him on the 53-man roster and deactivate him each week until he’s ready.

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Jay Gruden: “Every intent” to start RGIII this week

Washington Redskins v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

It was another Monday of questions for Washington coach Jay Gruden about quarterback Robert Griffin III, including whether Griffin would be in the starting lineup against the Colts this week.

Gruden said that he had “every intent” of putting Griffin in the lineup, but added that “there’s a chance” to re-evaluate things at several positions after the Redskins lost 17-13 to the 49ers in Santa Clara on Sunday. Griffin was 11-of-19 for 106 yards and battered behind an offensive line missing left tackle Trent Williams, who Gruden hopes will be back this week, in the game, leaving Gruden to sum it up as not “a good day” for the passing offense.

Gruden also said that they had to look all over the offense for ways to improve, a process that should start with the offensive line but has to include Griffin. And it should probably include Griffin continuing to start.

There’s no playoff spot coming, which means eyes should be on the future and making a decision about Griffin’s future with the team has to be a priority. He’s played just four full games since Gruden became the head coach and everyone in Washington needs to know if they’re looking for another quarterback this offseason. Unless they’ve already made that call, there’s reason to see what Griffin does the last five games before making it.

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Report: Broncos will work out kickers this week

Miami Dolphins v Denver Broncos Getty Images

The Broncos came back late in Sunday’s game with the Dolphins and escaped with a 39-36 win, but there were still plenty of things to dislike about the team’s performance.

One item on the list is kicker Brandon McManus’s continued struggles. McManus pushed a 33-yard field goal attempt into the right upright with the Broncos trailing 21-17 in the third quarter. It’s the fourth missed field goal of the year for McManus, who they acquired in a trade with the Giants before the start of the season and decided to keep when they released Matt Prater at the end of Prater’s four-game suspension at the start of the year.

Another change may be on the horizon. Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the Broncos are planning to work out kickers this week as they evaluate what to do at the position moving into the final weeks of the regular season.

Former Cardinal Jay Feely and longtime Bill Rian Lindell are two veterans who have worked out with teams this year without landing a job, although it’s not known who might be on Denver’s list.

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Ray Farmer on Manziel: The time of the incident is concerning

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and his entourage were reportedly involved in an altercation after a 33-year-old man asking Manziel for a hug outside an elevator at a Cleveland apartment and hotel complex at 2:36 a.m. on Saturday morning.

Chris Gonos, the man whose request apparently touched off the melee, spoke to CleveScene.com and confirmed much of the website’s original account of what went down. He also added that he thought someone in his group caught Manziel with a punch to the face after Manziel “sucker punched” his brother.

Browns General Manager Ray Farmer has also released a statement about the incident, which did not result in any arrests.

“We are aware of the incident and are in the process of gathering additional information in order to gain a complete understanding of what occurred. Nonetheless, the time of the incident is concerning to us. We continually stress to all of our players the importance of sound decision making in an effort to avoid putting themselves in these types of situations. We have addressed this appropriately with the player and will have no further comment at this time.”

The inclusion of a note about the time of the incident suggests the Browns weren’t thrilled to learn that one of their players was out of the house in the wee small hours of Saturday morning regardless of the circumstances that forced the police to intervene.

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Dominic Raiola won’t be suspended, but will face possible fine

Dominic Raiola AP

Dominic Raiola’s diving at the knee of an opponent on a meaningless play was unsportsmanlike, dangerous and stupid in that he bragged about it afterward.

But it’s not going to get him suspended.

According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Raiola won’t be suspended by the NFL, but will face a possible fine.

It could (and should) be a sizable one, since he also threw a punch at the back of Patriots lineman Zach Moore’s head earlier in the game.

Of course, he also has to deal with the everlasting shame of being owned by Bill Belichick, which has to be worse than any financial penalty the league can impart.

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Raiola threw a punch to the head, too

Dominic Raiola AP

The misconduct of Lions center Dominic Raiola wasn’t limited to a dive at the knees of New England defensive lineman Zach Moore.  Earlier in the game, Raiola also delivered a blow to the back of Moore’s head.

While it’s unclear whether the league office will discipline Raiola for diving at Moore’s knees on a play that entailed Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford taking a knee, the punch to Moore’s head is more likely to result in a fine.

Last year, the league office initially missed a similar move by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  Because the video of the blow to the head of former Cardinals tackle Eric Winston didn’t emerge until after the next game was played by Detroit, the incident did not result in a suspension for Suh, whose history possibly would have provoked another temporary banishment.  In the end, Suh wasn’t even fined — possibly to avoid questions as to why he wasn’t suspended and then questions as to why the blow to the head wasn’t seen soon enough to suspend Suh for the team’s next game.

For Raiola, the combination of the blow to the head and the dive at the knees could potentially trigger a one-game suspension.  At a minimum, it should result in a major fine.

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Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt out for the year

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

The Vikings have tackle issues at the moment — one who’s acting poorly and one who’s out for the year.

Via Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt is out for the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle in yesterday’s loss to the Packers.

He’s the second Vikings starter to go on IR this year, following guard Brandon Fusco early in the year.

He’ll be replaced in the lineup by Mike Harris, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Harris was previously with the Chargers, starting 12 games for them in 2012 and 2013.

That’s a much bigger problem for the Vikings than Matt Kalil being rude to a fan, as protecting Teddy Bridgewater so he can develop properly has to be their first priority the rest of the season.

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Report: Manziel entourage accused of assaulting fan

Manziel Getty Images

Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel has managed to stay out of trouble after a rocky offseason that featured inflatable swans, champagne showers, and rolled-up dollar bills.  Even as he has languished on the bench, Manziel has behaved.

The tranquility surrounding Johnny Football may have been disrupted recently, based on a report from ClevelandScene.com.   Per the report, a police report accuses Manziel’s entourage of assault.

33-year-old Chris Gonos reportedly approached Manziel at an upscale apartment complex known as “The 9″ in Cleveland on Friday night, gushing over Manziel and requesting a hug.  Instead of a hug, Gonos got a punch in the face, along with other alleged physical indignities.

The general manager of “The 9″ declined comment to ClevelandScene.com.  The Browns have not yet addressed the issue.

The blows apparently were delivered not by Manziel but by someone who described Manziel as his “client,” claiming that the alleged victim attempted to assault Manziel.

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Matt Kalil regrets knocking hat off heckling fan’s head

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Vikings tackle Matt Kalil has had a rough season and it got worse on Sunday.

Kalil, who has struggled as a blocker all year, was flagged for three penalties that knocked the team back 35 yards and then blew off reporters waiting to speak to him after the game by telling them that he was on a phone call. Kalil might have been on the same call outside the stadium later when a Vikings fan heckled him for his poor game, causing Kalil to react by knocking the fan’s hat off of his head before walking away from the crowd.

Deadspin has a video of the incident as well as the fan’s responses to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com on Twitter after Goessling asked him to explain what went down.

“We just watched Matt Kalil cost us the game, so when he came out I really didn’t want to see him, so I said to him “where do you want to be traded?” and he was on his phone, and when it finally registered with him what I said he turned and then he told me to “get the (expletive) outta here” and then I said “I’d rather have your brother than you on my team” and then he walked away like he didn’t hear what I said, but then he turned back around and asked me what I said again and then I repeated what I said again and then he proceeded to grab my hat off my head and throw it on the ground and mumble some stuff I didn’t hear, I then threw my program in his face.”

Goessling reports that Kalil apologized for refusing to talk to reporters and said he regretted his actions with the fan, whose Twitter handle is a profane reworking of late Twins great Kirby Puckett’s name. Kalil said he should have just walked away from the fan, which is certainly good advice for any player faced with a heckler even if one can understand the desire to answer back.

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