Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Depth Chart After the Peak of Free Agency

Dean HoldenAnalyst IMarch 25, 2013

Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Depth Chart After the Peak of Free Agency

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    Free agency is far from over, but the feverish period that characterized its first week is.

    The Lions are unlikely to sign any more starting-caliber players, so aside from draft picks and some bargain veteran free agents, we should have a pretty good idea of what the Detroit Lions will look like next year.

    Or at least you would think that. In reality, we don't know. We don't know a thing about anything. It's not just the draft that could drastically change things. The Lions don't even know what their team is going to look like in September.

    They have undrafted free agents to sift through, roster battles, training camp, and a bunch of young players who could bound forward into stardom or bust completely.

    So we don't know what the roster will look like in early September, but we can take a look at the depth chart right now. The Lions don't have a complete roster at each position, but they do have enough players to create a skeleton depth chart.

    So, without factoring in future free-agent signings or draft picks, let's have a look at what the Lions' depth chart is like right now.

Quarterback

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    1. Matthew Stafford

    2. Shaun Hill

    3. Kellen Moore

    The Lions' depth chart at quarterback is about as stable as it has been in decades.

    Stafford is the unquestioned starter, Hill the dependable veteran backup, and Moore the project youngster.

    If there's anyone in danger here, it's Moore. He spent most of last season inactive, and it's hard to say whether he progressed enough to retain his roster spot.

    Ultimately, as an undrafted free agent on a minimum contract, Moore is relatively harmless. He gives the Lions an actual quarterback in case injuries become an issue. In the meantime, they get to see if there's any upside there.

    If there is, Moore can replace Hill as the backup QB in time. If not, they cut him, no fuss. Still, expect the Lions to bring in some competition for Moore, even if it's in the form of another Arena League player or another UDFA.

Running Back

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    1a. Reggie Bush

    1b. Mikel Leshoure

    3. Joique Bell

    That's really all the Lions have at running back right now, and these three players, if healthy, should account for almost every single touch the Lions have to offer to running backs.

    You might notice that I've declined to order Leshoure and Bush on the depth chart hierarchically. That's because I don't expect there will be a huge difference in the amount of usage these guys get on the field. The Lions will use them differently for sure, but not necessarily more or less.

    Leshoure and Jahvid Best were always supposed to be a tandem unit. A "thunder and lightning" or "smash and dash," if you will. Leshoure seemed to struggle in 2012, but he was actually just taking on his role: plowing straight ahead for four- or five-yard carries.

    It just looked ugly, because the guy who was supposed to be the other half of that tandem spent all season trying to find a doctor that would let him play football.

    Now, the Lions have found an apparently suitable replacement for the "lightning" or "dash" part of the team. But while Bush's stats might be a little more flashy, Leshoure should play an equally big part on offense.

    Bell is an interesting third option, because he shows shades of both Bush and Leshoure. Like Bush, Bell does most of his damage on receptions. But, like Leshoure, he doesn't flash breakaway speed and thrives on yards after contact.

Wide Receiver

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    1. Calvin Johnson

    2. Nate Burleson

    3. Ryan Broyles

    4. Mike Thomas

    5. Kris Durham

    - Everyone Else

    Seriously, I'm not going to waste your time by depth-charting all 14 (!!!) of the receivers the Lions have listed on their roster.

    Why would I, when most of them will never make an actual depth chart?

    Kassim Osgood may make the team, but he's a pure special teamer—he barely even got to play when the Lions had no healthy receivers late last season

    Patrick Edwards showed flashes in training camp last year, but has a long way to go before cracking a roster already too full of slot receivers. Even Kris Durham only makes the list because he's incumbent from the end of last season.

    Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles should each have plenty of time to come back fully healthy. While it seems like Broyles might be a higher option than Burleson, the Lions won't let him displace the veteran as the team's second option until he earns it.

Tight End

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    1. Brandon Pettigrew

    2. Tony Scheffler

    3. Nathan Overbay/Shaun Chapas

    Somehow, the Lions have both talent and issues at tight end.

    Perhaps more accurately, the Lions' tight-end talent has issues. Pettigrew can't hold onto the ball, and Scheffler doesn't seem able to live up to his reputation.

    Both of these guys are good players, and should have very good seasons in what will be contract years for them both. But there's always that chance they won't be as good as they could be.

    Meanwhile, the Lions' third TE spot is in flux. Will Heller, who was the third tight end/H-back last season, is a free agent. If training camp started today, Overbay and Chapas would battle for the final roster spot.

    I'd give Chapas the edge, as he has experience playing fullback and thus makes a better H-back, but it's too early to call that for sure.

Offensive Tackle

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    LT1: Riley Reiff

    RT1: Corey Hilliard

    LT/RT2: Jason Fox

    Who would have thought that this is what the Lions would look like at tackle at this point in the season?

    Sure, maybe Gosder Cherilus leaving in free agency was expected, but did anyone expect to lose both Cherilus and Jeff Backus in the same season?

    That's where we are now. The Lions lost a 12-year veteran to retirement, and will attempt to replace him with three guys whose combined NFL experience totals 10 years.

    At present, it makes the most sense for the Lions to put Riley Reiff at left tackle. They drafted him for that express purpose, and the job should (pending the draft results) be his to lose. He started one game at left tackle in 2012—the only game Backus ever missed in his career.

    Corey Hilliard signed a two-year deal, and has four-position versatility on the offensive line, but given the sudden tenuousness of the tackle position, he should compete most strongly there.

    Jason Fox has a chance to challenge for a starting role on either side of the line, but he has the most to prove of anyone on the squad. He has been on the team for three years now, and it's time for him to prove himself worthy of the fourth-round pick the Lions spent on him in 2010.

Interior Offensive Linemen

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    LG1: Rob Sims

    C1: Dominic Raiola

    RG1: Bill Nagy

    C2: Dylan Gandy

    G2: Rodney Austin

    It's always difficult to order the Lions' interior offensive linemen. Because the Lions covet versatile, multi-positional linemen, it's tough to assign a strict positional identity to any of them if they're not starting.

    In addition, the battle for the right guard position is relatively open. Gandy has the experience with the Lions, Nagy has been in a starting lineup before, and Austin has the upside.

    Ultimately, Gandy could play either guard or center, as could Austin and Nagy. That means it's very possible Gandy could be the second option at either guard or center. Or Nagy could be the starter at right guard and the second option at center.

    The situation is fluid and uncertain at present. The only thing we know is that the interior linemen will be players to watch in training camp and preseason. The only player who appears truly safe is Rob Sims.

Defensive Tackle

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    1. Ndamukong Suh

    2. Nick Fairley

    3. Ogemdi Nwagbuo

    4. Jimmy Saddler-McQueen

    The top two players on this list should be no surprise. The Lions sunk a pair of first-round picks into defensive tackles, so of course they'd lead the charge on the depth chart.

    The other two, well, don't feel bad if you had no idea these guys were Detroit Lions. Nwagbuo only joined the team in December of 2012, and Saddler-McQueen was a practice-squad player until about the same point.

    This is a group that needs depth in a bad way. Though Nwagbuo brings 36 games of NFL experience to the team, he has only played in nine games over the past three seasons and started only six in his career.

    The edge in experience gives him an edge on the depth chart, but ultimately it would be a surprise to see either of these players on the active roster come September.

Defensive End

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    LDE: Jason Jones

    RDE: Willie Young

    DE2: Ronnell Lewis

    The Lions are absurdly thin at defensive end, with a couple of unproven young players and a free agent who has played most of his NFL career at defensive tackle.

    Obviously, this is a group that still needs some work. Jones is already penciled in as a starter, and the talented Young is a clear winner over Lewis, who only just started learning to play defensive end last season.

    Still, there are nothing but questions here. Young has been highly productive in spurts, but it's uncertain whether he is built to be more than a specialist, much less a starter. Jones is a good player, but his better years have come when he was a defensive tackle, not an end.

    Lewis is a question mark in terms of whether he's valuable as a player at all.

    Expect a draft pick and another free agent (maybe Lawrence Jackson) to join this group before all's said and done.

Linebackers

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    WLB: DeAndre Levy

    MLB: Stephen Tulloch

    SLB: Tahir Whitehead

    LB2: Ashlee Palmer

    LB3: Travis Lewis

    LB4: Carmen Messina

    This is another one of those situations where the veteran player gets the benefit of the doubt, and all the bench players could be on approximately even standing.

    DeAndre Levy was just re-signed to a three-year deal, but Levy has not exactly been a model of greatness in his time in Detroit. He could be pushed by Whitehead, Lewis or even Palmer.

    Still, for the time being, his new contract would seem to indicate him keeping his job as starter. It's the other position—the one previously held by Justin Durant— that will create the most camp competition.

    Whitehead and Palmer would appear to be the favorites for the position—Whitehead having the highest draft position and Palmer having the most experience—but don't count out Travis Lewis, who has a lot of potential to grow very quickly.

Cornerbacks

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    LCB: Chris Houston

    RCB: Bill Bentley

    NCB: Jonte Green

    CB4: Ron Bartell

    CB5: Chris Greenwood

    CB6: D.J. Johnson

    - Others

    As with wide receivers, the Lions field a handful of practice-squad-caliber players at cornerback that you'll never need to know the names of (like Conroy Black, for instance), so I've omitted them here.

    Also, I could easily see Bentley and Green swapping positions, since Green got the most starting experience last season and seemed to grow toward the end of the year.

    Chris Houston is the undeniable top option, to the point where the Lions even started using him as a true CB1 (shadowing the other team's top receiver rather than sticking to a single side of the field) at times last season.

    But the person to watch in this group is Chris Greenwood. He spent all of last season on the PUP list after having abdominal surgery in the summer, but he has undeniably the most upside of anyone on the roster. At any position, even.

    Greenwood was an athletic freak at Albion, a tiny Division III college, and he might be bigger, faster, stronger and a better overall athlete than any of the Lions' corners.

    The problem is, it's a big jump moving from Albion to the NFL. How well Greenwood handles the transition, and how fast he learns will determine how fast—and if—he shoots up the depth chart. Right now, he has a lot to prove, but plenty of tools with which to prove it.

Safety

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    FS: Glover Quin

    SS: Louis Delmas

    S3: Don Carey

    S4: Amari Spievey

    S5: Ricardo Silva

    S6: John Wendling

    Look at that! That's the look of a solid starting tandem at safety.

    Glover Quin and Louis Delmas could be a great—not good, great—pair of safeties for the Lions. Of course, this is where that all-important "if healthy" line comes into play. Delmas absolutely has to remain on the field for this unit to work, because behind him there is only young players full of question marks.

    Is Don Carey as decent as he looked late last year? And can he get any better, or is he just a solid depth player?

    Can Amari Spievey put it together and play some decent football, or will he join Titus Young and Derrick Williams as Day 2 draft busts for Martin Mayhew?

    Can Ricardo Silva get any better, or is he just a low-ceiling player that the Lions couldn't find an improvement over?

    With any luck, the Lions won't have to answer any of these questions. Quin and Delmas could grow into one of the best safety tandems in the league, but it will involve them both staying healthy, improving their individual skills, and learning to communicate and play together.