ALLEN PARK - Heading towards the start of July's training camp, the Detroit Lions have done a nice job of acquiring talent through both free agency and the draft. Will those acquisitions translate into more "W's" this season? Much depends on whether the players Detroit has added to their roster turn out to be playmakers or simply role players.
Detroit has, in the past, had solid role players throughout the roster but very few difference makers, players who make key plays that turn the outcome in the team's favor.
Scout.com takes a look at the defensive side of the Detroit roster and identifies which players have the potential and ability to be genuine difference makers for the team this season.
DEFENSIVE LINE - Players to watch: James Hall, Shawn Rogers.
Hall has shown the ability to get to the passer, but it hasn't always produced the big sack that negates a scoring threat. Nevertheless, Hall is highly valued and should have been a Pro Bowl selection a season ago. Shaun Rogers can dominate at times but has the potential to get even better and become a Warren Sapp-type of player. Detroit needs their big two in this unit to become dominant, drive-killing difference makers this season.
LINEBACKER - Players to watch: Teddy Lehman, Boss Bailey.
Lehman will be on the field regardless of whether he unseats veteran Earl Holmes as the starting middle linebacker. Here's guessing Lehman will end up starting on the weakside opposite returning starter Boss Bailey. If so, he needs to be the 100-plus tackle linebacker Detroit has been missing. Lehman has the combination of speed and cover ability that the most outstanding linebackers possess. He needs to use that ability to be a playmaker who defends passes, makes open field tackles and causes turnovers. Bailey was solid in his rookie campaign and after losing 2004 to injury, he needs to pick up where he left-off and become a dominating force on the strong side.
CORNERBACKS - Player to watch: Dre' Bly
After an injury plagued 2004, Bly is back and expect to see him get back to doing what he does best, defending and intercepting passes. One of the NFL's most consistent playmakers, Bly was worth every cent of what GM Matt Millen spent to lure him away from the St. Louis Rams two years ago. If healthy, few corners are better than the steady and often spectacular Bly.
Second year player Keith Smith made big strides as a rookie and could challenge veteran Fernando Bryant for the starting position. Rookie Stanley Wilson will push veterans Chris Cash and Andre Goodman for a backup position while newly signed R.W. McQuarters could edge someone out of a roster spot.
"He's a versatile football player," said Lions head coach Steve Mariucci of McQuarters. "He's played corner, he played some safety last year, he's played nickel and dime inside, he's been a returner and he's got seven years of experience."
Still, Bly is the key here. When he's on, he's the best playmaker Detroit has on the defensive side of the football.
SAFETY - Player to watch: Terrence Holt
2005 will be the year Terrence Holt gets to show what he can do as an every down player. After two years serving in a backup role and on special teams, it's time. Detroit knows Kenoy Kennedy will be steady and solid at the strong safety position but it's Holt that is the unknown commodity. The former fifth round pick from North Carolina State has shown a knack for getting to the football (three interceptions in 2003 vs. two games started) in his limited time on the field.
"He had a some interceptions as a rookie if you recall and he did not get to play a lot last year like he wanted," said Mariucci. "Now he is lining up there at safety and he is doing a good job. He is a vocal guy, he is a heads up guy and he is getting better with practice." Detroit would be quite satisfied if Holt makes a significant cut into the number of plays that got behind the secondary last year and comes up with a few turnovers of his own. Veteran acquisition R.W. McQuarters could get playing time back here as well.
Holt has shown he can make plays on a limited basis, now's the time to show he can do it full time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Players to watch: Eddie Drummond.
A Pro Bowl selection as a returner a season ago, Drummond has proven to be one of Detroit's most potent weapons. A true playmaker, the former Penn State standout is a threat to put the ball in the end zone on every return. The only problem has been his injury history. Drummond has yet to complete a full season since joining the team as an undrafted free agent. Still, if the Pittsburgh native can stay healthy, he is a true difference maker. Detroit wisely added R.W. McQuarters (the team officially announced his signing Thursday) who along with wide receiver Kevin Johnson will likely be looked at a backups at the position.
While these seven have the most potential for a breakout season, sometimes it is an unheralded player who rises from nowhere to impact his team's won-loss record. Players like Bryant, speedy linebacker James Davis or perhaps one of the rookie defensive ends Shaun Cody or Bill Swancutt are candidates.
With the influx of talent on this side of the football, Detroit's defense under coordinator Dick Jauron will likely take a jump into the upper half of the conference standings, but if a few of these players become true difference makers, the Lions defense could become something special.
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