Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Last week we covered the offense, this week it’s the defense. The difference here is that the team has now had one rookie camp to help shuffle things up a bit.
DT: Nick Fairly, Ndamukong Suh, CJ Mosley, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Michael Brooks
Notes: Suh and Fairly are the unquestioned starters and are arguably the most talented tackle tandem in the league. They will be expected to dominate inside and have the potential to raise the entire defense on their backs. Mosley was signed to replace Sammie Hill as the top reserve, primarily a run-stuffing role. He will rotate in as much as he can handle. Nwagbuo could see his role expand as the second reserve and in short-yardage situations. Saddler-McQueen and Brooks are fighting for the same gameday inactive spot, but don’t be surprised if the Lions sign a cheap veteran cut by another team later this offseason in their place.
DE: Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones, Willie Young, Devin Taylor, Freddie Bishop, Ronnell Lewis
Notes: Jones was a coveted free agent find and will start on the left side. First round pick Ansah will start immediately on the right side. The duo should be a big upgrade against the run, but this defense needs them to produce sacks and force turnovers as well. Jones has been very effective at sliding inside on passing downs in both Tennessee and Seattle and could do some jockeying with Suh and Fairley, both of whom could see spot duty at end as well. Young showed real flashes in 2011 but was a major disappointment in ’12, in part due to a nasty finger injury. He is on the spot in 2013. Taylor could supplant Young as the top reserve if he plays this summer the way he played in the Shrine Game, where his length and burst were incredibly disruptive. Bringing that effectiveness on a consistent basis is the challenge for Taylor, the team’s 4th round pick. Lewis was the 4th round pick a year earlier but did next to nothing as a rookie and got arrested this winter. Bishop was signed on May 15th as an undrafted free agent from Western Michigan after failing a physical with the Packers. His shot is not as long as it appears if he can generate some positive buzz early. Another street free agent or bargain-basement released veteran could be in the mix as well.
LB: Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Ashlee Palmer, Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis, Carmen Messina, Cory Greenwood, Brandon Hepburn, Alex Elkins, Jon Morgan
Notes: Tulloch will start in the middle and is the main organizer of the front seven. Levy will start on the weak side after re-signing as a free agent. Both need to make more splash plays and improve against the run. They have the talent to do so. Ashlee Palmer has the early edge to replace Justin Durant on the other outside spot. He has bulked up and played fairly well as a nickel linebacker a year ago. Whitehead is bigger and faster than Palmer but only saw action on special teams as a 5th round rookie a year ago. The team traded this year’s 4th round pick to acquire him. At minimum he will be expected to fill Palmer’s role from last year as a situational sub while continuing on special teams. Lewis was also part of that trade and figures to be the primary backup to Tulloch in the middle. Greenwood and Messina will fight for the same reserve/special teams role. Give the edge to Messina, who is younger and cheaper. The Canadian-born Greenwood is probably better served making a go of it in the CFL, where he was the 3rd overall pick of the 2010 draft. Elkins is an excellent candidate for the practice squad as a raw developmental project oozing with athletic potential. Hepburn and Morgan are remote longshots as UDFAs at this point.
CB: Chris Houston, Bill Bentley, Darius Slay, Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Ronald Bartell, Conroy Black, Lionel Smith, DJ Johnson, Ross Weaver, DeQuan Menzie
Notes: Houston as the #1 corner is the only settled role. Other than the Falcons game last year, Houston played pretty well in matching up primarily with the other team’s top receiver. If 2nd round pick Slay gets 100% healthy in time for expanded OTAs, he has a very good chance to win the other starting outside job. The Lions drafted him for his playmaking, a huge point of emphasis for the coaching staff this offseason. Green was a pleasant development as a rookie, generally playing above his draft status and showing a quick learning curve. He and Slay will compete to see who starts. Bentley will be the primary slot corner. He was a penalty machine in his brief rookie tenure before getting hurt. The team loves his swagger and physicality but he must clean up his technique quickly. Bartell is a veteran attempting a major comeback from a serious neck injury. He played very well in the finale last season and fingers are crossed that Bartell can be one of those feel-good stories that every good team seems to unearth. Greenwood missed his entire rookie season and remains a major project, albeit one with very desirable physical attributes. If he’s not demonstrably better than Bartell or the other youngsters here, expect him to wind up as a practice squad or IR stash once again. Menzie was plucked off waivers in the course of writing this piece. The Chiefs 5th round pick in 2012 fell victim to a regime change in Kansas City after, like Greenwood, missing his entire rookie season with an injury. He figures to compete in the slot or perhaps even convert to safety, a la Amari Speivey. Injuries have been a chronic issue for Menzie. None of the rest stands much of a chance without making a huge splash on special teams. Johnson is the most likely of the longshots to stick.
Safety: Louis Delmas, Glover Quin, Amari Spievey, Ricardo Silva, John Wendling, Tyrell Johnson, Don Carey, Martavius Neloms
Notes: Delmas will start at free safety, Quin at strong safety, and neither will leave the field much if healthy. This is a critical year for Delmas, whose career has been stymied by injuries. Quin was the prized free agent signee and figures to have a major impact. He blossomed with the Texans after converting from corner to safety, and even played a de facto LB role in Houston’s nickel and dime packages at times. Spievey has battled concussion issues but played his best football last season before missing the final half of the year. Silva filled in after Spievey’s injury and was a major liability in coverage. Both he and Wendling are best served playing primarily on special teams and as the fourth safety. Don Carey was much better than both of them in 2012 and has the inside track over both for the fourth safety role because he’s competent in coverage. The camp battle between Speivey, Wendling, Silva, and Carey for the 3rd and 4th safety spots will be fierce. One of Wendling and Silva will not make the team, and if Tyrell Johnson ever lives up to his 2nd round pick expectations (by the Vikings in 2008), neither will. Newcomer Menzie could factor in here as well. Neloms can earn a practice squad spot with a strong summer.
Punter: Blake Clingan, Sam Martin
Notes: This is a camp battle heavily weighted towards Martin, the 5th round draft pick out of Appalachian State. Teams draft punters in the 5th round, or really in any round, with the expectation they will handle the job for the foreseeable future.
Kicker: David Akers, Harvard Rugland
Notes: Akers is the grizzled veteran, a 38-year old with scads of playoff experience. Rugland has never kicked in pads before, a trick-shot virtuoso with an awesome back story. If the Akers who played in San Francisco last year shows up, Rugland will win the job unless he’s absolutely incompetent. Both are lefties. If neither man proves capable, the Lions will not hesitate to bring in another leg.
Tags: Alex Elkins, Amari Spievey, Ashlee Palmer, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood, CJ Mosley, Cory Greenwood, Darius Slay, David Akers, DeAndre Levy, DeQuan Menzie, Devin Taylor, Don Carey, Ezekiel Ansah, Glover Quin, Harvard Rugland, Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, John Wendling, Louis Delmas, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ricardo Silva, Ron Bartell, Sam Martin, Stephen Tulloch, Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis