Predicting the Detroit Lions Starting Lineup After the 1st Week of Free Agency
The Detroit Lions solidified the starting lineup in the first week of free agency by signing a couple of outsiders and a couple of its own free agents.
New head coach Jim Caldwell should have a very strong idea of his starting offensive and defensive players already. While the draft is still going to bolster the roster, it's unlikely any player drafted winds up starting in September, other than perhaps a third wideout.
Here is what the Lions starting lineup figures to look like when the 2014 NFL season kicks off...
This one is easy.
Matthew Stafford will be the starting quarterback for the Lions. That will be true in 2014. It will remain true in 2015 and '16 as well.
His reign as the starter could very well extend into the 2020s if he stays healthy, continues to produce 4,000-plus-yard seasons and delivers the ever-elusive playoff win for Detroit.
Stafford could help himself by playing a consistent 16 games. He was outstanding in the first nine games of 2013, leading the team to a 6-3 record and showing confidence and precision.
Yet his play dramatically fell off in the second half of the season. He needs to elevate his play back to the first half of the season and keep it there.
The only real question is who will be Stafford's backup. Longtime backup Shaun Hill is unlikely to return, and third-stringer Kellen Moore has never taken a regular-season snap.
Running back is an interesting position for the Lions. While there will technically be a starter, expect a fairly spread-out workload among at least two backs.
Reggie Bush will take the field on the first offensive snap the vast majority of the time, but Joique Bell will also see significant action.
In addition, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi figures to integrate reserves Theo Riddick and Mikel Leshoure more than the departed Scott Linehan did during his tenure.
Lombardi comes from the New Orleans Saints, where their high-octane offense was a true backfield by committee.
Here's the snap counts at running back and fullback from the last two seasons for the Saints, all courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
The outlier in those charts is Jed Collins, the starting fullback. Right now, the Lions do not have a fullback on the roster. It's unclear at this point if the team will incorporate a full-time fullback or stick with running three wide receivers as the starting offense.
It's worth noting that Collins remains an unsigned free agent. So is Vonta Leach, who was the starting fullback in Baltimore in new head coach Jim Caldwell's Ravens offense.
By signing free agent Golden Tate, the Lions added a major upgrade for the second starting wideout position.
Tate will assume a starting role opposite Calvin Johnson, giving Detroit a formidable duo for Stafford. Johnson is a perennial All-Pro and one of the most fearsome offensive weapons in the NFL.
The interesting question is the third wideout spot. That has been a de facto starting spot for the past few seasons in Detroit. While at times a second tight end started in place of the third wideout, the No. 3 receiver figures to see extensive action.
That player could be Ryan Broyles. The 2012 second-round pick has shown some effectiveness in the slot, but he's suffered three major injuries in as many seasons and might not be ready for the season.
It could be Jeremy Ross, who sparked the offense with a tour de force performance against the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving. His primary role is as a return specialist, but he'll be in the preseason competition for receiver reps too.
Kevin Ogletree, who re-signed with the team as free agency opened, offers another option.
Of course, the draft could offer the third receiver, as none of the other options inspires much confidence at this point.
Tight end is the only spot on the entire offense where the depth-chart order is uncertain.
When the Lions brought back Brandon Pettigrew after he tested the free-agent market, it set up an offseason battle for the No. 1 tight end spot.
Pettigrew has started 68 games over the last five seasons, and his new four-year, $16 million contract (h/t Spotrac) dictates a certain level of playing time and expectations.
However, Joseph Fauria emerged as a better red-zone threat as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Fauria played well as a starter after Pettigrew was sidelined with an injury, too.
Pro Football Focus graded out Fauria with a plus-6.2 score (subscription required), while Pettigrew earned a minus-8.0 in 2013.
It will be interesting to see how much the second tight end is utilized. Caldwell split his tight end duties fairly evenly between Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in Baltimore, with Dallas Clark filling in for the injured Pitta in 2013.
Lombardi had a star in Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, but he also used veteran Ben Watson for over 500 snaps last season. Watson saw just 31 passes thrown his direction, however, while primarily serving as a blocker.
The key word for the offensive line is continuity.
All five starters from the end of 2013 return, and all will enter 2014 as starters.
From left to right:
- Tackle Riley Reiff
- Guard Rob Sims
- Center Dominic Raiola
- Guard Larry Warford
- Tackle LaAdrian Waddle
Reiff, Warford and Waddle were all first-year starters, and all played well. Warford quickly proved himself to be one of the best right guards in the league, while the undrafted Waddle was a major surprise for his strong play in relief duty.
Detroit finished 2013 ranked sixth in pass protection and 14th in run blocking at PFF. A full year of continuity should only help those ratings improve going forward.
In addition to the starters, Detroit has a capable third tackle in Corey Hilliard as well. Young Rodney Austin will get another crack at earning the top interior reserve position.
Depending on your perspective, the defensive line might be returning intact or it might be featuring one new starter.
The position in question is left defensive end. Jason Jones began 2013 as the starter, but he suffered a knee injury in Week 3 that ended his first season in Detroit.
Willie Young took over for the rest of the season, but he is now a Chicago Bear.
Jones will get a chance to reclaim his starting role in 2014, but he will have to fend off some challengers.
Foremost among those is 2013 fourth-round pick Devin Taylor, who flashed some ability in an expanded role late in the season. The 6'7" Taylor could assume a much bigger role in 2014, especially if Jones struggles.
Free-agent acquisition Darryl Tapp projects primarily as a reserve, but he does have starting experience in his journeyman career.
The other three spots are carved in granite.
Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are the men in the middle. The two former first-round picks provide the Lions with one of the most formidable and talented tackle duos in the league, though a little more productivity would be a welcome development.
Fairley is under some pressure as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. As Kyle Meinke of MLive reported, he didn't always play as well as he should have.
Ezekiel Ansah will start once again at right end. Another first-round pick, Ziggy notched eight sacks and two forced fumbles as a rookie, flashing the dynamic potential he offers. He's a rising star.
Linebacker is another position with strong continuity. DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch both played well in 2013, and both return for more.
Levy's career took off last season after a few seasons of largely mediocre play. He tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions and also tripled his previous career high in passes defended with 15.
Tulloch provided stalwart run support, though PFF thought much higher of his work in coverage than many team observers.
Under coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions played with just two linebackers as a base defense. Both Tulloch and Levy logged over 1,000 snaps, while third backer Ashlee Palmer played just 367.
If the Lions are to go to a more conventional 4-3 look, they will need to add that third linebacker.
Right now, the only other linebacker with any game experience on the roster is Tahir Whitehead, who sticks around for his excellent special teams play. It's a real reach to project either Whitehead or youngsters Julian Stanford and Brandon Hepburn as top reserves, let alone starters.
Detroit will have options in the draft, from Anthony Barr in the first round to Christian Kirksey in the early part of the draft's third day, should it choose to use the third backer more frequently.
Detroit has many options here, but heading into the draft, the starting corners are Chris Houston and Darius Slay.
Take a deep breath, Lions fans...
Houston is coming off a miserable season where he ranked 96th out of 110 corners in PFF's rankings. As Rotoworld notes, Houston suffered through a laundry list of minor injuries. The Lions are hopeful his bad 2013 was an injury-induced aberration.
Slay was not much better, but the second-round rookie did show growth at the end of the season. He responded well to being benched for unacceptable play early in his rookie year. Slay is spending the offseason under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Rod Woodson (h/t Kyle Meinke at MLive), which can only help.
When Slay was riding the pine, veteran Rashean Mathis took over the starting right corner spot. He was the best cover man on the team, but he remains a free agent. There is a chance he could come back, though there has been no chatter on that front thus far.
Detroit predominately played with three corners on the field last year, and the third corner was Bill Bentley in the slot. When I spoke to general manager Martin Mayhew during Shrine Game week in January, he was nothing but positive about Bentley's feistiness and opportunity to continue to improve.
Two third-year players, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood, will get chances to prove themselves in camp. The team could add a draft pick to the crowded mix as well. May the best men win!
One of the starting safety spots is locked up. Glover Quin performed well in his first season in Detroit, earning a 6.7 rating from PFF in coverage.
Who will line up next to the converted cornerback at the other safety spot?
While Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press has reported that free agent James Ihedigbo plans to sign soon, he has yet to ink a deal. Until he's officially a Lion, it's hasty to project him to a starting role.
Holdover Don Carey would start if the season began today, but the team prefers him in a reserve capacity, as noted by Pro Football Talk. He can play both corner and safety, though he was better at corner in 2013.
There's a chance the team could draft a starting-caliber safety in the second or third round, too. Guys such as Jimmie Ward, Deone Bucannon or Terrance Brooks would immediately challenge for a starting spot if the Lions drafted any of them in May.
All advanced statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription for premium content.