Detroit Lions 2010 Season Preview: Positional Breakdown, Post-Roster Cuts
Things are finally taking shape in Detroit. After a long offseason wait, and a (seemingly) longer preseason, the Detroit Lions' 2010 season is mere days from kicking off.
The starters are set, the impact players are primed, the cuts have been made, and the practice squad is confirmed.
So how does the roster look in its current form?
It varies greatly, depending on where you're looking.
So let's break it down, position-by-position.
A very large percentage of Lions fans disapproved of the selection of Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in 2009.
A very large percentage of that percentage changed their tune in Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns, when Stafford led his team to a victory from a double-digit deficit, shattering a number of rookie passing records and his left shoulder in the process.
This year, Stafford enters the season as the undisputed first-string quarterback, in the eyes of the coaches, the media, and even the fans. It has been a long time since the Lions were able to say that everyone agrees on who the starting quarterback should be.
Stafford has looked exceptional in the preseason, and it seems he needs only to stay healthy this year in order to make a huge leap forward in his progression.
Of course, if he doesn't, the Lions have Shaun Hill, who was the starter for half the season last year in San Francisco. Hill met with moderate success, but his play style is really more compatible to that of the "just don't screw it up" game-managing backup.
And still, Hill showed more promise in the preseason than most quarterbacks have in years. Last year, when Stafford was shut down for the year with injury, my heart sank as Daunte Culpepper took the field.
This year, while I of course have no desire to see Stafford start anything less than 16 games, I feel confident that the Lions field a backup of more than adequate quality.
Then there's Drew Stanton, who is pretty much just playing out the string. At one point, I thought he was getting screwed, not ever getting to see the field. Then he turned in an atrocious preseason, and I realized it's because he's made no progression.
He continues to let guys cycle in and out of the depth chart ahead of him, with no notable increase in production or effort. This is his contract year, and I fully expect it to be his last year in professional football.
Given his record, Martin Mayhew is likely to find a project QB in the seventh round of next year's draft who shows more promise in his first year than Stanton did in his career.
Jahvid Best has quite a task before him.
It is entirely possible that Best has managed to pull higher expectations onto himself than either Ndamukong Suh or Matthew Stafford.
50-yard runs against first-string defenses in the preseason will do that.
But more than just that, the rest of Detroit's running backs seem to have waned (or maybe they just pale in comparison?) thus far.
Kevin Smith is clearly not 100 percent healthy, and it remains to be seen if he will actually be good when he is.
Maurice Morris is consistent, but no better than average. At 30, he is the Lions' oldest running back by far.
Aaron Brown had a good preseason, but is the exact same type of back as Best, so he provides no change of pace. His primary value is as a kick returner.
Jerome Felton made the squad because he provides the only thing resembling a power running game. But he actually looks better in the open field than he does in short-yardage situations. He will have trouble moving a pileup at the line of scrimmage consistently.
In other words, a huge percentage of the Lions' ground game success is going to ride on Best meeting and exceeding the lofty expectations set for him. He can do it, but for a back whose primary concern is durability, you have to wonder if it's a good idea for him to try shouldering the load himself.
The Detroit Lions would be thrilled with the knowledge that they have upgraded their wide receiver corps from one major target and a bunch of overmatched scrubs to two major targets and a bunch of slightly less overmatched scrubs.
Honestly, that's the best-case scenario.
We know Calvin Johnson will perform. The biggest question is Nate Burleson.
So far in the preseason, Burleson looks like a legitimate possession receiver. Problem is, he says he's a deep threat. Certainly, if Burleson can prove himself to be the same home run threat that Johnson is, Johnson will have a much easier go of things (like consistent double teams, instead of triples).
However, I have yet to see any sign of it. Possibly, the Lions are holding his big play ability back for the regular season to take teams by surprise, but that might be too wishful of thinking.
Regardless of how, the Lions need Burleson to be productive this year, because the rest of the roster includes the decidedly mediocre Bryant Johnson, the mistake-prone Derrick Williams, and waiver wire return specialist Stefan Logan.
Of that trio, Bryant Johnson is the only one likely to compile any notable stats in the regular season. He was overmatched as a second option, but may fall into his comfort zone as a third.
Williams has been disappointing as both a receiver and a return specialist (which is primarily what he was drafted for), and is only being kept around in case he decides to show some upside.
Logan is a question mark, but shouldn't factor in beyond being a candidate to run some punts back.
Every tight end on the Detroit Lions' current roster could be a starter somewhere in the NFL. It's an odd position to have that kind of depth, but that's what we're looking at.
Brandon Pettigrew, the 20th overall pick of the 2009 Draft, started showing real signs of progression last year before tearing his ACL on Thanksgiving. He appears to have made a full recovery, and sits firmly atop the Lions' depth chart. His blocking skills are already top-notch, and his receiving ability is coming along nicely, though he may never be a threat to stretch the field.
Tony Scheffler will carry high expectations into the season, given that the Lions gave up former first-round pick Ernie Sims to get him, leaving a Zack Follett-sized hole at weakside linebacker. Scheffler has looked strong in the preseason, and should be targeted quite a bit on intermediate routes.
Will Heller is still a good, well-rounded tight end, but will no doubt lose some reps on account of the talent in front of him. Still, his presence allows Jim Schwartz to run double tight end sets all day, and still have the freedom to spell Scheffler or Pettigrew without a huge drop in production.
If this bunch can produce good numbers on the receiving side, it will take a lot of pressure off the Lions' paper-thin group at wide receiver, and give Stafford a number of large targets to fire at for first downs.
The Lions' much-maligned offensive line returns four of five starters from 2009. This, to most, sounds like bad news. But here's the breakdown.
Gosder Cherlius is playing more consistently at right tackle.
Stephen Peterman is sorely underrated.
Dominic Raiola is still smaller than he needs to be, but he's been a starter for nearly a decade, and is the vocal leader of the line, if not the entire offense.
Jeff Backus looks more confident and less mistake-prone, and there's a very good reason why.
That reason is the new guy in town, Rob Sims. Sims takes up the left guard position next to Backus, and provides Backus with a reliable partner in shoring up the left side of the offensive line.
Last year, Sims' position was filled, seemingly, by a different player each week. Backus had neither chemistry nor trust with whoever that man turned out to be, and both players' performance suffered because of it.
In the preseason, the offensive line has actually looked like a strong point. Holes have opened up in the run game, and quarterbacks have been hardly touched.
On the second string, the key word is versatility.
Backup center Dylan Gandy would be a capable replacement for Raiola if the man ever missed a game, and adds to his value by also filling in at guard.
Corey Hilliard displaced veteran Jon Jansen with his strong preseason play and his ability to play at either tackle position.
Rookie project Jason Fox has a long way to go, but could also make a name for himself at either left or right tackle.
Manny Ramirez could play either guard position if needed, but hopefully won't have to. He is assuredly the least-talented lineman the Lions have. Which is impressive, considering he was once a consistent starter.
This one's easy.
Jason Hanson returns as all-purpose placekicker, Nick Harris returns as punter, and all is right with the world.
Both are among the top 10 at their positions, and while it's true that Hanson is aging, since when did that matter for a kicker? At the rate he's going, he has another five quality years in the tank. If he has another down year, I'll be a little worried, but don't bank on it.
Since nobody knows the name of their team's long-snapper until he makes a mistake, let me come right out and say that it's Don Muhlbach, and he rarely makes mistakes.
The Lions will go with Aaron Brown as kick returner, who showed good speed and decent vision at the position in the preseason. He had a couple of runbacks where one more cut would have broken him loose, so maybe he'll learn where those are in the future. He's at least much better than Derrick Williams, who just runs in a straight line until he gets laid out.
At punt returner, things get a bit muddled. Derrick Williams would have been the favorite in the role, but he was awful in the preseason. Dennis Northcutt was by far the Lions' best punt returner statistically, but he's now unemployed. Stefan Logan was picked up off waivers, presumably for this role, but he hasn't done anything yet.
Expect punt return duties to be "by committee" until someone stands out.
I'm guessing the Lions expected their linebacker position to work out a little differently when they traded Ernie Sims and allowed Larry Foote to walk away.
Since then, the linebacker position has consisted of injuries, setbacks, and Julian Peterson.
DeAndre Levy was drafted to fill the middle linebacker position. He stepped in on the weakside to fill in for an injured Ernie Sims, and shocked everyone by being quite good. So the Lions let Foote go back to Pittsburgh, and commissioned Levy to fill the middle linebacker position, as they intended. Jordon Dizon was to back him up in that role.
Only Levy is now battling a groin injury, and Dizon is lost for the season.
This leaves us with the very real possibility that the Detroit Lions will open the 2010 season with Isaiah Ekejiuba as the starting middle linebacker.
And you thought we might have been in trouble with Levy.
Zack Follett, for all our love of his hitting ability and quirky web videos, would have a difficult time covering Orlando Pace as an eligible receiver. Which makes him a fairly poor fit as starting weakside linebacker.
So who's behind him on the depth chart? Landon Johnson, or possibly Ashlee Palmer. Either might actually be an upgrade in the coverage game. We at least know Palmer can make a wicked one-handed grab.
Julian Peterson is a bright spot here. The revival of the Lions' offensive line has freed Peterson up to be the playmaker he is, and the gutting of the rest of the linebackers has made him far and away the strongest player of the bunch. And remember, the Lions got him from the Seahawks for a fifth-round pick and one Cory Bartholomew Redding.
Seriously. Bartholomew. Don't tell me you don't think that's awesome, because you are a liar.
If nothing else, this group is going to be fun to watch. So much potential, peppered with seasoned veterans. Almost looks like a top-caliber squad.
Okay, maybe not yet, but very soon. Maybe by the end of this season.
Double team-drawing specialist Ndamukong Suh is the highest-profile player on the line, and so far it appears that the consensus among opposing offensive lines is to put two bodies on him, all day, every day. That's good, as it will help his fellow linemen produce, and give him some valuable lessons about beating those doubles in the future.
Corey Williams fills the other starting role, and while he has performed adequately, he is getting a strong run for his money by 2009 draftee Sammie Hill. Hill has blown the Lions' coaches away with his rapid development, and could be looking at a starting job as soon as mid-season (again), if he continues at his current rate.
Andre Fluellen fills out the roster at defensive tackle, which seems to indicate that the Lions have finally determined whether he plays tackle or end. Fluellen beat out the more productive but less disciplined Landon Cohen for the spot, but is miles from the other three in terms of talent.
Starters at end will be wild man Kyle Vanden Bosch, whose work ethic is well documented and will therefore not be mentioned in this space, and Cliff Avril, who is primed to either have a breakout season or bust completely.
But some of the most interesting stories here lie in the backup defensive ends. Turk McBride is not one of them, aside from some bemused surprise that he actually made the final roster.
But Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson? There's some intrigue.
Young, a seventh-round pick this year, is a 250-pound defensive end who has shown Dwight Freeney-like ability to run around seemingly club-footed right tackles to get to the quarterback.
Jackson, on the other hand, is a former first-round pick brought in cheap. Pete Carroll was cleaning house in Seattle and decided to ship Jackson off because he didn't fit his system.
He's currently on the bottom rung of the depth chart in Detroit, mostly due to a lack of field time. But he's only two years removed from being a first-round pick, so there has to be something there. It will be interesting to see what that is.
If there is a spot with more question marks surrounding it than linebacker, it's right here.
The cornerback position has been one of the weakest the Lions have had ever since they lost Dre' Bly. The Lions attempted to fix that partially by actually re-signing Dre' Bly, but he ended up cut.
So the Lions' current cornerback situation entails Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade as starters. Both are young, neither has looked fantastic. Wade looked better in camp, but he wasn't covering Calvin Johnson, and he was injured for most of the preseason contests.
Houston is fast and agile, but mistake-prone. Even if he plays his receiver perfectly, his spotty ball skills could result in a lot of passes being caught right over his shoulder. Or pass interference calls. Maybe both.
Aaron Berry has recently been announced as the Lions' new nickel back, taking the role over from Eric King, who is no longer with the team.
The Lions are still classifying Amari Spievey as a cornerback, despite playing him the second half of the season at safety (and to great effect), so he's in there, too.
At this point, though, the focus has to be on Alphonso Smith, who was acquired from the Denver Broncos for Dan Gronkowski in a trade of two guys who were about to get cut. Smith was the 37th overall pick of the 2009 Draft, and could end up anywhere on the Lions' depth chart, considering its tenuous nature.
One year is too soon to give up on any draft pick, much less a second-round cornerback. If the Lions can succeed in developing Smith where the Broncos failed, they will have walked away from this with an absolute steal, and a greatly improved defense.
Where's your O.J. Atogwe now?
In only a few short months, safety has gone from one of the Lions' biggest holes to perhaps the area with the greatest potential.
From the start, Louis Delmas was starter No. 1. Period. No exceptions. But the spot next to him was a big dark silhouette with a giant question mark on it.
Who would it be? Marquand Manuel? Ko Simpson? Daniel Bullocks?
Who had Randy Phillips? Yeah, me neither.
And in fact, Phillips would have been the wrong answer, too. C.C. Brown is slated to start the season across from Delmas, but don't expect that to last. Phillips is closing on the position fast.
Phillips might be the story of the preseason for the Lions. An undrafted free agent out of Miami, Phillips missed the combine and failed two physicals with an injury, before signing with the Lions and doing nothing but make plays in the preseason. He's a bit inconsistent in pass coverage, but he can blitz and he is a beast of a run-stopper. That weakness in pass coverage is likely what's keeping Brown in the starting role for now.
Granted that the sample size is only a couple games, Amari Spievey's future appears to be at safety as well. He struggled at cornerback in his preseason games, even getting an earful of Gunther Cunningham after getting burned for a deep touchdown.
Then he played a couple games at safety and appeared to perform much better. Spievey's strengths are zone coverage and tackling, so a move to safety seems natural, if eventual.
Then we have mystery man John Wendling, brought in after being cut by the Buffalo Bills. Wendling played safety at Wyoming, and like many in the Lions' secondary, has fantastic athleticism and suspect ball skills.
But more importantly, he dispels some very prevalent stereotypes about white people.