Training camp for the Detroit Lions looms ever closer and with it will come numerous battles for important positions on the roster. Detroit is in an interesting state of flux at the moment because there is a lot of turnover happening on the roster.
After posting just a 4-12 record a season ago things clearly needed to change in the Motor City. The offensive line will see numerous fresh faces, the defensive backfield found talent in the draft and the special teams unit will be almost unrecognizable.
So which position battles are going to be the most exciting and who is going to win them? Let's break down the top five contests.
5. The battle to be WR No. 4
The Lions have a bevy of receivers currently on the depth chart, but there are only a few players realistically in the running to take over the fourth spot. Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are the guaranteed top three guys, with Mike Thomas, Brian Robiskie, Patrick Edwards and Kris Durham battling just behind them.
Thomas should be considered the leader of the race because Detroit actually traded away a fifth-round selection acquire his services and he has more experience than all the other guys combined. He did not have much impact wearing Honolulu Blue and Silver last season, but he is still just 26 years old and has room to grow and develop alongside quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Should Thomas have a poor showing in training camp then Edwards becomes the most intriguing option to take the slot. At 5'9", 175 pounds he is ideally suited as a slot weapon and is someone that utilizes his speed to find seams in coverage and make plays once the ball is in his hands. Edwards is still raw and has plenty of learning to do before he can even hope to be a consistent NFL target, but the future is bright.
Predicted winner: Mike Thomas
4. Kicker: David Akers vs. Havard Rugland
This one probably is not a realistic competition, but it is certainly a position that needs to be talked about. The Lions organization made the bold move this offseason to play a game of cat and mouse with kicker Jason Hanson. After Detroit used David Akers as a bargaining chip, Hanson decided it was time to hang up his cleats and retire. Akers has been losing some of his touch in recent years, hitting just 69 percent of his kicks last season.
Perhaps because of Akers clearly limited time left in the league, Detroit signed internet sensation Havard Rugland to a contract in the offseason. Can he compete with Akers for a job right away? Probably not, but he is learning and will be an interesting player to watch develop. This battle is going to be a lot more fun to watch next season, and if Akers stumbles this year then Rugland may just get an opportunity that he seizes.
Predicted winner: David Akers
3. Right Guard: Larry Warford vs. Bill Nagy
It is hard not to be excited about the prospect of Larry Warford dominating at right guard for the next decade. The massive 6'3", 332-pounder was an absolute steal in the third round of the draft and can pay immediate dividends for Detroit. He was one of the best run blockers in the entire draft class and has the technique and skill set of an established NFL veteran.
With the Lions hopes to generate a more balanced offense this season it would make sense to turn to a player who excels at run blocking. However, Warford is not great at pass protection at the moment and Detroit may find out that he needs more grooming and polish before being thrown into a starter's role. If this is the case then there is a player with slightly more experience ready to fight him tooth and nail for his spot in the form of Bill Nagy. He is a smaller guy, but has a balanced game that allows him to fit into nearly any blocking scheme. Nagy is never going to wow you with his size or strength, but he is also not going to cost a team games.
Predicted Winner: Larry Warford
2. Right Tackle: Corey Hilliard vs. Jason Fox
Both of the Lions starting offensive tackles from last season are no longer with the team. Jeff Backus has moved on to a life of golf and relaxation via retirement, while Gosder Cherilus has headed for the greener pastures provided by the Indianapolis Colts. Riley Reiff is slotted to take over the left tackle position, but the right side of the line is much more open. Detroit has two quality options to look at in Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox.
Hilliard is a bit of a journeyman who has spent time with multiple teams, active rosters, practice squads and everything in between. He has a solid 6'6", 300-pound frame and can move well laterally. Hilliard's pass protection is much more of an asset than his run blocking, but he is capable at both. However, he is somewhat limited because he is not overly strong and his technique can struggle at times.
Fox is the guy with tons of potential that has been forced to battle injuries for almost the entirety of his career. He started to look healthy last season and he has all the makings of a starting NFL tackle. He is a balanced player that has been able to learn behind other guys on the Lions roster and now has an opportunity to prove his worth. He is a clear injury concern, but if he remains healthy he has far more upside than Hilliard.
Predicted winner: Jason Fox
1. Cornerback: Bill Bentley vs. Darius Slay
Two young players are looking to earn a starting roster spot opposite Chris Houston at the cornerback position. Detroit's secondary was a serious weakness last season and the team is counting on developing talent like Bill Bentley and Darius Slay to now be key contributors. Bentley has a year of experience already under his belt, but Slay is a highly touted second-round draft pick and may actually be better suited to a starting role than Bentley.
Slay is one of the fastest players in football, but also has great technique and footwork. These skills allow him to stay with agile receivers and rarely get burned in coverage. However, he is also adept at pressing at the line of scrimmage, which means he has the kind of well-rounded game that is required of an every-down player.
Bentley did spend time as a starter last season before succumbing to injury, but he is best at covering slot receivers and should find that his best fit is in a nickel package role.
Predicted winner: Darius Slay
Which battles are you most excited for? Who do you think will win each spot on the Lions depth chart? Sound off in the comments section below.
Nick Kostora lives in Michigan and has covered the Detroit Lions for 4 years. His work has appeared on CNN, Bleacher Report and more.
You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickkostora
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