Projecting the Detroit Lions' Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
A lackluster season plus lots of roster turnover plus a deep draft class equals lots of competition.
This is what the Detroit Lions are looking at this offseason, with the departure of a number of veteran starters and draft picks coming in at need positions everywhere.
In 2012, the Lions returned 21 of their 22 starters from the previous season, and it didn't turn out so well. This year, five starters from last season (and all the special teams specialists aside from long-snapper Don Muhlbach) are already off the team, and plenty of other roster spots are likely to be up for grabs in terms of depth positions.
We won't know for sure who wins these battles until training camp, and even then, many of them will likely be decided by health (and a lack thereof). So yes, realistically, any predictions made in May fall under the "way too early" category, but that doesn't mean we can't make educated guesses.
So based on the current construction of the Lions' roster (which admittedly may not be the same four months from now), here are the most likely battles to watch as they unfold in the next few months.
Corey Hillard vs. Jason Fox
Yes, I know that's Hilliard and Riley Reiff pictured, and had the Lions gotten a shot at one of the top tackles in this draft, it's very likely that this could have been the battle for right tackle this season.
I don't even rule out the possibility that Hilliard and Fox could challenge Reiff for the starting left tackle position, but while that position isn't locked down, it certainly is Reiff's to lose.
Meanwhile, Hilliard and Fox are a pair of players that the Lions organization are basically taking a chance on. We have no way of knowing how good they truly are, since they've played so sparingly, which is part of what makes this such an intriguing camp battle.
This isn't just a roster battle for the starting right tackle spot, it's also a good chance for Lions fans to seriously get a look at these guys for what may be the first time.
Ultimately, while Hilliard has been the more stable player of the two, the injuries that left Fox on the injured list seem to have passed by, and as long as they haven't sapped the potential that made him the second pick of the fourth round in 2010, I give the edge to Fox here. He should be poised for a breakout season.
If he gets injured again, though, at least they have the steady Hilliard to fill in.
Joseph Fauria vs. Michael Williams
This is an interesting matchup between a seventh-round pick and an undrafted player.
What is interesting about these two is that they each compare to the Lions' top two tight ends. Williams compares to Brandon Pettigrew, in that he is a big short-yardage and red zone target whose blocking is probably better than his receiving.
Fauria compares closely to Tony Scheffler, in that he has a bit more talent as a receiving tight end (especially down the field) but seems generally disinterested in blocking.
Both Williams and Fauria are talented players, and both should stick around with the team, but it's likely that Williams makes the roster—assuming the Lions only take on three TEs, as they have in the past—simply because the Lions will prefer a blocker as their third TE/H-back.
Starting (and Nickel, and Dime) CB
Bill Bentley vs. Darius Slay vs. Chris Greenwood vs. Jonte Green
The only thing we really know about the Lions cornerbacks is that Chris Houston is good, and he will start as long as he is physically able to do so.
After that, it's a mashup of players with a lot of physical tools and very little experience.
Slay is the highest-drafted prospect (Round 2, Pick No. 36 overall in this year's draft), Bentley was the starter to open last season, Greenwood is the most physically impressive, and Green has the most experience after having been forced into a starter's role last season.
In other words, there are advantages to each of these players. It's tempting to pencil Slay in as a starter, just because he was a second-round pick and people really like to privilege draft position over things like experience and performance.
Since cornerback has the steepest learning curve of any NFL position, though, experience is exceptionally important, even if it's only theoretical, classroom-style experience. Because of that, I'm tempted to put Slay on the bottom of the depth chart, not the top—especially considering his increasingly questionable health, which will put him behind in terms of development.
I won't do that, but it's hard to put Green at the bottom of the chart after some admirable play in a bad situation late last season. It's difficult to order these players when they all showed flashes of something special last season (except Slay, of course), and the player at the top of the depth chart will probably create some discussion. I'm backing him anyway, though.
This is all very much subject to change pending the results of camp performance.
Greenwood (Starting RCB)
Joique Bell vs. Theo Riddick
Arguably, Bell was the Lions' most efficient running back in 2012.
He wasn't the most productive, or the most physically imposing, or the most secure in terms of ball handling, but he averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He made things happen, he broke tackles, and he was relatively exciting to watch, despite the Lions' general lack of a rushing attack in general.
Now, with the Lions' acquisition of Reggie Bush, Bell is looking at the third-string role, and he will be pushed for that role by a rookie. Theo Riddick was selected by the Lions in the sixth round last month, and he seems to have a similar skill set to Bell.
Perhaps this has something to do with Bell's recent insistence that he be tried out for a special teams role.
Regardless, while Riddick is a fresh face and a talented back, it's unlikely that he's anything more than a depth option right now. Bell proved himself last season, and while Bush will naturally take away a number of his opportunities, he was most effective as a closer in 2012. That role could be perfect for him again in 2013.
David Akers vs. Havard "Kickalicious" Rugland
This should shape up as one of the strangest roster battles in recent memory.
One guy is a veteran top-tier kicker coming off the worst year of his career. The other is a Norwegian kicking sensation with over 1,000,000 views on YouTube.
Also, these guys are kickers. This isn't like the time the Bills took a flier on Alex Tanney, the "trick shot" quarterback. What Tanney was doing wasn't relevant to the game, because playing quarterback is as much about reading defenses and handling pass-rushers as it is about throwing the football.
For kickers, the things you need are power and accuracy. Rugland's video shows off—surprise—his kicking power and accuracy (as well as his exceptionally poor kicking form, which would seem to indicate that he has room to improve).
So I do believe Rugland has a legitimate shot to make the roster. He isn't just a gimmick signing, and, personally, I'll be rooting for him. But the veteran Akers, if healthy, is the safer option. Despite a down season, Akers has had a career as one of the best kickers in the game, and only a sports hernia kept him from proving it last season.
Despite his advanced age and the degree to which it would be awesome to see Rugland win this battle, I have to give the nod to Akers here, on account of the security that comes along with choosing a proven veteran.
Kellen Moore vs. Alex Carder
Here's another classic case of "limited experience" vs. "superior measurables."
Moore has the brain for the quarterback position and a year of experience in the system.
Carder has no experience, but he has superior size and arm strength.
Neither player has the benefit of draft position backing him, so this is going to be a true battle to determine the third quarterback.
Really, though, the Lions should want consistency from their quarterback position right now, which means the job should be Moore's to lose. So, in effect, this is less a battle between Moore and Carder, and more of a test to see if Moore has progressed over last year.
If Moore has improved his play since last year's training camp, the Lions will see that he is starting to realize his upside and keep him around.
If he hasn't gotten any better, then why would the Lions keep a mediocre quarterback who doesn't show the propensity to grow, especially when Carder's physical abilities give him a presumably higher ceiling?
I'll give the edge to Moore, though, because he essentially controls his own destinybeing the incumbent. But if he doesn't show notable growth, this is close to a 50/50 battle.
All the DEs
Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah vs. Jason Jones vs. Devin Taylor vs. Willie Young vs. Ronnell Lewis
Really, can we reliably say that any of these positions are really set?
For as much potential, youth and upside as there is in this group of DEs, there is almost zero proven production. Jones is the most veteran player on the roster, but he has only one season playing at the defensive end position.
Young has several snaps to his name over the past couple of years, but it's impossible to tell if he's ready for an expanded role. He has played regularly, but sparingly, since 2011.
Then there's Ansah, Taylor, and Lewis, who have a combined one snap at DE in the NFL.
Right now, it makes sense that the veteran (Jones) and the highest-drafted player (Ansah—Round 1, Pick No. 5 overall in this year's draft) will hold down the defensive end positions, but that's just because their pedigrees lead us to believe that they'll perform the best in training camp. Ultimately, the entire depth chart should be up for grabs at this position.