Mini-camp: Day 3 thoughts
The Lions held the first mini-camp of the Jim Schwartz era a week before the draft so they could get a better read on the talent on their roster and the holes they need to fill. Now that camp is over, the verdict is in: Plenty of positions still yearn for an upgrade.
By and large, the Lions' strengths and weaknesses are what we thought they were. They need to find a quarterback they're comfortable building around. They need a middle linebacker in the worst way. They need plenty more help on defense, too, including a high-upside tackle and depth in the secondary.
It's important not to read too much into four pad-less, early-spring practices with no contact allowed and a sliver of the playbook in place. But here's a few players and positions that caught my attention, both positive and negative:
The deep passing game: Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the league. Period. The guy can do things no one else can, and Scott Linehan will take advantage of him. Expect Daunte Culpepper or Matt Stafford or whoever's under center to heave many a deep ball Johnson's way. This could be an exciting offense.
Middle linebacker: Cody Spencer and Chris Graham manned the position in mini-camp (with Jordon Dizon running the huddle in some nickel situations). Spencer is mostly a special-teams contributor and Graham has never taken an NFL snap according to pro-football-reference.com. The Lions can't be taken seriously as a defense with either at middle linebacker. They have to find a starter in the draft whether it's Wake Forest's Aaron Curry or USC's Rey Maualuga, who Schwartz seemed to describe when asked what kind of player he wanted in that position Sunday.
We're going to need a big thumper, a strong thumper in the middle for base defense, Schwartz said. We're talking, I don't want to put heights and weights, but big, strong, physical player that can play between the tackles, that can take on offensive guards even though they're outweighed by almost 100 pounds on some occasions.
Maualuga is a physical presence in the middle. Most of the questions about him are in the passing game, and while the Lions ideally want a three-down middle backer so they can use Julian Peterson off the edge, they could mix and match in nickel if necessary.
You can work around a lot of different guys, Schwartz said. But I think No. 1 on (the middle linebacker's) job description has got to be a heavy-handed, inside run defender that can take on guards, that can fill fullbacks, that can bring that kind of run-stopping attitude to the defense.
Ikaika Alama-Francis: Alama-Francis played all over the field in camp as the Lions tried to figure out what they have in the third-year lineman. He and Cliff Avril played end with the first-team defense (so coaches could see how they matched up against the No. 1 offense), Alama-Francis played tackle in nickel, and he's always played on special teams. He's a big, versatile athlete who's probably the fourth end right now (behind Dewayne White, Avril and Jared DeVries), but he could fit better in Schwartz's scheme.
Dewayne White: White and DeVries were kind of background noise most of camp, but if White stays healthy he might finally be a double-digit sack guy playing a nine-technique (lining up outside the tight end) in Schwartz's defense. I just feel like I can be what I came into the league as a nine, just rushing, White said.
Michael Gaines: Gaines had problems with drops and fumbles last year, and let more than one ball slip through his hands this weekend. Will Heller should be a fine blocking tight end and Casey FitzSimmons can catch the ball, but the Lions need a do-it-all tight end almost as much as they need help on defense.
The non-CJ receivers: Bryant Johnson dislocated a finger on his right hand Sunday and missed most of practice, but he's solidly the Lions' No. 2 receiver. Beyond that, there's a mixed bag. My own impressions: William Franklin flashed with a catch or two, Ronald Curry has potential in the slot and John Standeford's relatively sure-handed (though he got hurt Friday and doesn't offer much in the way of special teams). I think Chris Hannon and Steve Sanders will have a hard time making the team. Adam Jennings is a bullet in the return game. He'll have to show up there and prove his hands are reliable if he's to win a job.
Daniel Loper: He's big at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, but it's impossible to tell how he'll play until the pads come on. He did work some at left tackle and might be better suited as a swing backup than a starter at left guard. George Foster, incidentally, played guard when Loper was at tackle.
The secondary: Phillip Buchanon didn't win many battles with Calvin Johnson, but no one does. Still, he's got a nose for the ball and is the best corner the Lions have. (Of course, I said the same thing about Leigh Bodden last year.) Buchanon and Henry took the one reps together most of the weekend, with Travis Fisher playing the nickel and Fisher and Eric King running twos. Henry stepped in front of Johnson for a nice interception Sunday, and Buchanon (on a tipped ball) and Chris Roberson had picks, too. Still, I wouldn't call this a strength. There's some versatility when it comes to the draft Henry can play corner or safety, so the Lions could draft either position but there's no wow factor.