Running Backs: Lombardi to use position differently
The Lions' use of running backs will look thoroughly different under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
When Lombardi was in New Orleans, the Saints mixed in three or four backs each game, as well as a fullback, and each back had a variety of assignments.
The most likely scenario in Detroit is for Joique Bell to play the Pierre Thomas role as the "starter" who receives the bulk of the inside carries, particularly on first and second down, while also being involved in the screen game.
Reggie Bush fills into the Darren Sproles role as a player who'll receive some carries but often line up as a receiver and be dangerous on third down. The most carries Bush had during his five seasons in New Orleans was 157, and even though he's a better runner now, he's still most effective in space.
Then there's Theo Riddick, who will earn more playing time because of his versatility as a runner and potential slot receiver. Riddick looked great during the offseason, and after being the No. 3 back out of camp last year, there's no reason to expect a change in 2014.
If the Lions use their backs like the Saints, there will be many times where two backs will be on the field together. Bell and Bush could both be in the backfield, Bush and Riddick could line up out wide, Bell could be out wide with Riddick in the backfield — the options are endless.
Mikel Leshoure remains the most likely backup for Bell's role, but Riddick's special teams ability likely means Leshoure has to wait for an injury to crack the active roster.
The fullback role, which will most likely be filled by Jed Collins, will come mostly in short-yardage situations, but he will also be involved as a receiver out of the backfield.
Although Bell will be 28 by the time the season starts, he's effectively entering his third year as a running back in the NFL.
During his first two seasons with the Lions, Bell had a lot of success running between the tackles and gaining big chunks on screens, but he could still improve his downfield vision.
One of Bell's top traits is an ability to gain as much as possible in tight situations, either by running through small gaps or breaking through tackles. However, there were some screens -- almost always to the right side -- last year that could've been touchdowns if he showed more patience.
In Week 1 last season, Bell had a 29-yard reception against the Vikings, and if he waited for a downfield block from guard Larry Warford, it could've gone for longer. In Week 7, Bell was running parallel to Warford and center Dominic Raiola on an 18-yard reception, but his decision to speed ahead and cut inside cost a likely 46-yard touchdown.
Bell was better at setting up his blocks on a 37-yard screen against the Steelers in Week 11 when he waited for Warford, a play that got the Lions to the 2-yard line.
Bell's strength is his ability to run through tackles, but if he improves at finding the right seams when he reaches the second level, he should be even better in his third full season with the Lions.
COACHING CHANGES EXPECTED TO HELP QB PLAY
As he prepares for his sixth NFL season, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford remains one of the biggest enigmas in the league.
Stafford has one of the most talented arms in the NFL, but his decision-making and lazy footwork have prevented him from consistently playing to his full potential.
In 2011, everything came together for Stafford as he threw for 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions, 5,038 yards and completed 63.5 percent of his passes. But in the two years since, Stafford has regressed with his completion percentage and yardage decreasing each season, while his interceptions have increased.
Entering his sixth season and being tutored by three different coaches on the Lions' staff, the team has high expectations that Stafford can return to his 2011 form. The Lions also added a sure-handed receiver in Golden Tate and a big-play tight end in Eric Ebron, so all the pieces are in place for him to be successful.
If the Lions' offensive line plays as well as it did last season and Stafford improves his footwork and decision making under coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter, Detroit will have one of the most explosive passing attacks in the league.
Behind Stafford, the Lions have a veteran backup in Dan Orlovsky, and Kellen Moore and rookie James Franklin will battle for a No. 3 job that isn't sure to exist under Caldwell.
A common defense for Stafford's play the past two seasons is that his receivers drop too many passes. The Lions led the NFL with 58 drops in 2013, but a look at all of those drops shows that many of those were not the receivers' fault.
Of those 58, it would only be fair to label 35 of them true drops. Many of the other 23 were behind, ahead, too high, too low or too fast to expect receivers to make a routine catch.
One good example is from Week 13 against the Packers when running back Joique Bell was credited with a drop on a screen. On the play, Stafford threw a laser from a low arm slot to Bell, who was immediately leveled by linebacker Clay Matthews.
Bell was charged with another drop in Week 2 against the Cardinals when Stafford threw a short pass to him on a curl when Bell was covered and hindered by an official before the pass came.
Even if those 23 passes were labeled incomplete passes, 35 drops would've ranked in the top 10 last season, but the team's drop rate would've improved from 9.1 percent, worst in the NFL, to 5.5 percent, which would be 18th.
The Lions must decrease their drops in 2014, but Stafford also needs to be much more accurate on routine plays because many of the drops came on plays when he had lazy footwork or arm mechanics, despite having no pressure in the pocket.
STEADY PLAY NEEDED ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Lions' special teams improved significantly in 2013, but questions remain about how consistent the group will be in 2014.
Last season the Lions solved their problem at punter as fifth-round pick Sam Martin had an impressive rookie season. The Lions didn't allow a single return touchdown last season for the first time since 2004, and Martin was the primary kickoff man in addition to punting.
Martin averaged 47.2 yards per punt, sixth in the NFL, and 40.4 net yards, which ranked 10th. His punts also yielded an average return of just 7.8 yards, which was 11th best in the league.
The Lions hope Nate Freese can similarly solve their problem at kicker. After Jason Hanson retired in 2012, the Lions tried to replace him with veteran David Akers, who made just 19 of his 24 attempts.
Freese, a seventh-round pick this year, made all 20 of his attempts at Boston College last year, so the Lions hope his accuracy can transfer to the NFL. He's the favorite to be the kicker next season, but Giorgio Tavecchio will push him.
Besides kicker, there isn't much competition on special teams. The Lions signed punter Drew Butler, but it's hard to see anyone knocking Martin from his job. At returner, Jeremy Ross averaged 29.3 yards on kickoffs and 16.2 yards on punts for the Lions last year, so he's the clear front runner for those duties.
While Akers' inconsistency was the biggest problem on special teams last year, the Lions will need to improve their blocking on field-goal attempts.
Akers had two kicks blocked last season, and it was the fault of the blockers, not him. In Week 2, Akers had a 47-yard attempt blocked when a Cardinals player ran in from the right side untouched. In Week 7, Akers had a 34-yarder blocked by a Bengals defender who burst through the middle of the line. Akers also had an extra point blocked in the snow game in Philadelphia in Week 14.
The Lions' new kicker will have to be more accurate than Akers last year, but for him to have optimal success, the field-goal blocking unit must be better.