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NFC North camp preview: Even with Suh gone, Lions expected to contend

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. — In coach Jim Caldwell’s first season with the Detroit Lions, the team went 11-5, advanced to the playoffs and fell one game short of winning its first division title since 1993.

Despite that strong season, there are plenty of questions about the Lions team that will try to dethrone the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

The 2015 season will be filled with questions and comparisons after the team lost Ndamukong Suh in free agency; but, with nine starters returning on each side of the ball, there are reasons to expect the Lions to contend again this year.

The Lions had the No. 2 defense in the NFL last year; and, with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin back after interviewing for head-coaching jobs, the unit should continue to keep them in games.

The offense was inconsistent in 2014, but players have boasted this offseason about their improved comfort in Joe Lombardi’s scheme.

When he arrived in Detroit, Caldwell talked about winning championships. During minicamp in June, he was happy to hear quarterback Matthew Stafford was setting lofty goals — though neither would share those benchmarks.

“I’m a great believer in self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. So, I do believe that they should have lofty goals, they should have set high standards, and hopefully they’ll measure up.”

Whether those goals result in the franchise’s first playoff win since 1991 remains to be seen. And if the team is going to take the necessary step forward, Stafford will have to begin fulfilling more of his considerable potential. Stafford threw just 12 interceptions last year, which was an improvement from 19 the year before. But he also averaged just 7.1 yards per attempt and completed just 60.3 percent of his passes, so Stafford has to be more accurate and Lombardi has to put him in better positions to excel.

While Stafford has the weapons to thrive with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, along with second-year tight end Eric Ebron and rookie running back Ameer Abdullah joining Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, he’ll have to see how his new-look offensive line performs. Center Dominic Raiola had played all but one game of Stafford’s career and left guard Rob Sims had been with him since 2010, but neither was re-signed and the Lions figure to undergo a youth movement up front.

First-round pick Laken Tomlinson likely will replace Sims and 2014 third-rounder Travis Swanson should be the starting center. Veteran Manny Ramirez will compete at both spots and could provide depth on a team projected to have five starters age 26 or younger.

The defense, meanwhile, has plenty of experience. Replacing the departed Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley will be difficult, but the Lions hope former Ravens star Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, whom the Saints didn’t sign as a restricted free agent, can fill in the interior. Veterans such as DeAndre Levy, Glover Quin, Stephen Tulloch, James Ihedigbo and Rashean Mathis should keep morale high, too, after they lost the high-profile star Suh.

Plus, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay could continue to improve and provide more consistent playmaking to keep the defense strong up front and on the back end.

CAMP CALENDAR

July 28: Rookies report

Aug. 2: Veterans report

Aug. 3: First practice

–Team strength: Linebackers.

DeAndre Levy has been one of the top traditional 4-3 linebackers in the NFL the past couple of seasons. In 2015, he’ll have a group of experienced linebackers next to him. Stephen Tulloch returns to the middle after missing most of 2014 with a torn ACL. Tahir Whitehead likely will start on the strong side after playing well in Tulloch’s spot last year, while 2014 second-round pick Kyle Van Noy and Josh Bynes, who was a substitute for Whitehead at times, provide good depth.

–Breakout player: Eric Ebron.

There are doubts around the 10th overall pick from last year due to his unimpressive hands, but Ebron has the speed and strength to be a true mismatch in the NFL. If he runs better routes and gets a few more opportunities, Ebron could become an explosive third option behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

–Work in progress: Offensive line.

The Lions added some pieces this offseason, but that remains the team’s biggest question mark. Cornelius Lucas likely be the starting right tackle until LaAdrian Waddle recovers from his knee injury, and unsigned veterans Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims are being replaced by younger players.


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