Early Projections for Detroit Lions' Final 53-Man Roster
Many of those final 53 are obvious. Even a casual fan can rattle off 20 players who are roster locks. It's projecting those final 10-15 spots that is the big challenge.
Here is an early stab at the 53 players who will sport the above helmet when Detroit kicks off the 2014 season on Monday Night Football against the New York Giants in less than four months.
Matthew Stafford's roster spot is carved in granite. He's the franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future, a 26-year old well into the process of rewriting the Lions' record books.
The Lions signed veteran Dan Orlovsky to serve as Stafford's primary backup. He returns to Detroit, where he started his career in 2005. His roster spot is secure, though not a complete lock.
The third quarterback spot is where new coach Jim Caldwell has a big decision.
Third-year pro Kellen Moore has held this gig since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State. He showed some promise in the 2013 preseason, notably improving his arm strength from awful to merely below average. Yet, he's still undersized at 6'0" and a lanky 197 pounds, and he lacks athletic prowess.
Moore will have to fend off another undrafted free agent in James Franklin. The two players are polar opposites.
Franklin is a stocky (6'2", 230 lbs), mobile, improvisational thrower with a strong arm. He can emulate opponents with those traits too, guys such as Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. That gives him a very tangible leg up, even if Moore is a more accurate passer; Franklin offers a way to contribute as the third quarterback that Moore does not.
Final Spots: Matthew Stafford, Dan Orlovsky and James Franklin (3)
There are some variables in this position group, though three roster spots are definite.
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are coming off a season where they became the first duo in NFL history to put up 500 yards each as both rushers and receivers. While their workload in the new offense is yet to be determined, both will continue to see extensive action.
Fullback Jed Collins came along with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi from the New Orleans Saints. He knows the new scheme and fills a role the Lions have not used in years.
After those three, the final two or three spots are up for grabs.
Second-year slasher Theo Riddick has the best chance to seize one of those jobs. His versatile skills are fairly redundant with Bush, who has battled numerous minor injuries throughout his career. If Bush gets dinged or has to miss a game or two, Riddick can step in and fill the same role, albeit to a lesser capacity.
Mikel Leshoure is a wild card. Before Bush and Bell exploded on the scene, the former second-round pick was the feature back in Detroit. Last year, however, he only saw two carries the entire season and was inactive more often than not. He doesn't play special teams, and that hurts Leshoure's chances.
Undrafted free-agent fullback Chad Abram has a real chance to make the final 53 if he can impress on special teams. He and holdover Montell Owens, who is essentially a special teams ace more than a hybrid running back/fullback, appear to be fighting for the same spot.
Final spots: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Jed Collins, Theo Riddick, Mikel Leshoure and Chad Abram (6)
When the Lions drafted Eric Ebron with the No. 10 overall pick in the draft, they completely reshuffled the tight end depth chart.
While it's probably more appropriate and correct to list Ebron with the wide receivers, the speedy North Carolina product is nominally a tight end.
He joins Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria, the two who shared the role in 2013.
Pettigrew re-signed with the Lions after not finding any greener grass on the free-agent market. He will be the primary in-line tight end, a meaty role in the offense. While his targets might decline, he could still wind up playing 600 snaps. Ben Watson filled that role in New Orleans last year and racked up over 500 snaps for the New Orleans Saints.
Fauria exploded onto the scene as an undrafted player from UCLA, catching seven touchdowns in his first 12 receptions. Even though he played well in a more expanded role late in the year, his 2014 fate is likely as a red-zone and short-yardage specialist.
Michael Williams, a seventh-rounder in 2013, might have a better chance of making the roster as an extra offensive tackle. He's a blocking specialist who appears headed to the practice squad.
Final spots: Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria (3)
Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate will be the two starters; that much is certain. In fact, they are likely to be the only wideouts who see regular extensive action.
With Ebron serving as a de facto third wide receiver, the rest of the snaps are going to be dictated more by game situation and matchups than predetermined plans. It also means that the Lions are more apt to keep one less wide receiver on the roster than many teams.
Ryan Broyles will be the third wide receiver, operating out of the slot, pending his recovery from not one, not two, but three serious leg injuries in as many seasons. The Lions figure to give the 2012 second-round pick every opportunity to get back on the field, but it's not a given.
Jeremy Ross and Kevin Ogletree both have Detroit experience, as does big Kris Durham. The fourth active wideout will be one of the members of that underwhelming troika. Ross doubles as the return specialist, which keeps him on the roster even if he loses the battle for wideout reps.
The sixth-round pick from 2013, Corey Fuller, is trying to ascend from the practice squad, where he spent his rookie campaign. This year's sixth-rounder, TJ Jones from Notre Dame, is also hoping to make his mark.
One of these two, likely Jones, has the best chance of pulling an upset and bumping one of the above out of a spot. Fuller has to make a big leap, as it seems unlikely the Lions stick him on the practice squad once again.
Final spots: Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Jeremy Ross, Ryan Broyles and Kris Durham (5). If Broyles winds up on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, Jones gets his spot.
The top seven spots on the depth chart are pretty easy to identify.
Riley Reiff and LaAdrian Waddle will hold down the starting tackle spots. Both played reasonably well in their first season as starters.
Veteran Corey Hilliard is a reliable swing tackle. He'll be given a chance to beat out Waddle for the right tackle spot, too.
Like Waddle last year, undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas stands a very good chance of making the final 53. He's got outstanding length, having the longest arms and widest wingspan of any player at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The starting guards are Rob Sims on the left and Larry Warford on the right. Sims has some vulnerability as a veteran in the last year of his contract, but it's hard to see the Lions parting with him unless a youngster unexpectedly rises up.
Dominic Raiola returns as the center and leader of the line. Like Sims, he's in the last year of his contract. To that end, the Lions drafted Travis Swanson from Arkansas in the third round. Swanson will be the primary interior backup, able to play both guard and center.
Rodney Austin is at a critical juncture. He's been on the practice squad for most of the last two seasons, and in preseason stints, the Elon product has shown impressive athleticism. He has a great opportunity to nail down the eighth lineman spot, which is typically inactive on game days.
Of the rest currently on the roster, undrafted rookie Alex Bullard stands the best chance of sticking around. He can play every spot except left tackle, and that probably keeps him on the practice squad.
Former Ohio State tackle J.B. Shugarts could beat out Lucas, or perhaps even Hilliard, but he's got a long way to go and a short time to get there.
Final spots: Riley Reiff, LaAdrian Waddle, Dominic Raiola, Larry Warford, Rob Sims, Cornelius Lucas, Travis Swanson and Corey Hilliard (8)
A pair of 2013 draft picks are the key performers. First-round pick Ezekiel Ansah bagged 8.5 sacks as a rookie and showed considerable promise despite being fairly new to football.
Fourth-round pick Devin Taylor offers outstanding length and strength, and he will figure prominently in the mix as the closed end, which is the side with the tight end. Taylor was sporadically excellent but often barely visible as a rookie.
Jason Jones will also rotate in that position, as well as inside. He was the starter in 2013 before blowing out his knee. If the new coaching staff buys into the "a starter doesn't lose his job to injury" football axiom, the Eastern Michigan product will start opposite Ansah.
Free-agent signing Darryl Tapp projects as Ansah's primary backup. He has played both end and linebacker in his journeyman career, but that could leave him without a position in Detroit.
Gunning for Tapp's fourth end spot are a host of combatants. Kourtnei Brown has bounced around practice squads for two years after showing impressive speed and burst in his final year at Clemson. He has the length at 6'4" that the Lions favor at the spot, whereas Tapp is barely 6'1".
Rookie fourth-rounder Larry Webster is a greenhorn among greenhorns, though his physical attributes give him a fighting chance to rise above the practice squad as a rookie. If the team feels another would claim Webster if it tries to waive him and stash him on the practice squad, he'll steal a spot by default.
Final spots: Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones, Devin Taylor, Darryl Tapp and Larry Webster (5)
There are nine defensive tackles on the roster as of May 18, but only four will make the final 53-man roster.
We already know who three of those four will be:
- Ndamukong Suh
- Nick Fairley
- C.J. Mosley
The three veterans make up one of the most effective tackle rotations in the league, although Fairley's inconsistency is a perennial frustration.
The front-runner for the fourth tackle spot is fifth-round pick Caraun Reid from Princeton. I recently profiled what he offers the Lions. As with Webster, the Lions will give him a roster spot if they believe another team would claim him on waivers before Reid hits the practice squad. He must get stronger to be effective in the NFL.
Final spots: Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and Vaughn Martin (4)
Even though the Lions figure to play three linebackers a lot more than they have in recent seasons, they might actually keep one less linebacker on the roster.
The top three spots aren't really even up for debate.
Stephen Tulloch will start in the middle, flanked by DeAndre Levy and second-round rookie Kyle Van Noy. Levy is coming off a breakout season, while Tulloch remains a reliable cog.
Tahir Whitehead earns a spot for his special teams work, where his play earned honors a year ago.
Because Darryl Tapp can play linebacker in a pinch, I believe the Lions will carve out an extra roster spot here by only keeping four. None of the other players offer anything that the team cannot find in a street free agent during the season if injuries force the issue.
This is also a position where the Lions may choose to add someone not currently on the roster.
Youngsters Brandon Hepburn and Julian Stanford should both make the practice squad.
Final spots: DeAndre Levy, Kyle Van Noy, Stephen Tulloch and Tahir Whitehead (4)
This is easily the most difficult position to place into a definite organizational chart. There are at least five viable candidates for the two starting spots, and all 10 current roster members have legit chances to make the team.
Chris Houston has started for most of the last four seasons, but a lingering toe injury makes his availability uncertain. As reported by Kyle Meinke of MLive, Houston recently had surgery on the toe, and there is no set timetable for his return.
Rashean Mathis proved invaluable after being signed late in preseason a year ago. He was the Lions' most reliable cover man. He's 34 and didn't find any takers on the free-agent market, however, which doesn't instill a lot of confidence going forward.
Second-year pro Darius Slay is being counted upon to make a big jump. He earned a starting role in camp last year, only to surrender it with terrible play early on. He returned later in his rookie season and played much better.
Two of those three will likely hold down the starting spots.
Former Indianapolis Colts starter Cassius Vaughn could also earn the nod. He's physical for his size and strong in run support. The same can be said of last year's nickelback, Bill Bentley.
If the team opens in a nickel package with three corners, Bentley is the man...for now. Fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson could very well beat him out with a strong preseason, however. In fact, I would judge Lawson's spot on the final 53 to be safer than Bentley's, though there is room for both.
Aaron Hester hasn't received much publicity, but he fits Detroit's profile of a tall corner (6'1") with decent speed. He was on Denver's practice squad last year, and the UCLA product has a real chance to make it in Detroit.
Chris Greenwood finally showed some of the promise expected when the Lions drafted him in 2012, playing quite well in the 2013 finale after coming back from an ill-fated midseason stint in Dallas.
If he can build upon that strong ending, Greenwood could conceivably win a starting spot. Corners his size (6'1", 197 lbs) who can run sub-4.4 40-yard dashes don't exactly grow on trees.
One guy from that same tree is undrafted rookie Mohammed Seisay. He's even bigger and faster than Greenwood, though that didn't help him crack the lineup very often for Nebraska, where he was the fourth corner as a senior. You can watch his impressive workout here on YouTube.
Greenwood's draft classmate, Jonte Green, has demonstrated some competence in intermittent action in his first two years. He has a chance, but the speedy Green is more likely to don a different uniform in 2014.
Final spots: Rashean Mathis, Darius Slay, Cassius Vaughn, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson, Chris Greenwood and Aaron Hester, with Chris Houston on PUP to start the year. (7)
One starting spot is for certain. Glover Quin played quite well in his first season in Detroit, finishing 11th in the Pro Football Focus (subscription required) safety ratings in 2013.
After Quin, well, let's just say the relationship status reads "it's complicated."
Free agent James Ihedigbo comes over from Baltimore, where he ranked 16th on that same Pro Football Focus list. However, that performance stands out as a stark anomaly to the rest of the 30-year-old's career.
He'll earn a roster spot for sure, but it's not a given Ihedigbo winds up as a starter.
Isa Abdul Quddus, pictured above in his New Orleans days, was a starter for the Saints in Detroit's last playoff game following the 2012 season. Like Whitehead with the linebackers, he guarantees himself a spot with high value on special teams.
Veteran Don Carey offers versatility, as he played both safety and nickel corner for the Lions last year. He wasn't very effective in coverage, however, earning a minus-8.5 rating in just over 200 snaps from Pro Football Focus.
DeJon Gomes brings special teams value, and that should be enough to get him onto the final 53. He will be challenged by hyper-athletic undrafted rookie Jerome Couplin. The 6'2", 215-pounder from William & Mary has astonishing workout numbers but sorely lacks instincts and vision in coverage. He will get a chance but appears destined for the practice squad.
If the team can find a competent coverage safety off the street, that player could steal Gomes' or even Carey's spot.
Final spots: Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo, Isa Abdul Quddus, Don Carey and DeJon Gomes (5)
Punter and Snapper
Sam Martin impressed enough as a rookie in Detroit that the Lions didn't even sign a token competitor for camp. That's confidence.
It's also validation that the Appalachian State product proved worthy of the fifth-round pick in 2013, a move that ruffled some feathers, as seen in the above video.
Martin also functions as the primary holder, providing even more job security.
The man who snaps him the ball will remain the same as well. Veteran stalwart Don Muhlbach is one of the most reliable long snappers in the business.
Final Spots: Sam Martin and Don Muhlbach (2)
Anytime a team uses a draft pick on a specialist, there is an overwhelming expectation that he earns the job right away.
Such is the case with Nate Freese, Detroit's seventh-round pick from Boston College. He went 35-of-37 over his final two seasons while primarily kicking outdoors.
Giorgio Tavecchio ostensibly could win the job if he dramatically outperforms Freese, but the truth is he is auditioning for other teams.
Final Spot: Nate Freese (1)
All statistics and transaction information is from NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
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