Lions Notebook: Team Cultivating Competition

With just under a month before the start of training camp, the Detroit Lions and head coach Jim Schwartz continue to make roster moves to help augment competition. News, notes, and many quotes from players and coaching staff inside.

The Lions had just completed their offseason program with their final minicamp practice June 25. But the front office wasn't done.

Coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season, the Lions have tried just about everything to revamp the roster - trades, signings and several waiver clams, not to mention the draft - and they made another move the next day.

The Lions agreed to trade safety Gerald Alexander to Jacksonville for wide receiver Dennis Northcutt. They officially announced the trade July 2 after both players passed physicals.

The deal helped the Lions fill a need at wide receiver and in the return game, while alleviating a logjam at safety.

The Lions came into the offseason needing depth at receiver beyond Calvin Johnson. They signed free agents Bryant Johnson and Ronald Curry, and they drafted Derrick Williams.

They also came into the offseason with a different special-teams philosophy. Former coach Rod Marinelli was conservative in the return game, wanting to limit penalties. Coach Jim Schwartz is aggressive.

Northcutt, 31, is a 5-11, 172-pounder is expected to play in the slot and return punts. But he said he would learn every receiver position in case he is needed.


Dennis Northcutt will compete with Ronald Curry for the slot. (AP Photo)

He caught 44 passes each of the past two seasons for the Jaguars, averaging 573 yards and three touchdowns, after seven seasons with Cleveland. He has returned punts throughout his career.

"I think that's one of the biggest reasons they brought me in was to get me in the slot," Northcutt said. "Obviously that's my biggest strength. That's been my biggest strength though my nine years of playing in the NFL is working the slot. That's where I've made my money basically.

"But I have been able to play outside. Whatever they ask me to do, that's what I'm going to do. Anything to help the team win, that's what I'm all about."

Alexander, 24, was one of three recent second-round picks at safety. The Lions drafted him in 2007, between Daniel Bullocks ('06) and Louis Delmas ('09).

After starting 16 games as a rookie, Alexander suffered a fractured vertebra five games into his sophomore season. He had surgery and went on injured reserve, but he returned for the offseason program. He told Jaguars.com he was surprised by the trade.

The Lions still should have good competition at safety. In addition to Bullocks and Delmas, they also have veterans Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert, plus Tra Battle and LaMarcus Hicks.

"Very competitive," Manuel said. "You've got to come in daily and make sure you're on top of your stuff," Manuel said. "It's going to come down to the wire."

Schweigert said the guys on the bubble need to make the most of every opportunity.

"Reps are going to be limited, which means the plays you make are going to be magnified, the plays you mess up or going to be magnified," Schweigert said.

OFFSEASON STANDOUT: QB Daunte Culpepper has lost more than 30 pounds since last season, when he came out of semiretirement and jumped right into the Lions' starting lineup. He said he is 100% entering training camp for the first time since 2004, when he put up one of the best passer ratings in NFL history for Minnesota.


Daunte Culpepper has turned in an impressive off-season, but can he keep rookie Matthew Stafford at bay? (AP Photo)

LINEUP WATCH: Culpepper still will have to hold off Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, who has impressed with his strong arm and quick command of the offense. Other battles to watch include right tackle, where veteran Jon Jansen could push 2008 first-round pick Gosder Cherilus, and safety, where the Lions have three recent second-round picks.

ROOKIE IMPRESSIONS: Safety Louis Delmas, the first pick of the second round, has stood out from the first day of rookie minicamp, when he told Stafford he would be the first to pick him off. Coach Jim Schwartz said Delmas has mastered the complexities of NFL defense as quickly as any rookie he has seen in the secondary.

INJURY WATCH: Veteran defensive tackle Grady Jackson did not do anything on the field in the offseason, recovering from a knee scope he had in February. Schwartz said Jackson was a little behind schedule, but Jackson said he is expected to be ready physically for the season opener.

CONTRACT TO WATCH: Stafford is already signed, and the Lions do not have any looming contract squabbles. They can focus on signing tight end Brandon Pettigrew, the No. 20 overall pick.

  • Center Dominic Raiola signed a four-year extension worth $20 million with $9 million guaranteed, committing himself to the Lions through 2013. He said he never considered playing out the last year of his contract and testing free agency, even though the Lions are 31-97 since they drafted him in 2001. "There's so much I put into this," Raiola said. "I think it'd be like quitting. This place is worse now than when I came in. I definitely want to be a part of when this thing is turned around."

  • Raiola has had run-ins with Lions fans. He was fined last year for flipping them the bird during a game. But he said Detroit is home now, even though he is from Honolulu. "I've seen pretty much every other sports franchise win in this city, and there's nothing more that I want for the city than to see this team win," Raiola said. "This city's special to me. It's hard times right now, and I've been through a lot with the fans. I think that's just because I've been here for so long. I'm excited to try to change that view on the Lions."

  • The Lions signed tight end Dan Gronkowski, a seventh-round pick, to a three-year deal. They have signed quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick, too. "So we've got the bookends," president Tom Lewand said.

  • Will the Lions have a sponsor's logo on their jerseys during training camp? "I'm not projecting anything," Lewand said. "I think we'll continue to look at all the options that make sense for us and understand that the practice jersey is an important co-branding opportunity. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right - with the right partner and in the right way. We've been doing a lot of work on it already, and we'll continue doing a lot of work this summer."

  • Coach Jim Schwartz changed the conditioning regimen after he was hired in January because he wants a bigger, stronger team. The Lions emphasized free weights, going back to the roots of Olympic power lifting. The result? Schwartz said team upper body strength had increased almost 21 percent, not including rookies or players who didn't go through the full program. "That's significant," Schwartz said. "Consider the starting point. These are professional athletes. These are world-class athletes. For them to increase 20 persent said something, No. 1 about the program, No. 2 about their work ethic and how they embrace the program." Schwartz said team lower body explosiveness increased 14 percent.

  • Ricky Sandoval, the Lions' director of security, died July 2 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He had turned 49 two days before. Sandoval was a beloved figure behind the scenes at team headquarters in Allen Park. After he received his diagnosis in May 2006, he learned the average survival rate for his type of cancer was six months. He fought off the disease for more than three years, while he and his wife, Gael, raised awareness of the disease and money to fight it.

  • What about Rod Marinelli? "Rod's a great guy. He's a wonderful coach. I liked him. I don't want to say anything against him. I'm not sure he was quite ready to be a head coach. Lord knows he had enough experience and had been around a lot of successful guys. But when it doesn't work out, it's easy to point fingers, and I'm sure not going to blame Rod for anything. We're all in it together."

  • Owner William Clay Ford said he would never order his coach to play a player, including Stafford. "No," Ford said. "I do not -- contrary to public opinion -- interfere with the football side of it. I mean, if so-and-so plays lousy, I'll said I think he's a bum." He laughed. "But no," he continued, "I've never said, 'Play this guy or play that guy or don't play him.' These guys know more about the game than I do by 10 miles. I'm not going to try to second-guess them."

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