Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Initial Depth Chart

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Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Initial Depth Chart
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

NFL teams are required to release "official" depth charts periodically. On Tuesday, the Detroit Lions published their first edition for the 2014 campaign. 

Jordan Strauss/Associated Press

There aren't many surprises among the starting lineups. That is partially a function of the fact that there aren't many starting spots up for grabs. Still, a couple of listings raised some eyebrows in The Rock's famous style. 

The most hotly contested starting position on the offense is right tackle, where LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard are locked in a battle to win the starting nod.

Waddle sits atop the initial depth chart despite the fact the duo have alternated first-team reps by the day throughout camp. Neither has seized any sort of discernible advantage through the first two weeks of camp. 

Perhaps the Lions are going off last year's performance, when Waddle played much more effectively as an undrafted rookie from Texas Tech:

LaAdrian Waddle vs. Corey Hilliard 2013 Grades
Run Block Pass Block Overall
Waddle 4.6 -0.2 5.5
Hilliard -4.8 -0.5 -3.5

Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

It's too early to declare Waddle a winner based on this initial listing, but if neither player sets the world on fire in preseason, expect Waddle to hold onto the job. 

Another interesting offensive gleaning is at fullback, where Montell Owens is listed as the starter. This is the pudding of proof that these initial depth charts are better for lining your birdcage than relying upon as hard fact.

Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

First, Owens isn't really a fullback. He's been a running back throughout his eight-year NFL career. The Lions are offering a bit of chicanery on his official team bio in stating he "saw time at fullback." While technically accurate, Owens played just two snaps between his stints on injured reserve lists with knee injuries. 

Second, Owens has not received one solitary first-team rep in any of the three practice sessions I've attended, including Wednesday night's session at Ford Field. Jed Collins was playing with the starters every time the first unit used a fullback, which is best described as occurring infrequently. 

The only place where Owens has received any first-team run is on special teams. It would be a stunning upset if Owens wound up starting over Collins. ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein reinforces this in his recent Lions roster prediction:

Owens has been used more and more and depending how Detroit views him at the end, he could push Leshoure for both playing time and maybe his roster spot. Collins hasn't been used a ton yet, but the Lions appear committed to keeping a fullback for the offense.

Note there is no mention of Owens as the fullback from a daily team observer. While I concur with Rothstein that Owens' roster prospects look more bullish, it's as a running back and special teams ace and not as a fullback.

Sorting out the depth at wide receiver is not easy. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are the obvious starters, and Kevin Ogletree has consistently impressed in his quest to seize the third wideout role. 

Jeff Risdon

Right now, Kris Durham is listed as the other second-team wideout, ahead of Ryan Broyles, Jeremy Ross and a host of aspirants. This is another case of last year's legacy being used instead of the reality of what's actually occurring on the practice fields. 

Broyles has impressed as he attempts to recover from a litany of leg injuries. He got some run with the first-team offense in Wednesday's practice and made the most of his opportunity:

The second of those touchdowns came with the second team, where Broyles and Corey Fuller were the wideouts, while Durham watched from the sideline.

For his part, Fuller has also been more impressive than Durham. His long speed is faster, and the second-year Virginia Tech product is showing real progress in his routes and concentration. His upside is well beyond what the underwhelming Durham can possibly match. 

In fact, some have speculated that Durham won't even make the final 53-man roster. I share in that sentiment as long as Broyles remains healthy. 

There is more intrigue on defense, where the starting lineup is pretty much set, but the reserve roles are very much up for grabs all over the formation. 

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

At linebacker, Ashlee Palmer is listed as the starter ahead of Kyle Van Noy at one outside spot. Both have worked with the first team in practices.

The Lions traded up in the second round of May's draft to secure Van Noy's services, and the common presumption is that he will be starting when the season kicks off next month. Yet Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press notes that the rookie "has a sizable gap to close with Palmer."

Palmer has played well in the practices that I attended, including this opportunistic rep from Wednesday:

This could wind up being a shared role, with Van Noy playing more in the base defense and Palmer seeing action on passing downs. The preseason will sort out their roles. 

Perhaps the biggest curiosity on the defensive chart is Andre Fluellen being listed as a second-team defensive tackle. Why is that so peculiar?

Well, how about the fact he has switched to defensive end since the beginning of camp? As Birkett noted recently, Fluellen is moving outside in hopes of keeping his paw in the den a little longer. 

There are some ripple effects here. Starting end Jason Jones has seen extensive time playing inside at tackle, and that figures to continue once the season commences; that's been his best role throughout his career. 

It sure seems like the Lions are going to use Jones as the third or fourth tackle:

It's probably more accurate to list Jones as both the starting end and second-team tackle than having Fluellen listed there. Fluellen faces long odds to make the team at end, thanks to impressive camp performances by fourth-round pick Larry Webster and George Johnson. 

The latter has made quite a surprise splash, including some quality reps with the first-team defense in Ezekiel Ansah's stead. He's accurately listed as the third-string end (with Webster), but he's proved he deserves a long look in the preseason. 

The other interesting defensive spot is backup safety, where Don Carey and DeJon Gomes are listed as the second-stringers. Former Saints starter Isa Abdul Quddus has played ahead of Gomes in most practices, and he's handily been the best performer of the trio. 

Abdul Quddus made an athletic interception in Wednesday's practice, and in the sessions I attended he demonstrated quicker reactions and better coverage range than either of his veteran competitors. On the other hand, Carey looks like a non-swimmer in a whirlpool:

It's a minor point at this stage, but if the current performances persist as the preseason progresses, expect a change in the pecking order of safety depth. 

The only other critique I have with the defensive listing is that Jonte Green deserves to be on the second unit ahead of Bill Bentley, as Green has had a much more consistent camp. Bentley, who has been the nickelback most of the last two years, has really struggled and could be in more jeopardy than expected. 

His coverage issues continued in Thursday's practice:

Then there's the kicking situation. Seventh-round pick Nate Freese is slotted ahead of Giorgio Tavecchio, but it would be more accurate to label them 1a and 1b. In fact, this is probably the closest competition for any spot on the entire roster, as noted by Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News

It will be interesting to see what depth chart changes come after the first preseason game. Keep in mind that the Lions carefully inserted the broad disclaimer "Unofficial depth chart compiled by Lions media relations" above the chart. Perhaps the next version will provide a more punctilious look at the real order. 

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