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5 reasons Lions will (or won't) beat the Colts

Lions kick off at 4:25 p.m. Sunday in Indianapolis

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DETROIT – The Detroit Lions kick off the 2016-17 season Sunday in Indianapolis against a Colts team coming off a similarly disappointing season.

Detroit finished 7-9 last year and did little to win over fans during the preseason.

What should fans expect from the Lions? Well, as the team prepares for Week 1, it's hard to know what Sunday will bring.

What you will see below is a point-counter point style argument between two ClickOnDetroit.com editors, Derick Hutchinson, who some may call pessimistic (or realistic), and Ken Haddad, who some may call a Lions Kool-Aid drinker.

1. The offensive line isn't ready

Derick says: Lions fans have watched the same trend for five years. When Matthew Stafford has time to throw, he can be great. When he doesn't have time, things can get ugly.

Early in the season, he won't have much time.

The Lions have put plenty of resources into the offensive line, including three of their last five first-round picks and three of their last five third-round picks. Unfortunately, that hasn't reaped many benefits. Riley Reiff struggled at left tackle last season and prompted the Lions to draft Taylor Decker with the No. 16 overall pick in April. Last year's first pick, Laken Tomlinson (No. 28 overall), didn't develop as quickly as the Lions hoped in 2015.

Obviously, the line does have some natural talent, especially with former guard standout Larry Warford in the mix, but it has been a roller coaster ride with the Lions' offensive line and this new group will need time to gel.

Indianapolis was an average pass rushing team last season, finishing tied for 15th in the NFL with 37 sacks. But the Lions' offensive line could get them off to a good start this year.

Ken says: Let's not act like we have any idea what this offense will look like without Calvin Johnson. All we have to go on is a few preseason games, which one could argue, had Jim Bob Cooter holding the playbook way back.

The offensive line is a question mark, that's for sure, but assuming Warford is healthy, and Tomlinson has developed over the offseason, there's no reason to think the line couldn't be improved. Let's give Decker a chance. He looked pretty good in his preseason time. And don't forget about center Travis Swanson. He's not a superstar, but he allowed the fifth least sacks for a center in 2015.

2. DeAndre Levy has been on the sideline for a very long time

Derick says: Remember when DeAndre Levy signed a 4-year, $33 million contract in 2015? That's the last time Lions fans have really heard from the star linebacker.

Levy played only 17 snaps in 2015 after injuring his hip. He was one of the team's best players before the injury, racking up 151 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2014. He's also been solid in coverage throughout his career, picking off 12 passes and defending 33 passes.

But he won't be the old Levy in Week 1 after sitting out 12 months. Unfortunately, the Lions need him to be the old Levy after sitting out 12 months.

When players return from significant injuries, especially nagging ones like Levy's hip, they rarely burst onto the scene at 100 percent. Levy played in only one preseason game, so Sunday will be his first extended game action in a calendar year. For a team that needs a dominant presence in the middle of the field, Levy can't afford to take long to knock off the rust.

Ken says: Levy is absent from the injury report, so let's at least give him that. I don't think we should expect Levy to be 100 percent just yet, but something else is different from the last time he was healthy. The Lions' linebackers are actually fine without him.

Tahir Whitehead is a force, and Kyle Van Noy looks much improved from his abysmal Lions rookie season. If we've learned anything from Teryl Austin, it's that he will find players that can play. Levy or no Levy, the Lions second line should be fine.

Plus, Levy COULD be his old self eventually. I just don't think we should expect it in week one. But, he did feel good in the preseason. He also has a fantastic beard. 

 

3. Marvin Jones is not Calvin Johnson

Derick says: Here's a shocker. Marvin Jones isn't the best receiver in franchise history. But you already knew that, right?

Obviously, the Lions won't replace the production of Calvin Johnson (maybe ever), and Stafford will have to get used to playing without that crutch to lean on. Jones, Golden Tate and Anquan Bolden are a solid trio of receivers, but they don't draw as much attention as Johnson does.

Sunday will be the start of Stafford's first full season without Johnson, and Jim Bob Cooter will try to build on the momentum the offense built late last year. Maybe Stafford will feel less pressure without having to throw Johnson's way a certain number of times, and maybe he'll benefit from spreading the ball around.

But there's no way losing one of the best receivers of all time can actually help an offense, and the Lions' offense wasn't even average last season.

Ken says: Again, I will reserve judgment on if Calvin's retirement will hurt or help. We haven't seen this true offense yet, and Stafford's numbers were actually quite good last year in games without a healthy Calvin. 

Stafford ranked fifth in completion percentage (67 percent) in 2015, seventh in touchdowns (32) and ninth in passer rating (97). He complete almost 400 passes and only 88 of those to Calvin Johnson.

Stafford will finally be able to sling the ball around without the pressures of a target count to Calvin. Give that sidearm a chance, Derick!

4. The tight end situation looks bleak

Derick says: Despite their repeated use of high draft picks on the position, the Lions haven't fielded a strong group of tight ends in years.

In 2014, the franchise ignored a throng of glaring weaknesses on the roster and choose Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. It predictably came back to bite them, as Ebron caught only 25 passes in the Lions' 2014 playoff season and has just 785 receiving yard in his 27-game career.

Even though he hasn't given the team first-round pick production, Ebron is the best tight end on the roster. Unfortunately for the Lions, Ebron missed the entire preseason after injuring his ankle in a scrimmage and will have to jump back into the action without any game reps, much like Levy.

It gets worse. Brandon Pettigrew, one of the team's top blockers, landed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list in July and won't be ready to go in Indianapolis. Pettigrew has been a big help to the offensive line in both pass and run blocking, so his presence will be missed. If Ebron isn't ready to go, the Lions will be left with options like Cole Wick and Khari Lee.

Ken says: For all the bad Ebron talk, he really hasn't been THAT bad. In 2015, he dropped only five passes, tied for 21st in drops. He caught 67 percent of his targets, which is actually higher than Antonio Gates, Charles Clay, Martellus Bennett, Jarvis Landry and, wait for it, A.J. Green. 

There's no doubt that 2016 is Ebron's make it or break it year, but his numbers don't reflect the hatred he receives from the fan base and sports talk radio.

5. The draft picks won't make a major impact

Derick says: Bob Quinn selected some very good players in his first draft as Lions general manager, but not many of them look ready to make a major impact as rookies. I don't think Quinn was expecting to contend this season, so the ability for rookies to contribute in 2016 wasn't high on his list of priorities.

Decker will get his share of snaps on the offensive line, but it's normal for rookie offensive linemen to take several weeks or even a full season to settle into the role. The same can be said for Graham Glasgow, who was injured during the preseason after being drafted to shore up the inside of the line.

Miles Killebrew and Joe Dahl could factor into the mix as the season wears on, but don't expect a boost from the mid-round picks in Indianapolis. The Lions even cut the second best quarterback on the roster -- sixth-round pick Jake Rudock -- in favor of Dan Orlovsky, who has 15 touchdowns and 22 turnovers in his NFL career.

A'Shawn Robinson might have the best chance to make an early impact after a solid preseason, but Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker will likely see most of the snaps at defensive tackle. Seventh round pick Dwayne Washington might earn a few carries after making the team with a strong preseason.

Many NFL teams will get a boost from their draft picks early in the year. It looks like the Lions will have to wait.

Ken says: Yeah, I can't argue with that. I'm most excited to see if Miles Killebrew can make a difference. The Lions secondary always seems to struggle with staying healthy. He could easily be thrown into the fire early.


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