Predicting the Detroit Lions' Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency
After months of wondering what the Detroit Lions might be able to do in free agency with such limited cap space, it took all of a week for them to show just how fluid their financial situation was.
Without creating salary-cap casualties among their own key players, the Lions went out and made impact signings on both sides of the ball. Best of all, those deals were reasonable for both sides, with most of the new starters making between $4 to 5 million per year, on average.
But that raises an interesting question: Who will be the starters next year? The Lions signed some impact players in free agency, but they also lost some. Some of next year's starters are obvious, but some may not even be on the roster yet.
There's a long way to go before even the offseason rosters are set, but a number of positions appear to be shaping up. Here's a way-too-early look at what the Lions' starting lineup might look like some six months from now.
Starter: Matthew Stafford
The Lions have been talking about restructuring/extending Stafford's deal since January, but it hasn't happened yet.
Maybe it won't at all, since the Lions appear to have done just fine in free agency without the added cap space afforded by a new deal. That said, there are still draft picks to sign and role players to add before training camp starts, so I wouldn't take the possibility off the table just yet.
Still, one thing there is no doubt of is that Stafford is the Lions' starting quarterback for 2013 and the foreseeable future. At least paying him $20 million in 2013 would considerably lower his bargaining leverage for a long-term deal in 2014.
Starters: Reggie Bush/Mikel Leshoure
3rd-Down Back: Joique Bell
At one point, the Lions would likely have wanted these roles filled with Jahvid Best, Leshoure and perhaps Kevin Smith. But they have no reason to dislike the lineup they're looking at now.
There's no doubt the Lions want Bush in the Best (home-run hitting) role of receiving for as many yards as he rushes for. That was the entire reason the Lions signed him in the first place.
Leshoure was always intended to be the early-down, between-the-tackles grinder who wears down the defense five yards at a time.
Bell, a former UDFA, has been a pleasant surprise. He can break tackles and doesn't have blazing on-field speed, but he was sixth among all NFL RBs in 2012 with 52 receptions (according to ESPN). He has the markings of a quiet weapon, filling a Danny Woodhead-like role.
Starters: Calvin Johnson/Nate Burleson
Slot: Ryan Broyles
Ah, what could have been. If only Titus Young cared more about working hard and becoming a professional than about some misguided notion of "respect" before accomplishing anything, he could be coming off his first 1,000-yard season.
Instead, it looks like the Lions will be keeping Nate Burleson on the outside, despite him being a better fit in the slot. He's a better "Y" receiver than Broyles would be, at least.
It's possible the Lions find a downfield threat to couple with Calvin Johnson in the draft, but it's unlikely he's a Week 1 starter. The receiver position has a steep learning curve, and the Lions have talent at the position already.
Speaking of talent at the receiver position, I shouldn't need to mention that Calvin Johnson is the obvious top option here.
Starters: Brandon Pettigrew/Tony Scheffler
The Lions run no shortage of multiple tight end sets, so it's appropriate to mention two starters. There is no reason to assume those starters will be any different than they have been.
However, both these guys are undoubtedly facing make-or-break seasons in 2013. This is a free-agent year for both Pettigrew and Scheffler, and while they've been effective in spurts, neither has found a level of consistency that would make them serious free-agent targets.
Pettigrew is a good all-around tight end, whose blocking often goes underappreciated. He is good for about a half-dozen catches a game, too. But for Pettigrew, ball security is always an issue. A perfectly thrown pass in the open is not enough to ensure a Pettigrew reception, and a Pettigrew reception is often followed by a Pettigrew fumble.
This is a fixable part of Pettigrew's game, but he hasn't proven that he can consistently take care of the football since his rookie year. If he doesn't now, he will cost himself millions in the free-agent market.
As for Scheffler, his job is to take advantage of good matchups. He should be able to use his size and athleticism to beat linebackers in coverage anywhere on the field. Still, he hasn't proven that he can consistently create separation in those situations.
Later in the 2012 season, when the Lions were thin at receiver and relied on Scheffler to line up wide, he disappeared entirely.
Both players will run unopposed as 2013 starters, but both should be put on notice.
LT: Riley Reiff/Eric Fisher
LG: Rob Sims
C: Dominic Raiola
RG: Bill Nagy
RT: Jason Fox/Riley Reiff
This is where it starts to get complicated. Normally I wouldn't slot a specific draft pick into a starting lineup before he's even drafted, but with the retirement of left tackle mainstay Jeff Backus, the pick makes more sense than ever.
Still, it seems presumptuous to simply assume Fisher is drafted as the starting left tackle of the future, so I've created a contingency.
If the Lions draft Fisher, it makes too much sense for them to not to start him at left tackle. They won't put him anywhere else with his build and ability. If they don't draft Fisher, Riley Reiff will take over at left tackle, like the Lions drafted him to do in the first place, with Jason Fox finally getting a chance to perform at right tackle.
With the tackle position becoming newly destabilized, it seems more likely that the Lions focus there in the draft than on their guards. As a result, the right guard position is likely to be filled from within, with Bill Nagy emerging as the winner of the impending position battle.
Starters: Ndamukong Suh/Nick Fairley
When you draft defensive tackles in the first round in consecutive years, it stands to reason that they'll end up starting (or else mistakes were made somewhere).
Suh has been a force since his rookie year, and Fairley showed improvement over the course of the season (though he needs to keep himself in better shape this offseason).
Should the two of them progress as a duo, we could finally catch a glimpse of what the Lions' front office envisioned when they brought Fairley on board in 2011.
Starters: Jason Jones/Willie Young
Though the wisdom of the move is questionable, the Lions have already committed to use new acquisition Jason Jones primarily as a defensive end (h/t MLive.com).
That being the case, it's hard not to see him as a starter. I imagine the Lions have a number of packages in the works where they switch Jones inside and Suh out to a DE position, but in the base defense it seems Jones will simply play as a standard LDE.
On the other side, it seems like Willie Young will get his first shot at starting after spending a couple seasons as a situational pass-rusher. Of the players currently on the roster, he's the most natural RDE.
Young can be effective, but he seemed to take a step back in 2012 and hasn't shown the ability to be a three-down starter. It is unlikely the Lions pick up a starting-quality free agent at this point, though they may look to the draft to fill the spot.
MLB: Stephen Tulloch
OLBs: DeAndre Levy/Tahir Whitehead
The Lions are undergoing huge changes on both lines, and it's starting to look like Justin Durant might want to keep that Chick-Fil-A application.
Tulloch and Levy are already under contract long term, and though Levy's play has been suspect, it's hard to imagine the three-year starter was re-signed to ride the bench.
Durant was the other starter in the Lions' defense last year, but it's looking increasingly like the Lions don't want him back. They haven't turned their backs on the possibility entirely, but when asked about re-signing Durant he immediately talked about wanting to see "the young guys we drafted at that position," (via Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com).
Those "young players" would be Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis. Apparently the Lions liked what they saw from one or both of those players last season, and they're ready to plug one of them into the starting lineup.
I imagine there will be a battle for the position in training camp, and Ashlee Palmer should be in the mix as well, but Whitehead should be the odds-on favorite to start next season. There's a reason the Lions traded away a fourth-round draft pick to move up to get him.
LCB: Chris Houston
RCB: Bill Bentley
After much hemming and hawing about "fixing" the secondary, the Lions are highly likely to sport the same starting cornerbacks as they had last year.
That's actually a good thing. Houston, who had a career year (marred by some poor play in the last game or two) in 2012, re-signed with the Lions for a very fair market value, and seems set to continue his steady improvement in Detroit.
Bentley, on the other hand, struggled in 2012 before going out for the season with a shoulder injury and concussion. But Bentley was a rookie starter in 2012. For cornerbacks, that's a recipe for disaster.
Though Bentley hasn't gotten much of a chance to practice through his first year, he should return improved and healthy for 2013. The Lions didn't spend a third-round pick on him just to give up on his development after four games, and they won't. If he was good enough to be the starter as a rookie in 2012, he will be again in 2013.
Starters: Louis Delmas/Glover Quin
After a short NFC West road trip, Delmas has decided to return to the state where he's played his home games since college.
That decision makes him an instant starter and an impact player on the defense, with the same "if" that has followed him through most of his NFL career: his health.
Of course, the difference between this Lions team and past Lions teams is that before, if Delmas went down with injury, not only was there no quality replacement, there was no quality safety anywhere on the roster. Even when Delmas was healthy he often found himself covering for his fellow safeties' shortcomings.
Enter Glover Quin, the four-year starter at Houston who is practically built to be Delmas' partner in the defensive backfield. Where Delmas excels in cheating up to the line of scrimmage and blowing up running plays and short passes, Quin (the converted cornerback) is a better ballhawk and might end up pulling more of the work on deep passing routes.
Neither of these players is perfect, but, if healthy, they provide the Lions with a much more talented secondary than any the team has sported in the Mayhew/Schwartz era.
K: Jason Hanson
P: UDFA to be named later
LS: Don Muhlbach
KR/PR: Draft Pick
For as stable as things have been historically for Lions special teamers, this is one year in which a great deal is up in the air. The only sure thing at this point is Pro Bowl long-snapper Don Muhlbach, who signed a one-year deal to stay with the Lions (via the Detroit Free Press).
Jason Hanson is the epitome of stability, and he wants to come back, but the Lions know his kickoffs have gotten weaker. His field-goal range and accuracy remain pretty much where they were at the peak of his career, but he can't boom kickoffs out of the end zone anymore.
This doesn't make Hanson's status a question mark so much as punter spot. With a huge void to fill at punter, the Lions will be looking for someone who can potentially handle both punts and kickoffs, with Hanson becoming simply a field-goal specialist. Those players are a little harder to find than regular punters, but they're out there.
Meanwhile, Stefan Logan's tenure with the Lions is blissfully over, but it is increasingly obvious why the Lions didn't cut him sooner: The Lions have almost no options on the team as kick returners.
Reggie Bush and Nate Burleson handled returns earlier in their careers, but they're both in the advanced stages of their careers, and that's no longer a smart option.
Ryan Broyles has some return ability, but do the Lions really want a guy who's blown out two knees in as many years to handle the job with the highest risk for injury?
Most likely, the Lions' full-time return man isn't on the team yet. He could be a free agent, a draft pick, a UDFA or even a waiver wire pickup (like Logan was a few years back). I'm guessing the Lions find an athletic mid-round draft pick who takes over the duties, but the only certainty is that the next return specialist is not on the team now.