Projecting Detroit Lions' Starting Lineup Before the 2014 Draft
With most starters returning from last year's 7-9 squad and a few new additions via free agency, there are only a couple of potential starting gigs readily available for a rookie. Of course, an unexpected injury or outstanding performance in training camp could shake things up.
Here's a look at how the Lions would take the field if the season started today.
Matthew Stafford returns for his sixth season in Detroit, and he has been the starter from the moment the team selected him No. 1 overall out of Georgia.
After some injury woes early on, Stafford has proven to be a durable, above-average starting quarterback in a highly prolific offense. In the entire history of the NFL, only New Orleans' Drew Brees has thrown for more yards over a three-year period than what Stafford has from 2011-13.
While he's been inconsistent at times, Stafford is still just 26 years old. If he can shake off his poor finish to 2013, the Lions are once again in very good hands with Matthew Stafford running the offense. He is the unquestioned starter for the foreseeable future.
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 likely earn the title of "starter," but Joique Bell will also see significant action. Both backs accrued over 500 yards rushing and receiving in 2013, making them one of the most potent and diverse duos in the league.
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.
Take a look at the snap counts at running back and fullback from the last two seasons for the Saints, all courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
Notice that new Lions fullback Jed Collins is prominent on those lists, with over 700 snaps in the last two seasons. It will be interesting to see how much work he gets in Detroit, which has not employed even a part-time fullback for several seasons.
If the Lions do wind up using the fullback as a starting role, Collins is the man for the job.
The Lions aggressively addressed the glaring need for a competent starter opposite All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson.
In signing free agent Golden Tate to a $31 million contract, the Lions added the leading receiver from the Super Bowl champions and a player whose skills perfectly complement Johnson's.
Tate replaces Nate Burleson, who is now in Cleveland. During Burleson's times when he was injured, Kris Durham filled in the other starting spot.
Durham remains on the roster, but after registering just 38 receptions and 10 drops last year (h/t Pro Football Focus), he will not be back in a starting capacity.
In the recent past the Lions often played with three wideouts as a base offensive system. However, with the addition of fullback Jed Collins and having two starting-caliber tight ends, the third receiver might not see as much action.
That third wideout is very likely to come from the draft. Ryan Broyles, Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross are all reaches for that position, though more likely to earn the role than Durham.
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 charted Fauria with a plus-6.2 score, while Pettigrew graded out with 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 the Saints 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.
This is a position battle worth watching.
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. Waddle was a major surprise as an undrafted rookie for his strong play in starting the second half of the season.
Detroit finished 2013 ranked sixth in pass protection and 14th in run blocking per PFF. A full year of continuity should only help those ratings improve going forward.
There is one way this order gets jumbled, and that would be if the Lions use a first-round pick on an offensive tackle like Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson.
In that scenario, Reiff would slide inside to left guard and the team would likely trade or release Sims, who is entering the final year of his contract.
The tackle spots are set in stone with a pair of former first-round picks.
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.
Suh is coming off a Pro Bowl season where he was consistently one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the NFL. He finished second among all tackles in PFF's ratings last year.
Fairley is under some pressure as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. The Lions declined the fifth-year option on his contract, citing questions about his effort and discipline. As noted by MLive's Kyle Meinke in a great op-ed piece, Fairley is very likely playing for his next contract with another team.
Last year's first-round pick, Ezekiel Ansah, will start at one defensive end spot. He validated his lofty draft status right away; Ziggy notched eight sacks and two forced fumbles as a rookie, flashing the dynamic potential he offers.
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 could factor in as well, though he's been a journeyman for several years now.
It's not out of the question that the Lions draft an edge pass-rusher that could start at right end, pushing Ansah to the left side, but that seems unlikely.
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. The team has openly talked of adding a "flamethrower," as noted by Pro Football Talk.
While Palmer remains on the roster, he is not the answer. Neither is Tahir Whitehead, who contributes exclusively on special teams.
We don't know exactly who that third linebacker will be until after next week's draft. It could be Khalil Mack in a trade up, or Anthony Barr at the 10th pick or Kyle Van Noy in the second round.
Cornerback is the biggest position of uncertainty on the roster. It's not for lack of options, however...
The Lions currently have 10 corners on the roster. Eight of those are under age 28, and five of them started at least four games in 2013.
Going on 30, Houston's 2013 was marred by injury and inconsistency. He missed this week's voluntary workouts as he continued to recover from the toe ailment that sidelined him in December. Houston remains penciled into the Lions' starting lineup, but last season was ominous. Age is rarely kind to cornerbacks.
Slay, last year's second-round pick, initially earned a starting role but was benched for poor play. He returned later in the year and looked both healthier and more confident. He is expected to earn—and keep—a starting role this year.
Veteran Rashean Mathis was the best corner on the roster last year, and he recently re-signed with the team after finding no other suitors in free agency. If Houston can't prove he's back to form, Mathis figures to step in once again.
He might have to fend off some of those youngsters, however. Newcomer Cassius Vaughn comes from the Colts, where he started four games for the AFC South champions. His PFF profile doesn't exactly engender confidence, but he does have experience and decent size.
Third-year player Bill Bentley will once again man the slot. That role will not be a starting position if the Lions deploy three linebackers, and Bentley is ill-suited to slide outside.
Bentley's draft classmates from 2012, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood, will also compete for bigger roles. Greenwood played quite well in the 2013 finale against Minnesota (pictured), and he could be a surprise starter.
Glover Quin performed well in his first season in Detroit, earning a 6.7 rating from PFF in coverage. He will have a new running mate in 2014, as Louis Delmas is now in Miami after being released by the team.
Free agent James Ihedigbo signed after a lengthy delay, and he projects as the starter. The 30-year-old is coming off his best season, notably in his run support for the Baltimore Ravens. He played under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore, and his experience with the new system gives him a leg up.
It's possible the Lions could draft a safety that would earn a starting role over Ihedigbo, relegating the veteran back to the reserve role he has largely played in his career. Prospects like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jimmie Ward or Terrence Brooks could feasibly overtake Ihedigbo before the start of the season.
All advanced statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription for premium content.
All statistics are from NFL.com unless otherwise indicated.