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Projecting Detroit Lions' Most Heated Roster Battles

Jeff RisdonContributor IMay 19, 2014

Projecting Detroit Lions' Most Heated Roster Battles

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    As of May 19, there are currently 89 Detroit Lions on the roster. That number gets chopped almost in half, as only 53 will earn their Honolulu-blue jerseys for the regular season. 

    There will be some fierce competition for those final few roster spots. However, those aren't the only heated battles coming this summer.

    A handful of starting positions and key reserve spots are still unresolved. Those battles figure to be just as, if not more, intense than the fight to be No. 53 on the roster. One of those will look awfully familiar to fans, as well as to cornerback Darius Slay (pictured). 

    Here are five spots where fierce competition is bound to blow up as players fight tooth and nail for a coveted role.

Cornerback

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Most of these roster battles are between two combatants for one spot. That is far from the case at cornerback. 

    The depth chart is currently written in very faint pencil. From the two starting spots to the nickelback to the deeper reserves, every single role is wide open. 

    Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis are the veterans of the group and were the primary starters a year ago. Neither is guaranteed to hold on to that status in 2014. 

    Houston is going to miss at least part of the offseason after recently undergoing surgery on his problematic big toe. As reported by Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, there is no timetable for recovery, but it is likely that Houston is out until at least late July's training camp. 

    It's not like Houston played well enough in 2013 to avoid losing a challenge to his job due to an injury. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him 96th out of 110 qualifying corners last year. 

    Mathis was the best cover man on the team last season, but he's 33 and didn't get any sniffs in free agency. The Lions clearly value his role as a mentor, but asking him to play over 700 snaps again is risky. 

    The most likely to ascend to a starting role is Darius Slay, the team's second-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2013. He earned that job a year ago in camp but quickly gave it away with too many mental errors and blown assignments. 

    Slay did play much better late in the season, and his offseason regimen has included working out with Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. It will be a real disappointment if Slay doesn't win—and keep—a starting spot.

    Then there's the slot position, the nickelback. Bill Bentley has manned that role for the better part of the last two years, but he has a legit challenger in fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson. The Utah State product is the rare prospect with lots of experience already playing inside and doing multiple things from the slot. 

    As neither is suited to play outside, expect this one to be a fierce battle between fairly similar talents as one attempts to distinguish himself.

3rd Wide Receiver

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The starting wideouts and primary recipients of the vast majority of wide receiver targets are set with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. 

    After that, a host of combatants will slug it out to fill the third wideout role. 

    Things would be a lot less complicated if Ryan Broyles (pictured) were reliable, but after three major leg injuries in as many seasons, his durability is a major question. He might even begin the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means he would miss at least the first six games. 

    Sixth-round draft pick T.J. Jones is, like Broyles, a natural slot receiver. From the draft review at Detroit Lions Draft:

    He's quicker than fast but also fast, with light feet and the ability to plant and cut sharply without decelerating. He's not very big, and that poses issues for Jones as both a receiver but especially as a blocker. He has the makings of a quality 3rd wideout in the NFL.

    It's worth noting his hand size, a rather stunning 10" on his 6'0" frame. Those are huge, and they serve him quite well as a receiver.

    Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross both have experience in the past for Detroit, with largely ineffective results. Each has one stellar outing in his career; Ogletree lit up the New York Giants in the 2012 season opener while playing for the Dallas Cowboys, while Ross had quite a memorable performance last Thanksgiving against the Green Bay Packers, the team that had cut him a few weeks earlier. 

    The reality here is that Ross is far more likely to serve as the return specialist and occasional fourth wideout, and Ogletree will be in a dogfight to even make the active roster. But a strong, consistent offseason could elevate either into a more prominent role. 

    Stranger things have happened. That's pretty much the only way to explain Kris Durham, after all. 

    If the season started May 19, Durham would be the third wideout. Last year, he spent most of the season as Detroit's No. 2 receiver. His painful inability to parlay that into anything positive is the reason why the Lions coveted Tate as a free agent. 

    Per Pro Football Focus, Durham caught just 12 of the final 36 balls thrown his way. Five of those registered as drops. He consistently struggles to get separation from defenders and almost never does anything after the catch, when he even makes it at all. 

    Lions fans need to hope that someone—anyone—beats out Durham for that third wideout spot. Having said that, it's important to keep in mind that tight end Eric Ebron will serve as the third receiver in the lineup, and the third wideout will essentially be the fourth receiver in the offense.

Defensive Tackle Depth

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Much like wide receiver, the two starting defensive tackles are undoubtedly set with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. 

    As with the receivers, the rest of the depth chart behind those two former first-round picks is unsettled. 

    Veteran C.J. Mosley (pictured) was effective as the third tackle in the rotation a year ago, and he's the best true nose tackle on the roster. Mosley is quite good at anchoring against the run and occupying blockers to allow the linebackers behind him to make plays. 

    That made Mosley quite valuable under coach Jim Schwartz, but he's now in Buffalo, and he took his rather specialized scheme with him. 

    If the new coaching staff values more productivity and penetration from the line, fifth-round rookie Caraun Reid could very well usurp Mosley's role. I recently broke down what he offers the Lions.

    His lack of anchor strength and inconsistent technique, as noted by his NFL.com draft profile, must be overcome if Reid is to take over the third defensive tackle role. 

    Veteran Vaughn Martin factors into the mix as well. He was a solid starter in the San Diego Chargers' 3-4 scheme in 2011-12, and if the Lions are looking to implement more hybrid looks, Martin's experience could prove quite valuable. 

    New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin comes from Baltimore, where the Ravens often ran multiple fronts. Having a veteran with versatility may be more valued than raw upside with Reid.

    Martin's health is a factor, as he missed almost all of 2013 with a sports hernia. 

    This threesome is likely competing for just two active roster spots, so the pressure is on for Mosley, Martin and Reid. 

3rd Quarterback

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    This one is a perennial rite of football passage. It plays out on far more teams than it does not, and the Detroit Lions are not one of the exceptions. 

    Kellen Moore is the current belt holder, but undrafted upstart James Franklin is a viable contender to take away his title. 

    Moore has two years of NFL experience in his corner, though he's never played in a regular-season game. He's small at just 6'0" and is not an impressive athlete. His arm strength has improved from awful to merely weak.

    Still, Moore has a deft touch on his short and intermediate throws and can make anticipatory throws required at the NFL level. His improvement from the 2012 preseason to the '13 edition was legitimate progress.

    Franklin offers completely divergent skills. He's a mobile, bulky scrambler with a bigger arm. His over-the-top release makes him seem taller than his listed 6'2", and Franklin thrived as a dual-threat gunslinger at Missouri. 

    Alas, accuracy is not his strong suit. He's also had some injury issues that belie his athleticism. Also, Franklin comes from a simplistic offensive system that doesn't exactly have a good track record of translating to the NFL. Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel, anyone?

    This will be a very interesting battle to watch, even though the winner of their bout will likely spend the entire season as a game-day inactive.

Left Defensive End

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    The defensive end spot opposite Ezekiel Ansah is up for grabs this offseason. The man who held down the role in 2013, Willie Young, is now a Chicago Bear. 

    Young ascended to that spot thanks to an injury to Jason Jones (pictured). The veteran opened the season as a starter but wasn't very effective even before his injury. Pro Football Focus rated Jones a minus-4.4 on just 87 snaps, the lowest rating of any Lions defensive lineman despite the relatively paltry number of plays. 

    His primary challenger is second-year player Devin Taylor. He played reasonably well in more extended action toward the end of the season, but he must show more consistency. The 2013 fourth-round pick has outstanding length at 6'8", and he put that to good use as a pass-rusher at times. 

    Taylor has the higher upside, but Jones offers experience and more power to hold the edge on the strong side of the defense. Both will play a lot, but earning a starting role means something. Expect these two to compete throughout the offseason for that honor. 

     

    Advanced statistics and snap counts are courtesy of Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content. 

    Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist for the Detroit Lions. He is also the founder/editor of Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL/Draft writer for RealGM.com. You can debate with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon.

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