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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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Broncos announce a couple of assistants

Broncos practice at Dove Valley Getty Images

John Fox landed in Chicago as the new head coach of the Bears shortly after parting ways with the Broncos, who have hired a member of last year’s Bears staff as their new linebackers coach.

Reggie Herring will be making the opposite trip from the one Fox took earlier this month to join Gary Kubiak’s staff in Denver. It’s a reunion for Herring and Kubiak, who spent three years together when Kubiak was the head coach in Houston and Herring coached the linebackers. Herring has also worked for the Cowboys and at the University of Arkansas over a 25-year coaching career.

Herring joins defensive line coach Bill Kollar, tight ends coach Brian Pariani and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison as former Texans assistants to rejoin their old boss in Denver.

The team also confirmed that Clancy Barone will be their offensive line coach. Barone is a holdover from Fox’s staff, although he’ll be shifting from working with tight ends to working in his new role. Barone was also the Broncos’ offensive line coach in 2010, but worked with the tight ends during Fox’s four years as the head coach in Denver.

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Ted Wells says #DeflateGate investigation won’t be a quick one

Winter Weather Massachusetts AP

So much for having #DeflateGate tied up in a neat little bow before Super Bowl XLIX kicks off.

Ted Wells, who is leading the league’s investigation, said it will be some time before he’s ready to release any findings about the fluctuations in ball pressure heard round the world.

“We are in the process of conducting a thorough investigation on the issue of the footballs used in the AFC Championship,” Wells said in a statement. “This work began last week, stretched through the weekend, and is proceeding expeditiously this week notwithstanding the Super Bowl.  We are following customary investigative procedures and no one should draw any conclusions about the sequence of interviews or any other steps, all of which are part of the process of doing a thorough and fair investigation.

“I expect the investigation to take at least several more weeks. In the interim, it would be best if everyone involved or potentially involved in this matter avoids public comment concerning the matter until the investigation is concluded. The results will be shared publicly.

That’s no surprise, as the league isn’t commenting on the latest round of reports, including Jay Glazer’s that the investigation has zeroed in on a Patriots ball boy.

So until that time, be prepared for more installments of PSI: New England, which threatens to overshadow the game everybody’s waiting to see this weekend.

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Prop Challenge, Day IV: Will there be a one-yard TD on Sunday?

Marshawn Lynch AP

Leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, we’ll take a closer look at one proposition bet per day, something we’ve dubbed PFT’s Prop Challenge. Here’s the idea: we present a prop, do some light analysis, then turn it over to you to vote upon which side you would take — hypothetically, of course. (Previous examples are at the bottom of this post.)

When the Super Bowl wraps up, we’ll tally the votes and see how well PFT Planet did.

Now, let’s get to today’s prop, which is courtesy of oddsmaker William Hill U.S.:

Over-Under on Super Bowl XLIX’s shortest touchdown: 1.5 yards.

Over: +115 (lay $10 to win $11.50).

Under: -135 (lay $13.50 to win $10).

This prop boils down to one question: Will there be a one-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl?

Let’s consider some data.

Per Pro Football Reference, there have been 1,246 touchdowns scored in regular-season and postseason play in 2014.

Of those 1,246 TDs, 195 scores were one-yard long — about 15.7 percent.

Twelve of those scores have come in the first 10 postseason games of 2014, with New England tallying two and Seattle tallying one.

On average, about 4.7 touchdowns per game were scored this season, per PFR’s data, with 0.73 touchdowns of one yard per contest.

Finally, per the PFR database, there have been 42 one-yard TDs in Super Bowl history, including Seattle tailback Marshawn Lynch’s score last season.

So now, it’s up to you. Will the shortest TD in Super Bowl XLIX be OVER or UNDER 1.5 yards? The poll is open, as are the comments.

The floor is yours.

Previous props studied:

Day I: Over-Under on Brandon LaFell’s receiving yards.

Day II: Over-Under on Doug Baldwin’s catches.

Day III: Will Rob Gronkowski score a touchdown?

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Bills hire Chris Palmer as senior offensive assistant

Tennessee Titans 2011 Headshots

The Bills have brought on an experienced offensive coach to help them develop EJ Manuel or another quarterback during the 2015 season.

The team announced Monday that Chris Palmer will join Rex Ryan’s staff as a senior offensive assistant. Palmer was the first head coach of the revived Browns in 1999 and has also served as the offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach for the Titans, Giants, Cowboys, Texans, Patriots and the USFL’s New Jersey Generals over the course of his long career.

Buffalo also announced that former NFL safety Michael Hamlin has been hired as the special teams quality control coach and that wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal and defensive assistant D’Anton Lynn will follow Rex Ryan from the Jets. The team also announced the previously reported hires of offensive line coach Aaron Kromer and assistant head coach/running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

Assistant offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, outside linebackers coach Jason Rebrovich and offensive quality control coach Jason Vrable will return after spending the 2014 season on Doug Marrone’s staff.

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League has no comment on latest Deflategate development

Super Bowl Football AP

The news that the NFL has zeroed in on a Patriots locker room attendant as the key person of interest in the Deflategate controversy has been met with silence from the league office.

After Jay Glazer of FOX Sports broke the latest development in the ongoing controversy, PFT reached out to the league office for a response. The NFL’s response was only that “we are not commenting on any aspects of the investigation.”

The very existence of an ongoing investigation gives the league an excuse to provide “no comment” answers. That may be one of the reasons that the league hired Ted Wells to undergo a thorough and deliberate investigation. The league would much prefer to be talking about the Super Bowl this week, and so all Deflategate questions will surely be met with similar “no comment” answers from Commissioner Roger Goodell and everyone else at the league office.

But just because the league won’t talk doesn’t mean there won’t continue to be developments. Glazer’s report that the league has interviewed the Patriots locker room attendant, and that he allegedly took footballs from the officials’ locker room after they had been inspected and approved and brought them to another area of the stadium before the game started, will have people talking at Media Day.

Even if the league office has nothing to say.

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Raiders re-sign S Charles Woodson

Charles Woodson AP

Charles Woodson is returning for a third season in his second stint with Oakland.

The Raiders announced Monday they had signed Woodson to a new deal covering the 2015 season.

The Raiders’ starting free safety, Woodson notched 113 tackles and intercepted four passes in 2014, his 17th NFL season. He turns 39 in October.

The No. 4 overall pick in the 1998 draft, Woodson played his first eight NFL seasons with Oakland before signing with Green Bay in 2006. Woodson went on to have a splendid seven-season run with the Packers, highlighted by Green Bay’s victory in Super Bowl XLV.

Woodson ranks 11th all-time in career interceptions (60).

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Report: NFL investigation has “zeroed in” on Patriots locker room attendant

Bill Belichick Blinds NFL WIth Science On Deflategate Getty Images

Last week, the NFL released a statement saying they were continuing their investigation into under-inflated footballs used by the Patriots during their AFC Championship game victory over the Colts to determine if the deflation was “the result of deliberate action” by the Patriots.

Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady both denied any knowledge of what happened and Belichick offered up an explanation via scientific experimentation on Saturday, but Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reports that the league has “zeroed in” on a team employee in their investigation.

Per Glazer, the league has interviewed a Patriots locker room attendant who allegedly took footballs from the officials locker room after they had been inspected and approved “to another area on way to field” before the start of the game. There’s reportedly video of this attendant with the balls, although Glazer adds that the league’s investigators are “still gauging” if the attendant, called a “strong person of interest,” had anything to do with the deflation.

The Patriots are on their way to Arizona right now. If anyone’s betting on the first question Belichick gets asked after arrival, it would probably be unwise to bet on anything other than Glazer’s report.

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Brandon Browner on Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman: Hit that shoulder, hit that elbow

Brandon Browner AP

Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner is in a very different position this year than he was at this point in 2014.

Browner was a member of the Seahawks, but he wasn’t getting ready to play in the Super Bowl because he was serving a suspension. During an interview with Josina Anderson of ESPN, Browner discussed how difficult it was to sit and watch his teammates beat the Broncos and how he didn’t feel like part of the festivities once they became champions.

Browner told Anderson he made a promise to himself to get back to the Super Bowl to remedy that feeling. Browner says he has no hard feelings for the Seahawks and remains friends with his fellow defensive backs, but that’s not stopping him from advising his teammates to go after Seahawks safety Earl Thomas’s injured shoulder or cornerback Richard Sherman’s injured elbow.

“At the end of the day, this is about the Super Bowl. I’m gonna tell my teammates ‘go hit that elbow,go hit that shoulder,'” Browner said. “Hit it, yeah. Try to break it if you can. You can be my best friend after the game but, at the end of the day, I know you want the Super Bowl just as bad as I do.”

Sherman practiced all of last week and Thomas returned to work on Friday, so they should both be on the field for the Patriots to attack this Sunday.

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Perry Fewell on to Washington in search for new job

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Getty Images

When the Redskins were looking for a head coach in 2014, they interviewed Perry Fewell before hiring Jay Gruden.

Fewell was defensive coordinator of the Giants at the time, a job he lost at the end of the 2014 season thanks to a dismal performance by his unit on the way to a 6-10 finish. That’s left him in search of a new job and put him on the interview list for a different job in Washington.

Jordan Raanan of NJ.com reports that Fewell is interviewing for the defensive backs job on the staff of new coordinator Joe Barry. Raheem Morris had been in that role, but he’s reportedly agreed to a job in Atlanta. Fewell was a defensive backs coach before making the move to coordinator with the Bills in 2006.

Fewell also interviewed for a job on the 49ers staff and John Keim of ESPN.com reports that he’s making the trip to Washington with an offer from the team in his pocket. It would appear, then, that Fewell will be on someone’s staff come the start of next season.

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Michael Bennett: Gronk is NFL’s No. 2 tight end, after my brother

Michael Bennett AP

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett says there’s only one tight end in the NFL better than Rob Gronkowski: Martellus Bennett.

Martellus, the Bears’ tight end, is Michael’s brother. So it’s probably safe to say that Michael is a little biased on that evaluation.

“I think Gronkowski’s the second-best tight end. My brother’s first, obviously,” Michael Bennett said.

Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane said last week that he doesn’t think Gronkowski is very good, but Bennett doesn’t agree with that.

“His body’s pretty good,” Bennett said of Gronk. “He’s a good blocker. I think he does great. I think his run-after-catch is second to none. I think he has great hands. He’s just a great player, honestly.”

Everyone except Lane would agree that Gronk is a great player. Even if Bennett can’t go quite so far as to call him the best tight end in the NFL.

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Vernon Davis offers his support for Rob Chudzinski

Rob Chudzinski AP

49ers tight end Vernon Davis apparently wouldn’t mind if the club went a certain way with its upcoming offensive coordinator hire.

At the very least, there’s a certain candidate he would like to meet.

As Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area notes, Davis posted a picture of Colts special assistant to the head coach Rob Chudzinski on Instagram on Monday with the following message:

“All I want for Christmas … is to meet #robchudzinski #OC”

Chudzinski, whose Colts contract is expiring, can start to talk to clubs about coordinator vacancies on Tuesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported. The 49ers would like to interview Chudzinski, Schefter said.

The 46-year-old Chudzinski has experience coaching tight ends, and tight ends have done well in his offenses.

In Chudzinski’s lone season as Browns head coach in 2013, tight end Jordan Cameron went to the Pro Bowl, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. The previous season, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen hauled in 69 passes for 843 yards and five scores as Chudzinski called the plays for Carolina. Also, in Chudzinski’s first season as Browns offensive coordinator in 2007, Kellen Winslow had an 82-catch, 1,106-yard campaign.

The 30-year-old Davis had an injury-plagued and disappointing 2014 season, catching just 26 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. However, in previous campaigns, he had been a vital and productive part of the San Francisco passing attack, making two Pro Bowls. He is slated to make $4.35 million in salary in 2015, per Rotoworld.

No matter how the 49ers proceed at offensive coordinator, getting more out of the tight end position is a must.

And Davis might have some suggestions about that.

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Aaron Hernandez jury seated, trial starts Thursday

Aaron Hernandez AP

The trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on charges that he murdered Odin Lloyd in 2013 will begin on Thursday as a result of the blizzard bearing down on the Northeast.

A jury of 18 people — 13 women and five men — was selected on Monday in Fall River, Massachusetts, but the Hartford Courant reports that Judge E. Susan Garsh pushed back the intended Tuesday start date because the predicted snowfall is expected to leave the area digging out for the next couple of days.

Hernandez and two other men are accused of picking up Lloyd in a car early in the morning of June 17, 2013 and murdering him a short time later. The other men, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, will be tried separately.

Prosecutors recently submitted a petition for immunity for Shayanna Jenkins, Hernandez’s fiancee, in what’s believed to be a bid to get her to testify against Hernandez at the trial. Jenkins faces a charge of perjury related to the case, but, per the Courant, no immunity had been granted by Monday’s jury selection.

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Report: Richard Smith joining Raheem Morris on Falcons staff

Richard Smith AP

The Falcons continue to keep busy while waiting to officially make Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn their new head coach.

Albert Breer of NFL Media reports that Redskins defensive backs coach and former Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris has verbally accepted a spot on the team’s coaching staff, a move that was reported over the weekend. Breer also reports that Broncos linebackers coach Richard Smith will be coming on board.

The initial reports on Morris had him coming to Atlanta as the team’s defensive coordinator, but Breer reports he’ll be the assistant head coach and run the team’s pass defense. Smith will “likely” be the coordinator and run the team’s run defense, although Quinn’s background suggests he’ll play a big role in everything the defense does in Atlanta.

Smith was the defensive coordinator for the Texans from 2006-2008 and also ran the defense in Miami in 2005 for Nick Saban.

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Russell Wilson: Deflategate “had nothing to do with anything”

russellwilson AP

Like a lot of people, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson feels that he has heard enough about Deflategate.

Asked what he thinks it means that the Patriots allegedly deflated the footballs they used on offense against the Colts, Wilson said it’s a big nothingburger.

“It had nothing to do with anything,” Wilson said. “We’re not focused on that. We’re focused on playing our football and playing one play at a time, and trying to find a way to win the Super Bowl. . . . I don’t think the integrity of the game’s under assault or whatever you want to say. I think that we have a lot of great football players in this football league and we do things the right way.”

Asked if he does anything with the footballs the Seahawks use on offense, Wilson answered, “No.”

“In terms of the football pregame, I just want to have a football out there to throw. That’s all I look forward to,” he said. “All those distractions about the footballs have nothing to do with us.”

Whether Deflategate is a distraction for the Patriots remains to be seen, but the Seahawks are doing their best to say nothing that would turn it into a distraction for their team as well.

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Report: Raiders meet with Todd Grantham

Todd Grantham AP

A veteran NFL assistant currently in the college coaching ranks is reportedly on the Raiders’ radar for their defensive coordinator vacancy.

Dianna Marie Russini of NBC4 Washington reports Oakland is “meeting with” Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Grantham, 48, was the Browns’ defensive coordinator from 2005 through 2007. He also had NFL coaching stints with the Cowboys (2008-2009), Texans (2002-2004) and Colts (1999-2001).

Grantham is entering his second season with Louisville. He was Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2010-2013.

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