The start of the NFL season coincides with back to school season for most kids. As a former teacher, this was an overwhelming time; feelings of excitement, intensity and renewal filled the air around Labor Day.
One of the things I quickly learned as a teacher is that you can often tell pretty quickly what sort of grades most students are going to earn as the school year progresses. Sure, some kids will overachieve and pleasantly surprise. I always liked to credit that to great teaching, but that's only part of it.
Other kids will fall short of projected grades for a variety of reasons. It might be problems at home, or failure to click with the teacher or a lack of effort.
I've found the same is very true for football teams. In looking at a roster as the season begins, it's easy to tell where the strong points are as well as what positions are likely to fail.
In that spirit, here are the preseason grades for each and every position for the 2013 Detroit Lions.
Matthew Stafford possesses one of the best arms in the league. That arm has carried him to over 10,000 yards in the last two seasons. Stafford is prone to slow starts and cold spells, but when he’s hot he is incredibly effective with his decision-making and accuracy down the field.
When he focuses on proper mechanics and has his heart in it, Stafford belongs in any top ten rating. Unfortunately he doesn’t always play to that potential.
Shaun Hill was lauded by Bleacher Report's own Michael Schottey as one of the best backups around. Not too long ago he was the more effective starter than Alex Smith in San Francisco. Hill has capably filled in for Stafford and has proven he can guide the team to victory. He was nothing short of outstanding in the preseason.
Kellen Moore earned a roster spot thanks to his strong preseason performance. He worked hard at improving his arm and core strength and it paid off. With Hill a free agent at the end of the year, Moore has positioned himself to take over the No. 2 role in 2014.
Signing Reggie Bush brought the sizzle factor back to the Lions, something they’ve had only fleetingly since Barry Sanders retired. Bush is a playmaker as both an outside runner and a receiver. His ability to create in space and accelerate past defenders gives the offense an explosive dynamic that should allow for much better diversity.
Joique Bell will serve as the change-of-pace back. Normally that moniker is reserved for quicker and more agile runners, but Bell is more of an inside and powerful complement to Bush.
Like Bush, Bell is also an accomplished receiver. His five yards per carry behind a line that wasn’t great at creating holes shows his mettle. The local product gives full effort on every snap. He’s the steak to Bush’s sizzle.
Mikel Leshoure led the Lions in rushing a year ago but largely squandered his opportunity as the feature back. His 3.7 yards per carry was not good enough and he seldom made the first tackler miss. Leshoure is young enough to still have upside and represents a good third back, but he is running out of time to produce.
Rookie sixth-round pick Theo Riddick made the roster for his explosiveness in space. His skills are roughly redundant with Bush on the field, which gives him value as a reserve. Unless Bush gets hurt, Riddick is unlikely to see much—if any—action during his rookie year.
Montell Owens made the final 53 as a hybrid fullback/running back, though according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press he will be on the shelf for the early portion of the season:
Calvin Johnson. He’s the best wideout in the game, and the Lions offense without him is like a sailboat in a vacuum tube. There’s really nothing more to be said.
Nate Burleson is the other starter. The veteran is coming off a broken leg, and if preseason is any indication he is still not back to where he was pre-injury. Burleson offers loads of intangibles, but the Lions need more tangibles from him in order to be effective.
Ryan Broyles brings the ability to get separation and reliably catch the ball out of the slot. He was productive when on the field as a rookie, but staying on the field is a real problem; Broyles has torn an ACL in both knees within the last 21 months. His availability is a real question, though Broyles has played during the preseason.
Patrick Edwards is a downfield speedster in the body of a slot receiver. As with Broyles and Burleson, Edwards is also coming off a season marred by injury. His speed and hands are intriguing but Edwards is very much an unproven commodity at the NFL level.
Kris Durham edged out Matt Willis for the fifth wideout spot. Durham has good size, and his blocking was excellent in the final two preseason games. His familiarity with Stafford from their days at Georgia together certainly helped his case, since his route running and quickness are both pedestrian.
The sixth and final spot went to Micheal Spurlock, but he is a return specialist and core special teams contributor. He might not see five offensive touches all season.
Grade: C-, but it quickly falls to F if Calvin Johnson misses more than one quarter
Detroit is one of the few teams that starts two tight ends. Both Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew are listed as starters.
Pettigrew is the in-line presence, he lines up tight to tackle almost exclusively and is more of a short yardage target. He battled a knee injury last year, as well as numerous battles between his hands and the football.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pettigrew had nine drops and four fumbles in 2012. His run-blocking is inconsistent because he tends to get too upright, but the effort is there.
Scheffler frequently lines up flexed out or in motion. The former Western Michigan Bronco is on the team strictly for his receiving acumen; he's much more of a super-sized wideout than an agile tight end with his blocking.
Scheffler is coming off a down season with just one touchdown, though he was used more frequently in deeper routes. The Lions use him as a matchup dictator and don't hesitate to try and strike with his speed down the field when Scheffler gets isolated on a linebacker.
Joseph Fauria made the roster as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA. He earned it with solid receiving skills and attention to detail on his routes. Like Scheffler, he is not a strong blocker but will not be asked to do it very often.
As much as Social Studies encompasses several subjects like government, history and geography, the offensive line is a cumulative effort of several related but mutually exclusive groups. I'll break down each position but give a final combined grade.
Riley Reiff takes over at left tackle after spending his rookie year primarily playing as an extra right tackle in the jumbo package. He fared okay against JJ Watt and the Texans in his one start at left tackle last year. During the preseason his run-blocking was not as strong as expected, and he struggled with edge speed.
Jason Fox won the starting right tackle spot. This is his fourth season in Detroit, but he has missed almost all of his first three years with injuries. His pass-blocking is further along than his run-blocking, which makes him a curious choice at right tackle as most teams prefer to run to the right.
Veteran Corey Hilliard can play both tackle spots reasonably well in small doses. He's smart and has quick feet in pass protection. In preseason play he was better on the left side than the right.
Undrafted rookie free agent LaAdrian Waddle was the most pleasant surprise of the summer. He very nearly beat out Fox for the starting right tackle job. Waddle will see live action in 2013 in preparation for ascending to a starting spot in 2014.
Rob Sims and Larry Warford will start at left and right guard, respectively. Sims is one of the best pass protecting guards in the league, having allowed just one sack in the last two seasons. His range in the run game isn't great but he can reliably seal open a hole at the point of attack.
Warford is a highly touted rookie from Kentucky. The team's third-round pick struggled in camp and preseason with speedier defenders, but Warford is a mauling run-blocker. For an excellent scouting report on Warford, check out what Eric Stoner wrote in April.
Former Titan Leroy Harris won a hotly contested camp battle for the reserve guard spot. He comes off two lousy campaigns in the last three years in Tennessee, but I noted Harris was the best lineman on the field in the preseason game against Cleveland.
The most tenured member of the Lions is Dominic Raiola. Now entering his 13th season in Detroit, Raiola is one of the least favorite players in the league to face. Chippy and combative, he has a reputation for being dirty.
His skills have eroded over the past few years and his ability to create movement in the run game is long gone. Raiola had to take a pay cut to remain with the team, and this will almost certainly be his last in Detroit.
Dylan Gandy lost out in the competition to win the right guard spot. He played center in the preseason and outperformed Raiola in many eyes. Both he and Leroy Harris can play both guard spots as well as center.
This is unquestionably the strength of the defense, if not the entire team. Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh form arguably the best tackle tandem in the entire league. When they are on top of their games, which isn’t always a given, they are difference-makers in the trenches.
Both have legitimate All Pro potential and can make life very difficult for opposing offenses. Suh has struggled controlling his emotions and has still yet to decipher trap blocks in the run game. Fairley has had some injury issues and racks up too many penalties of his own as well.
The reserve tackles are both new to the team. Justin Bannan is a savvy run stuffer with extensive playoff experience, two things this unit has lacked recently. CJ Mosley has proven himself a solid rotational player in Jacksonville with a little ability to get into the backfield. Neither backup will play more than about 15 snaps per game.
At end, the Lions have significantly upgraded. I covered the overhaul of talent here, with special emphasis on the improved size and athleticism. Foremost among that improvement is first-round pick Ziggy Ansah, who will start at right end. His athletic potential is downright phenomenal, but there will be bumps as he learns the game on the fly.
Jason Jones will start on the left end. His best asset is his ability to rush the passer from the inside, and the Lions will use him at tackle on occasion. The Eastern Michigan product is a physical edge setter against the run, though he doesn't rack up a lot of tackles.
Veteran Israel Idonije is a self-made success story that can also play inside and out. The good folks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Idonije higher than more celebrated linemate Julius Peppers last year in Chicago. His role as a mentor for fellow African native Ansah is invaluable.
Fourth-round pick Devin Taylor stands nearly 6'8" and has the wingspan of an albatross. He flashed the ability to wreak havoc on occasion at South Carolina and during the preseason.
Taylor will play primarily on run downs, while Willie Young will try to redeem himself from a terrible 2012 season as a pass rush specialist. Both have loads of potential but neither has proven much in the NFL.
Stephen Tulloch returns as the man in the middle. Tulloch is quick, instinctive and racks up tackles—but he almost never makes impact plays. His cover skills are strong, but he will take bad angles and miss tackles after the catch. The veteran is a reliable cog and solid leadership presence, but not a real difference maker.
DeAndre Levy is the starting outside backer. He was retained in free agency primarily for his ability to clean up plays that get to the second level and his coverage acumen. Levy is not a downhill attacker like many teams prefer at the position. He is an up-and-down average starter at his best.
Ashlee Palmer is nominally the other starting outside backer, but the Lions play just two LBs more often than not. Palmer has worked his way up from special teams and has good lateral agility. He lacks physicality and really struggles to get off blocks. Palmer's arrow is pointing up, however.
The reserves here are not impressive at all. 2012 draft picks Tahir Whitehead (fifth round) and Travis Lewis (seventh round) would not make many other rosters. Whitehead has some value on special teams but is abysmal in coverage despite being the quickest LB on the team.
Lewis is a throwback type of player—an instinctive thumper—but he sorely lacks size and quickness. He will back up Tulloch in the middle but doesn't figure to play much, if at all.
Journeyman Rocky McIntosh was a late addition in preseason. McIntosh made the final roster more out of the egregiousness of his competition than anything he did in particular. Both he and Lewis have tenuous grasps on their roster spots.
Chris Houston starts at the left corner. He is underrated by the general public but has good quickness and innate stickiness in coverage. Houston is also solid in run support.
His maddening lack of ball awareness with the throw in the air causes great consternation among Lions fans, but the pass defense really fell off when he was out of the lineup for a couple of games in each of the last two seasons.
Darius Slay quickly worked his way into the starting lineup. The second-round pick from Mississippi State needs some technical refinement but has excellent long speed and a good feel for spatial awareness. His length is a real plus.
Bill Bentley will play extensively in the slot as the nickelback. The second year pro is feisty and aggressive, which is both positive and negative. Bentley struggled with holding as a rookie before injuries abbreviated his debut campaign. Head coach Jim Schwartz said this about Bentley in June:
You know, even when we had him last year early in camp, he was a playmaker... He got his hands on balls. He plays with a lot of spirit. He's out there, and he competes all the time. He intercepted a ball (during minicamp). He's really improved his technique.
As insurance, the Lions brought in veteran Rashean Mathis. Once upon a time in Jacksonville, Mathis was a legit Pro Bowl corner, but injuries and age have taken their toll. He looked very sharp in preseason and brings a playmaking flair that is coveted on a team that struggled to create turnovers a year ago. Mathis will line up at both corner and free safety and figures to play a lot.
Jonte Green was thrown to the wolves as a rookie, but the speedy sixth-round pick outplayed the meager expectations. Green showed a quick learning curve, an attribute that will help him as he spends most of this season working on getting stronger.
Louis Delmas is arguably the biggest wild card on the team. When Delmas has been healthy, which has not been often, he has made a very positive impact on the entire defense.
Delmas is rangy, smart and aggressive. He's also a charismatic and energetic leader that raises the play of those around him. His knees are a chronic concern that frequently prevent him from practicing.
Glover Quin signed as a free agent to man the strong safety spot next to Delmas. Quin is a real thumper against the run, a savvy and strong downhill attack dog. He is decent in shorter coverage but loses effectiveness quickly down the field.
Don Carey is sporadically effective, best used in small doses. It shows that he is a former cornerback, as his coverage instincts far outweigh his run defense. He's a limited athlete but understands his role. He and Mathis will split the third safety duties; Carey is more of an injury insurance policy than a regular player.
John Wendling will only see the field on special teams, and for good reason. His range and inability to change direction make him a major liability when he plays in the base defense.
Grade: C+, but heading in an upward trajectory
Rookie Sam Martin takes over as the punter. The fifth-round pick from Appalachian State will also serve as the kickoff specialist. If his preseason performance is a reliable indicator, the Lions have an above-average talent at both spots for a long time.
David Akers won the kicking competition with Havard Rugland, better known as Kickalicious. Akers comes off an injury-plagued season in San Francisco where he was one of the least accurate legs in the league, but the veteran looked rejuvenated in camp. His history of making clutch kicks carries on the tradition of Jason Hanson and Eddie Murray, the only two Lions kickers since 1980.
Long snapper Don Muhlbach enters his 10th season in Detroit and hasn’t faced serious competition for his spot in several years. He’s one of the best in the business and is remarkably consistent.
Micheal Spurlock won the primary return specialist slot. The Lions were awful on returns a year ago, and Spurlock has had some success earlier in his career. It's still a big unknown going forward.