Training Camp Preview: Offense

With training camp opening on July 23, and open to the public on July 27, Lion insider Justin VanFulpen of dissects the Lions' offense position-by-position -- previewing the 2001 training camp squad that Detroit will field.

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There is no question that the starter in Detroit is Charlie Batch. Batch has the pressure of learning the West Coast offense, and staying healthy enough to go through the entire training camp and pre-season. Batch must get a feel for the West Coast offense and studying it is crucial, but he need to get out there and run the offense in full pads and helmets with live bullets coming at him. Besides Batch, the remainder of the offense needs to engross themselves this training camp and pre-season, so when the team travels to Green Bay on September 9, they will be ready to perform at their highest level. The Lions back-up quarterback job belongs to Jim Harbaugh, who is almost as old as head coach Marty Morhinweg, but he is very valuable to this team as long as he's not forced to play a ton this season. Batch can learn a lot from Harbaugh since this will be his 15 season in the NFL. The Lions' fifth round draft choice, Mike McMahon from Rutgers, has a very confident -- if not cocky -- demeanor but still has a great deal to learn. The Lions want to work with McMahon and develop him for the future. Vice president Matt Millen has seen what Green Bay has done with Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, Ty Detmer and this season Matt Hasselbeck, developing them in their system and then trade them for higher draft picks. McMahon has a strong arm and good size, but his accuracy needs work. Cory Sauter might have an uphill battle and could be looking for a couple of series in the preseason to display his talents to other teams. Sauter is an adequate prospect, but the lack arm strength is going to hurt his chances in the NFL.

James Stewart is coming off a career year last season after rushing for over 1,000 yards. The running back plays a huge role in the West Coast offense and he will be asked to catch the ball out of the backfield more this season, and Mornhinweg has been impressed with that aspect of his game in the first few mini-camps that the Lions have had. After Stewart, the back up running backs spots are all up for grabs. Reuben Droughns, who was hurt on his first carry of the preseason last year and was lost for the whole season, displayed his talents at last-year's training camp -- proving he was one of the more impressive backs in camp behind James Stewart. He will have a shot at the back-up running back spot and he should perform well if he can stay healthy, due to his speed, size and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Veteran RB Lamont Warren has shown that is has some skills in the off-season workouts that the Lions have held. The coaching staff will take a hard look at him in training camp for one of the back-up running back sports. Sedrick Irvin fell out of favor with the old coaching staff but the new staff likes his moves and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, he doesn't have great speed and that is his down fall. Former head coach Bobby Ross and his staff thought about the idea of converting Irvin to fullback, but the current coaching staff doesn't seem to have that idea. Amp Lee has played in the West Coast offense when he was with the 49ers, he is one of the better pass catching running backs in the NFL since coming out of Florida State in 1992. His age and lack of great speed might hinder his ability to make the team when the final cuts come around. The third down running back spot in a position the Lions wanted to upgrade in the off-season, but they might have found their third down back in starter James Stewart, who has shown the ability to catch the ball and stay on the field all three downs. The second and third running back the Lions keep on there roster will be something to watch this whole training camp because it will come down to the end of camp before the coaches figure out what other two running back to keep besides Stewart.

Cory Schlesinger is an excellent lead blocker and has improved his running ability and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in the off-season. In the West Coast offense, the full back can play a major role in the passing game, that is why one reason if Schlesinger doesn't improve more he could be pulled in some situations for a running back, possibly Irvin. Brock Olivo has made the team the past few years not because of his fullback skills, but because of his ability on special teams. If he wants to make the team this season he will have to improve on his pure fullback skills because of the change in the offense. Stephen Trejo, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Arizona State, is 260 pounds and has looked very good in catching the ball in the mini-camps. There are some question marks about his run and blocking skills, but this guy looks like he has a really shot at making the team, not a good thing for Olivo.

In the West Coast offense, throwing the ball is the name of the game, and you need good receivers to catch those passes. This off-season, there was a buzz around the Silverdome when the greatest receiver to catch passes in this offense showed up in Pontiac to talk to Lions officials. But when the Lions lost out on the Jerry Rice sweepstakes, they knew they needed to find a good veteran receiver line up beside Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton. There wasn't anyone out there on the market who was a good as Herman Moore, who they where thinking about releasing if they could have landed Rice. Because of his predicament, Millen decided to change his attitude and work with Moore on a reduced cap number for this season to Herman's liking. Moore can still be a productive wide receiver and he will get an opportunity this season because of the different formations and routes the offense will run. Moore will mainly be in the slot position, working the middle of the field and moving the chains. Germane Crowell is the Lions big play wide receiver and he is going into a contract year and he wants to prove that he can be a number one option. The West Coast offense will help Crowell develop because he has good speed and is good running after the catch, but he needs to show more consistency in catching the ball. The team thought about trading Johnnie Morton in the off-season, but he has shown in the mini-camps and the off-season workouts that he will be a valuable player in this offense. He is not a big wide receiver, but he runs very good routes and has decent speed. Morton should have a big year because of the West Coast offense and the emphasis on the passing game. The Lions need three good wideouts in the West Coast offense, and if you look at the 49er wide receiver production last year they had 202 catches for 2,780 yards and 23 TD's. The Lions top 3 wide outs had only 135 catches for 1,652 yards and 9 TD's. So the West Coast offense should help improve the Lions' offense and passing game out a great deal. But the Lions do have some other receivers that will make a impact this season. Second-year flanker Larry Foster showed that if he can take better care of the football he could be a dangerous weapon because of his speed and moves after the catch. He will mostly like be the fourth receiver, this coming from an un-drafted rookie last year that made the most of his opportunity and is a good special teams player. Scotty Anderson, the Lions fifth-round draft choice, has look great in the mini-camps. He needs to get stronger and he will before training camp opens, but he has good speed and can make the tough catch look easy. Anderson is someone that could be a number two wide receiver on this team in a year or so if he get stronger and counties to develop. Desmond Howard will again be the Lions kick and punt return specialist, and Coach Mornhinweg thinks that Howard has the ability to add something in the passing game as well. There are a few guys that have a shot at the practice squad like Henry Douglas, who spent some time on it last season, also Versie Gaddis, an undrafted free agent out of Indiana, and Sly Johnson an undrafted free agent out of Miami (Ohio).

The Lions finally have a one-two punch at the tight end spot in David Sloan and Pete Mitchell, and again, the big change in the Lions this season is the West Coast offense. That offense can dramatically increase production out of the tight end spot if it has good speed and can run after the catch. Starting tight end David Sloan has that ability but he still needs to improve his blocking. Sloan can work the middle of the field and find the holes in the zones, and other thing is that he is finally healthy after having problems with his toe for the past few years. Pete Mitchell was a great pick up for the team and will give the team a great back-up tight end and could step into the starting line and not miss a beat if Sloan goes down with a injury. He doesn't have great speed or moves after the catch but can find the holes and get open. Terrence Dupree most people think that he will make the team as the third tight end because he is the best blocker the Lions have on their roster when it comes to the tight end spot. Another factor is that Marty Mornhinweg coached him in while both where in San Francisco. Brad Banta is on the roster because he is the longsnapper for both punts and placement kicks, but won't see anytime at the tight end spot.

This group of players is the key to the Lions success this season. The don't throw or catch the passes or run with the ball, but if the players that do that don't have time or holes then it doesn't matter. It will also be interesting where all the players finally lining up when Detroit opens up September 9 in Green Bay. The Lions have used a first round draft choice the past three years on college offense tackles, and one will have to move positions if all 3 are going to start. But this team does have some depth on the offensive line and this should be a totally better unit then last season's group. The first question is what to do with rookie Jeff Backus -- is he a left tackle or right tackle or should he be a guard? In the past mini-camps, Backus has been starting at the left tackle position and has done solid job, but he has been mediocre with his play. Marty Mornhinweg say he will the change the line around in training camp to make sure he gets the right player at the right position, so he could move elsewhere. Most likely, Backus will be in the starting line and it could be safe to say at one of the tackle positions -- and there has been no reason that with time he can't be a very good one as well. The second question to ask, and be answered in training camp, is what will happen with Aaron Gibson. Gibson has had both shoulder surgically repaired in the last two years and there are still some question marks with his heath and weight, which reached over 400 pound in the off-season. He will be either the right tackle or move inside to a guard position. Gibson can be a dominating force if he can stay healthy, keep his weight and his conditioning in check. Maybe the best player and most adaptable on the offense line is Stockar McDougle, who could play anywhere on the offense line besides center. McDougle has great versatility and athleticism and that will make him a force to deal with this season. The coaching staff will line him up where every the can't find some to play that position. Brenden Stai was brought to Detroit as soon as Jeff Hartings signed with Pittsburgh. He is a veteran player who might not be as talented as Hartings, but should prove to be just as dependable at one of the guard spots.

The starting center spot will either have Eric Beverly or second round draft choice Dominic Raiola starting. Beverly isn't big, but he has good quickness and has the experience to win the job. Raiola will be given every chance in training camp to win the starting center job, but since the center makes all the offensive line calls, he could have a hard time but he is the center of the future. Ray Roberts was cut in February because the Lions didn't want to pay him his $500,000 roster bonus, but then he re-signed with them at a lower salary. Last season, he wasn't totally back to health from his knee injury in 1999, and had some problems, but he is back to full speed now and will be the first one off the bench if one of the starting offensive linemen go down. Matt Joyce, like Roberts, was a starter and now will be a valuable back up to the Lions. He was in Arizona and a two-year starter, and played under Lions' defensive coordinator Vince Tobin when he was the head coach in Arizona. Tony Semple was a starter last season but is where he should be now -- and that is as a backup. Semple is an effective player and should stay on the roster, but he is notquite good enough to be a full-time starter. Former Lions' head coach Bobby Ross liked Kerlin Blaise a lot, and that is one reason he stayed on the roster. He is a gifted athlete, but it is not known yet if Marty Mornhinweg thinks he is valuable as Ross did.

Other guys on the offensive line that will be at SVSU, but don't have a great shot of making it, include Andy Vincent, who last season made the practice squad. He, if anyone, has an outside shot to have a great training camp and make the team. Raymond Taupule an un-drafted rookie from West Texas A&M has great size at 6-3 and 345 pounds, and will get a look because of his size, but not likely to make the team. Will Cuthbert from Alabama is another un-drafted rookie that has great size at 6-5 and 330 pounds, but needs a lot of work to have a chance to stick with the Lions. A few others undrafted rookies that you will see in camp are Dustin Kroeker from Cal-Poly San Luis, Mark Lamere from Louisiana-Lafayette, Rich Mazza from Rutgers. But it doesn't look from the past work outs that these players will make the roster but one or two might stick to the practice squad.

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