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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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Harvin says Jets have told him to be himself

Harvin AP

Jets receiver Percy Harvin met the New York media for the first time on Monday.  And while he wasn’t pressed as aggressively as the New York media’s reputation would suggest, Harvin elaborated much more on his circumstances than when he faced a strong of slo-pitch softballs from the media operation owned by the Jets.

Harvin opted not to delve into the events that resulted in the stunning trade that sent him from Seattle to New York.  “All I am is I’m moving forward,” Harvin said.  “I’m leaving what’s in the past in the past.”

On whether he’s a good teammate, Harvin said, “All I can say is judge me off of what you see.”

So what will we see?  Harvin said that management “told me to just come here and be myself.”  (Which reminds me of Bill Cosby’s take on cocaine.)

“I’m definitely not a perfect person,” Harvin said.  “I have a lot of things I wish I would have done a little differently.  I’m moving forward.  I’m learning from those lessons.”

He hopes to put the lessons to use for more than the next nine games.  “It’s definitely a place I want to be for a long time,” Harvin said.

“I just feel good here.  I feel welcome.  I’m ready to go.”

He’s ready to play for coach Rex Ryan.  “I love him,” Harvin said.  “Love him, love him.”

That’s good news for Rex.  Because Harvin reportedly has had multiple confrontations with coaches he didn’t love, love.

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Raiders veterans not sure how to get team moving in the right direction

Tony Sparano AP

The Raiders lost again on Sunday, running their record to 0-6 for the first time in 52 years and continuing a 12-game losing streak that extends into last season.

Among the many things to dislike about the outcome was the fact that the Raiders failed to build on the previous week’s gains on offense while the defense struggled to get off the field after spending the previous week concentrating on improving their play on third down. The Cardinals converted 60 percent of their third down tries, which was even worse than the NFL-worst 51 percent that the defense had given up coming into Week Seven.

“I don’t know how to take that … not being able to get it done,” safety Charles Woodson said, via the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m not sure where to go with it at this point.”

Woodson’s veteran teammates share his confusion about how to move forward at this point in the season. Defensive tackle Antonio Smith said the team tries to fix things every week, only to be left “wondering why it ain’t working” on gameday. It’s the kind of thing that can make a team want to close up shop, but cornerback Carlos Rogers vowed to keep fighting and keep his teammates fighting in the weeks to come.

Even with that fight, though, he knows that better days aren’t guaranteed for a team that hasn’t won in a very long time.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Rogers said.

The Raiders will be in Cleveland next weekend for their next shot at finding a formula that works.

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Lions add Kellen Davis

Kellen+Davis+DOjoqPnGYGSm Getty Images

Kellen Davis will continue his NFL career in London.  Technically.

As the Lions prepare to face the Falcons at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Detroit has added the veteran tight end to the roster.

A pair of tight ends missed Sunday’s win over the Saints.  Joseph Fauria has an ankle injury, and rookie Eric Ebron has a hamstring problem.

Davis spent five years with the Bears, joining the Seahawks for 2013.  He was cut by the Giants before the start of the 2014 regular season.

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Cowboys give game ball to TE coach Mike Pope after beating his former team

Gavin Escobar AP

When the Bills beat the Lions, they carried defensive coordinator and former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz off the field at the end of the game.

The Cowboys didn’t carry anyone off the field at the end of their victory over the Giants on Sunday, but they did recognize that the win meant a little bit extra to one member of the organization. Mike Pope joined the team as their tight ends coach in the offseason after his long tenure with the Giants came to an end with a pink slip.

Pope had been an assistant with Bill Parcells, Jim Fassel and Tom Coughlin, making him part of every Giants team that has ever gone to the Super Bowl, but that history wasn’t enough for him to survive the housecleaning that the Giants did after the offense stumbled badly last season. Pope got some payback when tight end Gavin Escobar caught two touchdowns on the way to a 31-21 win that he’ll get to remember by looking at the game ball the team gave him after the final whistle.

“He spent a lot of time in New York with that team, so to be over on this side and get that win surely means a lot to him. You try to say it’s never personal, but for him to come down here and have success — especially against the Giants — was big,” tight end Jason Witten said, via the New York Post. “We knew he wanted to win this one. This was his big game, and he really wanted it. You know he was loving this after it was over.”

Giants tight end Larry Donnell had a key fumble in the second half of the game, a development that Pope might not have been able to stop if he were still with Giants but one that probably didn’t make the win feel any less sweet for him either.

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Jaguars lose Paul Posluszny for the season to torn pectoral

Le'Veon Bell, Paul Posluszny AP

The Jaguars got their first win of the season yesterday, but they didn’t get to celebrate for long.

Via Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny suffered a torn pectoral muscle yesterday and will be out for the year.

That’s a huge blow for a young team that was beginning to show signs of life after an 0-6 start, taking the leader out of the middle of the defense.

It’s a big loss,” Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. “That will be a difficult one.”

Posluszny will have surgery this week, and will be placed on injured reserve.

Bradley also said that defensive end Andre Branch suffered a groin injury, and would miss about six weeks.

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Calvin Johnson will make trip to London with Lions

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Getty Images

The Lions have played without wide receiver Calvin Johnson for the last two weeks, but the door will remain open for his return in Week Eight even though the team will be playing a long way from home.

The team leaves for London on Monday night to begin their week of preparations for next Sunday’s game against the Falcons and coach Jim Caldwell told reporters, including Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, that Johnson will be making the trip with the team.

There have been suggestions that the team would hold the wide receiver out until after their Week Nine bye, but that clearly hasn’t been set in stone. Johnson worked out on the field before the team took on the Saints, but his high ankle sprain wasn’t well enough for him to return to action. If he can progress over the next few days and practice with the team later this week, the result may be a different one come Sunday.

While the Lions offense hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the two games without Johnson or the two games he played at considerably less than 100 percent, they have found that there’s a way to move the ball without Johnson being the centerpiece of the offense. Keeping that mentality while getting the talented wideout back in the lineup should help the Lions as they move into the second half of the season.

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Orakpo done for the year with torn pec

Orakpo

Brian Orakpo’s second annual contract year has not ended well.  The Washington linebacker, who had been struggling while playing under the $11.45 million franchise tag, suffered a torn pectoral muscle on Sunday against the Titans, per a league source.

Orakpo will be placed on injured reserve, ending his 2014 season.

A torn pec ended Orakpo’s 2012 season after only two games.  Healthy for 15 games last year, 10 sacks from the 2009 first-round pick prompted Washington to use the franchise tag.  A second application of the tag would cost $13.74 million.

Thus, Orakpo will undoubtedly hit the open market — and he’ll likely stay with Washington only if they offer him more than he could get elsewhere.

If it’s over for Orakpo in Washington, it ends with 71 games, 40 sacks, and a playoff appearance that was earned with Orakpo missing every game beyond Week Two.

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Panthers offensive line taking a beating, getting MRIs

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers Getty Images

The Panthers had to clear the decks to keep an offensive line on the field yesterday, and don’t know yet who will be available this week.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said that starting left tackle Byron Bell (elbow) and right guard Trai Turner (knee and ankle) were getting MRIs today, to determine the extent of their injuries.

When they left yesterday’s seal-beating in Green Bay, the Panthers had to turn to a pair of undrafted rookies, Canadian tackle David Foucault and guard Andrew Norwell.

Considering an injury to left guard Amini Silatolu had backup Fernando Velasco on the field anyway, the Panthers line was a real hash by the end of the day. And it’s not as if they were the 1980s Washington Hogs to begin with.

Quarterback Cam Newton has played well for most of the season, but their lack of talent up front has impacted the way they run and pass, and appears that it will continue to be a problem.

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Idzik thinks acquisition of Harvin could be a coup for the Jets

John Idzik AP

Percy Harvin is at work with his new teammates on the Jets today, and the man who brought him to town thinks that’s a big deal.

“This could be a potential coup for the Jets,” General Manager John Idzik said at a press conference today.

There’s no doubt that Harvin has the talent to significantly upgrade the Jets’ offense, as well as their special teams. But Harvin had the talent to upgrade the Vikings and the Seahawks, too, and both teams ultimately decided that he wasn’t worth the headaches. So why will it be different in New York?

Idzik said the Jets have high standards, and that “acting like a Jet” will be a requirement of Harvin and everyone else, but the Jets believe Harvin has what it takes to improve their team. Idzik stressed that the Jets are still committed to developing their offense around quarterback Geno Smith, and bringing Harvin in gives Smith a big weapon.

The Jets are 1-6 and an extreme long shot to make the playoffs, which makes them an odd destination for a star player in a mid-season trade. But Idzik said the Jets don’t think it’s too late for them to go on a run and get to the postseason.

If that happens, Idzik will look brilliant for making this move. But if the Jets keep losing, and if Harvin turns out to be a locker room cancer, this could be a coup in which Idzik and Rex Ryan are overthrown.

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Fred Jackson hopes to return from groin injury within a month

Fred Jackson AP

Fred Jackson was one of two Bills running backs to leave Sunday’s 17-16 win over the Vikings with an injury, but the outlook for his injured groin is better than the one C.J. Spiller got for a broken collarbone.

Spiller is expected to miss the remainder of the season, but Jackson is going to try to make it back faster than the four-week timetable he’s been given by doctors.

“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” Jackson said on WGR 550, via ESPN.com. “It’s typically a four-week injury. But we’ll try to do some things to get it sped up. I like to think of myself as somebody who can come back before typical. It’s just gonna be on me to get in there and rehab and see the team doctors and do what it is they want me to do.”

The Bills will use Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown as their primary ball carriers until Jackson is ready to return to the lineup. Brown has yet to play a regular season game for the Bills in his first season with the team and Dixon ran for 51 yards after the injuries pressed him into an expanded role against Minnesota.

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PFT Live: Bills talk with Tim Graham, Jaguars talk with Mike Dempsey

Sammy Watkins AP

The Bills won in thrilling fashion on Sunday when Kyle Orton hit Sammy Watkins for a touchdown just before time expired to lift Buffalo to a 17-16 victory over the Vikings.

On Monday’s edition of PFT Live, we’ll talk about that contest with Tim Graham of the Buffalo News. Graham and Mike Florio will discuss Orton’s play since taking over the starting job, the injuries to running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and any changes that might be on the horizon now that the team has been sold to Terry Pegula.

The Jaguars also won on Sunday and it’s notable even though it didn’t come down to the very end of the game. Mike Dempsey of 1010XL in Jacksonville will be on the show to talk to Florio about rookie quarterback Blake Bortles‘ progress, how the plan put in place last year is coming together and what to look for in the coming weeks from the Jags.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Blake Bortles admits he had a bad game in Jaguars’ first win

bortles AP

Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged by wins and losses, and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles may be the prime example.

The Jaguars won their first game on Sunday, but Bortles is the first to admit he played badly: Bortles completed 17 of 31 passes for 159 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. He now has an NFL-high 10 interceptions, an average of two a game since he took over for the benched Chad Henne.

Bad, not good,” Bortles said of his performance. “The defense and offensive line and running game won this game, no doubt about it. Anybody can see that. Obviously, I’m not happy with the way I played, but I’m extremely happy with the outcome of the game.”

Bortles really isn’t ready to be an NFL starter, and the Jaguars have known that for months. That’s why Henne started the season, and the coaches initially said Bortles would sit out his rookie year. Unfortunately, Henne was so bad that the coaching staff felt it had no choice but to bench him, and Bortles is going through growing pains.

For now, the primary focus of the coaches is to make sure Bortles doesn’t lose confidence. Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said that when Bortles came off the field hanging his head after an interception, Fisch gave him a pep talk.

“I told him, ‘That’s not going to be the last pick you ever throw so move on,’” Fisch said. “We weren’t going to sit there and just go through each pick. We can talk about that [Monday].”

If Bortles keeps throwing interceptions at this rate for the rest of the season, he’ll finish 2014 with 28 picks. That’s terrible. But it’s also the same number of interceptions that Peyton Manning threw as a rookie. Sometimes a young quarterback just has to go through growing pains, and that’s what Bortles did on Sunday.

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Browns waive starting fullback Ray Agnew

Ray Agnew, J.T. Thomas AP

The Browns have released one of their offensive starters.

The club announced Monday it had waived rookie Ray Agnew, who started Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville, playing 18 snaps on offense and catching one pass for three yards. An undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois, the 23-year-old Agnew had started all six games for Cleveland, rushing twice for two yards and catching two passes for 15 yards.

To replace Agnew, the Browns called up rookie fullback Kiero Small, who was a seventh-round pick of Seattle in May. The Browns added Small (5-8, 244) to their practice squad before the start of the season. The 23-year-old Small played collegiately at Arkansas.

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Rams are regarded as the favorites to move to L.A.

Cunningham AP

Two weeks ago, we sparked a flurry of reports and quotes and boasts and ultimately concerns regarding the return of the NFL to Los Angeles, reporting that the league believes one or two teams will move there within the next 12-24 months.

Of the three teams viewed as the most likely to move — the Rams, Raiders, and Chargers — the team viewed by the NFL as most likely to make the move is the Rams.

If it’s the Rams, the most likely location for a new stadium becomes the land owner Stan Kroenke purchased last year at Hollywood Park.  AEG’s proposed downtown stadium is believed to hinge on owner Philip Anschutz purchasing a significant piece of the anchor tenant.

The Rams currently have a year-to-year arrangement at the Edward Jones Dome.  They can leave without financial consequence after the coming season, and every season thereafter.

The powers-that-be in St. Louis reportedly are working on a proposal of a new open-air stadium in St. Louis.  It could be a legitimate effort to keep the team.  Or it could be an effort to diffuse criticism that the local politicians didn’t try hard enough to keep him.

But what about San Diego’s threat to oppose the relocation of any team to the L.A. market?  Per a league source, those concerns likely would be resolved, possibly with the Chargers getting a larger slice of the relocation fee than other teams receive.

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Drew Brees feels like he let the Saints down

New Orleane Saints v Detroit Lions Getty Images

For most of the Saints’ visit to the Lions, it looked like the team would buck their recent history of struggling away from the Superdome.

They led by 13 points in the fourth quarter, their defense was keeping the Lions in check and it looked like it would just be a matter of running out the clock for their third win of the season. That’s when things fell apart.

A Golden Tate 73-yard touchdown brought the Lions within a score and Drew Brees threw an interception on the next possession to set the Lions up for their game-winning score.  Some wondered if the team should have been running the ball instead of throwing it at that point in the game and several members of the team said that there was plenty of blame to go around, but Brees wanted most of it for himself.

“The worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down. And that’s the way I feel right now,” Brees said, via the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “You’ve gotta know when to take a chance, when to try to fit a ball in there, or when to throw it away, take a sack, scramble, whatever it might be, and make sure the ball stays in your hands. And unfortunately that’s a critical time of the game where a turnover cannot happen, and I’m responsible for that. That one’s on me.”

One thing or another has gone wrong just about every time the Saints have played on the road in the last few years, which has left them with 10 losses in their last 12 road trips. That has to change if the 2-4 Saints are going to turn their season around and the improvement is going to have to come from everyone, not just Brees.

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