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3 positions to watch in Lions-Raiders, 3 players of interest

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With kickoff just hours away, prime yourself on the positions—and players—to keep an eye on during Friday’s tilt between the Lions and Raiders.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

No, I’m not talking about what Mitch Trubisky sends from the pocket. I’m talking about football; it’s back! And even though some will claim it’s not real, well, neither is Game of Thrones, but you still watch it.

Here are three positions of interest, and one player from each group, to keep tuned into when the Detroit Lions take the field against the Oakland Raiders in tonight’s preseason game.

Who is your tight end, and what does he do?

Detroit made the decision to cut ties with Eric Ebron this offseason, releasing him in March after failing to find a trade partner since last season’s trade deadline came and went.

Since then, the Lions have put together a group of tight ends who are all some shade of a reclamation project. Michael Roberts didn’t see much playing time as a rookie with Ebron and Darren Fells in front of him, and he hasn’t had the kind of training camp many were expecting from the as-advertised red zone threat. Luke Willson, a hyper-athletic boy born and raised in South Detroit, joins the Lions after five seasons of limited production and opportunity with the Seattle Seahawks. And finally, Detroit added former Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo who is basically if the Empire State Building became a person—he’s every bit of the 6-foot-8, 285 pounds he’s listed as.

Each of the Lions tight ends, on the surface, seem like they could fit into the offense from a situational standpoint, but could stand to contribute in more ways than one. In Oakland, we’ll get a glimpse of what each of these guys will bring to the table when the lights come on.

Player to watch:

Coming out of Toledo, Roberts, with his stout frame, was expected to be a red zone threat right out of the box after displaying his ability to use his body to shield defenders. He caught 16 touchdowns in his senior season—averaging a touchdown every 3.1 receptions over the course of his college career—and he was going to be the sure-handed inline tight end everyone wanted Ebron to be—Roberts massive 11.5 inch hands dropped just three out of the 51 catchable targets his senior season.

While many see a one-trick pony, Roberts, in limited action, was actually the Lions most successful blocking tight end in 2017. Without doing much to separate himself from the pack during training camp, he should get plenty of reps to prove his versatility in Friday’s game.

Running back roulette

If one could sum up the biggest point of emphasis for the Lions offseason, it would have to be the team and general manager Bob Quinn’s commitment to reshaping the running game.

When the Lions had every opportunity to draft a difference maker along the defensive line, like Taven Bryan who is busy bullying linemen down in Florida, or Harold Landy who is proving to bend as well as young Gumby, Detroit invested in the interior of their offensive line, drafting Frank Ragnow who has been #verygood throughout training camp.

After three years of ephemeral flashes, season-ending injuries, and limited overall production, it seems as though the Ameer Abdullah experience has come and gone in Detroit. He could stick around as an insurance policy against injuries, but the team has plenty of other intriguing options.

The Lions, in a very non-Patriots Way, moved up in the second round and selected their guy, their all-purpose, three-down running back, Kerryon Johnson. The team also added, in a very Patriots Way, one of the more productive and efficient runners in the NFL, veteran back LeGarrette Blount. Blount, viewed as the short-yardage savior for a Lions offense that just couldn’t convert in those situations a year ago, didn’t have quite the success you’d expect in Philadelphia last season. But with the Patriots in 2016, Blount was the best running back in the NFL on third and/or fourth down with 3-or-fewer yards to go.

And, of course, the Lions have one of the best third-down running backs in football in Theo Riddick to add to the mix. He’s caught 50-plus passes in each of his last three seasons, and after he makes the catch, he’s making people miss over 25 percent of the time. And according to Pro Football Focus, he’s one of the best pass-blockers at the running back position, something the tape backs up:

Player to watch:

Of course it’s Kerryon Johnson. It’s been my belief the Lions are going to use each of their running backs situationally, utilizing their greatest strengths to embolden the offense because, y’know, duh. Right now, Blount is clearly the seasoned runner who has been to the mountain top twice in as many seasons, but as Kerryon gains experience, he’ll gradually gain more and more playing time due to his ability in all facets of the game.

Tonight, Kerryon will have an opportunity to show off all of his talents from the running back position: as a gear-shifter near the line of scrimmage—54 percent of Johnson’s yards came between the tackles—or as a pass-catcher out of the backfield or split out wide—he only dropped one of his 56 catchable targets at Auburn.

And you call those linebackers?

Head coach Matt Patricia was brought in to take this Lions team over the 9-7 plateau they reached with Jim Caldwell at the helm.

Part of the appeal for Patricia taking over this Lions team was the defensive philosophy he’d bring with him from his time in New England. Detroit has struggled mightily in stopping the run and generating a consistent pass rush in year’s past, but the multiple fronts and different coverages Patricia utilized in New England promises improvements for Detroit. Patriots safety Devin McCourty talked about Patricia’s week-to-week approach to defensive game planning:

”When you look at some of these teams, ‘All right, this is a Cover 3 team,’ or, ‘This is a just man-to-man team.’ Here, we’re going to do everything. Whatever Matty P, the rest of the defensive coaches, Bill (Belichick), whatever they decide this will win us the game this week, we’ll do it.”

During the offseason, Detroit made some significant changes on defense, most notably to their linebacker corps. Instead of re-signing Tahir Whitehead, a standout run defender last year after moving back to his natural linebacking position outside, Detroit added Devon Kennard in free agency. Under Patricia’s charge, Kennard could end up playing in a role similar to former Patriots secret weapon Rob Nikovich, lining up with his hand in the dirt or playing up as a 3-4 OLB. Either way, Kennard will be in charge of getting after the quarterback.

The Lions also added linebacker Christian Jones in free agency from the Chicago Bears, another player who figures to play a prominent role at WILL linebacker in Detroit’s defense.

It’s going to be up to Patricia to get the most out of a couple of Lions draft picks who haven’t made much of an impact yet like weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Miles Killebrew, a player who has spent his first two seasons in a hybrid safety role, but has spent some time this training camp with the linebackers. And perhaps Patricia’s biggest challenge will be getting more consistent play from Lions’ first-round pick Jarrad Davis. Davis had an up-and-down rookie season that saw him removed from playing on third down because of his deficiencies in coverage, despite having all the physical tools.

Player to watch:

Much like the running back situation, it’s going to be very interesting to see how all these parts are going to work in coordination with one another. But after spending some time on the non-football injury list, and getting limited reps in training camp, getting eyes on Kennard in this defense is going to be worth staying in and staying up late this Friday night.