NFL camp preview: Lions see 2013 as must-win season

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In a city that has declared bankruptcy, the Detroit Lions are conspicuous by their riches. But their talent was squandered in 2012 when they finished last in the NFC North at 4-12.
As the team reports to training camp Thursday and begins full-squad workouts Friday, nobody is shying away from the grim reality that another wasted season for the Lions will have grave consequences, for coaches, players and front-office personnel.
That now-or-never urgency permeated the offseason program and it will be an even heavier presence during training camp.
"I think we should have somewhat of a chip on our shoulder," said All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, who personally took it out on opponents by breaking Jerry Rice's single-season yards receiving record (1,964 yards on 122).
"We know what we were last year and we're very disappointed that we weren't able to get back to where we were (in 2011), especially when we were so close in a lot of those games. I think everybody's focus should be way more intense this year."
Nobody really knows which is the anomaly, the 10-6 playoff team of 2011 or the 4-12 flop last season. And adding more statistical oddities to that list, even Johnson's great year as a pass catcher only resulted in him scoring five touchdowns.
General manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand took measures to ensure that last year was the fluke, adding running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and defensive ends Jason Jones and Israel Idonije, and re-signing cornerback Chris Houston, safety Louis Delmas and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy.
But most obvious was a new three-year extension for quarterback Matthew Stafford. He is only 25 years old and threw for a total of more than 10,000 yards over the last two seasons. But now even more will be expected -- especially in the win column -- because this offseason he signed that three-year extension that includes $41.5 million guaranteed.
Against that generous financial backdrop, watch for those struggling, blue-collar Detroit fans who seek refuge from reality in their sports to expect Stafford to take the Lions deep into the playoffs. For that to happen the Lions must put their fate on the line, or both lines. The two units upon which success and failure could ultimately turn are the offensive and defensive lines.
After starting the same quintet for 46 of the last 48 games, there will be at least three new starters on the offensive line, including both tackles.
Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round pick in 2012, will replace retired stalwart Jeff Backus at left tackle. At right tackle, either Jason Fox or Corey Hilliard will replace Gosder Cherilus, who signed with the Colts.
Hilliard, in his seventh season, has only five starts under his belt. Fox has played in only four games (no starts) in three seasons.
The interior of the line, a weak spot last season, will return two veterans -- left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola. But the right-guard spot is wide open going into training camp. Competing for the spot are veterans Dylan Gandy, Jake Scott and Leroy Harris, third-year pro Bill Nagy and third-round pick Larry Warford.
There is more youth and athleticism in this group, but the impact of its relative inexperience and lack of continuity remains to be seen.
The defensive line has been retooled, though only on the edges. The Lions feel like they have potentially one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the game with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They also have depth there with veteran C.J. Mosley and Idonije, who is expected to play both inside and out.
But the edge rushers will be new and raw. Gone are Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Lawrence Jackson. Jones, a veteran and more of an inside rusher, will replace Avril.
Ziggy Ansah, the fifth overall pick in the draft, could end up starting on the other side, though he will be pushed by Willie Young, fellow rookie Devin Taylor and Idonije.
The Lions took measures to bolster the secondary, but more pressure up front will be necessary if any alignment in the backfield is to be effective.

-- Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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